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Pet Nutrition 101

Have you ever wondered what the best food to feed your pet is? Or even how to choose from the many options available today? Well, this article is designed to help explain the important nutritional features of a good quality diet. Feeding a good quality food will have a positive impact on the health of your dog or cat.

It is often said that “Pets use the nutrients in the food, not the ingredients.” This is quite true, but the ingredients provide the nutrients, so these are important as well. Having a basic understanding of pet nutrition and the nutrients provided by various ingredients will help you make an educated decision on which diet is best for your pet. Don’t forget, though, that a diet that has a perfect label or apparently perfect nutritional content may not necessarily work for you pet. Don’t despair, a little trial and error will help you find the best food for the health of your cat or dog.

The guaranteed analysis is a required part of the pet food package. This must list the protein, fat, fiber and moisture content in the food. It is important to know these values, but other important nutrients don’t have to be listed. These include ash, calcium, phosphorus, and fatty acids. When examining a pet food package, notice how many nutrients are guaranteed. A diet that has many guaranteed nutrients, above and beyond the four required, is a higher quality, more consistent product.

For example, ABC Kibble may have a guarantee of the following: 21% protein minimum, 9% fat minimum, 4% fiber maximum and 10% moisture maximum. As you can see, this doesn’t tell you a whole lot about the food inside the bag. The protein content of a food is expressed as a minimum value. This means that the food in this bag has at least 21% protein. Most foods stay relatively close to their minimum expressed on the package. So, it is unlikely the ABC Kibble has 30% protein, but probably has 21-22%. Fat is also expressed as a minimum, while fiber and moisture are expressed as maximums.

Protein is important for the overall health of your dog or cat. Proteins are broken down into amino acids during digestion. The individual amino acids have unique and essential roles within the body. Arginine, leucine, and phenylalanine are a few examples of amino acids that are essential for dogs and cats. Taurine is an amino acid that is essential for cats, but must be supplemented, as most protein sources don’t contain high enough amounts to meet cats’ needs. Without taurine, cats can develop blindness and heart failure. This is one of the primary reasons that cats should eat cat food and not dog food, as many dog foods do not have added taurine.

Meat proteins provide a more ideal amino acid profile than do grain proteins, such as soybean meal or corn gluten meal. However, vegetable protein sources are sometimes used to supplement meat proteins because of their low ash content, especially when the meat protein is high in ash.

Look at the label for a dry protein source, or a meal. Fresh meats provide less than 20% protein to a dry diet because of the high moisture content. So, fresh meats are great because they are low in ash and improve the taste of the food, but need to be supported by a dry protein source. Chicken by-product meal is the lowest ash meat protein source available. It is made from the internal organs of chickens as well as a small amount of meat and bone. Chicken meal is higher in ash, being made from rendered chicken necks and backs, including the bones. Lamb meal is higher in ash than chicken meal, as the bone content is higher. Finally, meat meal (or meat and bone meal) is the highest ash ingredient, and considered to be a poor quality ingredient.

Fat is another critical nutrient for a dog or cat's overall health. Most fat sources provide high levels of omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids are essential nutrients for maintaining healthy skin. However, high levels of omega-6 fatty acids can be detrimental to the health of your pet, when they are not balanced with omega-3 fatty acids. Look for sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish oil, fishmeal, and flaxseed. When omega-6 fatty acids are not balanced with omega-3’s, they promote inflammation within the skin, joints, and gastrointestinal tract.

Not all fibers are "fillers" as many people think. Carefully selected fiber sources are vital for the health of the gastrointestinal system. Some sources of fiber, such as beet pulp and chicory root, actually enhance the health of the GI tract by providing energy to the cells of the colon and the “good” bacteria that reside throughout the GI tract. These ingredients are often referred to as “prebiotics”.

FYI: Did you know that all of us (humans as well as pets) have some “bad” bacteria, such as E.coli and Salmonella, residing within our GI tract? The numbers are kept very low by the “good” bacteria, except when something disturbs this normal balance. Feeding a diet that contains a prebiotic, such as dried chicory root, helps maintain this normal balance. When a pet suffers from diarrhea, we often will detect these pathogenic organisms in higher than normal numbers. This does not necessarily mean that your pet ate something that contained these bad bugs, but simply that the normal flora of the GI tract was upset and the “bad” bacteria were allowed to overgrow.

Moisture is not really a nutrient of importance to your pet, but simply a factor within the food. The only time moisture is of real concern is if it is too high in a dry pet food. Elevated moisture levels may allow mold to grow within a bag of food, obviously not a desirable situation. No pet food can be 100% dry matter. The moisture value is used to calculate the dry matter content of nutrients within a food. This way, we are able to compare the total nutrient content of various foods on an equal basis, called the dry matter basis. For example, if a food contains 8.5% moisture and 20% protein on an as-fed basis, then this same food contains 21.9% protein on a dry matter basis. You can use dry matter values to compare foods with differing moisture content, such as a dry food versus a wet food.

Ash and the minerals associated with ash may not be included on the packaging, but are vital to the health of your pet. Ash is the non-combustible part of the diet. So, when the food is put in an ash oven, and cooked at a high temperature, the ash is what is left. It is made up of minerals, particularly calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium. These minerals come mostly from the bone content of the dry meat protein sources.

Vitamins and minerals are very important to your pet’s health. Because most pets eat the same food everyday, it is important that the food meets all of their needs. Most pet foods are formulated to meet or exceed the minimum nutritional requirements of vitamins and minerals. Inspect the packaging to see if there are guarantees for any of the critical vitamins or minerals.

Calcium, phosphorus, selenium, and vitamin E are some important nutrients that you should watch for. Calcium and phosphorus should be present in controlled amounts to protect the health of the organs, especially the kidneys. Selenium and vitamin E are important antioxidants that protect the health of the immune system and all of the cells within the body from oxidative damage (normal effect of daily metabolism).

Non-essential, but beneficial ingredients are garnering a lot of attention these days. Beta-carotene, lycopene, L-carnitine, taurine (for dogs), and glucosamine and chondroitin are just a few nutrients that are beginning to appear on pet food labels.

Beta-carotene and lycopene are antioxidants that most people have heard of in regards to their own health. They have the same beneficial effects as other antioxidants such as selenium and vitamin E, namely to protect the cells of the body from oxidative damage. The long term benefits are thought to include: a healthier immune system, a healthier heart, and cancer prevention.

L-carnitine is a vitamin-like nutrient that serves several purposes. It is thought to protect the health of the heart while also helping the body convert fat to energy.

We already discussed taurine, an essential amino acid for cats. However, many people do not know that some dogs may also benefit from taurine supplementation. Taurine may protect some dogs from a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (most dogs don’t require this nutrient as they manufacture taurine from two other amino acids: cysteine and methionine). Lamb tends to be lower in cysteine and methionine than other protein sources, so manufacturers are now adding taurine to lamb based diets.

Finally, glucosamine and chondroitin are added as joint care nutrients. These two substances are present in healthy cartilage and are diminished when there is damage to the joints. They may be able to help repair and soothe damaged cartilage and diminish joint pain. If these nutrients are included in the ingredient panel, look for a guaranteed amount in the Guaranteed Analysis, to ensure that there are adequate amounts being added to the food.

Pet food companies are not trying to confuse or mislead you, but they are trying to sell their product. Making a package look pretty may take the place of providing critical information. However, any reputable pet food company should be willing to talk with you regarding the nutrient content in the foods they manufacture. Request the full nutrient specifications to help you decide if a particular food meets your pet’s needs. The internet is a great place to gather information, but be critical of the information you read. Anyone can put anything on the web and what is there may not necessarily be accurate.

Reputable companies formulate their foods for the best health of your dog or cat.

Depending on what breed of dog or cat that you have, there may be specific nutrients that are important to watch for. Read our companion article, Pet Nutrition 102, to learn more about specific nutrient requirements for some of the individual breeds of pets.


Please note that this information does not replace professional veterinary care. It is solely for educational purposes. Your pet's medical condition should be evaluated by a veterinarian before any medical decisions are implemented. If there is a potentially life-threatening emergency involving your pet, take your pet to a veterinarian or veterinary facility immediately.

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