9 Tips on Selecting Pet Foods for Healthy Pets

Author: Dr. Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA

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First, a disclaimer: I am not a veterinary nutritionist. I have, however, been to those multiple day-long national pet nutrition conferences you may never have heard of. (The average veterinarian isn’t their target market.) And I’m one of few veterinarians I know who includes all the nutrition lectures on her to-do list at all the conferences you do know and love.

 It was at one of these latter conferences that I attended a lecture with a how-to headline that rhymes with the title of this post. Though the lecturer was a highly-regarded boarded veterinary nutritionist (and the lecture was a success), I felt like she’d missed a few “real world” points on the selection of pet foods for healthy pets. Which is why I thought I’d offer my own tips on selecting pet foods for healthy pets.

 Sure, I’m not a board-certified nutritionist, but exactly how many of these work in the average private practice setting anywhere? I figure that most any veterinarian with over twenty years in private general practice is probably as well qualified as anyone to opine on this issue.

#1 Is it labeled by AAFCO as “complete and balanced”?

 Because if it’s not, it’s almost certainly a no-go in anyone’s book. The only exception is for home-cooked recipes specifically formulated by board-certified veterinary nutritionists (preferably by a team of nutritionists). 

 #2 Life stage

 Foods labeled for certain life stages aren’t always ideal for every dog or cat but, in general, it’s pretty safe to stick to foods labeled specifically by life stage. One notable exception: Cats and dogs should probably stop eating puppy and kitten food if they’re over six months old and their growth phase is more horizontal than vertical.

#3 Activity level

 It’s not just about lifestyle. Personality and breed-related factors figure in here too. Very active dogs get not just more calories per serving, they deserve more protein and fats as well.

 #4 Body condition score (BCS)

 Use any scoring system you like, but no feeding decision should be made without a nod to this measure of body fat. Lower calorie and higher protein/lower carb diets are all the rage here but, truly, most of my pets just need to eat less of the food.

 #5 Muscle condition score (MCS)

 I use the 1 to 3 muscle condition score (MCS) system (3 is the most muscled) to help select my preferred protein level.

 #6 Spay/neuter status

 This influences life stage, activity level, BCS and the MCS, but bears mentioning here too. It’s best not to ignore this basic fact: At the time of spaying and neutering is also the time to discuss diet change. Sometimes that talk will be about calories alone (meaning, quantity), but sometimes changing the formula might be more appropriate.

 #7 Will the pet eat it?

 A must for any pet is palatability. While some dogs will clearly eat rocks, others have palates that would discriminate against the proverbial last Coke in the desert. A pet that initially refuses a diet is probably never going to take to it too well (the owner probably won’t, in any case). Now, if said pet gets picky after a few weeks, it’s probably worth waiting them out. But that’s up to you and is probably patient- (and owner-) specific.

 #8 Will the owner feed it?

 Now that’s a real-world issue for you. After all, you can lead a horse to water, but if the horse keeps going for the Kool-Aid instead, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. That’s why you always have to consider pet owner preferences when making selections. Even if it means helping my patients go raw (as safely as possible). 

 #9 Is my patient thriving?

 If my patient is thriving on their current diet, I’m pretty loath to make any changes, even if that means letting them get cooked for at home sans recipe. I mean, the proof is in the pudding, right?

 So one final question I know you’re all dying to ask: Now that we’ve heard how you select foods for your healthy patients, when is it appropriate to consider a therapeutic diet?

 While there are probably more answers to this question than there are therapeutic diets on the market, here’s mine: I recommend these diets when a) my patients suffer chronic conditions with specific nutritional challenges, b) there’s a pet food labeled for the specific condition, c) simple diet supplementation (with nutraceuticals or home cooked add-ins) is unlikely to offer similar benefits, and when d) the diet is palatable, of course.

 How about you all? How do you help select diets for your patients?

 FYI: Embrace reimburses for prescription diet food via our Wellness Rewards plan.