A Labrador eyeing a cupcake dog treat held in a blue-shirted woman's hand.

Buy the Right Pet Food – for better health

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Nutrition has a major impact on health and longevity

Dogs, just like humans, require a mix of essential nutrients in their diet. It is essential for them to get the full range of:

  • protein (and amino acids)
  • fat
  • carbohydrate
  • vitamins 
  • minerals

Cats require the same major nutritional elements, but their dietary needs are different from dogs’. This is because they are obligate carnivores—meat-based eaters. Because of this difference in how dogs and cats get their nutrition, it’s important to not give them the same food. It will not meet the needs of both species.

For example, cats need certain nutrients like taurine and arginine directly from their diet because they can’t produce them internally like dogs can. Taurine helps to keep cats’ hearts and eyes healthy. Your cat’s diet also needs to contain certain fatty acids and a B-vitamin vital for eye and skin health and energy conversion. But dogs can make these nutrients internally, so they don’t have to be in dog food.

Just like humans, pets can have allergies to certain ingredients. It’s important to monitor your pet after introducing them to a new food. Refusing to eat, vomiting, and diarrhea are allergy warning signs.

Varying quantities of these required nutrients have been established for various life stages and lifestyles (growth, maintenance, pregnancy, lactation, and performance and working). All commercial pet food is required to meet these standards.

Most people buy commercially produced pet food for their cats and dogs, but some people make their own pet food at home. We will only discuss commercial pet foods in this blog. Check our blog about Homemade Pet Food (coming soon).

Buying Pet Food – How to get the Most for your Money

Commercial pet foods come in three basic categories, depending on how “watery” they are: dry food, semi-moist food, and wet food (Learn more about different food). You can feed your pet just one of these, or a mix of them..

Buy from a reliable source 

If you’re able to afford it, buy your pet’s food from reputable places, such as chain pet supply stores or veterinary clinics. It will cost a bit more however these sellers filter out low-quality products. These products should offer more nutrients and less fillers that just become more waste (less poop for you to deal with).

Or save yourself some money by shopping carefully, reading labels and watching for discounts

When you find a good reputable product on sale, try to stock up. However, when trying a new food, we suggest you buy the smallest quantity possible so you can test it. It’s not a bargain if your pet really hates it or has a bad reaction to it.

  • Talk to your vet or vet tech. They have years of experience in keeping pets healthy. Note that products sold in Vet clinics are specialized for treatment of disease and therefore usually unnecessary for a healthy pet and often are more expensive formulations.  Veterinarian Diets vs Store-bought Diets

How to read a pet food label

Labels on commercial pet foods can provide a wealth of information, and there are four key aspects to focus on:

Product Name

The name of the product can actually tell you how much of an ingredient it contains. For example:

  • if the product is called “chicken,”  at least 95% of the product’s weight, excluding added water, must be chicken (including water, it should be 70% chicken). 
  • if it’s called something like  “chicken dinner,” or “chicken platter,” only 10% of the total content needs to be chicken. 
  • labels with the phrase “with chicken” mean only 3% of the product has to be chicken, while “chicken flavour” implies that they have only added a tiny amount of chicken.

Ingredient List

Understanding the ingredient lists on pet food is important. Typically, the ingredients are listed in order from most to least, based on weight. However, this can be misleading. Ingredients that are high in water content, such as meat, often rank at the top, especially in dry foods. After the water is removed during the production process, there may be less of the ingredient than it initially appears. 

Tip – A lot of people think they should avoid pet foods made from a meat  “by-product,” but many of these by-products can be nutritious, like certain organ meats. A trick that some manufacturers use is breaking down a filler ingredient, like corn, into multiple variations (corn meal, corn starch) to make it move further down the ingredient list.

Vitamins and minerals in pet foods must be listed by their scientific names, and sometimes the common name (Vitamin B6, for example) is not shown in the ingredients list. For pets with specific needs because of illnesses or other health issues, ask your vet about the different  names for these essential ingredients so that you can check for them on the label.

 Guaranteed Analysis

Every pet food product must provide a guaranteed analysis (GA) on the label. This GA offers information about the product to regulatory bodies, ensuring that the food meets all nutritional requirements and any voluntary labelling claims. This provides another  way to understand the nutritional contents of the food, and holds the makers legally responsible for being truthful about it.

Nutritional Adequacy

The nutritional adequacy statement provides a lot of valuable information to pet guardians about the product. It shows whether the food can provide a complete and balanced diet for pets, and might also tell you the appropriate age group or pet size for that food. Not all pet foods have all the nutrients that need to be in your pet’s main meals. If a product lacks certain essential nutrients, the food must be sold as a treat rather than a staple food. This will be stated on the label.

“Complete and balanced” means the product has all the required nutrients, in proper amounts and proportions, and has been tested to make sure it meets the complex nutritional requirements of a healthy dog or cat. The term is defined by AAFCO. 

In summary, understanding the labels on commercial pet food is essential for ensuring that your pet receives a healthy and balanced diet. Key elements to examine include:

  1. the product name, which can indicate the quantity of the main ingredient 
  2. the ingredient list, which reveals the components in descending order by weight 
  3. the guaranteed analysis, which verifies the food’s nutritional content 
  4. and the nutritional adequacy statement, which confirms whether the food provides a complete diet for your pet’s life stage.

Tip – Look beyond the marketing jargon and examine these 4 components closely to ensure your pet’s dietary needs are met.

cat reaching for the bowl in her human's hand. Buy the right pet food

Keep Your Pet’s Food Fresh and Safe

  • Store it in the original packaging to help keep moisture out and prevent oxidation, or transfer it to an airtight container.
  • Store it in a cool, dry place.
  • Read the label of your pet’s food for instructions on how to store it.

Understanding Pet Food Regulations and Safety

Prior to the 1950’s pets relied on leftovers for their meals. Since then thousands of dry and canned options for our cats and dogs have been developed. 

In the US, nutritional standards were initially set by the National Research Council (NRC) and AAFCO, a non-profit organization that sets standards for animal feeds and pet foods. The original nutrient requirements for dog and cat foods have been continually updated as research has evolved. 

The Standards for Pet Foods and Safety Issues

The US considers pet food as “food” under the Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act (FD&CA).  Therefore, provisions that apply to human food also apply to pet food, including quality standards, processing standards and safety standards.  For pet food, the FD&CA requires that all animal foods are truthfully labeled, safe for pets to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, and contain no harmful substances

In Canada, human food provisions do not apply because our legal definition of “food” does not include pet food. There are no laws or regulations that guarantee the quality, type of proteins, or caloric requirements in dog or cat food. However, 

  • The Pet Food Association of Canada (PFAC), requires its members to comply with strict industry safety and labeling standards as well as AAFCO standards in order to use the PFAC logo. 
  • All foods that are made in the USA but sold here in Canada must have an AAFCO statement on every bag of pet food. The statement shows that a particular food has nutrients that fall  “within the range” for a certain life stage be it adult, growth, pregnancy, etc. 

So although we think Canadian regulations could be improved, you can assure yourself that products on Canadian shelves are healthy for your pet if they carry a PFAC or AAFCO designation.

Potential Contaminants and Toxins:

Although commercial pet foods are generally safe, things can go wrong in the manufacturing process.  Chemical contaminants such as pesticide residues, traces of antibiotics, or harmful chemicals might inadvertently find their way into the food. If your pet seems ill after starting a new container of food, stop using it. If the reaction is really bad, seek help from your veterinarian as soon as possible.

Food additives and preservatives, while they are generally harmless, might have negative effects on some pets’ health. Being aware of these and their potential impacts can help pet owners make better food choices.

Recalls and Warnings:

Outbreaks of harmful bacteria like Salmonella or Listeria in pet food can be serious and may lead to recalls. If your pet’s food is recalled, do not use it! If you already have, watch carefully for changes to their health.

Also, some pets can get sick from specific ingredients or additives in foods. If there are many complaints about reactions to a specific food, it may result in a recall.

It’s important to learn about different commercial pet foods and your pet’s specific needs and preferences. Always keep an eye out for pet food recalls. Information about recalls can often be found on the official websites of pet food manufacturers or recognized media outlets. You should always read labels carefully, and ensure that your pet’s food is both nutritious and safe.

Pet Food Controversies and How to Deal with Them

  • Do your own research and look for science-based articles. Some blogs or social media materials may be someone trying to sell their own products. When searching online, look for qualfied sources. Tip – look for url’s ending with .edu .org .gov or anything from a qualified veterinarian or vet association.
  • Ask your friends or join online Facebook animal health groups where you can learn about the issues. Join online groups with a history of sharing fact-based information. 
  • Ask your vet or vet tech for their opinion during your next visit.


Nutrition is a most important factor in your pet’s health. Combine a healthy diet with exercise, love and regular checkups, for a happy healthy pet!

Read More –

Pros and Cons of Commercial Pet Foods (Including Grain/Grain Free) for Dogs and Cats

AAFCO Dog and Cat Nutrient Profiles

FDA – Complete and Balanced Pet Food

Nutritional Sustainability of Pet Food

VCA Canada – Nutrition – General Feeding Guidelines for Dogs

VCA Canada – Nutrition – General Feeding Guidelines for Cats

Guide for Labelling and Advertising Pet Foods in Canada

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