|Which Brand of Pet Food is the Best?|
By Don Hanson, BFRAP, CDBC, CPDT-KA
Evaluating The Companies Behind the Foods
Not a day goes by here at Green Acres without at least one person asking us, “Which brand of pet food is the best?” And when pet food companies are in the news, either due to recalls, buyouts or lawsuits, we are asked this question with even more frequency. Unfortunately, there is no single commercial pet food that will be the best food for all pets, despite of what some food companies try to tell us. Individual animals have different needs and these may shift over time. Additionally, pet food formulas and the people and companies behind pet food brands can and do change; today's great food might become tomorrow’s worst. This is why we choose to offer multiple brands of food in our store and why we are constantly monitoring the foods and the companies behind them. It’s also why taking a close look at the company is the first step in selecting a food.
Our first preference for a pet food company is one that is family owned and primarily focuses on making pet food as opposed to pet food being a sideline business. These companies typically own and operate the plant where the food is manufactured, know the farmers that produce the raw ingredients for their food, have tighter quality control measures in place, and also usually only produce their own food. These brands very rarely advertise on TV, preferring to spend their money on the ingredients that go into the bag. They know that when you have a superior product, nothing beats “word of mouth” advertising.
On the flip side pet food companies that we avoid are “marketing only” companies. These companies typically don’t have a plant or manufacturing facility, nor do they have a permanent research and development staff. Instead they contract a nutritionist to develop a formula and then contract out the sourcing of the ingredients and manufacturing of the food to the lowest bidder. Often the plants that manufacture these foods vary from contract to contract, and they are also often the plants making the lowest quality foods in the market; the generic brands and house brands for supermarkets and discount stores. These marketing companies focus on what they are best at, manipulating the masses to believe that their food is the single best food available. They typically do this by creating a website and TV advertisements that tug at your heart and by attacking “big pet food companies” when in fact they are essentially a big pet food company. Like a dirty political campaign, they focus their efforts on pointing out why other brands are bad instead of why their food is good.
In the middle are the other types of companies in the pet food business. Often held by conglomerates such as Colgate-Palmolive or Procter & Gamble, these companies will sometimes still produce high quality pet foods and fund R&D in their facilities. That being said, these pet food lines continue to always require close scrutiny because of less than positive histories in the pet food industry. Two huge candy conglomerates, Nestlé and Mars, own a number of pet food brands and by some accounts may hold as much as 78% of the market share for pet food in this country. Other pet food companies are owned by venture capital funds that typically have a goal of developing a brand until they can sell it, hopefully for an enormous profit. Now the fact that they may be investing in the food usually means good things, but that may be temporary. The reality is that knowing who owns a pet food company and their motivations for being in the business is huge in selecting a quality, healthy pet food.
Evaluating Individual Brands and Formulas
After selecting companies you are comfortable with, the next thing a pet parent should do is to look at the individual foods produced by a company. In this day and age most pet food company’s manufacture and market multiple lines or brands of food. For example, the Natura Pet Food Company, which until this summer was owned by Proctor & Gamble and is now owned by Pedigree, manufactures 5 brands of pet food: California Natural, Evo, Healthwise, Innova, and Karma. They do this to meet specific needs (hypoallergenic and grain-free formulas), marketing niches (organic) or various price points (good, better or best).
Pet food companies recognize that budget does matter to pet parents, and they try to offer a food brand in multiple price categories. Unfortunately, because people focus on the price per bag and price per pound, instead of the cost per feeding, these categorizations aren’t always logical. It really can save you money if you learn how to calculate the true feeding cost of a pet food (http://www.greenacreskennel.com/pet-food-information/determining-true-pet-food-costs). You will often discover that the actual difference in the feeding cost between the categories is often negligible and the food that costs more per bag is actually a better value.
When choosing pet foods to offer in our store or for personal use, we also look for a brand that offers multiple, adult formulas, with different protein sources that support our philosophy of dietary rotation (http://www.greenacreskennel.com/pet-food-information/why-rotating-diets-makes-sense.html). A great example of this would be PureVita’s formulas in which they offer chicken, duck, bison, salmon, or turkey formulas. When we first started talking about dietary rotation many years ago, we quickly became the pariah of many food companies and some local veterinarians. Interestingly, now some food companies also actively promote rotation and many veterinarians recognize that it is not harmful and makes a great deal sense.
Other factors to consider are the availability of a pet food brand. The small family owned companies we discussed in my last column typically and intentionally choose to market their products through independent, locally-owned retailers who are knowledgeable and passionate about sharing their knowledge of pet nutrition. They also typically offer a money-back guarantee – if you are not satisfied with the food return it to the retailer for a full refund. They also often offer frequent buyer programs that help that retailer build customer loyalty. Remember when you buy from a locally-owned store you are getting expertise and service and you are also helping your community.
Evaluating the Ingredients on the Label
After you have selected a few companies and brands that you feel you can trust and that are right for your pet, then it’s time to start looking at the information on the bag. The new buzz word is “grain-free,” and while the foods labeled as grain-free are in most cases, better than the dry dog foods of twenty years ago, the whole “grain-free” phenomena has become more marketing hype than sound nutrition. When lamb was first introduced as a protein source it was erroneously marketed as “the best” protein source and everyone wanted their dog on a lamb based diet; the same thing is now happening with the “grain-free” craze.
Grains are not inherently bad. The ingredients that have replaced them in dry pet food (potatoes, various legumes, etc.) are still basically carbohydrates. That being said the grain free formulas, depending upon the manufacturer, do often have fewer carbohydrates than the standard formulas that do contain grain. However, keep in mind that dogs and cat have absolutely no need for any carbohydrates in their diet. That is why the “Guaranteed Analysis” panel on a bag of pet food does not list carbohydrates. Pet foods contain carbohydrates because they are required by the process used to manufacture kibble. The carbohydrates are the glue that holds the fat and protein together, and in order to do so the food must typically be at least 40% to 60% carbohydrates. Also recognize that carbohydrates, whether from grains or other sources, are also added to commercial pet food to keep the cost down; the carbohydrates used in dry pet foods are always less expensive than meat.
The most important information on a bag of pet food is the list of ingredients. By law, all ingredients must be listed in order, by weight. This portion of the label must indicate if the food is preserved and if so, how. One loophole here however, is that the preservatives only need to be listed if the ingredient is added at the manufacturing plant. For example, meat meals such as chicken meal, which is simply the chicken processed once to remove the water, may arrive at the manufacturing plant typically in a powder formula. If there has been a preservative added to this meal at a different facility which processed the meat meal, the preservative does not have to be listed on the bag. Often people wonder why meat meals are in dry formulas; they are necessary to get the protein levels sufficiently high for the optimal health of the animals. All ingredients on the list are defined by AAFCO, a quasi-regulatory body for pet foods.
When recommending a dry pet food we always look for a clearly identified protein source as the first ingredient. Foods with a single protein source are most appropriate for pets with food intolerances or allergies. They also make more sense with our rotation philosophy. We avoid dry foods that contain by-products in whole or meal form, as well as animal digest.
Another thing to be wary of are foods that list the same ingredient in multiple places on the label. This process, known as fragmenting, makes a food look better than it is. For example an ingredient panel that reads as “Lamb Meal, Ground Rice, Rice Flour, Rice Bran, Sunflower Oil (preserved with mixed Tocopherols, a source of natural Vitamin E), Poultry Fat (preserved with mixed Tocopherols, a source of natural Vitamin E), Natural Flavors, Rice Gluten, Dried Egg Product, Dried Beet Pulp” creates the impression that Lamb Meal is the predominant ingredient, clearly what the manufacturer would like us to believe. However, if we were to add the weight of the Ground Rice, Rice Flour, Rice Bran and Rice Gluten together, they could very easily outweigh the lamb, making rice the main ingredient in this food.
Finding the right pet food can sometimes feel like a daunting task and requires a willingness to learn and constant diligence, but is well worth the effort. All of us at Green Acres are always ready to discuss pet nutrition and to share what we know; all you need to do is ask