Perhaps the place to start if you want to improve your pet’s diet is by arming yourself with the information you need to make a good decision. Here’s a set of things to look for in—nay, demand from—pet food.

BEFORE YOU BUY:

• Ignore advertising claims regarding commercial pet food, and instead ask people you trust about their experiences with pet food.

• Learn all you can about how to read ingredient lists like a pro. As a general rule, the longer the ingredient list, the more potential for filling your pet with stuff that is biologically inappropriate, probably allergenic, and possibly toxic.

KEEP THESE IN MIND AS YOU BUY:

1. There are different kinds of pet food in the market: Do some research and be aware of the different categories of pet food in the market so you can narrow down your search to the best food in the right category. There are three categories of commercially sold pet food.

a. Commercial pet food – Found in grocery stores, these can sometimes be of lower-quality, less-digestible, inexpensive ingredients that do not provide the most nutrient-dense ingredients

b. Premium pet food – Usually found in pet stores and veterinarian offices, it contains higher-grade ingredients but may still include artificial colors, artificial flavors, chemical preservatives, and filler ingredients

c. All-natural pet food – Has no artificial preservatives, flavors, or coloring, and uses the best natural sources for fatty acids to help build healthy skin and coat as well as additional vitamins and minerals).

2. Wet or dry? This is a long-debated topic, but it all boils down to your pet’s needs and your budget.

Dry food is much easier to store and measure, more affordable, more energy dense, and helps ensure firm stools but may be less palatable.

Wet food, on the other hand, is messy, more expensive, and spoils easily but is much more palatable and contains 75% water compared to dry food. Wet food is also a good choice for picky eaters, senior pets who have lost some of their olfactory senses, pets who are unwell and cannot smell well or lack appetite.

Both types of food have their upsides and downsides. Pet parents may opt for either, given that it is well balanced and made with high quality ingredients. Mixing dry and wet food in the bowl to make dry food more palatable is another option.

3. Consider your pet’s age: Your pet’s energy and nutrition needs are based on multiple factors. You need to consider your furbaby’s activity level (and breed), reproductive status and age. Pet food is geared for feeding during certain life stages of the animal.

A young growing puppy will need more calories than an older pet. Puppies should only receive puppy food for the first year (the larger breeds, several months longer). Like puppies, kittens will need higher amounts of calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals for proper growth.

Older cats and dogs need food that is more easily digested to ease the processing burden on their kidneys. Adult dogs and cats have varying lifestyles. Hence, they will require specially formulated food suited for their health needs (more energy and protein for highly active sporting dogs). Adult cats should not miss out on important nutrients like arginine, which helps support liver function.

4. Take note of your pet’s health history: Ask your veterinarian to perform a body condition evaluation to make sure your pet’s weight is on track. See what advice they can provide based on your pet’s current health and be sure to check if they have a particular health problem that is affected by diet such diabetes, kidney disease, pancreatitis, and food allergy. Remember to choose food that is appropriate for their condition to avoid making it worse.

If your pet has become overweight or tends to gain weight easily, consider trying high-quality weight management formulas. If your pet has sensitive skin or a sensitive stomach, consider a tailored grain-free or limited ingredient formulas.

For pets that may be prone to plaque and tartar buildup, quality nutrition that’s specially formulated to help clean teeth and gums can support better dental health.

Some cat foods are uniquely formulated to help maintain urinary tract health by reducing urinary pH and potentially minimizing crystal and bladder stone formation.

5. Read pet food labels: The first five to seven listed ingredients can tell you a lot about the quality of the dog food. Ideally, the first three should be a named protein source (“lamb meal” is better than “animal meal”).

By law, pet food labels must list their ingredients in order of weight. Look for food with meat, fish, or eggs listed as the first ingredient since they have a high percentage of protein in the form of digestible and usable amino acids.

Cats, especially, are obligate carnivores requiring nutrients such as taurine and arachidonic acid to be supplied in their diet; these are only present in animal sources.

SIGNS OF GOOD PET NUTRITION

Check your pet’s health after feeding the food you’ve chosen for at least a month. Bright eyes, a shiny coat, and a healthy energy level are just some manifestations that you have chosen a good source for your pet’s nutrition.

This story appeared in Animal Scene’s April 2017 issue.