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5 Things Pet Parents Do Wrong When Picking a Pet Food

By Monica Weymouth

As pet parents, it goes without saying that we want to do the very best for our four-legged friends—and that includes feeding them right. After all, as the saying goes, “You are what you eat.”

The tricky part is selecting the food. While there are many nutritious, high-quality options out there, navigating a pet food aisle or website can be overwhelming. Not surprisingly, many well-meaning guardians pick products that aren’t ideal for their companions. 

Shopping for a new pet food? Be sure to avoid these common, easy-to-make mistakes: 

Selecting the wrong formula for your pet’s age

Many pet parents don’t realize that, just like humans, animals require different nutrients at different stages of their lives. For this reason, there are puppy/kitten, adult and senior formulas available. 

It’s particularly important to feed young animals the correct food, says Arizona-based veterinarian Dr. Antje Joslin. “These foods are specially formulated to meet the nutritional and caloric needs of growing pets,” she says.

For puppies, be sure to choose a breed size-appropriate food. "If you have a large or giant breed puppy, it is important to select a food that is optimally formulated for their large, rapidly growing bones," says Dr. Joslin. Foods for small breed puppies are balanced for slower growth and are appropriately sized for tiny mouths, she adds.

Senior formulas are not always necessary, but they contain nutritional supplements that can be helpful for pets experiencing certain age-related medical conditions, says Joslin. If your pet is approaching their golden years (age 7 for many dogs, but this number will vary based on your dog’s breed), consult your veterinarian to determine the optimal diet.

Feeding your dog cat food, and vice versa

Plenty of pets—especially, ahem, dogs—will happily chow down on any kibble they come across. But just because your pup likes cat food doesn’t mean it’s an appropriate diet. 

As strict carnivores, cats require more proteins and fats than dogs, says Kentucky-based veterinarian Dr. Jessica Herman. “Although cat food is not toxic for dogs, it is not formulated for canine consumption,” says Dr. Herman. “The high levels of fat and protein in cat diets can cause gastrointestinal upset such as vomiting and diarrhea.”

Conversely, dog food lacks many of the unique nutrients that cats require. When consumed long term, dog food can be fatal for our feline friends, cautions Dr. Herman. 

“For example, taurine is an essential amino acid that is needed for proper feline cardiac function,” says Dr. Herman. “It must be in all cat foods, but it is not a typical ingredient found in dog food.”

Not taking your pet’s health issue into consideration

For some pets, the ideal food can’t be found on any shelf. Pets with certain chronic medical conditions, from dull skin and coat and sensitive stomachs to hyperthyroidism and kidney disease, may require a specialty formula or veterinary diet.

“In some instances, the food [can] greatly improve the symptoms of your pet,” says Dr. Herman. “The right food can reduce the amount of prescription medications your pet may need to manage their disease.”

If your pet suffers from a medical condition or you believe they may have an underlying health issue, work with your veterinarian for a  diagnosis  and to determine which food is right for them.

Ignoring pet food labels

Pet food labels can be confusing, so it’s understandable that many people don’t read them. However, labels contain valuable information about a food’s quality. 

One of the most important things to understand is the ingredient list, says Dr. Joslin. Ingredients are listed in descending order according to their weight, which is determined before processing. This can lead to some foods appearing more protein-packed than they actually are. 

"It can be deceptive," says Dr. Joslin. "For example, chicken meal may sound much less appealing than 'deboned chicken,’ but it actually has much more protein because the moisture has already been removed." When in doubt about food labels, your veterinarian is an excellent resource, as are Petco’s in-store associates.

For a crash course in reading pet food labels, Joslin recommends consulting the FDA’s guide. If you’re unsure of any food’s labeling or not confident about selecting a quality product, ask your veterinarian for a list of brands he or she trusts. 

Choosing a food that doesn’t meet AAFCO standards

When examining a label, you’ll also want to make sure that the food you’re considering  meets standards set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). While many people aren’t familiar with AAFCO, the nonprofit plays an important role in the daily lives of our pets.

“Anyone can create a food product for pets, market it, then sell it without the food being analyzed for nutritional balance,” says Dr. Herman. “AAFCO sets the standards for quality pet nutrition by creating nutrient profiles.”

A pet food’s label can only claim it is “complete and balanced” if it meets or exceeds AAFCO’s minimum requirements. When a label contains AAFCO’s stamp of approval, you know the product can support your pet’s nutritional needs, says Herman.

Can changing your pet’s food cause problems?

Once you’ve picked out your new pet food, it can be tempting to never look back. However, in order to avoid any unpleasant GI issues, it’s best to make the switch gradually.

How to change your dog’s food? Slowly transition to the new pet food over a period of 10 days using the following ratios:

  • Days 1-3: 25% new food and 75% old food 
  • Days 4-6: 50% new food and 50% old food 
  • Days 7-10: 75% new food and 25% old food
  • Day 11+: 100% new food

If you have a pet with a history of being particularly sensitive to food changes, Dr. Joslin recommends taking a full two weeks to make the swap.

How to know you made the right choice

Our pets can’t talk, so we can’t exactly ask how they’re enjoying their food. Fortunately, there are some telltale signs that the new menu is a hit. In addition to cleaning their plates and having the energy to live their best lives at whatever their age, you can tell a lot about your dog by just looking at them.

“Appearances are everything when it comes to your pet’s diet,” says Dr. Shelly Ferris, regional medical director of Vetco Total Care. “A shiny and silky coat with no dry skin is a good sign. Also, pay attention to what comes out the back end—regular, formed stool is another great sign.”