Answers About Feeding Dogs and Cats

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Dog and cat owners invest time, money and emotion into choosing the best foods for their pets, a phenomenon recently explored in Andrew Martin’s Business Day feature about the booming pet market. But are the nutrition decisions we make for our animals the right ones?

We asked Dr. Tony Buffington, professor of veterinary nutrition at Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center, to respond to a variety of reader questions about pet nutrition.


I buy grain-free food for my 5-year-old Labrador retriever mostly to avoid foods with fillers and/or unreliable ingredients. Your thoughts on such a diet? Also, is dog food irradiated in the United States? - JK, Flemington, N.J.


Pet diets can be made up of a variety of ingredients, including meats and their byproducts, grains of various kinds, various sources of vitamins and minerals and preservatives. What’s important is that a pet’s diet contain everything the pet needs for optimal health — that’s some 44 essential nutrients for dogs and 48 essential nutrients for cats.

The term “fillers” means different things to different people. To some it means using air, water or fiber to dilute the amount of other nutrients in the diet. Others think fillers refer to some, but not all, kinds of grains. Despite the current niche popularity of “grain free” diets, millions of dogs are successfully fed diets containing grains.

The question for you and your dog is whether the diet you are feeding is providing satisfactory nutrition when fed in the right amount to maintain your dog’s weight. Some Labrador retrievers are “easy keepers” that tend to obesity if not fed properly and kept active. If you find that the amounts you are feeding to sustain your dog at a healthy weight vary greatly from the label recommendations, I suggest you consult with your veterinarian about switching diets.

Pet foods can be irradiated in the United States to reduce disease risk from microbes in the food. Manufacturers using this process are required to state this on the product label, just as manufacturers of human foods do.


What do you think of this easy check? If the can or box includes corn gluten or animal byproducts (this means dying/diseased animals), don’t buy it. - SKV


Veterinarians define a satisfactory pet diet as one that is complete (contains all necessary nutrients), balanced (contains the nutrients in proper proportions), tasty (palatable) enough to be eaten, digestible enough so the nutrients can get into the body to be used, and safe for the pet to eat. The best insurance owners have that these criteria have been met is the statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) on the package. This statement, required on pet foods, requires manufacturers to declare how they know their food is satisfactory.

As an easy check, I prefer looking for the words “feeding trial” in the AAFCO statement if the diet is one with which I have not had personal experience. To learn more about pet food labels, read this Food and Drug Administration report.

As for your concerns about corn gluten and animal byproducts, corn gluten is a plant protein source. The term “dying/diseased” is just a pejorative term used by some enthusiasts (who appear to be unclear about what carnivores eat in nature) as a euphemism for animal byproducts. While the terms “corn gluten” and “animal byproducts” may not be aesthetically appealing to some, they are included in products successfully fed to millions of pets every day.


My Italian friends just feed their dog whatever they have cooked for dinner. It’s much simpler. - Stacy, London A.

I agree that it is simpler, but is it in the long-term best health interest of the pet? I can’t say without knowing more about the particular case, but I can say that in general pets are more likely to do well when fed diets formulated for them rather than for humans, whether they are homemade or commercially prepared. Q.

This all presumes that what is good for humans is good for their pets, and that pets’ tastes are the same as humans’. The goal should be to find out what is good for and pleasing to the animals, not offering free samples to their owners. What kind of dog wants to eat blueberries? - foo, Washington, D.C.


As long as the diet is satisfactory for the pet and is fed appropriately, the marketing appeal to the owner, who of course is paying the company, is an emotional rather than a nutritional question. In my experience, dogs will eat what pleases their owners, or gets their attention.

Tomorrow, Dr. Buffington will talk about feeding dogs bones or rawhide and changing a pet’s diet.

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