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One benefit to my readers is that whatever continuing education I’m currently doing comes through into my articles. This may not seem like a huge benefit because I get excessively excited about random topics, but I swear it is. The great thing about all of my continuing education is that I always get updated information. Some of this is only beneficial to my clients and they may never even know (did you know I am doing a new cat neuter technique? Nope. Because typically that stuff doesn’t matter in a concrete manner to you) but some of it is information that will be helpful.

Recently, two related things happened. This first is good — I did a pet food continuing education. The second is bad — I joined the ranks of people who are experiencing issues with my pet food amidst the back orders. So one of my dogs and my cat are on special veterinary diets. One of the far-reaching effects of COVID-19 was that many meat plants halted production, which is why ground beef is expensive and lots of pet foods are on back order suddenly (but not just beef). So I set out on a quest to find similar over-the-counter foods for them both, and what a quest it was!

I spent hours trying to research ingredients, analyze nutrients and figure out a switch. They are both on limited ingredient diets, which means they are allergic to one protein source (and figuring that out was a separate trial). More on both my woes, why these foods are more expensive and the real pet food struggle coming up.

So first, let’s pretend you have a healthy, normal pet. You go to choose pet food. You stand in front of the 1000 bags of food trying to process which label is the prettiest, which food has the best commercials, what your vet says, what the vet on the television says, what is in your budget, what your previous dog ate and within a few minutes, you’re probably just laying on the floor in the fetal position. Maybe that’s just me? I’ll talk about a few highlights to consider which you’ve heard from me before.

By-products

This is one of my top soapboxes. Please believe me when I say these are ok. Do you know what foie gras is? It’s fancy, it’s expensive ... it’s a by-product. The liver is a by-product. Kidneys are a by-product. By-products usually include things like organ meat and intestines. Sure, that sounds gross to me and probably you, but not to your pet. Animals eat the viscera of their prey first because it is the most delicious and nutrient-dense. Often pet food companies buy these in bulk, but the fancy ones will just list “turkey liver” and charge more. By-products are not allowed to include horns, teeth, hooves, or hair by pet food manufacturing laws. So your dog’s food isn’t just a few bits of beef and a ton of horns because they list by-products.

Have you ever fed your dog “pizzle sticks” in some variety? These are bull penises. Also sold as expensive treats are sheep and pig penises, plus various types of ears and tongues. These are by-products.

Prescription diets

Just because you buy a food that is prescription from your vet doesn’t mean it is better than others, it just means it is different. We use prescription diets for reasons that are important. I may prescribe a food because a pet has an allergy, develops bladder stones, has a specific disease, etc. These foods tend to be priced higher for a few reasons. Let’s take a special “hydrolyzed” allergy food. These foods are used especially as trials to see if a dog has a food allergy. They are harder to make, have to go through tons of expensive trials, and slow down manufacturing. Before every batch of hydrolyzed food is made, every single piece of equipment must be completely cleaned. You know how bags of human food products must list if they share manufacturing areas with peanuts and the like? That is because one tiny piece of other food will negatively impact the quality control of these foods. Almost anyone can start making dog food, but it takes a lot of research, feeding trials, approval, and quality control to make a prescription diet.

So does that mean all the others are bad? Nope. It just means we aren’t as sure of all the processes and most vets cannot take the time to make sure.

What you see is what you get

Except, it isn’t! This is the hardest thing for my science and consumer brain. Many places have done many tests on dog food. An actual majority either contain ingredients not listed or don’t contain ingredients that are listed. This is mind-blowing to me. It doesn’t mean it is always intentional, but there it is. As I search for food without certain ingredients for my own dog, my mind keeps telling me as I stray from the “vet pet food companies” I’m less sure what I see is what I get.

This is why I strongly recommend against people running their own random food trials at home. You think your dog is allergic to chicken because it itched more on food with chicken, so you switch to a food that is mostly beef. That may work, but that food may also have bits of chicken in it. Or your dog may actually be allergic to something strange and after five food switches, you finally talk to your vet. Was it chicken all along even though that wasn’t listed? Maybe. The good thing is that we don’t have the severe anaphylactic reactions in pets to food, the bad news is that the picture is far less clear now.

So how do I choose?

The good news is that most foods are fine for most pets. In these circumstances where we have issues, just talk to us early on. We can help guide you to some degree. Many veterinarians don’t sell lots of healthy pet diets, and I can assure you that although I keep waiting and waiting, I haven’t received large payoffs from pet food companies. When I tell you what to look for or shy away from it isn’t because I profit. I am always surprised to hear about people taking advice from a pet food store staff (who are paid to sell food) while not believing their vet (who isn’t). Of course, most pet food store staff aren’t trying to mislead you either.

I recommend a website called https://wsava.org/ (don’t go to the site with the list of “best wsava foods” or “recommended by wsava list”) to help guide you. They have a sheet with recommendations of what to look for in pet food. These often involve picking up the phone and doing a little bit of legwork, but it’s worth it if you’re worried.

I’ll also add that with the exception of grain-free dog foods, if what you are feeding works, you do not need to change. A lot of food fads will come and go, but if you suspect an issue, talk to your veterinarian before needlessly switching foods.

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