How to Choose the Right Food for your Pet

by A. Tosone

Every pet is an individual. It seems obvious to say there are no two dogs the same. Or two cats. Or two guinea pigs. So when you add a new four-legged friend to the family, it stands to reason that what your neighbor feeds their pet may not be the best choice for your new friend. What works for one dog may not be right for another.

So how do you know what to feed Fido? It’d be great if some Grand Wizard of Pet Food could wave their magic wand and tell you the healthiest and best “bang for your buck” food choice. But that’s not going to happen. While most products likely fall into the acceptable range as determined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, each product is different with varying amounts of each nutrient. So, even if you were to choose to buy Whiskers a “top shelf” brand, Brand X may cause him to develop itchy skin while Brand X’s direct competitor, Brand Y, doesn’t. Suffice it to say, a good place to start is to get a few recommendations from your vet. Your vet should have a clear assessment of your dog’s health. From that, she can give you a baseline of products that will be appropriate for your pet’s nutritional needs and age (puppies and senior dogs have very different needs than adult dogs).

When buying pet food it is important to be able to read and understand the label. I’m not trying to insult anyone’s intelligence by saying this. Pet food labels aren’t always as straightforward as you might think. If a pet food is labeled to contain any one, single ingredient, it must contain 95% of that particular ingredient. (This rule does not apply to water listed as an ingredient.) If the food is labeled as a combination of ingredients, that combination must make up a minimum of 95% of the food. For example, if a pet food claims to be made solely of chicken, chicken must make up 95% of that food. If a pet food is said to be made up of chicken and lamb, the combined total of chicken and lamb, must equal 95% of that particular food. If a pet food label states the food is made “with” any one ingredient, only 3% of that specific ingredient needs to be present. For example, if a product label states “made with rice”, only 3% of rice needs to be in the entire product. If a food is advertised as a specific flavor, the flavoring only needs to be found in a detectable amount. For example, if a pet food is “beef flavored”, the beef flavoring only needs to be found in detectable amounts and not be significantly measurable.

Also listed on the label should be a nutritional adequacy statement, which should read something like “This food is complete and balanced for adult maintenance” or “This food is complete and balanced for all stages of life” or something similar. In conjunction with the nutritional adequacy statement there also should be a statement that indicates how the adequacy statement was substantiated. Feeding trials are the industry norm, indicating that the food was fed to living dogs for a given amount of time and the dogs were not only willing to eat the food but remained healthy while eating it. (Note to those against animal testing: this is the industry norm and not a statement of my personal preference.)

The last point you should look for on a label is the guaranteed analysis. The guaranteed analysis lists the minimum amount of protein and fat by percentage as well as the maximum amount of fiber and moisture by percentage. Make sure to look for a guaranteed analysis that is converted to a dry matter basis because moisture can off set comparisons. A guaranteed analysis does not indicate quality or digestibility of any ingredients. For that information, you’ll need to research your brand. Some pet food companies give detailed information about quality and digestibility on their websites. But if you are unable to find this information, call the company’s consumer relations department and ask about the sourcing of ingredients. Reputable companies should be willing to discuss this information with consumers. Also, reputable pet food companies don’t outsource their product but do manufacture in their own facilities in order to maintain better control.

Now that you’ve got recommended products from your vet that, according to the label, contain whole meats, veggies, fruits, grains and high-quality dietary fats, you’re on you’re way to finding the perfect food for your pet. The next step is determined on an individual basis and, fortunately or not, part of the outcome of this hunt is up to Fido. Having had pets all my life, I’ve met the four-legged critter who will eat anything you put in front of them and then, of course, I’ve also come across the occasional picky eater who will sniff the bowl and walk away with a disgusted look on their face. So after all the research and effort, the ultimate test is to pour a bowl and walk away. Let your furry friend speak their voice because, in a nutshell, the right food for your pet has to be one he likes to eat.


Found Chicago, NFP is a 501(c)3 no-kill, all-breed rescue that serves to rescue, rehabilitate and re-home the most medically and behaviorally challenged dogs that would otherwise be euthanized. Found Chicago Boarding & Training Center is a subsidiary of Found Chicago, NFP that provides services to the public to give dog owners the knowledge they need to better handle their dogs and improve the quality of the dog-human relationship. All proceeds from services offered through Found Chicago Boarding and Training Center wholly benefit the dogs we rescue, rehabilitate and re-home.

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Phone: 773-539-3880
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