The UK-based consumer magazine, Which, has just published a detailed product review covering an area that I have written about before: pet food.
I found it interesting to observe an outsider's view of the topic: when I write about this, as a vet and pet owner, I have a particular perspective which makes me see things from my own angle. So it's interesting to read the views of an independent consumers' advocacy group.
The good news is that the bottom line of the Which report is very similar to my own view: the most important aspect of any pet's nutrition is that you choose a product that suits them as an individual animal. The Which team pointed out that the signs that your pet is eating a nutritious diet, including clear and bright eyes, a shiny and dandruff-free coat, plenty of enthusiasm for life and a lack of excess body fat; you should be able to feel their ribs and see their waist.
I really could not have said it better myself, although it's important to add that it can take up to twelve weeks of starting a new type of diet for the full impact of the changed nutrition to manifest physically in your pet.
The Which team made some other good points that may not be widely known by pet owners, and these are worth sharing.
The first point is the importance of understanding the exact wording on the label: these are often legally controlled definitions. Dog food that says it is 'with chicken' must contain at least 4% chicken, while a 'chicken-flavoured' product doesn't have to contain any chicken at all. Also, the higher up the list of ingredients meat is, the more it contains, and higher-quality, more expensive, pet foods tend to contain more meat. As a general rule, it's better to try to avoid pet foods where the first listed ingredient is labelled as 'animal derivative', as these products are lower in quality. The broad term "derivative" enables the manufacturer to use general off-cuts of a variable source from the abattoir rather than sticking to the same, specific meat type in different batches of the same product. The Which report also makes the point that a mixture of plant and meat protein is important in a diet for dogs: they are omnivores, or "facultative carnivores", meaning that it's normal and natural for them to eat plant material. Cats, meanwhile, are obligate carnivores, so a high meat content is more important for them.
The second point made by the report is that the most important part of any pet diet is that it provides the nutrients your pet needs: dog and cat foods that are labelled as 'complete' contain all the nutrients an animal needs, while others are complementary, meaning they should be given to your pet alongside a complete food. The best example of this is dog biscuits designed to be fed alongside a meat product, but again, the way to avoid problems is to read the label carefully, looking for the word "complete".
The third aspect of the Which report was the most interesting part: they surveyed over 2500 dog owners, and almost 2500 cat owners, asking them for a detailed opinion about the dry pet foods they feed to their pets. Owners were asked to score a range of popular pet foods for value for money and whether they slightly agreed or strongly agreed with these statements: "they noticed a difference in their pet's coat", "their pet eats the food all in one go", "their pet shows excitement as the food is being prepared", and "the bowl is always licked empty". These are all important indications that a pet food is a good quality product. The various scores were then totted up, giving a percentage total for each brand of pet food. The resulting score for different pet food brands is a useful guide for owners who are considering which brand to choose.
There were no terrible "fails": the most popular dog food scored 92%, the lowest score was 67%. The top cat food came in at 90% while the bottom ranking product was 69%. All of the pet foods were complete, meaning that they all provide the necessary nutrition for the animals. The difference is in the quality, which has an impact on the appearance of the pet's coat, and on the palatability of the product, which were the factors that the survey was reviewing.
It's interesting to note that the highest scoring products were also the most expensive. It costs more to include the high quality ingredients that make pet food tastier and better for your pet's health. It's no surprise that the highest scoring foods tended to be the priciest, while the lowest scoring foods were more likely to be the cheapest. It cost nearly €17 per month to feed a cat on the most popular product, compared to just over €5 per month for the lowest scoring choice. And for dogs, the cost of the top product was nearly €30 for a large dog, compared to less than €18 per month for the cheapest one. This does not mean that more expensive is always better: some of the budget-priced discount superstore own brands were as highly ranked as some of the priciest pet foods. But there's definitely a connection, as there is with everything in life: to some extent, you get what you pay for.
The main message is that to keep your pets happy and healthy, you don't need to follow the latest fads: there are plenty of good feeding options on the shelves of pet shops, vet clinics and online.
You can read the full Which report online by subscribing to www.which.com.