Many pet parents today are interested in learning about optimal nutrition for their furry loved ones, and the first place they seek answers is often on the internet. Unfortunately, there are a variety of blogs and courses published online that may disseminate inaccurate or biased information. There is a lot of information out there, so how does one sort out fact from fiction?

While nutrition science isn’t perfect, it’s the best approach we have to figure out how to best feed our pets. The following review is the last part of a series featuring evidence-based approaches to some common myths found online about pet food and the pet food industry.

Myth No. 21: The pet food industry in North America is largely self-regulated.

The pet food industry is regulated by multiple bodies, including the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), and the European Pet Food Industry (FEDIAF).

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the Competition Bureau of Industry Canada and Health Canada are the government agencies involved in the regulation of pet food sold in Canada and abroad. There are, in fact, multiple government agencies monitoring the safety of pet food, making it a highly regulated industry in North America and throughout the world.

Myth No. 22: AAFCO focuses on the bare nutritional minimum because it doesn’t set maximums for every nutrient.

AAFCO recommendations were developed according to scientific research published by the National Research Council (NRC). AAFCO recommendations typically exceed NRC requirements. Therefore, when a food meets AAFCO minimums, in actuality it often exceeds animals’ nutrient requirements as supported by years of scientific research by the NRC (NRC, 2006). Maximum values for nutrients are established when there is a health risk associated with consuming too much of the nutrient.

The optimal intake range varies from nutrient to nutrient, with some nutrients having a very wide range and others a very narrow range. Without understanding ingredient interactions and the unique attributes of a specific animal, it is very difficult to determine what the optimal nutrient intake is for an individual pet.

Myth No. 23: Unless you calculate dry matter percentages on a bag, you cannot tell if a food meets AAFCO minimums.

All pet foods that meet AAFCO nutrient requirements will carry a nutritional adequacy statement. For example, “This food is complete and balanced according to the AAFCO nutrient profiles for Adult Maintenance/Growth/All Life Stages of dogs.”

You can look for this nutritional adequacy statement on pet food labels to determine if a food is complete and balanced without the need to calculate dry matter percentages.

Myth No. 24: If chicken is first on the ingredient panel, it may not actually be the first ingredient due to the inclusion of water.

Ingredients on a package are required to be listed in descending order by weight (AAFCO, 2018). This means that if chicken is the first ingredient, chicken is included in the recipe in the highest quantity according to weight.

This rule is the same for pet food and human food. Fresh meats naturally contain a high percentage of water and this water contributes to the total weight of the meat. Fresh meats in pet foods provide an excellent source of high-quality protein and enhance the flavor of the food.

Myth No. 25: Recipe descriptors (i.e. large breed, senior, etc.) have no nutritional requirements and are simply a ploy to charge more money for a product.

The AAFCO dog and cat nutrient profiles are divided into two categories — growth and reproduction, and adult maintenance. There are not specific nutrient profiles published for different body sizes, breeds, or life stages.

However, it is well established that various characteristics of an animal can affect their nutrient requirements. Large-breed dogs are a good example. AAFCO has set upper limits for calcium that are specific to large-breed puppies to promote healthy bone development (AAFCO, 2018).

Another example is that senior diets are often formulated to have reduced calories and fat compared to adult maintenance diets, to support senior pets’ slowed metabolism and help prevent weight gain. Thus, while there are no published regulations for what certain diet “descriptors” mean, they do provide nutritional benefits specific to pets in those categories and are not simply a ploy to charge more money for a product.

Myth No. 26: Carbohydrates may not be included on the label because pet food companies do not want to report the carbohydrate content of their food.

There are only four nutrients that AAFCO requires on a pet food label — moisture, crude protein, crude fat and crude fiber (AAFCO, 2018). AAFCO does not permit labelling of carbohydrate levels; however, it does permit labelling dietary starch and sugars in the Guaranteed Analysis, which are types of carbohydrates.

AAFCO does not allow a claim of “low carbohydrates,” “low dietary starch,” or “low sugars.” Furthermore, AAFCO has specific rules about making comparison claims for carbohydrate, dietary starch or sugars (i.e., the amount present in one food compared to that in another food). Since there is often a lack of space on packaging for all the required information, pet food companies must be selective about which information to include.

Since carbohydrates are not listed by AAFCO as an essential nutrient, even though the body has a physiological requirement for glucose, carbohydrate is often excluded from the label. However, reputable companies will provide full nutrient information, including carbohydrates, on their website or if contacted directly.

Myth No. 27: To avoid feeding oxidized foods, it is recommended to feed much earlier than the best-before date.

The best-before dates for pet food are not set arbitrarily. Shelf-life stability tests are conducted and peroxide values (which indicate when a food has become rancid) are measured to determine the shelf-life of a food. This testing ensures that the food is stable from the date of manufacture until the best-before date.

Myth No. 28: A dry dog food should contain no more than 30 percent carbohydrate, and a wet dog food should contain no more than 7.5 percent. A dry cat food should contain no more than 15 percent carbohydrate, and a wet cat food should contain no more than 1.5 percent.

Currently, there is no scientific research that identifies an optimal level of carbohydrates for cats or dogs. There is no evidence to substantiate a “30/7.5 percent” or “15/1.5 percent rule.”

There is, however, research to support the fact that both cats and dogs can readily digest and metabolize carbohydrates, even at high levels (Asaro et al., 2018; de-Oliveira et al., 2008). Carbohydrates provide a highly digestible, readily available energy source.

During digestion, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, the preferred energy source for certain body cells, including the brain. In addition, the consumption of carbohydrates allows protein to be spared for producing and maintaining body tissue, rather than being used for energy production. In humans, some digestion of carbohydrates begins in the mouth. Dogs do not have this oral enzyme, so carbohydrates are only broken down in the small intestine.

Dietary fiber is a unique type of carbohydrate that cannot be digested by a dog’s enzymes. However, it has many benefits. Fiber can help with weight management, improve digestive health and aid in the control of blood glucose levels.

Myth No. 29: Veterinary diets use low-quality ingredients and the biggest difference is the price.

Animals do not need ingredients, they need nutrients. This is especially important for pets with certain diseases that can be improved through dietary modification.

Veterinary diets may contain ingredients that are the same as ingredients in non-therapeutic diets, but the recipes are different to create diets with specific nutrient levels to treat a particular disease state. Veterinary diets often do not meet AAFCO nutrient profiles and therefore must undergo clinical testing to ensure their safety and efficacy. Substituting for a commercial diet that has similar ingredients is not a suitable option for treating animals with disease.

Myth No. 30: Supplemented vitamins and minerals on the ingredient list makes the quality of the food questionable.

Vitamin and mineral supplementation is used in pet foods to balance the nutrient composition and to ensure the healthiest pet foods possible. These supplements act like a “nutrition insurance policy” to provide essential nutrients in the correct ratios required by dogs and cats.

While our goal is to use nutrient-rich ingredients to minimize the need for supplementation, nutrition and food science tells us that optimal nutrition cannot always be achieved by natural food sources alone, making supplementation of pet food necessary.