My two cats are easy to please: they’ve eaten the same diet their vet recommended for the past five years, with nearly zero issues. That said, when we recently brought home a new puppy, the seemingly endless options in the dog food aisle were enough to make my head spin. From wanting her food to be the best choice for a growing pup, to supporting her joint health (especially important for large breeds like her) and even wondering how much I should be feeding her… I had a lot of questions. Luckily, Dr. Vickie Carmella, the director of veterinary services at Blue Buffalo, was able to answer most of them — and provide helpful tips for pet parents on how to choose the right food for their furry bestie.
Expensive doesn’t necessarily mean “better”
Spoiling your BFF because you want them to live their best, healthiest life is totally normal — but choosing the priciest food in the store doesn’t necessarily mean a higher quality product. “The most expensive food is not always the best food,” Carmella told The Dodo. Instead, she suggests asking your vet for recommendations, then researching those brands on manufacturer websites. “Pet parents can learn a tremendous amount about the credentials of the people formulating their diets, what types of ingredients a company is using and the unique attributes of the formulas they offer,” she said. For example, online tools like Blue Buffalo’s product recommender can help a pet parent narrow down the best choice for their dog or cat based on their size, age and other specific requirements.
Be mindful of your pet’s life stages
Your current adult diet obviously looks a bit different than your toddler diet did, as humans need different nutrients to maximize health at different ages. According to Carmella, your pet is the same way, and there are three key life stages to consider when choosing food for them: puppies and kittens, adult life and senior years. For pets under 1 year old, puppy and kitten diets are formulated to support their growth. Then they’ll transition into an adult maintenance diet, and will eat that food until about age 7. At that point, dogs should switch to a senior diet. Cats should switch over to a “mature cat diet” at age 7, even through they are not considered seniors until about age 11, Carmella said. Beyond age, though, pet parents should also consider specific dietary needs, like the need to support joint health, their fur and coat, a sensitive stomach or achieving a healthy weight. “[Blue Buffalo] True Solutions offers formulas with clinically proven ingredients to provide support for specific health needs for healthy dogs and cats,” Carmella said.
Weigh the pros and cons of wet and dry food
Beyond a dizzying array of brands and products, pet parents also face another tough decision: whether to feed their dog or cat wet or dry food — or both! Beyond the obvious difference in moisture content, in general, dry food is more nutrient and calorie dense, Carmella said. For example, a 5- to 9-pound cat would need to eat 1 ¾ to 3 cans of True Solutions Perfect Coat canned cat food per day versus ¼ to ½ cup of True Solutions Perfect Coat dry cat food. Most cats benefit from a mix of dry and wet food, as do dogs who don’t drink enough water. Wet food can also be helpful when your pet is feeling under the weather, if they’re a young kitten or puppy, or are missing teeth. It can even be a good cure for picky eaters, as wet food can help stimulate appetite.
Read the fine print
Just like human food at the grocery store, the front label on a package of dog or cat food doesn’t always tell the whole story. “A product may be labeled ‘with chicken’ but that only means the product contains a minimum of 3 percent chicken,” Carmella explained. Instead, check the ingredient list on the back to see what’s used most prominently, as all ingredients are listed in order of inclusion. The FDA's website has a good explainer on the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) rules, which specify what requirements must be met for commonly-used phrases on pet food labels (think: “natural” or “human-grade"). The natural ingredients (with added vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients) in True Solutions Jolly Joints, for instance, never contain chicken by-products, artificial preservatives, corn, wheat or soy, but it does contain shrimp meal to support joint health.
Keep a diary to track their eating habits
Eventually, you’ll know your new pet’s habits inside and out, from their favorite nap spots to the toys they love to snuggle with. But, when you first bring them home, a food journal is the easiest way to keep track of when and how much they eat and how often they go to the bathroom. All of this information is vital to making sure their portions are correct and for noticing the first symptoms of a digestive issue, Carmella said. She recommends using a journal or the Notes app on your phone — “I like to keep it as simple as possible so that pet parents can easily log their pets’ information” — but there are specific apps available as well that will prompt you with reminders. Beyond tracking their intake, Carmella suggests measuring out food portions with an 8- or 12-ounce measuring cup and following feed guidelines on their specific product so you know exactly how much your pet needs per day.
Switch to new foods gradually
Of course, it’s not only when bringing a new pet home that you may find yourself reassessing the pet food aisle. If your dog or cat is gaining more weight than they should be, or if their fur is looking dull, that may be a sign that they aren’t being fed the best diet, Carmella said. But, switching to a new food can be tricky — she recommends making a gradual shift over 10 to 14 days, and following the manufacturer’s guidelines (Blue Buffalo, for example, has instructions about how to transition to their food on the back of each product bag). Just watch out for irregular bathroom breaks once you make a change, and if it keeps happening over an extended period, the new food may not agree with your pet. The right food, though, will leave your pet feeling and looking their best — which is key to happy pets (and pet parents)!