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How to Read a Pet Food Label

Woman reading a dog food labelIf you’ve ever found yourself scratching your head while standing in the food section of your local pet store or browsing the internet trying to figure out what the best food is for your pet, you’re not alone! Many major pet food companies assume that the average consumer really doesn’t know one food from the next, and because of this assumed lack of knowledge, these companies expect you to buy a food much the same way we buy a lot of things—with labeling techniques on the front of the product. Unfortunately, this tactic can confuse the consumer at best and create a false belief at worst.

All the eye-catching graphics and buzz words aside, always remember that it’s what’s INSIDE the bag that really counts.

The First Five

“The First Five” is the best (and easiest) rule to follow when deciphering an ingredient panel. Ingredients are listed in descending order by pre-cooked weight, meaning that once you get past the first five ingredients, the percentages of the remaining ingredients drop dramatically.

First five Animal Proteins...
Because dogs and cats are carnivores, look for a premium food that lists high quality animal protein as one of those first five ingredients. Premium foods will not contain low quality animal ingredients such as animal by-products or unnamed “meat meals”— a named animal meal, e.g. duck meal, is acceptable. The remaining ingredients of the first five should be another high quality animal protein, or a high quality, low glycemic carbohydrate source such as lentils, garbanzo beans or sweet potatoes. These ingredients work as a binder to help keep the food’s consistency and can add extra protein, fiber and vitamins without spiking blood sugar levels.

Just as you’ll find quality ingredients in the “first five” of premium foods, low end and mass market foods are filled with nasty ingredients. Never buy a food with first five ingredients like animal by-product, unnamed meat meal, high glucose grains & cereals (wheat, rice & corn), corn gluten meal, or cellulose. Animal by-product is a dry render product of slaughterhouse waste; basically, this includes everything like beaks, hooves, feet, and any other undesirables. Unnamed meat meal is a collection of unspecified meat sources all mixed together, truly a mystery meat. Grains & cereals like wheat, corn & rice can spike your pet’s blood sugar levels and are not as easily digested, not to mention they lack the essential fatty acids vital to your pet’s health. Corn gluten meal is the starchy residue left after the kernels have been processed and cellulose is made from plant cell walls; both of these are inexpensive fillers with no real nutritional value.

Guaranteed Analysis—Comparing Apples to Oranges

Although pet food labels must state a guaranteed analysis of the minimum and maximum percentages of moisture, fiber, crude protein, and crude fat (the term “crude” refers to the specific method of testing, not the quality of the nutrient), these analyses are stated on an “as fed” basis, which takes in to account the product as it is in the can or bag. When used alone, these percentages can be misleading because of the varying amount of moisture present in different formats of foods.

Moisture content plays a crucial role in correctly understanding the guaranteed analysis in any pet food because wet foods such as frozen raw pet food and canned pet food products typically contain 65-78% moisture whereas dry foods such as kibble, dehydrated, and freeze dried products typically contain 10-12% moisture. Because of this large moisture difference when comparing different formats of food, the most accurate way to determine true percentages of fiber, protein, and fat is not by comparing the food as a whole, but by comparing the food on a solely dry matter basis.

Luckily, dry matter can be determined by a simple formula, but you might need to a pen and paper to remember the steps!

To determine dry matter content:

100 – Moisture Content = Dry Matter

Dry matter is what we’re trying to solve, so, to determine the dry matter content of a can of food with 78% moisture 10% protein 5% fat and 1% fiber:

100 – 78% (the moisture content) = 22% (the dry matter content)

Now that you’ve determined that 22% is the dry matter content of the food, we can forget about the moisture content all together (because it’s really just water and plays no role in the overall nutrition of the food). To determine the true protein, true fat and true fiber of the food in question, simply divide the guaranteed protein, fat, or fiber percent by the dry matter content that you’ve just calculated and multiply it by 100.

To determine the true protein:

10% (the guaranteed protein) ÷ 22% (the dry matter content) x 100 = 45%

After determining the true protein in this can of food, it’s obvious why it’s so important to know how to be able to use and understand this formula. At first glance, this can of food looked like it only contained 10% protein, when it actually contained over 4 times that amount. Be an educated consumer the next time you want to find out what’s really in your pet’s food; just use this formula and you’ll be leaps and bounds above the pack!

But what does it mean to have a particular amount of protein? Protein is arguably the most important nutrient in your pet’s diet because they are carnivores, and if you’re feeding a kibble or canned diet, it’s important to know that you’re giving the right amount.

For a dry kibble dog diet, less than 25% protein would be considered low and only appropriate for a low protein diet. 25%-30% is considered a medium amount, which is good for a less active dog as long as it’s a high quality, animal source. Above 30% is a high protein diet, perfect for any dog. For a dog canned diet, below 5% is going to be low protein, 6%-7% is a medium amount, and 8%-10% is high protein.

Since cats are obligate carnivores, their protein amounts should be a little higher. For dry kibble cat food, less than 30% will be on the lower end, 30%-35% is a medium amount, and 35% and above (even up to 50%) will be a high, healthy amount for any cat. For canned cat food, less than 6% is low, 7%-10% is a medium amount, and 10% and above is a high, healthy amount.

Ingredients Should Stand on Their Own

woman feeding puppyDon’t quite believe that corn gluten meal is a great source of protein for your carnivorous cat? Neither does your cat! No matter what the front of the bag says, always flip it over to read the ingredient panel. A food touting “High Protein!” doesn’t mean anything to a cat’s biology if the protein is derived from corn and is the first or second ingredient listed. Whenever you’re looking at a bag of food, take the time to read what’s being stated on the front of the bag, and then flip the bag over to look at the ingredient list. If what’s being said on the front of the bag just doesn’t jive with what’s listed on the back of the bag, consider it a red flag and look for a different food.

What’s Best for You Might Not Be What’s Best for Them

Cat in a bowl of popcornPremium, wild caught North Atlantic salmon might strike a chord with you, but what if your dog is sensitive to fish? Remember that our domesticated companions do not have the ability to choose their food in the same way that their ancestors did. It’s up to you to choose a high quality, biologically appropriate food that suits their needs. When in doubt, remember that your furry friend is meant to thrive, not merely survive, on the food you choose for him or her!

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The Truth About Grains

by Alyse Stark, Only Natural Pet Nutrition Consultant

Choosing the right food for your furry friend can be a daunting task, even when you’re only dealing with one seemingly simple question:  should your pet go grain free?  Although the “Grained versus Grain Free” debate has been in full swing for quite some time, the basic arguments remain the same.

Dog in a field of Wheat Grain

To Grain or Not to Grain?

Proponents of a grain based diet for dogs argue that grains increase protein content and are a good source of necessary nutrients.  In the case of working breeds or active sporting dogs that digest and assimilate grains well, they may benefit from the higher carbohydrate content of a grain based diet.

Always choose a premium brand that does not contain a grain as the first ingredient.  Grains should be used as a carbohydrate and not as a primary protein source.  It is important to note that while grains do contain protein and certain amino acids, dogs assimilate animal based nutrients more readily than plant based nutrients.

When considering wolves and wild dogs, the vast majority of their diet comes from consuming other animals.  Because of this, proponents of a grain free diet argue that grains are not a biologically appropriate addition to dog food and are added as an inexpensive “filler” ingredient.  Grains can also contribute to weight problems because of their high carbohydrate content.

Cats Are Carnivores!

Cat hunting in a treeObligate carnivores, meaning that they are carnivorous by necessity and cannot fully digest and utilize nutrients from plant material. Cats eating a predominantly plant based diet would need to have all necessary nutrients added to the diet artificially to avoid being severely deficient in almost all necessary vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

Cats have all the chief characteristics of an obligate carnivore, including sharp claws, superior eyesight, soft pads for silently stalking prey, and sharp, pointed teeth.  Cats also have highly acid stomachs, as well as short digestive tracts which aid in the prevention of harmful bacterial colonization. Cats are biologically optimized for a meat diet!

Are There Better Grains For My Dog?

If you decide to go with grains for your dog, you should always select whole or whole ground grains such as rice, oats, barley or millet.  Avoid grain by-products such as corn gluten meal, soybean mill run, and brewer’s rice, among many others.  Corn and soy especially are a known cause of canine allergies.

Pancreas Under Pressure

Another argument against a grain or plant based diet can be summed up with one simple word:  amylase!  Salivary amylase is an enzyme that breaks down starchy carbohydrates in the mouth and is produced by most herbivores and omnivores.  Dogs and cats do not produce salivary amylase, leaving the production of amylase to the pancreas.

Proponents of a grain free diet argue that feeding a grain based diet to dogs and cats taxes the pancreas because it must work harder to produce amylase in order to break down the carbohydrates.  This straining of the pancreas may lead to health concerns such as pancreatitis and diabetes.

 

 Allergy Alert

Grains and BeansMany dogs are allergic or sensitive to grains, which contributes to the argument for a grain free diet. Symptoms of a food allergy come in many forms, including dry or itchy skin, paw biting, ear scratching, obsessive licking, digestive distress, vomiting and diarrhea – just to name a few!  Corn, wheat and rice are at the top of the list of most common causes of allergic reactions in dogs and cats, as well as common proteins including chicken, beef, and soy.

If you suspect that your dog or cat is suffering from a food allergy, the next step is finding out what is causing the allergic reaction.  Your veterinarian can perform a blood test for allergies, but the test can be expensive.  Limited ingredient and novel ingredient pet foods are an excellent resource when identifying your pet’s food allergies at home.

A limited ingredient food contains fewer components than a multi-protein, multi-carbohydrate food.  If your dog has been eating a chicken, fish and rice diet and is showing symptoms of a food allergy, try a limited ingredient duck and sweet potato diet.  If your dog’s symptoms diminish on the duck and sweet potato diet, it is safe to assume that duck and sweet potato are not allergens for your dog.

Your pet is most likely to develop an allergy after repeated exposure. A novel protein, such as pheasant or buffalo, is an ideal first choice for a limited ingredient diet since your pet is less likely to be allergic to a new protein. Determining an allergen through a limited ingredient/novel protein diet may take many months and lots of patience, but when the result is a happier healthier pet, it’s worth it!

 

Change Is Good!

Two Dogs One Bowl of FoodEven if you think you’ve finally found the perfect food for your dog or cat, be it grain free or not, unless your furry friend is severely allergic to multiple proteins or carbohydrates which leaves you with few choices, remember to change it up!

Simply put, dogs and cats get bored with their food just like us.  If that isn’t reason enough to change it up, consider that feeding the same food every day increases your pet’s chances of developing an allergy to that food.  Try buying a new high quality food every time you’re about to run out of food, and always remember to transition foods slowly over 10 days. Use 1 part new food to 9 parts old food the first day, 2 parts to 8 parts the second day, 3 parts to 7 parts the third day, and so on.  Eventually, your dog or cat may become used to eating new foods all the time, but in the beginning, slow and steady is best.

It’s normal for a dog or cat trying a new food to have minor digestive upsets over the first week or so, so don’t give up!  Adding a digestive enzyme to their food is a great way to manage tummy upsets.  Digestive enzymes not only help break down the food while it’s in the stomach, but help your pet assimilate all the nutrition in the food properly, making for an all-around healthier digestive system.  A healthy digestive system is the first defense to preventing first time and recurrent food allergies.

 

You Be The Judge

Smiling Woman and DogAs with any changes you make to your pet’s lifestyle, and as much as the debate regarding a grain free or grain based diet continues, always remember that YOU are the best judge of your pet’s well-being because you know your furry friend best!

If you’re trying a new food and it just seems like it isn’t working out, by all means change it—just remember that it often takes a few days to several weeks for a dog or cat to get used to their new food, and always remember that the outcome of any food changes you may decide to make should always be a happier, healthier four legged-best friend!

For Dogs:

Grain Free Food >

Limited Ingredient Food >

Novel Protein Food >

For Cats:

Grain Free Food >

Limited Ingredient Food >

Novel Protein Food >

Popular Digestive Enzymes >

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The Importance of Fish Oil!

You’ve probably been hearing a lot recently about the importance of essential fatty acids in your diet. But it’s important to remember that these are just as important for your pet! Essential fatty acids (also called EFAs) are fats that are required to be in the diet, but they cannot be produced by the body, hence the “essential” in the name. EFAs have a whole slew of benefits, including proper cell membrane formation, proper hormonal processes, cardiovascular support, and digestive support, not to mention a beautiful skin & coat. Unfortunately, like most of our diets, our pet’s diets are lacking many of these essential fatty acids, especially Omega-3’s including EPA and DEA.

Along with a high quality diet that has little processing (like raw pet food or freeze-dried pet food), adding a fish oil supplement is one of the best things you can do to increase your pet’s essential fatty acid intake.

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Active Pets? Summer Safety Starts Here! Top 10 Summer Safety Tips.

Top 10 Summer Safety Tips for Pets

Prevent Parasites. Fleas, ticks, mosquitoes, and other parasites are a year-round problem where warm weather is the norm, but in summer they’re practically everywhere. Not only are these pests a nuisance to your dog or cat, but they can carry tapeworms, heartworms, and diseases such as Lyme, Bartonella (often called cat-scratch disease, although dogs actually carry more species of this nasty bacteria than cats), West Nile Virus, leptospirosis, and even bubonic plague. Keeping your pet parasite-free requires a broad approach and vigilance on your part, with a little help from effective preventives. (See our comprehensive article on fleas here. Many natural products are available; talk to your vet about what’s needed for your area.
Stay Cool! Pets can succumb to heatstroke, so be sure that whenever your pet is outdoors, he always has a shelter from the sun, and plenty of fresh water. Add ice cubes or blocks to the water to keep it cool longer. If it’s extremely hot and humid in your area, consider a cooling vest for your dog. Don’t jog or bike with your dog in hot mid-day temperatures; stick to morning and evening. This is especially important for short-nosed (brachycephalic) dogs (Pekes, Pugs, Bulldogs, etc.) or those with double-thick coats or long hair (huskies, shepherds, collies, some terriers and retrievers).
Read More about Summer Safety…

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Stop Your Pet’s Holiday Stress with a Great Deal from Only Natural Pet!

The holidays aren’t just stressful for us; all of the visitors, decorating and hectic days take their toll on our pets as well. But don’t fear…Only Natural Pet Store is here to help! With our “Holiday Stress Reducers and Safety Tips” article, and some advice from Dr. Jean, you’ll have no problems this year. So make sure you check out our November Newsletter and let your pet handle the holidays with grace.

November Newsletter

November Newsletter

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Time for a little fall cleaning and primping for your pet!

Dogs love to get dirty and stay dirty. Cats pride themselves on their prim and proper appearance. In either case Only Natural Pet grooming products are up to the task. They can help make your canine clean and keep that feline pristine.

Dog and Cat Grooming

Whether you take your best friend to a groomer or enjoy the challenge of bath time, its always nice to have a proper stock of these products on hand. You never know what your furry firecracker will get into next!

Dog Grooming Tips

This week we will be offering shampoos & conditioners, eye care, ear care and oral care products at 15% off.

Cat Grooming Tips

Check out out healthy Grooming Products

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Overview of Allergies – Part 3 of a 3 part series by Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM


In the first two installments of our 3-part Allergy Series, we’ve covered food allergies and inhalant allergies (atopy). This time, we’ll go into a little more detail about what allergies are, and how to prevent and deal with them; and we’ll reveal the most common allergy of all!

Allergy = Immune Hypersensitivity

An allergy is an over-reaction of the immune system to an allergen (usually a protein). There are four major types of hypersensitivity reaction:

  • Type I or “immediate” hypersensitivity, also known as anaphylaxis. An example is the potentially life-threatening reaction to vaccines in sensitive animals. The type of reaction usually occurs within 30 minutes, but always within 12 hours. The problem usually occurs in tissue that has direct contact with the outside world, such as the skin, respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal system. This is the most common type of reaction seen in pets. Food allergies, atopy (inhalant allergies), and fleabite allergy usually fall into this category.
  • Type II or cytotoxic hypersensitivity is what we think of as an autoimmune reaction, where antibodies attach to the body’s own tissues, causing inflammation and tissue destruction. Transfusion reactions and vaccine-induced autoimmune hemolytic anemia are examples. The reaction begins within 3-10 hours.
  • Type III or immune complex hypersensitivity occurs within 3-10 hours of exposure to the allergen. While relatively rare in animals, systemic lupus erythematosis in dogs is an example.
  • Type IV or delayed hypersensitivity is the reaction we commonly think of as a “contact” allergy, such as a reaction to poison ivy. For instance, a dog may develop an allergy to the stuffing in, or the detergent used to wash, his dog bed, and develop a rash on his belly and paws (which have the least amount of fur and are thus in direct contact with the bed). This type of allergy typically takes days to develop, and is relatively uncommon in pets.

Diagnosing allergies

Diagnosing allergies can be difficult. First, your veterinarian needs to rule out other diseases or problems that cause those symptoms. For skin reactions, other causes include parasites, autoimmune disease, and skin infections. Diagnosis may include skin scrapings to look for mites (several species commonly infect dogs and cats); fungal culture for ringworm; or even biopsy to look for skin and gland abnormalities. In the case of gastrointestinal reactions, there are dozens of other potential causes, such as parasites; viral, bacterial, or fungal infections; toxins; liver or pancreas disorders; neurological problems; and cancer. The pet’s history may also provide clues: atopy and fleabite allergy are more seasonal, while food allergies tend to be constant.

There are two major tests specifically for allergies manifesting as skin problems: intradermal skin testing, and blood tests.

  • Intradermal skin testing involves injecting dozens of allergens into the skin to assess the degree of reactivity. The animal must be anesthetized for this process.
  • Blood tests check for antibodies to a variety of allergens.

These tests are not 100% accurate, but they may help narrow down the list of suspects so that treatment can be targeted more efficiently. These tests are best reserved for dogs who will be getting immunotherapy (hyposensitization), which involves giving frequent injections of a combination of allergens in order to minimize the immune system reaction.

Food trials are also a way of diagnosing allergies, since symptoms of food allergy may involve either the skin or the gastrointestinal tract. It is worth keeping in mind that food allergies are far less common than other allergies, but food can still contribute to symptoms. The trial food should contain ingredients the pet has not been exposed to before, and should be fed exclusively for 8-12 weeks! Digestive symptoms typically resolve sooner than skin symptoms.

This “FAD” is the Top Allergy

FAD, or Flea Allergy Dermatitis, is the most common allergy of dogs and cats. The usual suspect is the cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis, which is just as likely to infest dogs as their namesake cats. Fleas inject their saliva as they feed on the pet’s blood; and that saliva contains histamine-like compounds and other proteins. These components make fleabites extremely itchy on their own; but in some animals, they cause an allergy that is itchy to the extreme.

The most typical sites for FAD to show up are the lower back, base of the tail, inner thighs, and lower belly; although a severely allergic pet may be itchy all over.. The fur in affected areas may be stained brown from the pet’s licking, and the skin can become hairless, crusty, thickened, or even blackened from chronic irritation. Hot spots (areas of moist, reddened skin) can also be the result of FAD. Secondary infections of the skin with yeast or bacteria are common.

Most people, confronted with a potentially flea-allergic pet, will adamantly deny that there is a flea problem in their homes—and most of them are probably correct. But you don’t have to see fleas to have a flea problem. Fleas may be lurking in the yard, on the beach, or in the dog park. If your pet has a flea allergy, it only takes a single fleabite to produce a severe and long-lasting reaction.

In addition to causing itching and allergies, fleas can transmit tapeworms, roundworms, and the bacteria that cause bubonic plague, cat scratch disease, typhus, and Lyme disease. Many of these diseases can also be transmitted to humans. It is important to stay vigilant if you are in a flea-prone area.

For more information on fleas and how to combat them naturally, please see these articles:

Common Flea Myths

Click here to read the second article in our allergy series on Inhalant Allergies (Atopy)

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