Selecting the Best Food for Your Furry Friend Back »

Written by Hilary Rossow (former SDSU Extension State 4-H Animal Projects Coordinator).

Dogs and cats are often considered part of the family, so attention to their health is important. Animal health is determined by environment, nutrition, and preventive medicine including routine examinations and vaccinations. When one of these fails, the pet’s health may be jeopardized. The easiest of these to control is nutrition.

Selecting the best food.

The number one consideration for selecting pet food is palatability. You can pick the best, most expensive, veterinary recommended, puppy approved pet food in the world, but if your pet will not eat it, none of those claims matter!

The second most important factor to consider is the nutritional value of the food based on your pet’s needs. When selecting the right food for your pet, there are several factors to consider. Among these are:

  • Life Stage
  • Breed
  • Health
  • Activity level
  • Special Considerations such as allergies and sensitivity

An animal’s life stage includes consideration for senior or young pets as well as lactating females. Each of these has specific nutrient requirements. Kittens and puppies require more protein than older dogs as they are growing, building muscle and skeletal structure, and developing other organ systems. After water, protein is the most important nutrient for these animals as its amino acids are important for growing muscle tissue, cell structure, and transporting nutrients.


There are a lot of negative marketing and associated stigmas concerning pet foods. Although an ingredient list that includes chicken, beef, and whole brown rice might look good, it does not tell the whole story. Ingredients like chicken and beef can contain more than 70% water. During the process of cooking and extruding (making food pellets) pet food, most of the water is lost through evaporation. Therefore, chicken or beef may not be the most prevalent ingredient in the food your pet eats! An ingredient like chicken meal is packed with protein and vitamins since it is essentially chicken minus water and is very nutritious.

Poultry By-Product Meal is a high-protein, low-cost ingredient that is composed of organs, meat trim, skin, and fat. This might sound disgusting to people, but dogs and cats think it is delicious! Not only is it highly palatable, but there is a lot of concentrated protein in this ingredient. By definition, by-product meals do not contain heads, feet, bones, or feathers, so the nutrients are readily digestible, meaning the nutrients in the food can be used in your pet’s body.

As with any species, processed grains are easier to digest and provide more readily available nutrition to your pets than whole grains. Ingredients like “Whole Grain Yellow Corn” and “Whole Brown Rice” are harder to digest as the hard outer hulls need to be broken down before the nutrients inside the seed can be digested and absorbed. Although some pets do have legitimate allergies to grains and grain products such as gluten, most dogs can eat grains with no issue. Talk to your veterinarian to discuss testing your pet for food allergies.

Don’t fall prey to marketing!

Words such as “organic”, “holistic”, and “natural” are very loosely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Although these products may contain ingredients that are produced and procured through special means, the terms are used largely for marketing. Instead, look for the AAFCO statement usually found on the back of the bag near the nutrition information. This statement will tell you which life stage the food is appropriate for based on AAFCO standards for nutrient composition.

AAFCO regulates the use of the word “Light” when referring to lower calorie feed or treats. The terms “Lite” or “Weight Management” can be used in nearly any context without regulation. Be sure to evaluate the food’s label for Crude Protein, Crude Fat, and Crude Fiber when selecting the best diet for your pet.

Feed for the weather.

Animals have different nutritional needs based on environment. When temperatures are lower, animals living outside require more calories to maintain body temperature. When the weather is hot or humid, caloric requirements are lower. Most importantly, animals require clean, fresh water at all times. 

When selecting the right food for your furry friend, consider his age, special health concerns, and activity level. Your veterinarian is an invaluable resource for determining your pet’s nutritional needs, and he or she will be able to make recommendations tailored to your pet. Many pet food companies sell their food in small bags, so you do not have to invest in a large quantity if you are unsure if you pet will eat it. Several companies offer a money-back guarantee on palatability, so save your receipt!

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