An introduction to the terminology you’ll see on your favorite bags of food.

Pet Nutrition can be complicated. Pet food companies develop foods to make it easier for you to feed your pet complete and balanced nutrition without earning a Ph.D. in Animal Nutrition. But companies build foods based on different beliefs. What’s right for your pet is ultimately up to you. Here are explanations of some of the different approaches to pet food, to help you make an informed decision.

Specific Life Stage Formulas
Foods for puppies, adults and senior pets are developed to address the specific nutritional needs of dogs or cats at different stages of life. Puppy food is more nutritionally dense as growing puppies need more calories and nutrients to grow up healthy and strong. However, it’s also crucial that puppies not grow too fast as that can lead to joints and bones that haven’t had time to develop properly. Senior dogs and cats need less energy from their food, but likely also benefit from lower levels of some minerals which may cause unnecessary stress on the internal organs (such as the effect of sodium on the kidneys). Although not technically a ‘stage of life,’ weight control foods have traditionally also been one of the life stage formulas included in a line-up of foods.

Breed Specific Foods
Many dog food brands are available in small and large breed formulas, to address the different nutritional needs of small dogs like Chihuahuas and large dogs like Labrador Retrievers. Small dogs are typically very active and require quite a lot of energy packed into their daily allotment. Large breeds need the right calorie level in a food that will satisfy their larger stomachs without leading to weight gain. One pet food company, Royal Canin, has gone as far as developing dry foods for specific breeds, like Bulldogs, German Shepherds, Siamese, Maine Coons and more.

All Life Stage Formulas
On the other hand, many foods are available that are suitable for your healthy pet no matter what their age. With the  nutritional knowledge scientists and nutritionists have, they can create a single food that meets the needs of puppies or kittens as well as full-grown pets. The extra nutrition needed by growing pets is found by increasing the amount of food, rather than changing the type of food fed.

NOTE: Foods formulated for All Life Stages meet or exceed the recommended nutrient levels recognized in the pet food industry. Look for the AAFCO statement, indicating the food is complete and balanced for all life stages.

Limited Meat Protein Formulas
When a dog gets a food allergy, it is almost always in response to a protein in its food. It is suspected that repeated exposure to the same ingredient protein can lead to the development of a food allergy in some dogs. In other dogs, an allergy follows an upset or illness (even a mild one) in which the immune system gets tricked into thinking the food ‘protein’ was the cause and reacts to it – often showing as red itchy skin or teary eyes. Food allergies can occur with any food  ingredient protein be it animal or vegetable. The solution is to remove that protein from the pet’s diet, but when it occurs on a food made from a variety of meat, grain or vegetable ingredients, it is difficult to identify the culprit.

That’s one of the reasons some dog foods were developed with limited sources of protein-containing ingredients: to eliminate exposure to potential allergens. Lamb and rice-based foods were first developed as an alternative to the traditional chicken and cornbased formulas. Unique proteins such as venison or duck have also been introduced to vary a dog’s diet, hopefully keeping protein allergies at bay, or providing relief for dogs that are allergic to more standard diets.

What is AAFCO ?
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is an advisory group that recommends nutrient profiles for pet nutrition. These profiles have been widely accepted as standards throughout the pet food industry. You’ll find an ‘AAFCO statement’ on most dog and cat foods, stating that the food meets the AAFCO nutrient profiles, which in turn allows manufacturers to label their food as complete and balanced. You want to feed pet foods that are complete and balanced to ensure all the nutrition needs your pet has are met.

NOTE: Many pet parents don’t want to feed their pet only one type of protein every day for years. If you’re concerned about this, consider rotating your pet’s diet by purchasing different single-meat source foods, either from the same brand or completely different, each time you buy a new food. With some pets it’s important to transition slowly between different foods by adding a bit of the new to the last few servings of the previous food, so the digestive system can adjust. Otherwise, there’s no reason you can’t rotate different foods into your pet’s diet to help avoid the development of allergies and ensure you’re providing all the varied nutrients your dog requires for optimal health.

Multiple Meat Protein Formulas
Dogs and cats are carnivores and love the taste of meat. Adding multiple animal protein sources, such as chicken, turkey, duck and fish in the same food, helps increase palatability – the great taste that keeps your pet coming back for more.

NOTE: It’s logical that a pet food with four or five different animal protein sources will contain less of each one than a single-meat-source food. However, an allergy could develop to even a small amount of protein. If that happens, it will be difficult to identify the offending protein, and also fewer ‘unique’ proteins to switch to after feeding so many all at once.

Holistic pet foods usually start with whole and preferably fresh ingredients, including meat, fruits and vegetables. Using ingredients as close to their natural state as possible is part of the holistic approach. On the flip side, avoiding ingredients that are not wholesome and natural, like by-products, artificial colors and preservatives, or even refined sugar, is also part of the holistic approach to pet food.

NOTE: Most grain-free and organic pet foods are also holistic foods. Many holistic foods are made with whole grains such as whole brown rice, in response to the belief that the nutrients and fiber in whole grains are worthy ingredients and beneficial to your pet.

Grain Free
Grain-free foods are made in response to the belief that because dogs and cats were unlikely to eat grain in ‘the wild,’ their food should not include any in the modern age. While grain-free canned foods have been available for some time, grain-free dry foods are increasing in popularity and many pet parents report great results. Pets love the taste of these foods – possibly because most are made with multiple meat proteins.

NOTE: Some grain-free foods are often higher in protein and calories than traditional foods that include grains such as rice or wheat. When feeding grain-free foods, monitor your pet’s weight and food intake to avoid overfeeding, and the many health problems associated with overweight pets.

Organic foods, including organic pet foods, are made of ingredients that are grown or raised without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones or antibiotics. Choosing organic pet food is a personal choice for your pet, as it is for yourself and your human family.

NOTE: There are different levels of organic certification, whether a product such as a pet food is completely organic or only partially organic.

Libbi Hood has been researching and writing about pet nutrition for almost six years. She’s learned enough to know that there’s a lot more to learn. Talk to the Pet Experts at Pet Valu about any pet nutrition questions you have.