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U.S. consumers spend more than $11 billion a year on cat and dog food, according to the Pet Food Institute. And pet food manufacturers compete for these dollars by trying to make their products stand out among the many types of dry, moist, and semi-moist foods available. Pet food packaging carries such descriptive words as "senior," "premium," "super-premium," "gourmet," and "natural." These terms, however, have no standard definition or regulatory meaning.

Pet owners should look for the word "feeding" in the life stage claim (found in the nutritional adequacy statement on the label). This means the food was proven nutritionally adequate in animal feed tests.

Pet Food Safety and Nutrition

No matter what choice they make, consumers can take comfort in knowing that pet food is manufactured under a series of standards and regulations. These regulations require some nutrients and additives, disallow others, and stipulate certain information that must be on the label. The labels of packages and cans of commercial cat and dog food must list five pieces of information: guaranteed analysis, nutritional adequacy statement, ingredients, feeding guidelines, and the manufacturer's name and address.

Some animal nutritionists recommend switching among two or three different pet food products every few months. Burkholder says nutritional advice for people to eat a wide variety of foods also applies to pets. Doing so helps ensure that a deficiency doesn't develop for some as yet unknown nutrient required for good health. When changing pet foods, add the new food to the old gradually for a few days to avoid upsetting the pet's digestive system.

Table Scraps May Be Dangerous

Some people think a food that they eat is good for their pets. Not true. Some human foods, in fact, may be dangerous to pets. "Most pet owners simply do not know that small amounts of chocolate, onions, macadamia nuts and bread dough can be fatal if ingested by a dog," says Steve Hansen, D.V.M., senior vice president of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. "And cats, in particular, have a body chemistry quite different from ours," and so are susceptible to poisoning from a number of human foods.

Also because of their different body chemistry and nutritional requirements, cats should not be fed dog food, says Burkholder.

Keeping Pet Food Fresh

Always keep canned pet food refrigerated after opening.

If you store dry pet food in a container other than its original bag, be sure to wash the empty container with soap and water before adding food from a new bag. The residual fat that settles on the bottom of the container can become rancid beyond its shelf life (the date stamped on the bag). This spoiled fat may contaminate fresh food added to the container, causing vomiting or diarrhea when fed to your pet.

From From Pet Food: The Lowdown on Labels By Linda Bren
FDA Consumer magazine, May-June 2001


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