eNewsChannels COLUMN: Pet nutrition can be a frustrating process with so many labels, ingredients and brands to research. How do you know which pet food is best and even if it is the right food for your cat or dog?

For starters, it is important to understand that what is “best” can vary from one pet to another, just as what food is good for one person may not be good for another. One dog may feel just fine on a certain brand of pet food, while another one scratches and itches, tearing his fur out. One cat may like a certain brand of cat food, while the other one refuses to eat it.

So…the first step in establishing your pet’s nutrition plan is acknowledging that you will have to do some needs-based fact finding and that if you have multiple pets, you may not be able to feed all of your pets the same pet food. This can be challenging at times, but not impossible. Once you see the benefits of giving your pet the right food based on your individual pet’s needs, you will be rewarded for your extra effort.

The phrase “pet nutrition” implies something beyond just providing pet food for energy. It means that you are providing pet food that your pet’s body can utilize and benefit from. For example, candy provides calories but is it really nutritious? Those adorable, artificially colored pet treats that are made to look like human treats such as popcorn are gobbled up by your dog, but does that mean it is really good for them…and could it even be potentially harmful? The fact is that you want the pet food you use to give you the most benefits possible: promotes good health, is convenient, easy to use, is economical and most of all, that your pet likes the taste. Unfortunately, not all of these pet nutrition variables may come to play and you will have to make some compromises.

When it comes to optimizing pet nutrition, one fact prevails: you get what you pay for. If standard grade meat/poultry is $3.00 a pound and a 20lb bag of dog food costs $25 — you do the math-how much meat vs. corn fillers do you actually think is in the food? So, if you want to keep your pet healthy and use a nutritious food, chances are you are going to have to pay more for it. The tradeoff though is that you will pay for a lot fewer visits to the veterinarian because so much of your pet’s well-being is due to the food you are using. Pet nutrition can greatly impact the course and quality of a pet’s life, as much, if not more than genetics.

So when it comes to pet nutrition, Rule #1 when selecting a food for your cat or dog, is to READ THE LABEL! Many people use a pet food because their neighbor said it was good, or their breeder used it previously, or breed club said it was good or even because the veterinarian recommended it. With no disrespect intended to whoever might have recommended it, YOU are the one responsible for your pet’s well-being and YOU alone should read the label and understand what you are giving your pet. Many pet owners lament years later after giving their pet the wrong food that they wish they had “known this before.” The label is required by law for you and your pet’s protection, so please take the time to read it.

A good pet food should contain meat, poultry or fish clearly identifiable in the first ingredients. It should contain ingredients that you have heard of such as peas, carrots, fish, etc. Ideally, it should contain a variety of nutritious ingredients such as lean meat, vegetables and omega 3 fatty acids. There should be a nice balance between protein, fiber, fats and carbohydrates. Even if a pet food says it is “organic” or holistic or hypoallergenic, doesn’t mean that it is the right food for your pet. Depending upon your pet’s individual health concerns, one diet may be more suitable than another. For example, many “hypoallergenic” diets are extremely high in carbohydrates promoting yeast overgrowth and many organic brands contain flour and soy which contribute to allergies and urinary tract infections. Remember, base your decision on the ingredients and your pet’s health concerns, not on the beautiful pet featured on the pet food product.

Some pet food ingredients you should try to avoid include:

Grains — such as corn, corn gluten meal, ground corn, wheat gluten, wheat flour or any other flour-while some pets do just fine on high quality brands that contain grains, many pets do not digest them properly and develop allergies, UTIs and chronic health problems. If your pet has a lot of gas, this is a sure sign he or she is not digesting the pet food properly and may be having difficulty with the grains.

Brewer’s Rice — A processed rice product that represents the milled fragments of rice kernels that have been separated from the whole grain rice. This is a lower cost rice product that lacks the nutrients found in its counterpart whole brown rice.

Ethoxyquin — chemical preservative found in some pet foods used to extend the shelf life and ultimately the overall profitability of the food. Ethoxyquin has been banned from most human foods due to its cancer-causing properties. Try to find foods that are preserved with Vitamin C or E (mixed tocopherols).

Meat and Poultry by-products — Byproducts are much less expensive and digestible than the muscle meat found in higher quality brands. Ingredients vary from batch to batch but can include heads, feet, bone, etc.–not the steak and chicken breast you are seeing in the commercials.

Potato Product — a cheap byproduct of food processing of potatoes for human use. The potato “product” does not have the same nutritional benefit of a fresh whole potato. As a general rule, any food labeled as a “product” in the description, e.g. “egg product” or “byproduct” isn’t going to have the same level of pet nutrition for your cat or dog as the whole food itself.

Peanut Hulls, Beet Pulp, Soybean Hulls — used as an inexpensive filler with little or no nutritional value. Provides fiber and is often used in “reduced calorie” pet foods so that the dog or cat feels satiated. It is better to use green beans, canned pumpkin or other natural sources of fiber to help your pet lose weight.

There are many high quality pet foods offering superior pet nutrition available today. Some pets may require a special, “prescription” diet and there are pet nutritionists and holistic veterinarians available who can help you determine the best food for your pet. With just a little extra effort in reading labels and becoming educated about your pet’s food and the benefits of pet nutrition, you can greatly help your pet to live a longer and healthier life.

Article is Copr. © 2011 by Susan Blake Davis – all rights reserved.

Susan Davis is a Certified Clinical Nutritionist who provides holistic pet health consultations to cat and dog owners throughout the United States. Susan teaches owners how to prepare raw and homemade diets custom-tailored to their pet’s health conditions. She works both with individual pet owners and veterinarians who refer their patients. Susan’s website, is a complete library of common pet health illnesses with a guide on how to treat them naturally using diet, supplements and lifestyle changes.