Nutrition Information for Pet Owners – Canada / USA

By Dr. AJ Warren

Canada, unfortunately has no regulations regarding pet-food. The only laws surrounding it relate to what must be included on the bag – it has no regulations about the food itself.

AAFCO = Association of American Feed Officials. This is an independent body that works with veterinary nutritionists to define minimal nutritional requirements and safe manufacturing and storage practices. AAFCO sets out to help regulate the pet foods in North America, so that pets are fed a complete, balanced and safe diet.

‘AAFCO compliant’ are pet foods that aim to meet the AAFCO guidelines (e.g. Kirkland – Costco brand) however this is NOT the same as AAFCO Approved. AAFCO approved diets have PROVEN they meet minimal nutritional requirements by passing the rigorous tests set out to ensure a food is nutritious and manufactured in a safe and consistent way.

All AAFCO approved foods contain only human-grade ingredients.

At present only 5 diets in Canada are AAFCO & FDA approved ;

  • Purina ( Pro-Plan, Purina One & Prescription versions )
  • Hills ( Science Diet and Prescription versions )
  • Royal Canin ( including pet store and prescription versions )
  • IAMS
  • Eukanuba

AVOID Grain free. Grain is good & important! Grain-free diets have been strongly linked to certain typed of heart disease.

AVOID RAW foods. Though RAW can be done effectively, it is very difficult to do so and so most people don’t do it properly.

  • There are no scientifically proven benefits ( peer reviewed studies by professional bodies )
    • There are many scientifically proven risks!!!
      • Bone Meal impaction
      • Nutritional imbalance
      • Electrolyte imbalance ( too much calcium for example can cause serious issues with bone, muscle and heart )
      • Bacterial overload
      • A study from the EU of over 60 different RAW diets found unacceptable & dangerous levels of bacteria in EVERY SINGLE FOOD. (Please be aware the EU has very strict controls over the handling of animal products and by-products, and the laws surrounding pet food are much stricter than Canada/the USA. It can be reasonably assumed that the data obtained in this study can be extrapolated to North America, which typically has fewer regulations surrounding pet foods.)
      • Salmonella
      • Campylobacter
      • E.Coli
      • Some even found Listeria
    • Parasites – RAW fed dogs must be wormed every month
    • Zoonosis (diseases transmissible to humans and/or other animals). This is particularly dangerous to;
      • Young children
      • Elderly people
      • Immunocompromised individuals ( e.g. those undergoing Cancer treatments or those with HIV

Many veterinary hospitals will refuse to feed RAW in clinic due to the extensive risks.

Many veterinary hospitals (especially emergency clinics or those with a high ICU caseload) will barrier nurse or isolate RAW-fed dogs due to the risks to other patients. This can often come with additional cost to the owner. If you feel strongly about feeding RAW, it is possible to do – but please work closely with your veterinarian to ensure it is done safely and a manner that will meet your dog’s nutritional needs.

AVOID home-cooked meals. Even those from a recipe book. Almost all home-cooked meals are nutritionally deficient, and this has been proven with multiple peer-reviewed studies. For the few dogs who require a home-cooked diet due to specific nutritional requirements, ONLY a Nutritional Board-Certified vet is qualified to do this. GP vets are well versed in nutritional requirements for the vast majority of ‘average’ animals, and can offer a variety of advice for certain specific conditions – however a tailor made from-scratch diet requires specialist input. A common mistake is thinking that including a protein and some fruit/veg is enough – it is not!!!  If you feel strongly about feeding Home-Cooked, it is possible to do – but please work closely with your veterinarian to ensure it is done safely and a manner that will meet your dog’s nutritional needs.

There is a lot of misinformation surrounding certain labels on dog food. The wording is often relatively meaningless, and the ingredients list is often an inaccurate indicator of what is actually in the food as ingredients are listen by weight.

  • A food that uses whole meat will have it listed relatively high in the ingredients list. This is because whole meat contains a lot of water and therefore weighs more, even if the nutritional value of that food is poor (i.e. is mostly fat, sinew or water). Just because ‘whole chicken’ (for example) is first on the ingredient list, does not guarantee a high quality food!

    • A ‘byproduct’ is not necessarily a bad thing either. If you go to a restaurant and order chicken wings, then the whole rest of the chicken ( breast, thigh, gibblets ) are considered byproducts, even though these are high-quality meats!
      • The same is true of chicken ‘meal’ – this is just ground up chicken. Like we eat oatmeal instead of raw oats, many pet foods will use chicken meal to aid in digestion.Some bags will use ‘corn’ as well. A common misconception is that this is used as a ‘filler’ and that dogs cannot digest it. In high quality pet foods, this is not the case; the corn husk (cellulose) which cannot be broken down is removed leaving only the highly nutritional (and digestible) center behind.

Answers to Commonly Asked Questions;

Q : What should I feed my puppy/senior dog?

A : Puppies require a puppy food until they at 12 months old. Some brands will offer an ‘adolescent’ food which may be used at appropriate ages ( usually around 8 – 12 months ). Puppies need 3 meals a day until they around 6 months old, then you can go to twice daily. Remember large and giant-breed pups can ‘grow too quickly’ if overfed, putting them at increased risk of joint disease.

Dogs are considered ‘senior’ at 9 (small breeds), 8 (medium breeds), 7 (large breeds) and 6 (giant breeds). They should be fed an appropriate senior food, ideally with a good joint supplement added in.

Q : How much should I feed my dog?

A : All pet food bags will offer a feeding guide on the back of the bag – dogs should receive 50% of their ration in the morning and 50% in the evening. You can take some of their daily ration and use this as treats for training. This is a guide however, and will not work perfectly for every single dog. If their body condition score (BCS) is getting too high ( over 5.5 ) drop the food by 10%. If their BCS is getting too low ( less than 4 ) increase their food by 10%.

Remember – Dogs should receive a maximum of 10% of their daily calories from treats.

Q : What treats are safe for my dogs?

A : In moderation, any dog treat. Also, cooked chicken, fish or red meat, cooked eggs, carrot, cucumber, apples ( not the seeds ). Always cook meat & eggs without oil, butter, or seasoning.
Avoid grapes, raisins, garlic ( and garlic salt ) onion ( and onion salt ), chocolate, macadamia nuts, avocado and anything that has been cooked with garlic or onion salt ( e.g. gravy ) or large volumes of oil, butter or lard. These items can be toxic and/or cause pancreatitis. 

Q : Who can I turn to for information about pet food?

A : AAFCO and the PFMA ( Pet Food Manufacturing Association ) offers good unbiased information ( please note PFMA is a european agency – they should be used for nutritional information only as legislation and pet food labels differ greatly between countries ).

Most GP veterinarians are happy to consult for common nutritional queries, and can offer referrals to Board-Certified specialists for more nuanced or specialist advice.

Petshop employees are often knowledgeable about the products they sell based on information from the sales team, and they may be experienced pet owners. However they often do not have to undergo formal training or pass examinations, so may not be in the best position to offer factually correct, peer reviewed,  unbiased advice. They are not qualified to diagnose disorders and should not be recommending certain diets based on symptoms ( e.g. a common issue is recommending a grain free diet to ‘allergic’ dogs – however grain allergies are incredibly rare and most dogs are actually allergic to the meat protein ). They may also have certain sales targets to reach, which may result in biased advice/information being passed on.

‘Pet Nutritionist’ or ‘Pet dietician’ are not protected terms, and anyone can advertise themselves as one, regardless of whether they have appropriate training or qualifications.

Q : What is a Body Condition Score?

A : It is how we assess if an animal is over- or under-weight based on fat deposits and body shape. It is tailored to the individual and can be more helpful than weight. It can be very hard to give a target weight for mixed breeds ( are they more like mum or dad? ), unknown breeds and purebreds belonging to breeds with a large weight variation ( e.g. Labradors, German Shepherds ). The BCS score runs from 1 ( emaciated) to 9 ( obese ) with 4.5 being perfect, and a range of 4-5 being acceptable. Animals over 6 are at increased risk of joint disease and animals below 3.5 are at risk of muscle wastage and brittle bones. BCS charts apply to grown animals – puppies should never be put in a calorie deficit.

Ask your vet/reception for a full size BCS chart to take home.

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