January 15, 2022
For most people, pet food is no easy game. The conflicting recommendations (both online and off) and near-constant onslaught of new selling techniques and novel formulations from companies trying to get a leg up in the market creates a labyrinth of decision-making for consumers. Luckily, there are resources available from a variety of reputable organizations and experts, but even keeping those straight can be confusing. This primer should help lay a foundation to better understand a lot of the buzz in pet food forums.
Read more about Evaluating Sources of Information.
WSAVA (World Small Animal Veterinary Association)
WSAVA is a global, non-profit organization that states: "Our goal is to advance the health and welfare of companion animals through raising standards of veterinary care around the world." WSAVA is comprised of over 100 member associations and collectively, over 200,000 member veterinarians across the globe. WSAVA has a variety of committees that work in specific specialties to create guidelines, recommendations, and resources. There are over twenty committees, ranging in scope from One Health, to Hereditary disease, Vaccinations, and Financial Advising. One of them is the Global Nutrition Committee, or GNC. The Vision of the GNC is: "To help the veterinary healthcare team and the public understand the importance of nutrition in companion animal health by providing an expert source of accurate nutritional information and recommendations."
One of the oft cited resources from the GNC is "Guidelines on Selecting a Pet Food." This resource tailored towards pet owners is a one page document detailing important pieces of information to consider when evaluating a pet food company or manufacturer. It is a common misconception that these Guidelines include WSAVA recommending or approving specific brands. This is NOT the case. In fact, it is stated very explicitly on their website, emphasis added,
"The WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee offers expert, evidence-based nutritional information for companion animals to support the veterinary healthcare team. The committee does not endorse, approve, recommend or support specific products or companies."
What these guidelines provide is a framework for understanding the many important facets of developing, producing, and distributing a commercial diet for companion animals. This includes things like knowing whether there are qualified nutritionists employed by the company, knowing who is formulating diets and what their credentials are, asking about quality control measures taken, and checking whether the company conducts or funds any animal nutrition research. While the document provides some commentary on the way the questions may be answered (for example, highlighting that a consultant may have limited influence compared to a full-time employee), they do not specify how the questions should be answered or what consumers should make of different answers provided by companies.
When people hear that a diet is "WSAVA approved," or "meets WSAVA Guidelines," or some other variation of that phrase, it's a short-hand, albeit misleading way of saying "this diet's manufacturer has high, industry-leading standards for the questions the Guidelines suggest asking." This means having at least one, if not several, boarded veterinary nutritionist or PhD animal nutritionist on full-time staff, and involved in formulation alongside other scientists such as toxicologists. It may also mean having third party quality control certifications, owning their own facilities to ensure oversight of production, conducting feeding trials that exceed minimum requirements, having end-nutrient analysis of products, and both conducting and supporting animal nutrition research.
Learn more about different industry standards.
Questions and Answers about WSAVA
"Don't they have corporate sponsors? Of course they'd be biased towards major companies."
It should be no surprise that the companies doing the most to ensure the safety, nutritional adequacy, and quality of their diet would also be the companies most likely to reinvest their profits into animal welfare and wellness initiatives. It may be prudent to wonder less why certain companies are supporting WSAVA, and more why other companies are not, and what they are doing with their profits instead.
While WSAVA is a non-profit and relies on donations to function, that does not mean that the donations they receive bias their recommendations. I would challenge someone concerned about bias to find evidence of bias-- what recommendations or guidelines supplied by WSAVA do you disagree with or find to be unreasonably biased in favor of their corporate sponsors?
Learn more about Vets and Big Pet Food
"Why aren't ingredients part of what the guidelines suggest evaluating?"
While looking at the ingredients list may seem the most intuitive way to know how good the food you're feeding to your pet is, the reality is that the ingredients list can be very misleading! Even if the ingredients list provided the recipe, most pet owners aren't qualified to assess the nutritional adequacy of a diet based on it's formulation. That's why we trust the experts to do it. That said, the ingredients list is not a recipe. It lists ingredients by weight prior to processing, meaning water lost during extrusion (kibble is a dry product) is included in the weight on the ingredients list but not actually part of the final product. Ingredients like "chicken" or "beef" are very wet ingredients, with as much as 70% of their weight coming from water. Additionally, manufacturers may "ingredient split" to make individual aspects of the same or similar ingredients lower on the list, despite comprising a sizable portion of the diet. A good example of this is peas, which may be split into yellow peas and green peas, or into fractions, such as pea protein and pea fiber. Finally, the name of the ingredient doesn't tell you the whole story. Where was it sourced? What quality is it? Is it tested for pathogens? The name can't say.
Learn more about Ingredients in Pet Food
"Why don't the guidelines include asking about recall history?"
Recalls aren't black and white. Mistakes happen, and that is inevitable for any product with humans involved in the process. Companies with strong quality control will have measures in place to prevent these mistakes, to catch them before a diet is available to consumers, and to pull the diet back if it does make it out with errors. Strong post-production quality control may lead to voluntary, manufacturer-initiated recalls before any illness or injury is ever reported. This isn't a bad thing, unless a company is routinely experiencing the same issues. On the other hand, a company with poor quality control, but also a small market share, could have issues with their food undetected by themselves and by consumers. Illness and injury related to food may be sporadic and difficult to trace, but a lack of recalls does not mean problems aren't present. Recalls must be understood in the context of recall type, market share, and quality control procedures.
Learn more about Recalls in Pet Food
AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials)
AAFCO is, contrary to popular belief, not a regulatory or enforcement agency. However, members of the association belong to enforcement agencies. AAFCO describes themselves: "a voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies. Our members are charged by their local, state or federal laws to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies."
The distinction can be confusing for some people. A comparison would be a veterinary group, like the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association). The AVMA is not a hospital. They do not provide treatment for animals. However, the members of the AVMA are veterinarians that may belong to their own clinics and provide care to animals on an individual basis.
In their own words, AAFCO provides:
A process for defining ingredients used in animal feed and pet food.
A forum where state agencies, federal agencies, and industry develop uniform language that states may adopt or reference in laws.
Two meetings per year that include specialized trainings for members and industry.
Also in their own words:
AAFCO does not regulate, test, approve or certify pet foods in any way.
AAFCO establishes the nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods, and it is the pet food company's responsibility to formulate their products according to the appropriate AAFCO standard.
It is the state feed control official's responsibility in regulating pet food to ensure that the laws and rules established for the protection of companion animals and their custodians are complied with so that only unadulterated, correctly and uniformly labeled pet food products are distributed in the marketplace and a structure for orderly commerce.
The most common instance where consumers encounter mention of AAFCO is in regards to pet food labels. In most, if not all of the USA, commercial pet foods are required by law to meet AAFCO minimums for specific nutrients. On the pet food label, this will looks like one of the following (emphasis added):
“PRODUCT NAME is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog (or cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for LIFE STAGE”
“Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that PRODUCT NAME provides complete and balanced nutrition for LIFE STAGE.”
“PRODUCT NAME provides complete and balanced nutrition for LIFE STAGE and is comparable to a product which has been substantiated using AAFCO feeding tests”
Like most things in pet food, interpreting this statement isn't necessarily black and white. All pet foods, as an absolute minimum, and even if feeding trials are being conducted, should be formulated to meet appropriate nutritional levels. This means that the recipe is designed in such a way that it is expected to provide all needed nutrients. However, a product showing this statement doesn't necessarily mean that it is accurate, and studies have shown before that some pet foods may contain nutrients in lesser amounts than labeled. In addition to being formulated to meet these levels, the manufacturer should be conducting final product nutrient analysis-- but the AAFCO statement doesn't tell you whether they do this or not. This ensures that even after processing, the product contains all of the nutrients in the amounts it is labeled to contain.
Why are feeding trials important, then? For very traditional recipes using well-researched ingredients and processing methods, they may not be. However, for novel formulations, especially those using less common ingredients, they are arguably essential. Nutrition is complex, and ingredients and nutrients can interact with one another in unexpected ways, blocking absorption or inhibiting digestibility. Actually feeding a diet to dogs and monitoring them for apparent nutritional adequacy helps to fill the gaps that textbook formulation alone cannot. However, feeding trials should never be used as a substitute for careful formulation to meet nutrient levels, as some deficiencies may not manifest in a basic feeding trial.
AAFCO Feeding Trials have been criticized for having very minimal requirements (minimum of 8 dogs, for a minimum of 26 weeks (~6 months), with a minimum of 6 passing, and on the basis of physical exam and four blood parameters (red blood cells, hemoglobin, ALP, and albumin). This is a fair criticism, and also underscores both why (1) it is not unreasonable for a company to conduct one and (2) it is not appropriate to substitute careful formulation with a feeding trial, but rather to use both.
Ideally, a manufacturer is conducting feeding trials that exceed the AAFCO minimums, but again, this information would not be found on the label. Consumers must inquire to obtain this information from the company themselves.
DACVN (Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition)
Finally, consumers may hear about "DACVNs," particularly in the context of inquiring about the employees of a pet food manufacturer or seeking a home-made pet food recipe. A DACVN is a veterinarian that has undergone additional training (such as residency) to specialize in nutrition, much like an Internist, Neurologist, or Cardiologist. These veterinarians are specially qualified to handle consultations for tailored nutrition as may be indicated for certain medical conditions. Someone may seek out a DACVN when in need of therapeutic nutrition not available in commercial form (such as a pet with several nutrient-responsive diseases, or that does not do well on available therapeutic/prescription diets), or when they prefer to feed a homemade diet. It is important to get a recipe from a DACVN not just to ensure its adequacy (many recipes online are unbalanced) but to also receive counsel on risks like recipe drift that may result in imbalances at home.
DACVNs also work in industry, though they aren't the only nutritionists qualified to help formulate a commercial diet. Individuals with a PhD in animal nutrition or companion animal nutrition are also qualified. In an ideal scenario, a manufacturer would have a team of several qualified nutritionists and food scientists, to ensure that there are no "blind spots" from only having a single individual oversee everything.
It is important for consumers to know that unqualified individuals may call themselves nutritionists, canine nutritionists, or certified nutritionists. There are many courses and certifications available online, and they are not all of the same rigor or quality. Be discerning and ask individuals claiming to be experts what their exact credentials are. You can find a list of all DACVNs on the web.
Additionally, the existence of veterinary nutritionists does not mean that your primary veterinarian is unqualified to discuss nutrition or make nutrition-related recommendations. Just like many general practitioners can manage things like heart failure without referral to a cardiologist, allergies without referral to a dermatologist, and epilepsy without referral to a neurologist, they can also manage routine nutritional assessment and advising. However, complex care (like an echocardiogram, non-responsive skin disease, and seizures refractory to treatment) would still require referral. For nutrition, an example would be a recipe for a homemade diet.
Read more about What Veterinarians Know About Nutrition
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