Have you ever looked at the feeding guide on your bag of dog food? I’m sure most of us have. But, have you ever noticed that some dog foods recommend feeding a LOT more than others? I’ll let you in on a secret of ours: a decent judge of the quality of a food can be gleaned from how much a pet needs to eat. As a rule of thumb, the lower the feeding amount, the higher the nutrient content and therefore the better the food (less “filler” and more ingredients with a real benefit in less volume).
How Do Pet Food Companies Decide on a Feeding Guide?
A feeding guide is based on calories. There must be a certain number of nutrients in a given number of calories. This is how AAFCO relays its guidelines. They have minimum values, and sometimes maximums, for various nutrients, including amino acids, vitamins, minerals, fat, protein, etc. A nutrient must be above the minimum recommended level set out by AAFCO for there to be adequate levels for the nutrition of cats and dogs. This means, if your pet does not eat the recommended amount, they will not be getting the appropriate nutrients from their food that they require (underfeeding may cause deficiencies). This way, a pet food company can look up how many calories a certain size of dog typically requires (which varies widely with activity level) and generate a feeding guide.
Now that we have given you some information on how feeding guides work, you can start to understand the importance in taking a close look at them. The more you have to feed your pet, the less nutrient dense the food is. As an analogy, consider 1lb of steak vs 1lb of rice. There are 920 calories in the steak, and only 580 in the rice. You will need to eat a lot more rice to get the same number of calories in the steak. Ingredient quality comes into play in the feeding guide as well. Better quality ingredients are easier to digest, which means your pet will get more nutrients out of a smaller amount of good quality ingredient. For an example of this, look at the two foods below.
NUTRO WHOLESOME ESSENTIALS ADULT DRY DOG FOOD
Ingredients: Chicken, Chicken Meal, Whole Brown Rice, Brewers Rice, Split Peas, Rice Bran, Chicken Fat (preserved with Mixed Tocopherols), Barley, Lamb Meal, Dried Sweet Potato, Natural Flavor, Dried Plain Beet Pulp, Flaxseed, Potassium Chloride, Choline Chloride, DL-Methionine, Salt, Dried Apples, Dried Blueberries, Dried Carrots, Mixed Tocopherols and Citric Acid (preservatives), Zinc Sulfate, Niacin Supplement, Biotin, Vitamin E Supplement, Iron Amino Acid Chelate, D-Calcium Pantothenate, Riboflavin Supplement (Vitamin B2), Selenium Yeast, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Copper Amino Acid Chelate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Manganese Amino Acid Chelate, Vitamin A Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Vitamin D3 Supplement, Folic Acid, Rosemary Extract
Feeding Guide for a 65lbs Dog: 3 1/3 cups
Calories per Cup: 343
NUTRAM SOUND BALANCED WELLNESS ADULT DOG FOOD
Ingredients: Chicken Meal, Deboned Chicken, Brown Rice, Peas, Oatmeal, Pearled Barley, Chicken Fat (preserved with Mixed Tocopherols), Lentils, Dried Beet Pulp, Flaxseed, Dehydrated Alfalfa Meal, Natural Chicken Flavor, Salmon Oil, Whole Eggs, Apples, Carrots, Pumpkin, Dried Whey Protein Concentrate, Potassium Chloride, DL-Methionine, Choline Chloride, Pomegranate, Cranberries, Chicory Root Extract, Vitamins & Minerals (Vitamin E Supplement, Vitamin A Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Niacin (source of Vitamin B3), d-Calcium Pantothenate (source of Vitamin B5), Thiamine Mononitrate (source of Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (source of Vitamin B2), Beta-Carotene, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (source of Vitamin B6), Folic Acid, Biotin, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Zinc Proteinate, Ferrous Sulfate, Iron Proteinate, Zinc Oxide, Copper Proteinate, Copper Sulfate, Manganese Proteinate, Manganous Oxide, Calcium Iodate, Selenium Yeast), Salt, Glucosamine Hydrochloride, Yucca schidigera Extract, Spinach, Celery Seeds, Peppermint, Chamomile, Turmeric, Ginger, Rosemary
Feeding Guide for a 66lbs Dog: 2 1/2 cups
Calories per Cup: 380
As you can see by the ingredient lists, they read very similar. They both have the first two ingredients as Chicken Meal and Chicken, followed by several starch sources. We carry and recommend Nutram over Nutro. Can you tell why? If you take a look at the feeding guide for a medium size dog, you will notice that Nutro says to feed almost an entire cup more per day. This indicates that Nutram, despite looking similar on the ingredient list, uses better quality ingredients with more digestibility. This is also evident by the fact that Nutro uses Brewer’s Rice, an ingredient that is not very digestible. Also, if you look at the calories per cup, this explains why Nutram can have a lower feeding guide than Nutro.
A common misconception from some customers is that since their animal is not eating as much as they usually do once switching to a good food, that means they do not like it. However, dogs and cats are very good at understanding when they are deficient in a nutrient and when they have enough. This allows many pets to adjust themselves between different foods. Not all animals can do this, especially those that love food and will eat anything in the bowl!
As an example, have you ever seen your dog eat feces or dirt? This is a common sign of a vitamin or mineral deficiency often accompanying poor quality foods or a medical problem. This is also why it is important not to completely ignore a feeding guide. If a food recommends feeding 4 cups but your dog gains weight on that much food so you only feed them 3 cups, you are putting them at risk of becoming deficient. Good foods have more nutrients in less volume of food. This also means less to clean up in the backyard! In addition, while some good quality foods are more expensive up front, on top of saving money at the vet, because you feed less of these foods they are not as expensive as they seem and may actually be cheaper than a lower quality food. For example, Valens Farmer Dog Food costs $89.99 per 25lbs bag while Blue Wilderness is $65.99 for a 24lbs bag. They are both grain free foods, with quite different prices per bag, but Blue recommends feeding quite a bit more than Valens because of the quality difference. Valens Farmer only costs about $1.71 per day, while Blue Wilderness Chicken costs about $1.94 per day for a 60lbs dog. As you can see, quality does not have to be more expensive!
Another side effect of the way that AAFCO feeding guides work is that, since it is based on calories, diet foods don’t really work like most people think they do. Some brands, like the ones we carry, do diet foods by increasing the protein and fibre so that they are eating less volume. The fibre bulks in their stomach to make them feel full longer. Other diet foods, such as Hills, decrease the calories by decreasing the fat and protein and increasing the fibre and carbs. However, this means that there will be less calories per cup and the feeding guide will be exponentially higher. If you feed them less than they are supposed to get based on the feeding guide then you risk them not getting enough nutrients. The best “diet” is actually more exercise and extra fibre!