Pet owners can breathe a little bit easier, as GoodGuide has released ratings for over 1500 pet foods. As is customary with all of our new categories, we’d like to share some basics about the ratings.
Before we get into the details, it’s important for you to know that the ratings cover both wet and dry foods for cats and dogs (sorry to the fish, bird, and reptile owners out there). GoodGuide’s pet food ratings are an average of product-level health, company-level environment, and company-level social scores. Company level scores are calculated in the traditional way (you can read about our scoring here).
The real innovation with pet food ratings is seen in the product-level health scores. In general, pet food products all meet the basic nutritional standard as established by Association for Animal Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and are safe for your pet. Just like people, pets can be perfectly healthy from a variety of diets – there isn’t one correct diet or formulation. Your pet’s happiness and vitality is the best indication of a healthy diet. Beyond that, we identified four attributes that are important to consider when picking a pet food. These four attributes, selected with the help of a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, are at the heart of the pet food health scores.
1. Nutritional Adequacy Test: AAFCO requires pet food manufacturers to confirm the nutritional adequacy of all products. The basic approach is to formulate products to meet nutritional standards. Alternatively, manufacturers can test adequacy by seeing how a product does on real cats or dogs. Such feeding trials are preferred over formulations (which are only evaluated in a laboratory for nutrient content). Nutritional adequacy statements, present on all pet food packages, reveal whether a product was formulated or assessed through a feeding trial.
2. Caloric Content Disclosure: Even though human food requires calorie labels, pet foods aren’t required to disclose caloric content. Since the obesity epidemic is hitting our canine and feline friends, it’s more important than ever for pet owners to have the information they need to feed their pets appropriately. By stating caloric content on a pet food, manufacturers enable pet owners to feed their pets better AND demonstrate transparency. Therefore, products that disclose their caloric content receive a higher score than products that fail to provide calorie content.
3. Life Stage: Research has shown that puppies and kittens have different nutritional requirements from adult cats and dogs. In general, growing pets require more nutrients per pound than adult pets. As a result, AAFCO has established two sets of profiles for cats and dogs: “growth and reproduction” and “maintenance.” Pet foods must disclose which profile they meet. Strangely, many pet foods claim to meet both profiles (often with a statement like “suitable for all stages”). Usually this means that the product contains the highest level of nutrients needed to meet either profile. For example, if an adult dog requires 18% protein and a puppy requires 22% protein, an “all stages” product would contain 22% protein. “All stages” products may contain excessive amounts of some nutrients, which can result in overfeeding. The preferred practice is to feed pets with food designed for a single life stage.
4. Ingredients: The final factor contributing to the health component of the rating is an analysis of ingredients. With the assistance of a veterinary nutritionist, GoodGuide categorized all pet food ingredients into one of four buckets: ‘desirable in high quantities’, ‘desirable’, ‘less desirable’, or ‘extraneous.’ An overall ingredient score was created based on the percentage of ingredients in each bucket.
In developing the pet food ratings, we were very surprised to learn that an ingredient analysis was not the best way to identify the best products. In general, the industry relies on many by-products and waste from making human food products. Just because an ingredient seems less appetizing to a person doesn’t mean that they don’t provide valuable nutrients in a way that can be both bioavailable and tasty. Despite a lot of discussion and concern, there is no scientific basis to differentiate between synthetic vs. “natural” preservatives for health reasons. Experts GoodGuide consulted with said many pet foods should contain preservatives to minimize chances of product spoilage.
We know that there are areas for improvement with this approach, especially because there is very little transparency into the industry and limited information on what’s healthful for cats and dogs. In fact, we’re keeping track of other attributes we hope to incorporate into the next iteration of pet food ratings. In the meantime though, we believe the current ratings will truly help pet owners make better purchases.