With more than 4100 brands of dog food and a similar number for cats, how can you select the best food or foods for your pets? A little nutritional knowledge will help guide your picks.

First, there are many choices and many supposed facts as well as a lot of fiction about pet food floating around the internet. Know that the pet food industry is huge. Of the $58 billion spent on pets in 2014, almost half, $22.6 billion, was spent on food. That’s a lot of food to feed the 85.8 million cats and 77.8 million dogs that are living in our homes and the manufacturers’ goals are to sell more in a competitive marketplace.

The best choice of food is going to be personal and based on individual budget and desires for your pet. But make those choices well armed with information rather than being swayed by marketing and pet food mythology. Use your veterinarian’s nutritional knowledge to help sift through some choices and take samples when available to check your pet’s reaction to a diet and any preferences for ingredient, kibble shape, etc.

Recalls have been prevalent with pet foods due to spoilage or contamination – this may be a factor of more players in the marketplace along with somewhat tighter monitoring by both manufacturers and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There are many sites, including FDA, where you can see what brands are currently being recalled. (see sidebar)

Labels are the primary means of evaluating a pet food, but they are also the primary marketing real estate as well. Claims of natural or holistic don’t have any standards limiting or evaluating their use. Remember that all pet foods – from pellets to canned foods to raw diets are processed foods and are seeking to meet the unique nutritional needs of cats and dogs with a proper balance of big nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates and fats as well as micronutrients such as essential vitamins, minerals and other dietary components.

First, look for the AFFCO statement; this is from the Association of American Feed Control Officers and determines the life stage or energy requirements of a diet via either chemical testing or feeding trials. Growth is appropriate for puppies, kittens or pregnant animals while maintenance is for adult and senior animals. All life stages is another common demarcation and is indicative a food that will support the most challenging energy requirements such as growth or pregnancy and is a hint that this will be a more calorically dense food.

Ingredient lists are just the same as for human food products are listed from most to least in volume – the first four to five being of the most importance. The cost of the food will also help you to judge a food. More expensive and more whole ingredients are going to make a food more expensive than a more processed inexpensive food – feed the best food your budget allows, but know that there are good brands at all price points.

Resources for Selecting Pet Foods: