Despite what you may believe, it seems this recession did in fact go to the dogs.

A recent survey conducted by the American Pet Association estimates that pet owners will spend more than $18 billion on pet food in 2010. So, while some may have gotten rid of their pets due to economic constraints, owners haven’t stopped spending on their animals, even on high-end meals.

But is paying top dollar for premium pet food actually worth the expense? The short answer, it seems, is yes. But the whole story is not so simple.

“It’s comparable to a human being living off of fresh, whole foods as to opposed to eating fast food all the time,” said Dr. Ernest Ward, chief of staff at Seaside Animal Care and author of Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter- A Vet's Plan To Save Their Lives", explaining that cheap, processed food can lead to obesity, disease and shorter life spans in animals just like in humans.

“Nutrition has a major effect on your dog's physical health and behavior,” said professional dog trainer Traci Murdock. However, she adds, “expensive isn't necessarily better.”

A bag of pet food can cost anywhere from $6 to $75, depending, of course, on the product type and size. According to Ward, the adage “you get what you pay for” holds up in the pet food business, meaning that those who pay close $75 for a 30-lb. bag of kibble probably are giving their pet a premium meal while those paying $10 for the same amount of product are essentially buying the animal equivalent of street meat.

However, products in the middle price range (typically between $30 and $40 a bag) represent a mixed bag when it comes to their actual nutritional value.  
Fortunately, there are ways to easily distinguish one from the other, which can keep your pet healthy and prevent you from overspending.  For starters, pet owners simply need to know how to read a product’s nutritional label. Ward suggests scanning for the following:

  • •    A recognizable meat product listed as the first ingredient, as that means it is the chow’s major ingredient.
  • •    Little to no grains listed, and, when included, they should be higher quality carbohydrates, such as potatoes or whole grains. Words like “cornmeal,” “wheat” or “gluten” should be considered red flags.
  • •    No byproducts. For example, a higher quality or more expensive pet food should contain “apples” as opposed to “apple extract.”
  • •    No artificial chemicals or preservatives, such as Yellow #5, BHA or ethoxyquin. Look instead for products with natural preservatives such as vitamin E on their labels.

Secondly, consumers can’t assume that a product is worth its price simply because a reputable brand, such Iams, Eukanuba or Royal Canin is selling it.

“One product within a brand may be better than others,” Ward says, explaining that the supply and demand chain within the pet food industry has forced most major brands to diversify. “They need to be able to offer the cheapest product and they also need to be able to offer the best.”

Unfortunately, these two types of products are largely mutually exclusive and offset by some mediocre semi-pricey offerings. MainStreet came upon Proactive Health Adult Active Maturity from the popular Iams brand, for example, which lists cornmeal, chicken by-product meal, ground whole grain sorghum, dried egg product and dried beet pulp as its first five ingredients.

A 17.5-lb. bag of Iams’ Proactive Health Adult Active Maturity dog food typically retails for around $26. A better bet would be to pick up a 17.5-lb. bag of Iams Healthy Naturals Dry Dog Food, which costs the same amount of money, but lists chicken, chicken by-product meal, brewers rice, cornmeal and ground whole grain sorghum as its main ingredients.

Finally, consumers should be skeptical of fancy terms, such as “organic,” “natural” or “human grade” as according to Ward, there are really no clear ways of defining those terms in the pet world yet.

“While the majority of the products bearing these labels are abiding, there are those that are rip-offs,” Ward says.

“With some expensive pet foods you are paying for fancy packaging or claims that are invalid,” said Dr. Tara Estra of Canterbury Animal Hospital in Delmar, N.Y., adding that the one label that pet owners should look for is the Association of American Feed Control Officials seal of approval, as it lets consumers know that the product has been, pardon the pun, vetted.

Endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, the seal means that the pet food contains ingredients that provide adequate levels of nutrients and that it was properly tested.

Terms like “organic” and “environmentally friendly” can be misleading on products for humans as well. Check out this MainStreet article to find out what brands are, in fact, eco-friendly fakes.

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