What's really in your dog's food?

Expert breaks down common label terms, explains what's most important

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We all love our pets and want what's best for them, and at the most basic level, that comes down to their food.

But what do we really know about what we're giving our dogs and cats to eat?

[WEB EXTRA: What is in Pet Food? I FDA: Pet Food Labels I Pet Food Institute

Dog food commercials used to show such images as puppies running through fields or dogs dancing for their food, but now they focus more on organic and cooked meals for the pups.

Why the switch? Have we been doing it all wrong all these years?

Dr. Richard Hill, an associate professor at the University of Florida, said it's more a reflection of society than anything else.

[Scroll below to read: Understanding common dog food ingredients

"There's very much a trend where people want to feed their dogs like they feed themselves," said Hill. "They really should pay less attention to the ingredients and more attention to the nutrients that are present in the food."

Hill recommends looking for "complete and balanced" on the label, checking that the food meets the nutritional profile by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, or the AAFCO.

"They're a bunch of officials that have looked at the literature and come up with a list of nutrients that the animal needs to have," said Hill. "The food that's in this can says that it fits the formula, so it contains the nutrients the animal needs in the right proportions. If it's complete and balanced, if a dog eats this food, the dog will get all the nutrients it needs and it doesn't need any supplements or anything like that.

You've probably heard words like "by-products" and "meal". Hill said "meal" just means the meat has been cooked and rendered into a dry product and "by-products" just means the rest of the carcass.

[WEB EXTRA: Safe Handling Tips for Pet Foods and Treats I FDA: Complete and Balanced Pet Food 

"What does a cat normally eat? It eats mice, it eats birds, it doesn't just pick up the meat, it doesn't just slice off the breast, and leave the rest, it eats the whole thing," said Hill. "It needs to eat the whole thing because the whole thing contains the nutrients it needs. If it just ate the meat, it wouldn't actually get all the nutrients it needs. Everyone is upset about what they put in here, but they're nutritious things. I can tell you, I eat liver, I eat kidneys, a lot of the world sort of eats these things. These are nutritious things you can eat if you choose to."

He also said one of the biggest myths is that dogs can't eat carbs-- and that foods with them are unhealthy.

"In fact, dogs are able to deal with them quite well," said Hill. "Given the choice, they'll eat about 8 or 10 percent of their calories as carbohydrates."

So what about fancy brands versus your average grocery store ones?

"It's a bit like if you buy different cars. You can buy an expensive car or you can buy a cheap car, they'll both probably get you to Orlando but one might be a better experience," said Hill. "You can buy an expensive car that's a lemon and you can buy a cheap car that does you fine, so it's really a question of seeing how it works with your dog or your cat."

However, Hill said there are some mistakes that most pet owners make. The first, is how you store your animal's food. He recommends storing it in a cool, dry place-- not in your garage. And don't buy larger bags unless your pets will eat it within a month. Otherwise, the food can oxidize and go bad.

Next, most of us are feeding our pets way too much.

"The number one nutrition problem for all dogs and cats is they're getting fat," said Hill. "Cats and dogs are getting so much food. If necessary, just weigh out your food, pick a smaller bowl, it looks better. Make sure your animal stays lean. it will stay healthier, it will live longer, it will do much better and will be much less likely to have problem with it's joints and diabetes."

Finally, Hill said most people give their pets way too many of their calories in treats.

"Probably a third to half of the calories they're getting are coming from treats and that's a problem because most treats are not complete and balanced," said Hill. "Just keep it less than 10 percent of the calories. For a Labrador, that may only be 1,000 calories that it needs in total."

Hill doesn't dispute that there have been scandals in the pet food industry before, but said as long as your pet is doing fine and you're feeding them well, you're doing a good job. 

"People think they're making bad food, it's not in their interest to make bad food," said Hill. "The best person to talk to is your veterinarian or talk to a specialist. The American College of Veterinary Nutrition has a special program, you can talk to any of us there, there are something like 50 or 60 of us across the country and any one of us can give you advice and explain to you what's good and what's bad."

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