Recently, I noticed my pets reacting differently to their breakfast each morning, even though I continued to feed them the same flavor of chow from the same manufacturer. The brand and label didn’t change, and yet some mornings my furry pals gobbled up everything in a flash, while other days they were less enthusiastic, looking at me as if they were thinking, “The chef must have had an off day.”

This led me to wonder if some manufacturers varied what they put in their pet food. After investigating the issue, I discovered there are “fixed” formulas and “least-cost” formulas. A least-cost formula means that dog food recipes may fluctuate with cost. “The least-cost formulation could certainly explain the finickiness of many animals,” says Katy Nelson, DVM, a Virginia-based emergency veterinarian.

Least-cost Formula Dog Food
Nelson likens the practice to human food preparations. “Usually the things that cost the most are the most desirable, like filet mignon. So if a company is scrimping on the cost of the food, they’re likely to leave out or decrease the level of something that would greatly enhance the palatability, as it is likely to cost the most to add.”

Rebecca Rose, CVT, and a career advisor for the Colorado Association of Certified Veterinary Technicians, suggests the bad economy and a desire for greater profit could be to blame. “As with many companies around the world, [some pet food manufacturers] are pinching pennies and cutting their overhead or decreasing their services,” Rose explains. “When it comes to pet owners and pet foods, it’s buyer beware! Companies may be cutting costs, decreasing the percentage of quality ingredients even in pet foods.”

Fixed-formula Dog Food
In contrast, fixed-formula dog food has a “stable ingredient profile.” This means the recipes don’t fluctuate with the cost of the ingredients. The proportions of those ingredients remain the same regardless of cost.

“Reputable, quality pet foods will post their percentages, meet federal regulations and provide consistent delivery of a safe product,” Rose says. Both she and Nelson emphasize the importance of a company’s adherence to the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) requirements. Nelson explains that AAFCO requires a company to put on its labels a “Guaranteed Analysis” of ingredients, meaning that any sample of the food must, at minimum, have the guaranteed levels of vitamins, minerals and more.

Ingredients must also be listed on the dog food label in the order of most to least amount included. “So if you pick up a bag of pet food and you see a vegetable-based protein (glutens) in the top few ingredients, it’s time to keep moving down the aisle!” Nelson advises.

Fixed-formula Benefits
Aside from making mealtimes more pleasurable for your pet, feeding a fixed-formula food offers your dog numerous benefits:

  • Nutritional consistency Your dog will always receive the same level of nutrition.
  • Flavor constancy The odor, taste and appearance of the food remains the same.
  • Value With a fixed-formula dog food, you get what you pay for instead of hidden fillers that may offer little nutrition to your pet.
  • Trust When a manufacturer adheres to a fixed-formula policy, you can trust that the company values your pet’s health and safety, even over monetary considerations. So when the economy takes a nosedive, you don’t have to worry about what you’re feeding your canine friend.

In the long run, choosing a fixed-formula food helps to maintain your dog’s health too. “As an emergency veterinarian, I think that having a fixed formula is essential,” says Nelson, who mentions that the chance of having a GI upset from different ratios of ingredients is greatly increased with variable formulas. The digestive enzymes and the normal flora of the GI tract are able to adjust to new things, but they need time to do so. This wouldn’t be such a concern with a fixed-formula food.

Making the Right Choice
Run an Internet search to see if your manufacturer adheres to a fixed-formula policy. Rose also strongly recommends reading the information posted on the bags of pet food and comparing the lower-cost foods to the premium foods. The process takes just seconds and could make a difference in your pet’s life.

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