Kim Carney / MSNBC.com
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updated 9/19/2005 8:20:27 AM ET 2005-09-19T12:20:27

From organic kibble to raw or homemade diets, dog and cat lovers have more and better options for feeding their pets than ever before.

People who choose healthy food for themselves often want the same choices for their dogs and cats. And pet food manufacturers have responded with enthusiasm, creating diets that are labeled as "natural" or "organic" or that contain ingredients believed to promote health, including blueberries; salmon oil, which is high in essential fatty acids; and glucosamine and chondroitin, food supplements that are believed to promote joint health.

But choices can also bring confusion. Many of you have written in with questions about what to feed your pets. Here’s what you need to know.

What's in a name?
We all want to feed the best to our pets, but beware of marketing terms that don’t necessarily mean anything. Terms such as “natural” or “premium” have no official legal definition when it comes to pet foods.

“The word ‘natural’ is loosely defined, and a food with some ‘natural’ ingredients may also contain a lot of what most of us would consider very ‘unnatural’ items as well,” says Jean Hofve, a veterinarian in Jamestown, Colo. “The terms ‘premium,’ ‘super-premium’ and ‘human-grade’ have no meaning and can be misleading. Claims of ‘human-grade’ or ‘USDA-inspected’ do not guarantee any official sanction or oversight of the production of those ingredients.”

Food with a USDA Organic seal must be at least 95 percent organic, meaning that it was produced according to certain standards, but the USDA makes no claims that organic food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food.

Know what to look for on the ingredient list. It’s easy to be misled regarding amounts or types of ingredients.

“Some dry pet foods might say ‘fresh beef is our No. 1 ingredient,’ ” says veterinarian Tony Buffington, a nutrition specialist and professor in the department of veterinary clinical sciences at Ohio State University in Columbus.

“Well, fresh beef is 60 percent water, so if you had to take the water out, it would go from No. 1 down to No. 5 or 6," he says. "Or it can say ‘beef is our first ingredient’ and that’s true, but the second ingredient is wheat and the third ingredient is wheat middlings and the fourth ingredient is wheat meal run. That’s called splitting. It’s all wheat.”

When examining a label for protein sources, make sure the top ingredient is meat and that meat or other high-quality proteins such as eggs or cottage cheese are listed later in the label, even if they’re not the second or third ingredients. Look for meat with a name — chicken, lamb, turkey — rather than the generic term meat.

“Meat byproducts, byproduct meal, and meat and bone meal are cheap meat substitutes. They are poorer quality protein sources,” Hofve says. “Beware of foods that list chicken or other meat first, but also include byproducts or other meat substitutes. Chicken is a heavy ingredient and not very much is needed to put it first on the list. This is a common marketing trick for lesser quality dry foods. If byproduct meal or a similar ingredient is in the next two or three ingredients, then the food is byproduct-based.”

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Beyond the ingredient list, check to make sure a food’s nutritional adequacy has been validated by feeding trials, says veterinarian Joe Bartges, a professor of medicine and nutrition at the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville.

“It will state this on the label: for example, ‘This diet is complete and balanced for adult dogs based on AAFCO feeding trials,’" he says. "This means the food was actually fed to living animals before it was sent to the supermarket shelf.”

Veggie, raw diets
Can you feed your dog a vegetarian diet? You can — dogs are omnivores and can survive on a variety of foods — but a meat-based diet is better for them because it provides higher quality protein. Cats, on the other hand, are obligate carnivores, meaning they must have meat in their diets. Never try to turn your cat into a vegetarian.

What about raw or homemade diets? Advantages include the ability to fine-tune food to an animal’s particular needs and tastes and the presence of natural enzymes, which are destroyed in the cooking process. Some people prefer raw/homemade foods because they can control the quality of ingredients. But if you’re not fond of spending time in the kitchen, there are several commercial frozen pet foods that make feeding a raw diet very easy.

A potential disadvantage of raw or homemade diets is severe dietary imbalances when recipes aren’t complete and balanced.

“A bad homemade diet is far more dangerous than poor quality commercial food,” Hofve says. “Work with your veterinarian or find a holistic veterinarian who can guide you.”

But the most common argument against raw diets is possible contamination of raw meat. That’s more of an issue for people than pets, however.

“Healthy dogs and cats are relatively resistant to most food-borne bacteria and rarely become ill from them,” Hofve says.

On the other hand, raw meat can contain parasites. If you feed a raw diet, it’s a good idea to have your pet’s stool checked periodically.

“Feeding organic meat may help minimize contamination, and freezing can eliminate some parasites,” Hofve says. Other safety precautions include defrosting meat in the refrigerator and washing your hands with soap after handling it.

While a number of people tout the benefits of a raw or homemade diet, there’s nothing wrong with feeding commercial pet food, dry or canned, if that’s more convenient or cost-effective for you.

“Pets in the U.S. are fed better than most people in the world,” Buffington says.

What about blueberries, salmon oil and supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin? None of these ingredients are harmful and they may well be beneficial, but their perceived benefits are extrapolated from human studies and have not yet been proven in dogs or cats.

That said, upcoming changes to Nutritional Research Council dietary requirements for dogs and cats may include omega-3 fatty acid recommendations, Bartges says.

Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with three Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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