Every pet owner wants to provide the best nutrition possible so their furry friends can enjoy a good quality of life. But as you wander the many aisles of food in the pet store, you may start to wonder: How will I know the best food when I see it?

When looking at dog food, the first thing to notice is that there are different types of food for various life stages—from puppies to mature adults and seniors, notes Dr. Doug Pernikoff of Clarkson Wilson Veterinary Clinic. There also are prescription and over-the-counter diets available for different medical needs, such as allergies, kidney disease and pregnancy, he adds. When there are medical concerns such as these, he suggests consulting with your veterinarian to determine the appropriate diet. “For example, if you have allergies, we’re going to try and find novel proteins, meaning proteins that the body has not been exposed to—so instead of chicken, we might choose something that is deer meat or fish-based.”

A trend gaining traction is the idea of a grain-free diet, Pernikoff notes. “The pet industry has spent 40 or 50 years making grain-based diets, but dogs and cats are carnivores first and foremost,” he says. “They do better with protein and some fat in their diets. We’ve introduced these grain diets, which can create sensitivities or chronic diarrhea.”

But Dr. Stacey Wallach of Town & Country Veterinary Hospital cautions pet owners not to always assume grain-free equals better. “Some dogs will do well on grain-free and some dogs have allergies to certain grains,” she notes. “A lot of people think their dogs are allergic to grains, but usually it’s the animal proteins such as chicken and beef. Corn is a good energy source for animals, and when we remove corn in grain-free diets, we replace it with other ingredients such as potatoes or other starches that provide fewer nutrients, less fiber and increase the cost of the diet.”

As key indicators for high-quality food, Wallach suggests looking for the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) seal and checking the ingredients list. “The AAFCO seal is saying that the brand provides complete and balanced nutrition. It has been through feeding trials and it’s quality food.” When looking at the ingredients, she adds, a good rule of thumb is that the first three ingredients should include a good source of protein, rather than being mostly grains.

Wallach adds that owners should be wary of marketing claims such as ‘holistic,’ ‘gourmet,’ ‘natural’ and ‘premium,’ which have no legal definition in regard to pet food. She recommends looking for a reputable, longstanding company that has a history of working with vets to develop its diets. And while the cheapest diet is probably not the best, that doesn’t mean the most expensive one is either, she adds. “You want middle-of-the-line or above, probably about $1 to $2 per pound is a good average.”

Pet owners who are concerned about the quality and consistency of their pet’s food should become familiar with the labels and ingredients, suggests Paul Flotron of Creature Comforts Great & Small. He adds that given recent recalls of pet food from China, as well as his previous experience in imports and exports, owners might want to consider products made in the U.S.

Some owners might take the extra step of creating a homemade diet, Flotron adds—although he cautions this might take a good deal of research, since some foods can be toxic to pets. “I like to cook a meal that’s meat-based and that is rich in proteins, vitamins and minerals,” he notes. “It has to be highly specialized to that particular dog or cat. For a German Shepherd that I take care of, I cook green beans and rice, which is good for sensitive stomachs. I may also cook a little sweet potato in that.” Generally, he says, vegetables can be 20 to 40 percent of the pet’s diet, and meat should include a mixture of muscle meat, skin, fat and organ meat.

The quantity and timing of meals can play just as big a role in overall health as the type of food, Pernikoff notes. He suggests keeping the following in mind:

• Many people over-feed their pets. Work with your vet to keep weight under control, and make sure the pet has a discernible waist-line.

• Determine feeding frequency based on your pet’s needs and life-stage. Puppies might need to be fed three times per day, while adult dogs can often eat twice a day. Pets with food sensitivity might eat four or five times a day to help them absorb the nutrients.

• Dogs don’t chew like people do. Smaller breeds should be fed food with smaller kibble pieces, while bigger breeds can eat larger bites.

• If you change the diet, do it gradually over one to two weeks to avoid digestive troubles.

• Don’t buy in bulk. If food is kept sitting around for months on end, the vitamins and nutrients can start to dissipate.

Working with your veterinarian and even finding a pet nutritionist can help pet owners determine their pet’s ideal diet, Flotron suggests. “I have friends and family members who have dogs that have reached 18 or 19 years old, and a lot of it is attributed to the diet, along with having annual checkups and working closely with veterinarians, animal nutritionists and behaviorists,” he says. “Nutrition is so crucial to the pet’s health and well-being.”

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