Retailers that know how to read the ingredient labels of small pet foods are in a better position to choose which products to stock, and guide customers in buying for their pets.
The old adage “you are what you eat” means more than ever these days—and it doesn’t apply to humans alone. Pet food manufacturers are offering a broader range of small animal diets, from basic to premium. They are also adding a wider variety of ingredients to boost the health benefits of superior products.
The use of an increasing number of ingredients in premium formulas is a growing trend in small animal diets. Why? Science has proven that eating foods from a wider variety of sources creates a healthier diet, since each type of food contributes different nutrients and possible health advantages. While scientists are able to chemically analyze each individual food source to determine the amounts of protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals it contains, there are many other components in foods that we have yet to fully understand. Many plants contain compounds collectively called phytochemicals that can have varying effects on the body. Scientists have identified thousands of phytochemicals, although only a small fraction have been studied closely. A food that incorporates a wide variety of ingredients may also provide a wider range of beneficial effects.
The ongoing trend toward more natural diets is also helping to drive the progress toward a larger number of ingredients in premium formulas. In the wild, most animals eat a much larger variety of foods than the typical domesticated animal. An herbivore, such as a rabbit or guinea pig, grazing in a meadow, can probably choose from between 75 to 250 different species of plants, depending on the habitat. Omnivores can choose between many different types of food in their environment, including a variety of plants, nuts, seeds, insects, fungi, and, in some cases, even other vertebrates.
These days, pet owners are savvier about the benefits offered by a nutritionally dense diet. This increased awareness means that food labels are more important than ever, as more and more customers have learned to read and scrutinize ingredient lists. Retailers, too, will have to be as discerning and knowledgeable as possible.
Ingredients on a food’s label are listed in order of predominance. The ingredient present in the greatest amount is listed first, followed by the rest of the ingredients in descending order. In a complete, fortified diet, the majority of the ingredients at the end of the list will be various vitamin and mineral supplements.
When counting the number of different ingredients in a diet, look for whole food ingredients. For example, on the label of one brand of low-protein food blocks made for lab rats, the first six items listed are wheat middlings, ground wheat, ground corn, corn gluten meal, calcium carbonate and soybean oil, followed by 26 added supplements. Calcium carbonate is also a calcium supplement. So, this diet contains only five main ingredients, or, if you want to count each food source as one ingredient, it includes wheat, corn and soybean oil—only three ingredients. This is a very basic simple food that offers little variety. Ironically, my rats love this food.
Scroll down or click HERE to see four of the most popular small animal diets on the market.
While a higher number of ingredients does not always indicate a higher quality, it does provide a guideline. A key characteristic of most premium foods is that they contain more ingredients than basic diets. For instance, one brand’s basic adult rabbit formula contains five ingredients; while the same brand’s premium formula features 13 ingredients. In another brand of rat food, the basic formula has 12 ingredients, while the premium formula contains more than 16.
Premium diets also commonly include ingredients not found in less expensive food, and they often contain unique compounds that will hopefully boost health. For instance, a premium brand of adult guinea pig food includes dried rosemary and thyme, herbs that are known to contain powerful antioxidants and other compounds that can help fight inflammation and bacterial and fungal infections. A premium brand of mouse and rat food contains flaxseeds, which have been shown in studies on mice to reduce the chance of cancer. Such ingredients cost more money, which is why premium foods are more expensive, and why they are the ideal choice for customers who want only the best food for their pets.
It is also important to note that rat owners, in particular, should be on the lookout for one extensively studied ingredient—soybean protein. Research shows that female rats that are fed a higher level of soybean protein have less chance of developing mammary tumors. Considering that, on average, half of all female rats get a mammary tumor, this is an important finding. Although most mammary tumors in rats are benign and easily removed surgically, the increased cost of veterinary care makes surgery prohibitively expensive for most rat owners, with quotes ranging from $150 to $1,500. It makes a lot of sense to try to prevent the tumors by feeding a diet high in soybean protein. There is even a study that suggests that feeding such a diet to female rats even helps to protect their daughters against mammary tumors. It’s clear that the ingredients in a pet’s diet can have a large impact on their health.
A summary of the research of the influence of dietary soybean protein on mammary tumors in rats can be found in the “Rat Info” section of ratfanclub.org.
Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She is the author of the book Rats!, the booklet Rat Health Care and, her most recent book, The Complete Guide to Rat Training: Tricks and Games for Rat Fun and Fitness.
Supreme Petfoods (supremepetfoods.com) recently launched its Selective brand of small animal diets in the U.S. market. Selective offers a monocomponent kibble that is extruded, not pelleted. The crunchy Selective kibble features a 25-percent fiber level and is palatable without the addition of sugary binder. Its high-fiber recipe is suited to the herbivorous digestive system, and its longer fiber content is beneficial for digestive wellbeing.
Carnivore Plus, from Marshall Pet Products (marshallpet.com), delivers a nutritional wallop to ferrets with fresh ingredients. The premium diet is a grain-free, pelleted food that allows for an immediate breakdown in a ferret’s digestive system. Each pellet contains 40-percent protein and is created with a low-heat, slow-cook process, preserving vitamins and amino acids. The formula also contains added vitamins, minerals and amino acids to provide increased immune support, while omegas-3 and -6 fatty acids promote supple skin and a shiny, lustrous coat.
Oxbow Animal Health (oxbowanimalhealth.com) recently added the Natural Science line to its offerings of small animal diets. Natural Science foods are made with novel ingredients, like whole yellow peas, tomato pomace, rosemary and thyme. They are available in adult rabbit and adult guinea pig formulas. The company’s flagship line of fortified small animal foods, Essentials, is species-specific. An organic offering, BeneTerra, is also available for rabbits and guinea pigs. Oxbow’s diets are free of fillers, artificial preservatives and colors.