Monday, March 13, 2006

Some say top-shelf pet food pays for itself

While retailers sell kibble in various classes, veterinarians say high-quality food is better for pet's health in long run
By Blanca Torres
Mike Long-Moreland compares his four cats to his children.
"They're spoiled, they're all spoiled," he said of the cats, two of which he keeps at home and two at work at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill.
Like most pet owners, Long-Moreland wants to keep his cats healthy and happy -- before he feeds them anything new, he clears it with their vet.
"They eat like queens," Long-Moreland said. He likes to alternate between Friskees and Iams dry food he buys at Costco.
At $23.99 for 20 pounds, Iams costs more than double what a 25-pound bag of Friskees costs.
"They love the flavor -- it stinks up to high heaven," he said. "If it stinks, they like it."
Many owners feed their pets the typical dry kibble or wet food from cans. Veterinarians recommend feeding pets high-quality food -- even if it's more expensive, because it could lower medical bills later.
Millions of Americans spend hundreds of dollars each year to feed to their pets. The Pet Food Institute, an advocacy group based in Washington, estimates that in 2005 American households included 60 million pet dogs and 75 million pet cats.
Options abound for those shopping for the right kind of food to fit their budget and pet's needs. Animal product stores like Petco and PetsMart have several aisles full of pet food choices including dry or wet food, different flavors such as chicken, lamb or duck, organic varieties and formulas for particular age groups.
Retailers categorize varieties as grocery or generic, premium and prescription. Grocery and generic includes brands like Pedigree or others found at grocery stores or discount stores like Target and Wal-Mart. Premium refers to higher-priced brands that have better quality ingredients like Eukanuba, Royal Canin and Science Diet. Prescription varieties are specially formulated for health conditions such as heart disease, kidney failure or sensitive stomachs.
Ross Cowen, manager of PetsMart in Concord, said grocery brands tend to have more "filler" ingredients such as grains or meat by-products. Although those varieties are not harmful for pets, he recommends premium brands.
"I think it has to do a lot with the education we provide our pet parents," Cowen said. "The more we educate them, the more they go with premium."
Dogs and cats should eat high-protein diets because they are mostly carnivores, said Daryl Wolf, a veterinarian at the Amador Valley Veterinary Hospital in Pleasanton. Dogs can handle some grains or vegetables, he said.
Wolf recommends that pet owners buy "premium" varieties of food such as Eukanuba ($36.19 for 40 pounds or $1.25 per can) or Science Diet ($34.99 for 35 pounds or 69 cents per can).
"The idea is that they are higher quality ingredients and they are better nutritionally and easier to digest," Wolf said. Some of the cheaper brands, especially those sold at supermarkets, tend to include a lot of grains, which can irritate pets' stomachs and cause digestion problems, he said.
"A pet will get more nutrients out of more premium food," Cowen said. "It can be more cost effective because pets will eat less."
Another recommendation: Keep a pet's diet consistent.
"Sometimes people will want to play musical bags (with) dog foods and change the flavor because they think dogs get bored," Wolf said. "Dogs don't get bored and they don't watch the Food Channel."
Some advocate "raw" meals of meat and vegetables.
One manufacturer, Natura Pet Products Inc. of Santa Clara, sells a raw-diet alternative called "Innova Evo." The line of food, marketed with the slogan, "What to feed when you can't feed raw," costs $44.99 per 28.6-pound bag at City Dogs in Pleasant Hill.
"A lot of customers also swear by the fact that the better quality food you use early on in life, they save money later on vet bills," said David Ewell, an employee at Pet Vet Pet Food in Oakland.
The pets who are fed "cheaper foods ... tend to develop health problems later in life," he said.
Pet Vet Pet Food, which also has a location in El Cerrito, is owned by semi-retired veterinarians who carry prescription pet foods in their stores.
For example, Enid Schlictman of Orinda feeds her two cats prescription food because one of her cats had problems with hairballs and indigestion.
David Blanchard of Bay Point feeds his dog, Shilo, a mix of Eukanuba dry food and Pedigree can food. He said he goes through one 20-pound bag ($26.99) of food per month and four cans per week ($1.25 per can).
"I wouldn't mind if it were cheaper," he said, "but it's not too expensive."
Still, despite all the effort and money that pet owners will put into their food selections, some animals will eat whatever catches their fancy.
Blanchard said Shilo will eat just about anything she finds in the yard or during her walks, including bees and horse poop.
"She likes to eat grass," he said. "I don't really know why."

Pet food basics
• On the low end: Pedigree Adult Dog Food at Costco Wholesale in Concord, $16.99 for 52 pounds. Friskees Adult Cat Food at Costco, $10.99 for 25 pounds.
• On the high end: Royal Canin Energy 4800 dog food, $49.99 for 40 pounds at Petco in Walnut Creek. Prescription food for dogs with kidney problems at Pet Vet Pet Food in Oakland, $59.99 for a 40-pound bag. Prescription food for cats with food allergies at Pet Vet Pet Food in Oakland, $39.99 for 10 pounds.
• Experts say: A high-protein, low-carb diet is optimal. Cheaper brands often include more grains.

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