It's been said that along with genetics and environment, nutrition plays a crucial role in the overall health of your pets. But, whether it's due to excessive marketing or simply confusion, most pet owners don't give much thought to that bag of pet food they purchase from the grocery store or pet store. Are there ways to find better food for our four-legged friends?

Our pets depend on us to keep them properly fed and in the best health. But for most pet owners, the overabundance of different types of pet foods, as well as the enormous number of brand names, is often overwhelming. Then, Internet chat rooms and forums are simply full of a wide variety of opinions on what is the "best" pet food. How can the average pet owner make the best decision when it comes to feeding their pets?

Your family veterinarian has training and knowledge related to your pet's diet. When it comes to choosing a diet for your pet, the first thing to think about is the life stage. Is it a young, growing puppy or kitten, or is it a mature adult trying to maintain body size?

In other words, puppies and kittens have different nutritional requirements than adult dogs and cats or even senior pets. So, a food that is adequate for all life stages may actually have too much of certain nutrients for some geriatric pets. One way to determine if your pet's food is meant for all life stages is to look for the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement on the bag. If the nutritional adequacy statement reads "complete and balanced nutrition for all life stages," then pet owners know that the food has enough nutrition for pregnancy, lactation, growth and maintenance. If the label states "complete and balanced for adult maintenance," this food is appropriate for adult pets only and not young, growing animals.

Another important thing to look for is whether or not the food has undergone feeding trials. Again, the AAFCO statement is helpful. Foods that have been fed to animals prior to marketing to consumers will have a statement similar to "AAFCO animal feeding trials substantiate ... " or "Feeding trials show ..." This is a good sign that the company has invested in the due diligence to make sure pets willingly accept the diet and stay healthy on it. Foods can also be created to meet specific guidelines. If the bag of food simply states that "Brand X is formulated to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles," then the food was not fed in any regulated manner to animals prior to its delivery to store shelves. Although this does not mean that the food is poor quality or even bad, most pet owners would prefer that their pets are eating a food that has proven to do well for other animals.

Finally, the reputation of the company making the food is an important consideration for pet owners. Does the manufacturer use a veterinary nutritionist to help develop and maintain the diets or is the food one that just has a celebrity endorsement? Does the company engage in beneficial nutritional research or do they simply follow the most recent dietary fad?

Although the Internet is full of opinions and folklore about pet foods, the best source of nutrition information will come from your veterinarian. Many veterinarians attend continuing education lectures to keep up to date with the latest advances in animal nutrition. In addition, your veterinarian understands your pet's unique needs and any specific concerns you might have about pet foods.

Dr. Darren Woodson has practiced veterinary medicine in the Farmington area for more than 28 years and has a passion for educating pet owners. If you have a question you would like him to address, email dwoodson@valleyvetpet.com. Please understand Dr. Woodson will choose the questions that are most relevant to our readers.