With so many types of food available for our furry friends, it's hard to know what to choose. We turned to the pros for answers to some important nutrition questions.

What should I look for on a pet-food label?

Though it may sound simple, “complete and balanced” is an official term used by pet-food companies to signify the food has been formulated to provide for your pet’s full nutritional needs, and you should see that wording on the bag. There should also be a statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO, a voluntary membership association of agencies that, among other things, sets minimum and maximum requirements for the nutrients in pet food, indicating the nutritional adequacy and purpose of the food).

Next, look for your pet’s life stage: growth versus adult maintenance.

“There are several nutrients that differ by need for growth compared with adult maintenance, namely, protein, calcium, phosphorus, and fat,” says Valerie Parker, DVM, board-certified veterinary nutritionist and associate professor at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Also check for lifestyle and activity. “Not every dog is going to be going on walks or hiking—some are couch potatoes. Same for cats: Some are outdoor/indoor cats; some are indoor. So it really depends on their activity, just like humans,” says Stephanie Clark, PhD, CVT, product development scientist at BSM Partners. A more calorie-dense diet is going to be better for more active pets, whereas your lounge lover may need a lighter, more calorie-controlled diet.

Both Clark and Dr. Parker warn that the ingredient list can be tricky to interpret. Ingredients like meat by-products (i.e., organ meat) may not sound appealing to humans but are fine for your dog. Even for beneficial additions, there is no way of knowing how much of those ingredients are actually included in the formula. “Some provide functional benefits, but because we don’t know what the percentage is in the diet, we don’t know if it’s at a therapeutic dosage. Blueberries are great antioxidants, but if they’re not adding in a ton of blueberries, you’re not going to see those benefits,” says Clark.

What are prescription diets, and why would my pet need one?

Prescription diets—also known as veterinary therapeutic diets—are designed with functional ingredients to aid in treating various diseases. “They’re all formulated with different nutritional goals and different modified nutrients based on the specific disease. There’s a whole host of diets designed for dogs and cats with kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and certain liver diseases,” says Dr. Parker. This food needs to be prescribed because it’s not always appropriate for healthy animals. “These diets don’t necessarily follow AAFCO guidelines, but because they’re under the watchful eye of your veterinarian, it’s OK,” says Clark. The prescription can be short-term, long-term, or for the duration of your pet’s life.

My pet is overweight. What can I do?

First, assess your pet’s diet. “If an animal is overweight, take a hard look at how many calories it’s getting and from what sources; your pet should get no more than 10 percent of its daily calories from treats or people food. Make sure your dog or cat is getting a food that’s high in protein and under 300 calories per cup,” says Dr. Parker.

Next, focus on exercise. Nutrition only goes so far, so it’s important to also get your pet moving. Make an effort to take your dog on an extra walk per day or engage your cat inside the house more frequently. “Play with a feather on a string, or a hunting game with toys; do something that is going to be mind-stimulating but also gets your cat moving,” says Clark.

Is wet or dry food better? Or what about “fresh” food?

Wet and dry food are both fine for your pet. “It’s good to introduce both canned and dry foods at a young age since that’s when they form their preferences, but for a majority of a pet’s life, it’s ultimately the owner’s preference,” says Dr. Parker. Wet food, while generally more expensive than dry, can be beneficial for pets with low appetites or bad dental health, or those who need more hydration (like cats, who typically have low thirst drive, or dogs with kidney issues). Kibble is more economical and thought to remove dental plaque.

Fresh food—premade meals that contain few to no preservatives (so they require refrigeration)—can be equally nutritious but comes with a heftier price tag. Dr. Parker recommends checking to see if the brand partners with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to ensure the fresh diet provides all the essential nutrients. Clark warns against raw premade food, which has not been scientifically shown to be beneficial and may expose both you and your pet to harmful bacteria.

Can my pet be a vegetarian?

Tentatively, yes. Vegetarian diets typically require supplementation to cover all of the essential nutrients—like amino acids and, for cats, taurine and L-carnitine—but they can be considered “complete and balanced” if those needs are met. Plus, vegetarian diets are sometimes recommended for dogs with certain diseases, like urate stones, says Dr. Parker. One thing to note: These diets should be used for adult maintenance only; kittens and puppies need specific nutrients for growth that can’t be found in a vegetarian diet.

Isn’t my pet bored eating the same food?

“If a dog or a cat is eating a good-quality, complete, and balanced diet, and she’s an otherwise healthy animal, she can be on the same food for nearly her whole life,” says Dr. Parker. “People need to eat a variety of foods to ensure they’re getting all the nutrients they need, but your dog or cat doesn’t need different flavors or different foods.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter