Every so often, somebody will ask me what I feed my dogs. I guess they figure since I write a pet column, I'm an expert on what dog food to buy.
Well, I'm certainly no expert, but I've learned a few things along the way that I always share with people -- friends, family and heck, even strangers in the pet food aisle -- and may be helpful for you, too.
There are so many pet foods on the market today, it can make your head spin trying to decide what to buy.
The first thing I suggest is to check with your pet's vet. He or she will know if there are any deficiencies your pet has that need to be addressed.
A dog with dry skin may benefit from a salmon formula, for instance, or a cat with allergies may need to stay away from wheat.
The vet is also the best adviser on whether to feed wet or dry, the benefits of each, and food for the different stages of life. A lot of pet food now has glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health in older pets. So I would check with the vet to see if an older pet really needs a pricey supplement or if the "senior" pet food will be just as helpful.
And the vet is certainly your best source if you have an "exotic" pet such as a ferret or iguana.
After the vet conversation, you will have a little bit better idea about what you want to get. Then it will be time to hit the store and start reading labels.
When people ask what I feed my own dogs, I gladly tell them about dry foods I've found that have worked well for my pups. But I never endorse or promote one kind of dog food over another and always tell them: Read the labels.
Dogs (and cats, too) need protein, and that should be the first ingredient. Two sources of good protein in the top five ingredients -- such as lamb and lamb meal -- is also a good thing.
Lots of pet foods are loaded with fillers such as corn, which is not very digestible, and while most pet foods need a certain amount of filler to help hold the food together, some fillers are better than others.
I stay away from corn and wheat and opt for rice (preferably brown) or barley. I also look for fatty acids to help promote healthy skin. And I look for antioxidants to help maintain a healthy immune system.
Complicating matters is the whole made-in-China subject.
I've heard people say they feed their pets only homemade food -- chicken and rice and the like -- but that's not practical for a lot of people and it may not be as nutritious as you think.
And I've heard some people say they buy only food made in the United States, and while that's not a bad thing, it's still no guarantee that the manufacturer is not using imported ingredients.
(After all, it was imported wheat gluten that was blamed for the tainted pet food -- a lot of it made in the U.S. -- that sickened and killed pets in 2007.)
So what's a pet owner to do?
Unless you have the time and the money to make nutritionally sound homemade food, you are left with no choice but to buy commercial pet food.
And so I've come to the conclusion that we have to hope the pet-food companies have learned their lessons during past pet-food crises and are much more rigorous in their ingredients testing.
One good thing that came out of the tainted-food scares in recent years are websites that keep pet owners informed about recalls, and others that rate pet food taking an unbiased, scientific look at the list of ingredients.
And that's always the last piece of advice I give people: Do your research.
Your pet is counting on you to make an informed choice.
M.K. Means, Herald copy editor, can be reached at 941-745-7054 or on Twitter @Bradentonpets.