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What Are Pet Food Feeding Trials and Why Are They Important?

Howard Calvert

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Howard Calvert
Howard Calvert

Howard Calvert

Content Writer

Aside from Dog Food Advisor, Howard has written for a range of newspapers, magazines, and websites on topics including how to pole vault, what it’s like to leap around a giant human pinball machine, and the experience of running 100 miles round Mont Blanc.

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Updated: May 17, 2024

How do you know the food you are giving to your dog is safe? And what does ‘complete and balanced diet’ actually mean when you see it on packaging?

By reading Dog Food Advisor, subscribing to our emails, checking our impartial dog food reviews, and keeping up to date on dog food recalls, you’re already covering the most important bases in terms of ensuring that the food you give your dog is safe and nutritious.

But when it comes to a nutritionally balanced diet, do you know what dog feeding trials or studies are, and why they’re important in terms of the food you provide your furry companion?

We spoke to Dr. Bradley Quest, DVM, Principal of Veterinary Services at BSM Partners about feeding studies they have performed for 5-star-rated A Pup Above, and to get the lowdown on dog feeding trials and studies in general.

What is a dog feeding trial?

One of the ways for a company to be able to claim that its food is ‘complete and balanced’, ‘scientifically proven’, ‘100% complete nutrition’, or similar, it must have completed an American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) approved feeding trial.

AAFCO sets nutritional standards that are required to be met by pet food manufacturers for a ‘complete and balanced diet’. These include standards such as nutrient guidelines and ingredient labeling.

“These AAFCO guidelines ensure that pet food manufacturers formulate nutritionally balanced pet food, so that what you feed your dog meets all of their nutrient requirements,” says Dr. Quest.

The guidelines are tested during a 26-week feeding trial, where a group of dogs are given the meal exclusively during that time to monitor various health parameters and how well they do on the study diet.

Once the food passes the feeding study, it can be labeled as ‘complete and balanced’ and you, as a concerned pet parent, can rest easy knowing that the formulation you’re feeding your pup has undergone a feeding study to ensure it meets the nutritional and safety guidelines set forth by AAFCO.

How does a feeding trial work?

AAFCO has determined certain parameters must be met when conducting a dog-feeding trial:

●     Trials must use at least eight healthy dogs from a ‘validated colony’.

●     They must be fed and housed in a controlled environment alongside a control group of the same size and breed.

●     Dogs should be weighed every week during the trial, and no dog may lose more than 15% of its body weight during the trial. The average weight loss of the entire group cannot be more than 10%.

●     The diet must comprise the group’s only food source for 26 weeks.

●     The dogs are assessed by a vet at the beginning and end of the trial.

●     A maximum of two dogs can be removed during the trial for non-nutritional reasons.

●     Blood tests that will be monitored measure hemoglobin, hematocrit, alkaline phosphate, and albumin, alongside assessing the dogs’ body weight, body condition score, blood scores, and daily intake compared to the control group.

“Not all feeding studies are the same though,” says Dr. Quest. “For example, feeding trials we have conducted for A Pup Above were done as in-home feeding studies instead of a closed laboratory kennel setting. Additionally, the A Pup Above feeding trials included many additional health parameters than what’s included in more conventional feeding trials. 

“Some of these parameters include very comprehensive bloodwork to evaluate both red and white blood cell parameters, and serum blood tests that evaluate internal organ function such as liver, kidneys, pancreas and thyroid.

“At BSM Partners we also do extensive body condition scoring, stool quality scoring, as well as digestibility measurements in our in-home pet food studies.  For pet food companies who want to monitor dogs’ cardiac health as well as measure levels of amino acids in the plasma BSM Partners offers those health parameters too in our in-home feeding studies. 

“Prior to the start of any feeding study, we also perform complete laboratory AAFCO nutrient profiles to ensure the diets are correctly formulated and manufactured.  This ensures that the pet food is not just estimated to meet, but does meet, all AAFCO nutrient requirements.”

Why take these extra steps?

“At A Pup Above, we wanted to ensure our food was complete and balanced and readily bioavailable in an ethical and humane manner for the dogs. As a result, it was important for us to conduct these studies in the safety and comfort of the homes of the dogs,” says A Pup Above CEO, Ruth Marriott. 

Limits of dog food feeding studies

Some critics of standard dog food feeding studies claim that not enough health parameter testing may be covered, and a number of important health measures can be missed. They argue that the standard AAFCO feeding study is not robust enough to determine if the diet being fed is really ‘complete and balanced’.

“Many pet food manufacturers go above and beyond what’s required by AAFCO and include extra bloodwork measurements, digestibility measurements, more comprehensive veterinary exams as well as complete nutritional analysis to ensure that their food is nutritionally balanced and safe for dogs to consume,” says Dr. Quest. 

“In fact, at BSM Partners we conduct what we consider to be one of the most comprehensive feeding study protocols in the pet food industry. It is also important to note that feeding studies are not required to market pet food, so companies that do comprehensive feeding studies really do have their customers’ pets in their best interests”.

Companies may ensure their food is formulated and/or reviewed by veterinary nutritionists to check that they meet the guidelines for complete and balanced nutrition and make that clear on their website and packaging.

Critics say another limitation of feeding studies is that they only last 26 weeks, meaning the true long-term effects of the food aren’t examined, and dietary deficiencies may be missed.  However, companies that also do complete laboratory AAFCO nutrient profiles on all their diets will help to ensure a marketed pet food meets those guidelines.

It’s important to remember that feeding studies are not a requirement to market pet food.  Whether a feeding trial is done is completely up to the pet food manufacturer.  Pet food manufacturers that do feeding studies help ensure that their diets have been fed for an extended period of time.

Ultimately, dog food feeding studies are designed to help ensure your dog’s nutritional needs are met by pet food manufacturers.

“If a pet food label says that the company has gone above and beyond what the AAFCO minimum requirements are by actually doing feeding studies with their diets, a pet parent can be confident they truly have your dog’s best needs in mind,” says Dr. Quest.

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