By The Farmer's Dog | April 18, 2020

“Complete and balanced” are two very important words to veterinarians, pet food makers, pet owners, and, ultimately, pets.

In 2020, The Farmer’s Dog announced the first results of our long-term, ongoing feeding study. Our tests exceeded industry standards in several important ways, and the results show that our food is nutritionally complete and balanced, bioavailable, and that dogs thrive while eating it.

The current standards and the AAFCO feeding trial

Pet owners may be familiar with AAFCO, or the Association of American Feed Control Officials, from seeing it on their pet food’s label. It’s a private, voluntary-membership organization in North America that deals with animal-feed rules, including those for pet food. The organization itself has no regulatory authority, but it does set standards for the nutritional adequacy of pet food.

According to the FDA, for a pet food to make the claim of “complete and balanced,” it must meet one of three standards:

Nutrient profiles: The food must meet one of the nutrient profiles established by AAFCO for a given life stage.

AAFCO’s nutrient profiles list acceptable levels of protein, fat and nutrient content of pet foods. Foods can be considered “complete and balanced” if they contain nutrient levels within those parameters. But the source or quality of nutrients, and whether they are bioavailable to your dog, are not stipulated by AAFCO. As far as demonstrating that its food is up to standard, per AAFCO rules, a pet food company simply needs to have a notarized affidavit that SAYS the product meets the nutrient levels, and keep a copy of that document.

AAFCO feeding trial: The AAFCO feeding trial, until now considered the gold standard in nutritional verification, works as follows:

At least eight dogs, each at least one year of age, are tested; only six need to complete the trial.

The dog food being tested must keep six out of the eight apparently healthy dogs alive for six months. Dogs must not lose more than 15% of their initial body weight, and the average of four certain blood values must fall within acceptable levels. The test fails if dogs show signs of nutritional deficiency or toxicity. The blood values tested are: Hemoglobin, packed cell volume, serum alkaline phosphatase, and serum albumin.

Most pet food companies use tests conducted in a lab environment, using confined, purpose-bred dogs (typically a single breed, and usually beagles).

The “family clause” There’s a third way that a pet food product can earn the AAFCO complete and balanced designation—something called the “family rule.” Via this loophole, pet foods that have NOT completed a feeding trial but that are nutritionally similar to those in the same product family that have passed a trial can also meet the standard.

The shortcomings of current testing methodology

Many vets and canine nutrition experts acknowledge that the standard AAFCO trial has significant limitations as a true measure of the long-term safety and nutritional quality of a dog’s diet.

The tests are applied to a small number of dogs of a single breed, and conducted in a closed laboratory kennel setting. Most significantly, the testing time frame is likely too narrow to show, meaningfully, whether the food meets the requirements to sustain good long-term health. Nutritional deficiencies and other health indicators can take longer to develop than a six-month study period. According to Dr. Joe Wakshlag, DVM, PhD, DACVIM (Nutrition), (the nutritionist who formulates The Farmer’s Dog food), the guidelines that govern AAFCO trials “may be insufficient to detect inadequate mineral or vitamin intake because it can take longer than the study period to deplete reserves and/or to cause measurable changes based on the limited testing done in an AAFCO feeding trial.”

Creating a better test

The Farmer’s Dog fresh food was formulated by board-certified nutritionists to be 100% complete and balanced according to AAFCO standards.

The Farmer’s Dog fresh food was formulated by our board-certified animal nutritionist and Board-Certified Veterinary Nutritionist® to be 100% complete and balanced according to AAFCO standards. We meet those standards using human-grade ingredients. That difference, and the quality of our nutrition, have always been manifest in the health of our customers’ dogs, and the willingness of veterinary professionals to recommend our food.

We wanted to ensure our food was complete and balanced, with bioavailable nutrients, in a more rigorous and ethical manner than what is typically recommended for standard feeding trials. So we designed and conducted our own multi-year feeding study which surpassed existing standards in terms of the number and variety of dogs tested, the blood values tested, and the duration of the study.

How it worked

The 10 dogs who participated in our feeding study represented a mix of ages, sizes, and breeds, from purebred dogs including Australian shepherds, Rottweilers, and French bulldogs, to mixed-breed dogs.

The multi-year feeding study ran from March 2014 to March 2020 during which time the participating dogs were fed The Farmer’s Dog. The dogs in our study participated for a minimum of one year, and up to a full six years.

Tests were conducted using a rotation of four of our recipes, which are all nearly identical in macronutrient breakdown and use the same vitamin premix. The dogs in the study were, and are, pets; they lived normal lives, at home with their families.

In addition to testing the four blood values used in AAFCO trials, we completed a full blood panel for all participating dogs that measured 49 blood values. Each dog also received a full medical examination by Dr. Lisa Lippman, DVM, that showed they were all healthy.

Why our test is a better measure of nutritional quality

The duration of our test shows, more realistically, the long-term impact of our food. Feeding the same thing to a dog over one, two, or six years is a better indicator of its impact on health than feeding that food for six months.

The at-home study also took into account real, daily life for a dog. While eating The Farmer’s Dog food exclusively as their daily diet, the dogs also went about their normal lives, getting occasional treats and doing the other things dogs do. “We didn’t compare them to dogs living in sterile contract research laboratory kennels; that is not the real life that dogs are exposed to while living with us in a home environment,” says The Farmer’s Dog co-founder, Brett Podolsky.

The results

The complete blood work panels and physical examinations indicated that all participating dogs remained healthy through the entire testing period. These findings support that The Farmer’s Dog foods met all participating dogs’ nutritional requirements and provided nutrients that were bioavailable.

During the study, dog owners observed decreases in stool volume and defecation events per day. Both of these observations indicate a diet that has a high digestibility. To validate this hypothesis, two additional studies were conducted at third-party laboratories that confirmed The Farmer’s Dog fresh, human-grade and pre-prepared recipes are clinically proven to be highly digestible.

“We wanted to definitively prove that our food was complete, balanced, and bioavailable,” says Podolsky. “You can demonstrate that your food is complete and balanced by having it tested in a lab, but that test doesn’t reflect the bioavailability of the food tested. We proved through lab testing that the food is complete and balanced, and we proved through blood testing that the food is also bioavailable. So the dogs are getting all the nutrients they need, and that dog owners and vets expect, from the food.”

Learn more about our fresh food recipes and why they’re a great option for the health of your dog here. If you’re a veterinary professional and want to learn more, visit our vet portal.