How to pick a healthy pet food product

Mealtime is one of the high points of 18-month old lab-pit mix Gertie's day.

"She gets really excited," says her owner Clement Perkins. "And she knows because she can hear the Velcro bag opening."

Most pets aren't picky. What we scoop out they eat it. Gertie is on a mid-priced special digestive diet.

But, with hundreds of choices, and more expensive pet foods advertised as "premium," or "holistic," Perkins says it's easy to feel bad about not buying a higher-end pet food.

"But in the same way, you know, I can't always go shop at Whole Foods," Perkins says. "I can't always buy my dog vegan, organic, grain-free dog food."

While pet owners want to do the right thing, University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine's Dr. Sherry Sanderson, who specializes in animal nutrition, says pet food can get pricey.

"Some pet foods are more expensive because what they're putting into it is more expensive," Sanderson says. "There is also a lot of research behind certain products."

But, a lot of what we're paying for, Sanderson says, is marketing. Many pet foods come in shiny bags with buzzwords like "holistic," "grain-free" or "all-natural."

"One thing that's really popular now is to slam things like by-products, or corn, and without an understanding of what those things are," Sanderson says.

She says there is no scientific research she has seen that shows ingredients like grains are bad for pets, or organic pet foods help them live longer.

So instead of focusing on 1 or 2 ingredients, she recommends, thinking about the bigger nutritional picture.

Chose a complete, well-balanced food from a company you trust. You want one designed for your pet's species, age, size and overall health condition.

"I would rather see a pet owner buy a popular brand of food that is less expensive and then use the money they save to, say, buy heartworm medication, or things like that," Dr. Sanderson says. "So, I never guilt pet owners into thinking they're bad pet owners if they're not paying a lot of money for their pet food."

The American Association of Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO, recommends pet owners check the nutritional adequacy statement on the packaging, which indicates a pet food product, contains all the nutrients required by law and that those ingredients are present in the correct ration. You'll find the statement in fine print, usually on the bottom or side of the product packaging.