We all want to protect our pets by giving them a nutritious, well-balanced diet that will help them thrive.

But even with our best intentions, it's difficult to know what is the best food to feed our animals. Can we believe everything we read on a bag of pet food? And even if it's true, what does it all mean in terms of the health of our pets?

"You would need two degrees to be able to read and understand a pet food label," said veterinarian/dermatologist and allergist Alice Jeromin.

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Many pet owners do online research and study nutrition and ingredient labels for many years. Personally, I have relied on the mantra of not feeding my dogs any food I can buy in a grocery store. Instead, I buy it online or at a pet store or a feed and grain store.

Also, I do not feed my pets anything that comes from China - remember the melamine scare from years ago, and more recently, the chicken treat recall? And, while we are at it, stay away from wheat, corn and soy.

As an allergist, Jeromin specializes in discovering the reasons dogs and cats scratch themselves raw, cough and wheeze, have skin problems, stomach issues or recurrent ear infections. Sometimes, it is due to what they eat.

Generally, if a problem is due to a food allergy, it is caused by the meat protein in your pet's food, Jeromin said. So you can't blame all your animal's allergy issues on wheat, soy and corn found in many pet foods.

The bigger issue is some foods contain large proteins that are difficult for animals to break down when they are ingested, particularly beef and chicken. In an over-the-counter sample of four brands of dog food labeled "venison," all the test product contained beef and/or chicken, Jeromin said.

Jeromin has a few tips for helping you find a food to serve your canine and feline companions.

"Avoid generic pet food." It has been shown to cause a zinc deficiency and produced poor growth rates in puppies, she said.

Do your research, Jeromin advises.

"Make sure the pet food company employs a veterinary nutritionist on their staff," she said.

And make sure all the manufacturing is done in one plant. "If you are producing everything from one plant you have better control of the product," she said, "a lot of these pet food companies don't even have quality control."

Jeromin's advice is the same for cat and dog owners.

"Also interesting is that fish is not a commonly eaten protein in cats - cats were originally derived from desert areas, no fish there - but because it's cheap, it was and is used in most cat foods. With cats, higher protein and high fat is actually best for them," she said.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials is the only official body that governs pet food. It's a voluntary nonprofit organization of local, state and federal agencies charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feed and drug remedies.

Stick with brands that have the AAFC seal of approval on the package or can, Jeromin said. "If it's not human-grade food, it can't say it on the package," she said.

Pet food manufacturer Honest Kitchen, headquartered in San Diego, claims it produces the only pet food in the U.S. with a statement of "no objection" from the Federal Drug Administration to use the "Human-grade" on its packaging.

Honest Kitchen pet food, made from whole food ingredients sourced from the human food chain, comes to the purchaser in a dehydrated form. The company requires all ingredients come from providers with a signed pledge that they are free of genetically modified organisms, do not originate from China, have not been irradiated and have been screened in accordance with human food standards, among other things.

As proof, the company advertises its employees are "taste testers," who, along with their dogs, ensure the products' aroma and color as well as taste.

Jeromin cited pet food manufacturers Purina, Iams and Hills as producers of products that contain nutritionally sound ingredients.

Raw feeding, a method that has become popular within the last decade, is another alternative. Pets are fed a diet primarily of uncooked meat, edible bones, and organs.

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