Nutrition is a hot topic. Whether for humans or our pets, there are an overwhelming amount of opinions, regimes, and information on how best to feed ourselves and our pets. Everything from macronutrient exclusion diets (e.g. grain-free, low carb) to vegetarian to homemade are available and it is possible to find people vouching for or against each one. So what makes an appropriate pet diet? In this article we’ll explore the main components to look for and how every pet’s specific needs can vary so that you can choose the diet that fits them best.
Know your dictionary!
Raw? By-product? Complete? Life-stage?
There are a LOT of terms in the pet nutrition industry that can be misleading and/or just plain hard to understand! Unfortunately, many of these words can be used to promote products or create connotations that aren’t necessarily true. For example “by-product” can often be mistaken to mean the throwaways or “bad” parts of the animal with low nutritional value, whether it be chicken, beef, pork etc. In Canada however, all morsels labeled as by-products are actually still considered safe for human consumption but simply aren’t the choice cuts that sell well in human grocery stores. On the other hand, raw can mean a wide variety of things and isn’t a regulated term, meaning anyone can use it for their product. For example, it could mean a completely uncooked diet that includes raw vegetables and fruits, or it could be used for a diet that consists solely of raw meat. The main problem with a meat-only diet is that it doesn’t contain all the nutrients and vitamins a dog or cat requires, especially if it also excludes the bones, skin, organs etc. With raw diets of course there’s also the risk for bacterial contamination, so these diets are never recommended for households with children, the elderly or immune-compromised persons.
Pet food label claims to look for include “complete” and “for all life stages”, which typically indicate that the diet doesn’t require additional supplementation with vitamins or minerals, and is adequate for dogs or cats in all stages of their lives except neonatal or lactating. Keep in mind that complete for all life stage diets are appropriate for the majority of pets but speaking with your veterinarian is always recommended to ensure it fits your pet’s needs.
What about natural?
While the concept of a natural diet sounds appealing, it’s unfortunately a claim that any company making any diet can make, so holds very little real value to the word. The other thing to keep in mind is that “natural” food, that say a wolf would consume (ie. a full carcass in it’s entirety) is very different from what our modern day canines require. Over years of domestication, dogs have biologically evolved to become more omnivorous- that is able to digest and use meat but also vegetables and fruits. Their digestive systems aren’t made to handle the eating patterns of wolves and their increased longevity over wild canids is in part due to this adaptation. While it is nice to think of our dogs enjoying a strictly meat diet like a wolf, it simply doesn’t contain all the nutrients they require to live long and healthy lives.
Which diets are most recommended and why?
As veterinary professionals we tend to lean towards diets that are backed by significant and appropriate research. With so few enforced regulations in the pet food industry it is very easy for companies to make claims that may not be true. Therefore your vet is most likely to recommend a food that is backed by an “AAFCO” statement (Association of American Food Control Officials) to guarantee that the product is not only safe, but that the rest of it’s claims are true. Companies that obtain these statements for all their products include Royal Canin, Hills, Rayne and Purina, making them the top 4 veterinary recommended pet foods. These brands also work closely with veterinary scientists in their labs to make sure that each diet formulated contains the necessary components for the target consumers. For example, cats require the amino acid “Taurine” in their diets while dogs do not. Without adequate taurine cats can suffer from a serious and potentially fatal condition known as ‘Dilated Cardiomyopathy’, whereas canine cases of this disease have now been associated with grain-free diets. Veterinary diets also take great care in monitoring the caloric density of their feeds and the breakdown of calories from fat vs protein vs carbohydrate. All these values help your veterinarian to choose a diet that is most appropriate for your pet. The best part about veterinary diets is that they have a 100% palatability guarantee meaning that if you purchase a bag or case and your pet won’t eat it you can get your money back and the company will be notified so they can keep track of which feeds may require updates to make them more appealing to pets.
What about special needs?
Another reason veterinarians like having veterinary diets is the versatility they provide. Whether you have a cat with renal disease, a growing large breed puppy, an aging senior with arthritic joints or anything in between there is a veterinary diet that can suit those needs; all while maintaining the security of being safe and containing all necessary components to prevent any nutrient deficiencies. This makes using diets for therapeutic or preventative purposes much easier than trying to modify a homemade diet to be more kidney friendly for example.
Take Home Message
Picking a diet for your pet can be overwhelming and it’s not always easy to find the “best choice”. With the proper information however, and a knowledge of your pet’s specific needs you can work with your veterinarian to find one that suits you and your pet! Don’t hesitate to speak with our veterinarians about feeding your pet today!
Written by Dr. Emily Zakrajsek