We hope you enjoy this very informative article by veterinarian Dr. Kathy Boehme on choosing the right food for your pet. It was originally posted on the blog of The Drake Center for Veterinary Care, one of FACE’s valued veterinary partners. You can check out the original HERE.
Deciding what to feed your pet is important, but can be a very confusing decision. There are a plethora of diets and even more opinions on what you should and should not feed your pet. Feeding options have become complicated by a mixture of science, hype, human diet fads, marketing and convenience. There are literally thousands of different pet foods with new ones every week. There is a lot of good information available but there is also a lot we do not know about nutrition. Just look at how the recommendations for humans have changed over the years and there is lots of research being done on human nutrition.
There are some very good pet nutrition companies who do provide information backed with feeding trials on both standard pet nutrition and more specific medical diets. These feeding trials with both normal and ill animals have provided us with immense amounts of information which has been lifesaving with many dogs and cats. These companies deserve credit for doing the research needed to further our understanding of pet nutrition.
We are asked this question frequently, and there is rarely just one diet option. This can be disappointing, but there is no way to know the “best” diet for a particular pet. The only way to know is to break down the health concerns, see what we know about nutritional requirements with these concerns and then feed the diet and monitor what happens. Dogs and cats are individuals and what the same food does in different bodies varies highly, as many people already know. You may go through 10 diets before you find “the diet”.
If your pet is healthy and can seemingly handle any diet, then it may even be a good idea to rotate diets and see which diet seems the best for your pet. Generally, keeping your pet on a diet for 8 weeks should be an appropriate amount of time to determine if your pet does well on a particular diet. If you find a few diets that your pet likes and does well on, it is fine to rotate the diets. If your pet has a sensitive stomach, and develops diarrhea or soft stool easily, pick one manufacturer and protein type. Be consistent, unless your vet suggests otherwise.
What You Should Consider for Healthy Pets:
- There is very little standardization in the pet food industry. For example, one company’s senior diet can have completely different nutrient amounts than another senior diet. In order to know what the company has changed in order to call it “senior”, you have to ask. A senior diet basically means nothing. Some companies have great websites that explain their diets and some do not. Forget about the ones that do not. In this day and age there is no reason to have a website with pretty pictures and no information. Know what is in the diet you are feeding and why it’s in there.
- The caloric density is highly variable between diets. One diet might have 300 calories per cup and another 500 calories. Diets that are high in protein and lower in carbohydrates are usually higher in calories as well because they tend to be higher in fat. This is very important depending on what the weight goals are for your pet. Know how many calories your pet is eating so it can be adjusted depending on their weight. This information should be readily available on the website.
- Pets are genetically different from one another. Pet foods are formulated for generic norms but individual micro and macro nutrients are variable between foods. Nutrient level requirements for one healthy individual can be very different from another healthy individual. This is why it can be helpful to vary the diet over time, hoping to make up for these differences. It is not enough to change flavors within the same company. Change manufacturers. Also, some manufacturers make several brands. Know the parent company so you can change to a different one as you vary the diet. For instance, Diamond, Taste of the Wild, Canidae, Chicken Soup for the Pet Lovers Soul, some Solid Gold varieties and Kirkland brands are all from the parent company Diamond Pet Foods, Inc. There are only 5-6 major parent companies for the majority of the foods at the pet store. There are some private labels as well. It is very interesting to me to learn who is making the food on the shelves. See graphic below to learn more about who owns what:
- Nutritional knowledge is constantly changing. It is important that a pet food company stay current. They should have a veterinary nutritionist on staff working with them to formulate their diets and change them as knowledge and understanding change. Ideally they should perform diet trials so that they know what the food does in actual bodies. Any health claims the company makes should be substantiated by feeding trials. The diet should have AAFCO certification at a minimum. AAFCO is currently the only national standard for commercially prepared pet food. It is far from perfect but it’s all we have.
- Pet food companies aren’t perfect and bad things happen including contamination and recalls. Think the melamine adulteration in 2007 which involved many companies. If you want to know how frequently a company has had their food recalled you can find it with a simple Google search. This doesn’t make a company good or bad but if there is a trend of increasing recalls be wary. There are plenty of foods available with few or no recalls. Is there clear contact information on the box/ bag so you can call someone if you have a problem or question about the food?
- There are now many non-kibble options in addition to canned food and these appeal to many people. These manufacturers should be held to the same standard as the others including having the ingredients, nutrient profiles, calories and contact info readily available. I also avoid very young companies without a proven track record. This does not mean I would not use them in the future though if they consistently turn out a quality product.
- Other strategies appeal to some people like local or domestic sourcing, organic ingredients, fresh ingredients, etc. If you have a particular interest, there is likely a diet available, just do your homework. Keep in mind that many terms on the label have no actual definition like natural, holistic, ancestral, wild, etc. Diets that use this type labeling might be great diets but it’s not going to be the label that tells you that. The label is simply marketing. Other marketing verbiage with little to no meaning include celebrity endorsements, veterinarian recommended and Top Breeder recommended. It takes one veterinarian or one breeder to make this claim. I love celebrities as much as the next person but they are not nutrition experts and they have a stake in the sale of the product they are endorsing.
- Does the company support veterinary nutrition research? This is probably beyond the resources of smaller companies but not the larger ones. Do they help add knowledge to nutritional health through ethical research?
- If you have a healthy pet, I would stick to “normal” ingredients like beef, chicken, fish and save the novel protein ingredients like rabbit, duck, and bison in case they need a novel diet later in life.
- Home cooking a diet is a viable option if you like to cook and probably good for your pet. Make sure you trust the recipe you are using. A balanced diet can be formulated from a veterinary nutritionist. Here are a couple resources: balanceit.com, petdiets.com.
If you want a kibbled diet but like to add “a little something fresh” consider antioxidant and phytonutrient rich cooked or finely chopped raw vegetables. Fruit is ok if your pet is not overweight. The rule of thumb is ¼ cup of veggies per 10 pounds of body weight. Work up to this amount and start with only one new veggie a week. Avoid grapes, raisins and the onion family.
A few of my personal favorites for healthy pets (in no particular order):
As for pets with health concerns…well that’s a whole other story and a good discussion for a veterinarian that knows your pet.
We are excited to announce that we will now be offering a new service here at The Drake Center! For those who are confused about what to feed their pet we have designed a nutritional consultation. Let integrative medicine expert, Dr. Kathy Boehme, guide you in providing the best possible diet for your pet- based on factors including breed, age, weight, and more.
Here’s to happy, healthy eating!