With thousands of pet food and supplement choices available today, concerned pet owners have a daunting task before them. Is the “perfect diet” for their pet out there, and whose advice do they follow when there is so much dissent even among experts? As our pets develop specific ailments or simply age and slow down, how do we choose fact from fad and make a choice with confidence?
While practicing small animal medicine with a holistic approach for over 15 years, I have also seen less-than-optimal homemade as well as commercial “natural” diets fed to pets by well-meaning owners. Unless feeding varied whole prey, raw diets are far from perfectly balanced. Along with commercial diets, none is appropriate for all pets at all times in their life span. Proper nutrition leading to optimal health can be better achieved by realizing that as pets grow and age, they will require different diet choices throughout their lives.
With all the different diet choices available today, how does a concerned pet owner learn to identify misleading safety claims and sort facts from fads?
Let’s take a look:
If it looks and smells good and my pet likes it, it has to be good for them.
Since processed food can look like the real thing, the usual senses of sight and smell are not reliable. Dye and starch are easily turned into what appears to be bite-sized veggies and cooked meats. Taste enhancers, like salt, vinegar, celery, hickory, caramel coloring, and synthetic flavorings, entice pets to devour foods regardless of their nutritional merit.
If the label claims to utilize natural wholesome ingredients, then this diet is free of synthetics and processing.
Unless feeding fresh, raw, whole prey, all pet diets, including frozen or dehydrated meats, are processed in some way. Processing subjects foods to unnaturally high and low temperatures and pressures that result in fatty acid oxidation, cholesterol oxidation production (COPS), chelation of vitamins and minerals resulting in diminished nutritional value, and the creation of toxins. Such alterations, therefore, require food manufacturers to supplement their products with essential fatty and amino acids, vitamins, minerals, probiotics, antioxidants, and enzymes otherwise lost during processing. These additives, while synthetic in nature, are necessary in order to salvage the nutritional value of the diet. Beware of diets that bypass this replenishment in order to claim their diet to be 100% natural. Ignoring this loss of vitamin and other nutrients without replenishing them results in a less-than-complete diet.
Minimally processed whole foods are best!
We all intuitively know that natural, fresh food is safer and more likely to be beneficial than processed or synthetic ones. However, cost and convenience are also important factors to consider when choosing what is most appropriate for pets and their families:
Kibble is better than sticky canned food when dental health is involved.
Dental health care for pets and humans is very similar. Genetics, diet, and cleaning habits are all factors. If a kibble contains sugars, caramel, or acidic preservatives and is moistened by saliva, chances are good that it will affect dental health negatively, just as cookies would affect a human being. Canned food with wholesome high fiber vegetables containing protein and fat are less likely to cause a problem. It is important to remember that it is the food ingredients, not the textures, which play a big role in maintaining dental health.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials’ (AAFCO) statement that a food is 100% complete and balanced for adult maintenance or for growth and reproduction is enough accreditation to trust that it will keep my pet in optimal health for the long term.
Unfortunately, AAFCO accreditation only guarantees that all essential nutrients are minimally present in the diet, regardless of their source or quality. Diets that do not meet minimal AAFCO standards for survival of a pet are still legal and are simply labeled “for intermittent or supplemental feeding.” Many low-calorie diets intended for overweight or senior dogs may fall in this category. This means that some diets labeled as such lack enough essential nutrients to guarantee survival, much less an optimal state of health.
The Bottom Line
Most of us have the knowledge and/or intuition to not exclusively feed our children processed, fortified food from a bag, can, or fast food company, even if the label claims nutritional balance. Astonishingly, few are comfortable to apply such common sense to pet feeding practices. The truth is that processed, canned, and then bagged kibble were first introduced for convenience, not for nutritional reasons.
When all is said and done, the only true measure of good nutrition is how your pet does with a particular diet over the long term. Pets benefit most when owners in search of a healthy diet combine research with regular veterinarian check-ups that include blood work, dental health maintenance, and weight management programs. Such a regimen will provide pet owners with the insight and guidance needed to discern how a particular diet is working for the moment. Even though animals (and human beings) can survive on bread and water for years, most pet owners agree that mere survival is not the goal when choosing a diet—we want what is best for our furry companions.