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What Am I Supposed to Feed My Pet??

Food-150x150For pet owners, new and old alike, deciding what to feed your pet can be a challenge. There are almost as many different brands and types of available options today as there are breeds of dogs and cats. Raw diets and home-prepared diets have been gaining popularity among pet owners. While the vast majority of pets are still fed commercially prepared diets real and perceived concerns about them have given rise to new trends. At first glance it might seem that home-prepared food is the best way to insure that your “best friend” is protected from any perceived pitfalls of commercial brand diets, however it is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. A cursory review of what is available on the internet concerning pet diets reveals a lot of misinformation, unsubstantiated claims and a daunting quantity of options. These options are backed by passionate pleas from their proponents, but very few, if any, are backed by science. Designing a diet that is balanced in proteins, fats and vitamins & minerals is not something done without careful planning, research, and consultation with your veterinarian. For instance, feeding just animal muscle would lead to severe nutritional deficiencies in both dogs and cats. In fact, even feeding whole prey could lead to a nutritionally deficient diet. In a study in which kittens were fed whole ground rabbit exclusively all kittens developed Taurine deficiency. A 2005 study found that 70% of home prepared diets were deficient and/or unbalanced.

The basic requirement of any diet is for it to meet the needs of your pet based on species and age. The National Academies’ National Research Council (NRC) sets minimum requirements for nutritional content. Based on this and current published research the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officers) has set standards for the quality and safety of foods. All major pet food producers use these standards and this should be clearly stated on the label. True Nutritional deficiencies such as Taurine in cat diets or inappropriately balanced large breed puppy diets were problematic years ago, but not anymore. If your pet is on a commercial diet, maintaining a healthy weight, active energy level, and its coat is healthy and shiny, nutritional deficiencies are extremely unlikely.

In recent years the growing concern of pet food safety has lead many pet owners to question the safety and quality of many common brands of prepared foods on the market; the most important one being the case of Melamine contamination and subsequent large scale recalls of 2007. This problem lead to the death of many pets and prompted some pet owner to start to question the safety of the ingredients being used in pet foods.

As a result two trends emerged: a renewed interest in home-prepared diets and an increase in the number of high end pet food producers claiming that the mainstream pet foods were laden with inappropriate ingredients. A recurring theme with these producers is that foods should be comprised of high quality ingredients sourced from the United States, and processed in human grade USDA, FDA and AAFCO approved facilities. This is a beneficial development but generally comes at a cost premium for consumers. The idea that “artificial” preservatives are harmful to pets has no basis in science. However, the deleterious effect of molds and other spoilage organisms on pet food is well established. It is clear that pet food as fed by most owners (purchasing large bags and feeding over a few weeks) will require preservatives to prevent spoilage. If the idea of artificial preservatives is unacceptable, there are many brands that offer foods without preservatives or made with natural preservatives. The later generally comes at a premium cost and the former will require treatment and handling as a perishable product.

Another concern that has arisen is the idea of whether or not a diet is species appropriate. The thesis behind a lot of the species appropriate or biologically appropriate (BARF) diets is that cats and dogs should be fed like their ancestral wild cousins. The idea is that the perfect diet should mimic a whole prey as closely as possible. With the dog being clearly recognized as an omnivore, it is not likely that a purely carnivorous diet would be beneficial. This idea is more appropriate when applied to the domestic cat which is a pure carnivore. Many commercial cat foods, especially the dry formulations, contain a carbohydrate to protein ration that is not ideal. Many proponents of the biologically appropriate diet idea will take it a step further and recommend that all foods should be fed raw. This idea is not based in science and has only anecdotal support (better coat, fewer allergies, less obesity, less IBD, better teeth, etc). The argument that is commonly made is that the proteins and enzymes in raw food are not altered or denatured. However the effect of stomach acids on these enzymes is precisely to denature and begin the breakdown of food for digestion. This all happens before any absorption can occurred, so at the level of absorption, there should not be a significant difference between the same protein if it is cooked or raw. It is unlikely that there would be a benefit to feeding a raw diet compared to a high quality cooked one. It is suspected that a lot of the perceived benefit of raw diets is actually a function of the high quality ingredients and a protein to carbohydrate ration that is species appropriate rather than a function of the cooking/processing. A large number of commercially available pet food brands are now offering foods in similar high quality protein and/or novel protein alternatives with very little to no grain in a safe, cooked product.

Diets which are high in carbohydrates (most dry foods) have a glycemic index and often a calorie content that predisposes cats to diabetes and obesity. Diabetes in cats is believed to be due to chronic exposure to excess carbohydrates and can be reversible (no longer require insulin therapy) with a switch to a high protein, low carbohydrate diet (preferably canned). Obesity is a pervasive problem in this species and is ultimately linked to excess calories being fed. Cats fed a high protein, low carbohydrate canned food are less likely to become obese. There is also considerable evidence that cats fed exclusively canned food rarely develop urinary tract stones, idiopathic cystitis or urinary blockage; this is a function of moisture content in the food and its effect on the concentration of the urine.

On the other hand the case for diets that are exclusively animal based with very low carbohydrate levels is more difficult to make in dogs. Obesity is also pervasive in dogs. Most of the ultra-premium, low carbohydrates, exclusively animal protein diets tend to be high in calories and very palatable and conducive to weight gain. Dogs can be kept at a good weight on these high calorie diets, but that involves feeding smaller amounts and often results in poor satiation (begging, counter surfing, garbage diving, etc.) Many dogs do require a certain amount of fiber in their diet and will develop diarrhea while on these ultra-premium, low carbohydrate diets. Dogs requiring weight loss generally do better on high fiber diets (inevitably grain/vegetable heavy) because they are less calorie dense and offer a better sensation of satiety per amount of calories fed. Diabetes in dogs is almost never reversible, but diet does play a role in the management of canine diabetics where high fiber diets (along with general calorie reduction when appropriate) make diabetic control easier. In summary, although most dogs thrive on the trendy high animal protein low carbohydrate diet, the mainstream diets that have both animal and vegetable sources of ingredients should still be considered appropriate; the later may be less likely to result in obesity.

All of the proposed benefits of feeding a raw diet are anecdotal with the possible exception of dental health. The dental benefits are more likely due to the feeding of large bones or bone fragments. Although chewing bones does help maintain periodontal health, the risk of Intestinal obstruction or perforation and dental fractures outweighs the benefits. The other risks of feeding raw are real and supported by peer review. One representative study found that 14% of dogs fed a raw diet shed Salmonella in their feces whereas none of the control dogs fed a regular commercial diet did; reports such as this one abound in peer reviewed scientific literature. Other organisms commonly reported to be shed by pets fed a raw diet include Campylobacter and pathogenic E. coli. Because of this data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strongly cautions against the use of raw diets for pets. The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) has issued several statements regarding the prevention of harmful pathogens in pets. According to the AVMA animals being fed a raw diet within the last 90 days should be excluded from the health care facilities because of the risk of transmission of zoonotic pathogens. Based on research and the statements from professional and public health organization it is strongly recommended that households with people who are very young, elderly, or immune-compromise should not be feeding raw diets to their pets. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has a 2004 release on their web site called “FDA Issues Final Guidance on Raw Meat for Animals.” This list details strict guidelines for the handling of raw products. Furthermore, The FDA has issued other literature in regards to the manufacturing and labeling of raw pet foods including the following statement: “The FDA does not believe raw meat foods are consistent with the goal of protecting the public from significant health risks, particularly when such products are brought into the home and/or used to feed domestic pets”. If you do choose to feed a raw diet it is highly recommended that strict food handling and hygiene procedures be followed to try and prevent exposure to pathogens.

At Aztec Animal Clinic, our primary goal is to help you keep your pet healthy and if you feel that the best option for you to do that is to feed a raw or home cooked diet we want to help you find the best resources to do that. We feel that your success or failure is based on the time commitment you make to educating yourself on how to do it in safe manner. Following is a list of resources including books, web sites, and food sources that we feel provide a good starting place. It is strongly recommended that anyone considering home-prepared diets consult a veterinary nutritionist or use Dr. Patricia Schenk’s recipe book.

Books and Websites

  • www.petdiets.com is a website run by Dr. Rebecca Remillard (veterinary nutritionist). Generic recipes are available for around $50 and tailor-made formulas cost around $250
  • www.balanceit.com is run by a group of veterinary nutritionists and tailor-made recipes are around $250
  • Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets by Dr. Patricia Schenck (originally published by Dr. Donald Strombeck) is in its second edition and is a good resource. It uses commonly available supplements available at GNC health stores.

Aztec Animal Clinic does not recommend feeding raw food to your pet. If you do decide to feed raw, the following companies acknowledge the potential for food-borne illness and they take measures to try to minimize the risk: