by Susan Wynn, DVM, AltVetMed
The High Points
- Commercial pet foods are convenient,
but not best for every dog or cat
- In all cases where nutritional
disease is diagnosed in pets eating commercial diets, it was because
the animal received just one brand long term
- Commercial diets should be rotated
- Fresh food, especially lean meat and
veggies, can provide nutrition pets can't get from commercial
- Homemade diets are great if you
follow recipes carefully, give all recommended supplements and give
your pet a lot of variety
- Fresh foods can be supplied as PART
of the diet, along with commercial foods for a safe and complete
Introduction - What are they putting in my dog's bowl?
How many times in recent years have you
changed your diet to reflect new discoveries in preventive health care?
Are you trying to avoid fat, sugar and preservatives like doctors say?
Most people recognize that proper diet can help us lead longer,
healthier lives; why should it be different for our pets?
There is no doubt that the pet food
industry has revolutionized care and feeding of our companion animals.
In the old days, balanced diets were a hit-or-miss situation, and diet
related disease was very common. With the widespread availability of
balanced commercial diets, nutritional diseases have become a thing of
the past. Or have they? Have we traded the common, serious nutritional
disease of old for less obvious, nutrition-sensitive conditions?
Let me tell you a couple of horror
stories about pet foods to suggest to you what your dog or cat may be
eating. The meat products contained in some commercial pet foods are
nothing like what we consider "good eating." Meat sources for
pet foods are not usually of the same quality used for human
consumption. The manufacturers denature this meat to make it safe for
animal consumption (are you hungry yet?). Other ingredients such as
grain products may be clean, but the quality is not what we would
eat—soy grits, corn gluten, and wheat middlings, for instance, are not
seen in human food labels nearly as often as on pet food labels.
1985 scientific paper examined pentobarbital levels (an anesthetic agent
used in euthanasia solutions) in pet food derived from dogs and cats
that had been euthanized at shelters. This practice was still relatively
common in the year 2000! A dog or cat on one of the very cheapest diets
may be eating pet food that contains the remains of other pet dogs and
cats, and the pentobarbital levels may be significant.1
Slaughterhouse animals rejected for human use due to high antibiotic
levels also make their way into pet foods. The American Journal of
Cardiology has warned that children allergic to penicillin could die
from accidentally eating pet food!2
The moral to this horror story is this:
some pet food manufacturers have determined (supported by scientists,
nutritionists and government representatives) that meat rejected for
humans is fine for cats and dogs. Considering the things that some pets
eat, given the choice (yuck!), this may be true. However, many owners
prefer to feed human-grade meat. Some veterinarians even feel that this
is more appropriate for animals with health problems. If you prefer
human grade meat, you must find a company which uses it!
Ingredients matter - So Reading the label matters
Take a look at how our pets' diets are
usually chosen—the food that is the cheapest, and one that the dog or
cat eats most readily, is the one we go back to most often. If children
were fed similarly, they would be eating junk food every day (children
and pets love sugar, salt, and addictive artificial flavors). How would
their health stand up to this treatment?
Let's consider cost and taste, and how
they influence what goes in your pet's body. Pet foods must "meet
or exceed the minimum nutritional requirement levels established by the
National Research Institute for all stages of Life." This is the
only guideline set in stone for pet food manufacturers.
A story came out years ago from one of
the premium food companies that points out how little that rule matters.
A veterinarian apparently was able to make just such a diet out of a
pair of old work shoes, crankcase oil, water, and sawdust. A diet that
contains minimum levels of protein, fat, fiber, and carbohydrates may
allow a pet to survive, but most of us want our dog or cat to be in
optimum health. Ingredients matter!
Cheap ingredients clearly make a cheap
diet. What are the cheap ingredients? If you see lots of soybean
products, corn gluten meal and wheat, not only are they cheap, they are
fairly indigestible as well. Most of the diet goes out the other end.
Ingredients such as chicken, poultry, beef, lamb, and their by-products,
on the other hand, are more expensive and more digestible. Not only are
they better for the pet, but s/he will need to eat less of this
So, how do you choose a pet food?
Ideally, you would become a label reader. The information on labels is
enough for an additional article, but I can make some sweeping
generalizations, keeping in mind that generalizations are not 100%
Generally, more expensive diets contain
better quality ingredients. Generally, premium diets are the best.
Generally, it is difficult to find a great pet food in grocery stores.
Ask pet professionals (breeders, veterinarians, groomers, trainers, etc)
what their animals are fed. Their pets have to look and perform their
best, and you will find that the overwhelming majority are feeding some
sort of premium diet.
Look for a variety of quality meat
sources, and as many meats as possible in the first three ingredients
listed on the label. Organic ingredients are a plus. The quality (and
healthiness) of most foods can be gauged by their relative
expense—cheap foods usually don't produce healthy animals, whereas
dogs and cats eating more expensive foods can usually be identified by
their shiny coats and good general health. Generic and private label
brands will often cause more health problems and dollars spent on
veterinary problems than the money saved on food purchases.
As an exercise, below are ingredient
labels from two different commercially available diets. See if you can
figure out the recommended diet!
Ground yellow corn, soybean meal,
meat and bone meal, animal fat (preserved with BHA), Corn gluten meal,
ground wheat, brewers rice, brewers dried yeast, salt, dicalcium
phosphate, calcium carbonate, L-lysine, choline chloride, dried whey,
wheat germ meal, zinc oxide, ferrous sulfate, vitamin supplements (A,
D-3, E, B12), manganese sulfate, niacin, calcium pantothenate,
riboflavin supplement, biotin, garlic oil, pyridoxine hydrochloride,
copper sulfate, thiamine mononitrate, folic acid, menadione sodium
bisulfite complex (source of Vitamin K activity), calcium iodate,
Turkey, chicken, chicken meal, whole
ground barley, whole ground brown rice, whole steamed potatoes, ground
white rice, chicken fat (preserved with natural vitamin E and Vitamin
C), herring meal, whole raw apples, whole steamed carrots, cottage
cheese, sunflower oil, alfalfa sprouts, whole eggs, whole clove
garlic, vitamin C (calcium ascorbate), Vitamin E supplement,
probiotics (freeze dried streptococcus faecium fermentation product,
freeze dried lactobacillus acidophilus fermentation product, freeze
dried lactobacillus casei fermentation product, freeze dried
lactobacillus planturum fermentation product), Vitamin A supplement,
Vitamin D3 supplement, niacin, calcium pantothenate, manganous oxide,
Vitamin B1 (thiamine mononitrate), Vitamin B2 (riboflavin), Vitamin
B12, Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), Vitamin K (menadione
sodium bisulfite), folic acid, cobalt carbonate, sodium selenite,
Rotating your cats diet
Unless a veterinarian has recommended a
hypoallergenic diet for your cat, it is best to vary the diet. Years
ago, cats died from heart failure caused by a taurine deficiency—and
the cats whose owners were dedicated to feeding one particular premium
food had the worst problems. It was felt that rotating the diet might
have helped prevent this problem. More recently, some veterinarians
specializing in feline medicine have stated that inflammatory bowel
syndromes may develop, in part, because of food sensitivities caused by
feeding one diet for over a year or two at a time.
Making the switch
How do you know if your pet's diet is a
problem, or which of the "good" diets is best for him or her?
Look at the coat, skin, weight and what goes on inside. Dandruff
(seborrhea), itchiness, "doggy smell," etc, can usually be
corrected with a diet change alone (the same goes for cats). Skin
problems are not just skin problems—the skin should be viewed as a
window to hidden physiologic processes and their health. We often see
epileptic dogs reduce their seizure frequency on natural and
hypoallergenic diets. In cats, inflammatory bowel syndromes and asthma
may respond to changes in diet. Certainly, obese animals need
adjustments, but don't do anything drastic without talking to your
veterinarian—an abrupt change could cause major problems, especially
If you switched your pet's diet from a
commercial brand with lots of sugar, salt, artificial flavors, etc, to a
"health food," s/he will probably react the same way a child
would to having sweets and sodas removed in favor of salads and bran
muffins. Don't be alarmed if s/he doesn't like the new food at
first—gradual changes and persistence will see you through.
A word about vegetarian diets for our
carnivorous pets. Most people who eat vegetarian diets have ethical
concerns about eating animals, in addition to wishing a more natural way
of Life. It is simply not fair to impose human ethical concerns on
animals for whom evolution has created a gastrointestinal tract and
physiologic processes that require meat. We have already experienced
widespread tragedy over the taurine issue in cat foods (commercial diets
caused heart failure in many pet cats simply because nutritional science
was not aware of the taurine requirements, an amino acid contained in
animal protein). What other secrets exist in the natural diet that we
cannot recreate artificially?
What about 'people food'?
Finally, many veterinarians have
recommended that we NEVER feed fresh food (or table scraps) to our pets.
That position needs to be re-evaluated now. The field of nutrition is
constantly evolving, with new discoveries published weekly. It is pure
folly to assume that anyone, even companies with billions of dollars
invested in research, can create a perfect diet for every animal—most
diets are designed to provide optimal nutrition for the average animal.
Some veterinarians now recommend supplementing the diet with meat and
vegetables, for carnivores. This practice may provide the pet with
"phytochemicals" and other vital nutrients that have yet to be
discovered by nutritional science. The National Cancer Institute has
promoted their "Five a Day" program to encourage people to eat
five servings of fruits and vegetables a day—this is because studies
examining individual nutrients such as Vitamin A or E simply haven't
prevented cancer as well as real fruits and vegetables in the diet3—and
we don't know what is in real foods that works so well!. A recent paper
examining risk factors for "bloat" in large breed dogs
indicates that fresh food reduces the incidence of this dread problem.4
Even 100% home-prepared diets are
getting a more serious look by veterinarians and others—these can be
very good for your pet IF they are properly balanced, and it is always
recommended that you follow published recipes if your pet eats all home
prepared food. It is a simple thing to start by adding fresh food to the
normal diet, providing a variety of meats and vegetables, especially if
your animal eats primarily dry diets. These changes may be rough on some
pets, and if yours has a history of gastrointestinal sensitivity,
diabetes, obesity, pancreatitis, or other problems that may be
exacerbated by certain foods, consult with a veterinarian before making
Just remember: if the entire diet is
home-cooked, follow the recipes in books on this subject!
Educate yourself on comparative pet
food shopping. Try out some on your pets (for at least a month or two
per food), and see if it doesn't make a difference. I won't recommend
one food to everyone, but your pet is an individual and his/her
condition will tell you which diet is best. There are probably breed
differences, as well as individual differences, which will determine the
right diet for your pet. Start adding some meats and vegetables to the
usual diet. And yes, it will usually cost you more. I think you will
agree, after a time, that it's worth it.
1. O'Connor JJ, Stowe CM and Robinson
RR, 1985. Fate of Sodium pentobarbital in rendered products. Am J Vet
2. Markus CK, Chow LH, Wycoff DM and
McManus BM, 1989. Pet food-derived penicillin residue as a potential
cause of hypersensitivity myocarditis and sudden death. Am J Cardiol,
3. Smith SA and Campbell DR, 1995. The
University of Minnesota Cancer Prevention Research Unit Vegetable and
Fruit Classification Scheme. Cancer Causes and Control, 6:292-302.
4. Glickman LT, et al, 1997.
Multiple risk factors for the gastric dilatation-volvulus syndrome in
dogs: a practitioner/owner case-control study. JAAHA, 33:197.
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