Most holistic vets agree that raw, fresh foods are best, but if hunting fresh game isn’t on your to-do list, you can cart home the next best thing. Good commercial food does exist, but you have to know what to look for. Ingredients that sound like good sources of meat may actually come from parts from 4D animals-dead, diseased, dying, or disabled.
And while most pet food labels carry reassuring advertising messages touting complete and balanced nutrition, they may still contain cheap grains and slaughterhouse rejects, says William Falconer, DVM, a certified veterinary homeopath in Austin, Texas.
To provide an optimum diet, you first need to understand who you’re really feeding, he says. “With dog breeding, all we did was take the wolf and modify the genes to alter appearance, so the little teacup poodle, the German shepherd, and the Great Dane are all really wolves inside, digestively speaking.” Similarly, the house cat has a bit of bobcat inside.
Raw meats most closely match a predator’s natural diet, but feeding a raw-meat diet to house pets isn’t always practical. Instead, health food stores and dog bakeries offer a range of healthy alternatives made from fresh chicken, beef, and lamb and organic fruits and vegetables. These foods cost more by volume, but your pet may thrive on smaller quantities.
High-priced kibble doesn’t always signify high quality, however. “Science Diet is a good example of an expensive junk food,” says Falconer, who describes the product as nutritionally lifeless and toxic to pets.
Adult large breed Science Diet kibble for dogs lists corn as its first ingredient, followed by chicken by-product meal, soybean meal, and animal fat, with chicken cartilage (the only identifiable chicken part) listed farther down after iodized salt. But still, it’s prominently displayed in many veterinary clinics.
“The manufacturer donates the product to veterinary schools,” he says, “so guess which food veterinarians learn about first?”
So who sets the standards?
Unfortunately, the $15 billion pet food industry is only loosely regulated, and foods do not need FDA approval before coming to market. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) provides standards, but according to Jean Hofve, DVM, a holistic veterinarian in Jamestown, Colorado,
“Some of the standards used for our pets are extrapolated from rats and pigs, and we don’t really know if those species have the same requirements as dogs and cats. In fact, in most cases they probably do not.”
Commercial farmers have a financial interest in growing pigs fast to get to market, explains Hofve, and rats generate quickly, making them convenient lab animals. But our health and longevity goals for companion animals are quite different.
Here’s a good rule of thumb for selecting a high-quality chow: Check the ingredients list for foods that sound like ones you would eat yourself. Look for named meats like chicken, beef, or lamb or the same foods ground into meals (not the generic “meat meal”).
Whole chicken, for example, goes through less processing and retains more of the original nutrients and taste than chicken meal.
“The higher up chicken is listed, the more fresh chicken and the more nutrients from that fresh chicken are in the product,” says Edward Moser, a veterinary nutritionist for Old Mother Hubbard, makers of Wellness pet foods.
Chicken meal, on the other hand, has been rendered (cooked down) to remove moisture and fat, so it provides a concentrated source of protein. In fact, it may provide more protein than chicken even when listed second, since whole chicken is weighed with its moisture intact. Similar healthy dog kibble choices include the popular Taste of the Wild.
Cover all bases by looking for a combination of chicken and chicken meal (or another named meat and named meat meal). After specific meats and meals, other wholesome ingredients include brown rice, flaxseed meal, fruits, and vegetables.
“By-products, by-product meal, and meat and bone meal are probably the most egregious ingredients,” says Hofve. “By-products is a catchall term of the pet food industry and is a misnomer, because they usually contain little if any meat,” says Falconer. Although by-products could include nutritious parts like liver and heart, if those parts are not specified, they’re probably not in the bag.
Used as one of the top few ingredients, even whole grains such as corn make for an imbalanced formula. “When you read the label on a bag of cat food and the first ingredient is ground yellow corn, it should make you stop and think,” says Hofve.
Even some premium pet foods list corn or corn-gluten meal among the top ingredients, but these foods do little other than keep costs down. They do help to form the kibble, and corn-gluten meal is a cheap source of protein, but too much can contribute to health problems, especially in cats.
“Dogs can survive on a whole lot of different things, but cats are strict carnivores, and they should be eating meat,” Hofve explains. Cats also get easily dehydrated on dry food and do better with at least 50 percent wet food.
Chemical preservatives like ethoxyquin, propylene glycol, BHA, and BHT are known carcinogens, but they have made their way into many a bag of pet food over the years. Most manufacturers recently switched to natural preservatives in response to consumer demand. Artificial colors, flavors, and added sweeteners can aggravate food sensitivities and conditions like diabetes.
Foods sold specifically for overweight cats and dogs usually contain large amounts of corn and other starches, which rank high on the glycemic index. Falconer speculates this may contribute to the unprecedented rise in diabetes in cats, along with skin and coat problems in both dogs and cats.
Instead, to help your pet lose weight, pick a high-quality food and simply resist overfeeding. Feeding 25 percent less can increase your dog’s life span by two years, according to a lifetime study on Labrador retrievers published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Older pets can also do without senior formulas that replace high-calorie fats with grains. “Interestingly the very young and the very old dog are similar,” says Moser. “They both need very adequate and digestible levels of protein and fat.”
Choose the best commercial food you can buy and change the menu gradually and often to provide a variety of nutrient sources. And consider including real foods from your kitchen. Some call it people food, but a piece of turkey off your table beats any food from a bag.
The Raw Story
Eating raw is natural for predators, but is it safe for pets? Despite cost and inconvenience, more people are beginning to go raw, following recipes from books like Dr. Pitcairn’s Natural Health for Dogs & Cats by Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, and the classic Give Your Dog a Bone by Ian Billinghurst.
Most veterinarians have a beef with raw pet diets because of the risk of bacteria. Raw proponents quibble that kibble can be tainted too. In fact, several brands were recalled last year due to contamination.
As a compromise, some organic dog food companies offer freeze dried raw, with minimal processing thought to lessen the possibility of contamination. Proper handling is still recommended to prevent problems.
Two freeze dried “raw” products to try are made by Primal Pet Foods, who also features packaged raw foods for dogs and cats; and Stella & Chewy’s, who rolled out their freeze-dried patties first. Both are 100% human-grade, antibiotic- and steroid-free, and without added hormones.
People with immune deficiencies face more risk from feeding pets raw foods than do the pets, Falconer says. But the average person with a healthy immune system just needs to use adequate hygiene, clean up the chopping block and knife, and run the dish through the dishwasher.
“Raw meat is something dogs’ and cats’ systems are genetically expecting and have been for millennia, so they’re usually fine with it even if it has bacteria,” says Falconer.
Several companies now offer conveniently packaged, raw frozen meals, but they’re not all regulated. “Some brands, like Primal, based in the San Francisco Bay area, do better than others, and some are way off the charts,” Falconer warns.
Instead, try a simple feeding plan that combines 75 percent natural kibble or canned food with 25 percent raw recipes such as those in Pitcairn’s book. To replace some of the nutritional value lost when any food is cooked, consider adding digestive enzymes and probiotics supplements.