Top Five Pet Food Questions

By Sharon Billings, CVT
Senior Veterinary Information Specialist

Moment before the feastWhen I’m in a social gathering and folks learn I’m a veterinary technician the topic often turns to pet food and nutrition.  People have lots of questions and that’s understandable!  Just glance down the aisles of any pet store and you’ll see a mind-boggling variety of pet food options and of course there are always the latest trends making the rounds among pet owners!  How in the world do people decide what’s best for their pet?  So, to help clear up a bit of the mystery, this blog entry will address your TOP FIVE pet food questions.

Question #5:    Why can’t I just feed my dog whatever I eat – if it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for her, right?

My answer:  Probably not.

Remember the food pyramid from health class that showed the proportion of different food groups needed for good health in humans?   Well, each species has its own unique dietary requirements to maintain good health so the “food pyramid” for your dog or cat may look quite different compared with yours.  The key is to feed your pet a diet that provides complete and balanced nutrition for her species, life stage, and health status.  So, actually, a diet that is ideal for you may not be ideal for your pet (unless your diet consists solely of pet food).  There are many examples of “people food” that are fine to feed to your pet as occasional small treats including many fruits, vegetables, meats, and grains.  And by small treats I mean in additions to, not substitutes for, a pet’s regular diet.  Bear in mind there are exceptions, however, such as grapes and raisins which can be toxic and should be avoided.

dog-eatingQuestion #4:  Would my dog/cat benefit from a gluten-free diet?  What about a grain-free diet?

My answer:  Gluten-free and/or grain-free is probably not necessary / beneficial.

Gluten-free and grain-free pet foods seem to be very popular trends among pet owners right now!  While sensitivity or allergy to any specific food ingredient is possible with dogs and cats, it’s less common than you might think.  Gluten intolerance is quite rare in dogs and cats so we don’t typically need to worry about excluding wheat gluten from their diets.

Grain-free diets are thought by some to be higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates which can keep a pet feeling full longer with a smaller meal.  Some believe grain-free diets are also more natural and better for allergies.  But a “grain-free” label does not guarantee any of these qualities.  Although a grain free or limited ingredient diet may be appropriate for a specific cat or dog, the vast majority of pets thrive on a diet consisting of a good-quality kibble plus/minus canned food that contain meat, grain, and nutrients.

Question #3:    I want to feed my dog/cat a home-cooked or raw diet – how do I go about doing this?

My answer:  Carefully – very, carefully!

It is possible to home-cook a nutritionally complete and balanced diet for your pet but it can be time consuming and challenging.  Although you can provide the basic food ingredients, the home-cooked diet most likely will need to be supplemented to ensure it includes all necessary micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals.  An over-the-counter multi-vitamin may not cover all the bases but there are prescription supplements available to accomplish this.

While it is possible to provide a nutritionally complete raw food diet, there is significant risk of bacterial contamination with uncooked foods and this poses risk of food-borne disease to your pet as well as the food preparer and anyone who may come in contact with the raw food or equipment / surfaces used for preparation.  For this reason, the American Veterinary Medical Association advises against feeding raw food diets.

If you intend to pursue either a home-cooked or raw diet, I strongly encourage you to do so with the guidance of your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist.

Cute puppy eating a tasty carrotQuestion #2:    I’m a vegetarian / vegan.  Can I feed a vegetarian / vegan diet to my dog/cat?

My answer:  Just plain no.

Humans, of course, can thrive without ever ingesting any animal products in their diets.  While it may be possible to formulate a diet with no animal products which appears to be nutritionally adequate for your dog or cat, it’s probably not the best idea for their long-term health.

Each organism (human, cat, dog, what-have-you) uses components including amino acids to build the protein they need to survive and thrive.  Depending on the species, some of these building blocks can be “manufactured” within the body while others cannot and must, therefore, be obtained from diet.  The tricky part is this:  the list of which components can be made within the body and which ones must be obtained from the diet varies by species.  Humans can easily obtain all necessary “building blocks” without animal products because the ones they cannot “manufacture” are readily available in other sources, i.e., fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds.  By nature, dogs are omnivores (their diet includes meat and other stuff) and cats are carnivores (their diet includes meat).

So without diverging into a long (and for you very boring) discourse on essential amino acids, I’ll summarize by saying dogs and cats traditionally eat meat.  We simply cannot be sure we will meet all of cats’ or dogs’ long-term nutritional needs if we exclude all animal products from their diets.

Question #1:    Which brand of food should I feed my dog/cat?  And how much should I feed?

My answer:  GREAT question!  With a thousand possible correct answers!

There is a dizzying variety of commercial pet foods as near as your local pet store!  Some of these products have old, familiar, trusted brand names but some are glitzy new brands endorsed by or associated with television celebrities who might – or might not —  know a whole lot about pet nutrition.

How can you tell if you’re picking a good food?  Well, thankfully we get a little help from AAFCO.  AAFCO is the Association of American Feed Control Officials and it’s a voluntary membership group of local, state, and federal agencies whose job it is to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies.  Not that AAFCO is the be-all, end-all but a good starting point, at least, is to check your pet food label for one of two standard AAFCO statements (note:  this may not apply to prescription foods which are intended to address certain specific health situations).  The AAFCO label is a good indication that the food will provide complete and balanced nutrition.    Be sure, of course, that the food is appropriate for the species (dog or cat) and life stage (puppy/kitten, lactating, or adult).

Suggested feeding amounts are listed on the label.  This information can be used as a rough guide but the suggested amount may be more than your pet requires.  That’s not because the pet food company is trying to sell more food but the feeding guide is intended to ensure that proper nutrition is provided for even the most active of pets for a particular age and life stage.  Your veterinarian is an excellent resource to help you choose the brand and amount that is best for your individual pet.

So, now that we’ve covered the Top Five Pet Food Questions, next time we meet at a social gathering we can skip right over the pet food topics and talk about other more fascinating things.  You can just show me pictures of your pets . . . and I’ll show you pictures of my pets . . . and we can talk about how cute and smart and funny and wonderful they all are.  That sounds like much more fun, doesn’t it?