What You Need to Know About Your Pet’s Food.
By Dr. Larry Siegler
Nutrition is the foundation of good health for our animal companions. Diet is the most important component of your pet’s health care. The best diet for your dog or cat is not unlike the best diet for you – it consists of a variety of whole foods enhanced with vitamins and minerals, enzymes ands upplements, when necessary, to promote optimal health, prevent disease or to address health issues.
Our animal companions are natural hunters and carnivores – just look at their ancestry. The dog at your feet (or on your sofa) has evolved from the wolf, and his digestive system is virtually the same despite thousands of years of domestication. They have very short intestinal tracts geared to the consumption and digestion of raw foods. The cat on your lap is a true or “obligate” carnivore (meat only diet) and is specially designed by nature to hunt small rodents and birds. Her digestive tract, as well, is intended to assimilate raw food best.
Commercially prepared kibble has become the standard diet for most pets in our culture. It is relatively cheap and quite convenient. Knowledgeable guardians and many veterinarians, however, are becoming increasingly aware of the true nutritional needs of companion animals and are taking a proactive approach to nutrition by placing more importance on getting the highest quality ingredients and carefully controlled preparation than on cost and convenience. At Only Natural Pet Store we do our best to offer the healthiest options available for all lifestyles and feeding choices. Whatever food you choose to offer your pet, putting some thought into your decision now can produce big rewards over his or her lifetime and very probably help him or her avoid serious and costly illnesses caused by poor nutrition and feeding practices.
When determining the best diet for your companion, there are two things to keep in mind: The fresher, the better, and rotation is optimal. First let’s discuss freshness.
Fresh food is teeming with life. It contains natural enzymes, probiotics, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals in their most natural state, making them more digestible and more easily assimilated. Heat is the number one enemy of nutrients in food. The fresher the food, the more bioavailable the nutrients in that food will be. This means that the antioxidants in the fruits and vegetables listed in the ingredients will be far more likely to be intact and digestible in raw food than in dry kibble or canned food, which are processed at high temperatures. This is also true for natural enzymes, probiotics, amino acids and vitamins and minerals in your pet’s food.
The less heat-processed the food, the more likely it is that the nutrients will be preserved in their natural state by the time you feed it to your companion, and the more digestible those nutrients will be. So even if dry kibble is a part of your companion’s diet, adding fresher foods like fresh or frozen raw food & bones, or fresh cooked meat, healthy table scraps, freeze-dried or dehydrated foods and even canned food can enhance the quality of his or her overall diet.
“Whatever food you choose to offer your pet, putting some thought into your decision now can produce big rewards over his or her lifetime and very probably help him or her avoid serious and costly illnesses caused by poor nutrition and feeding practices.”
In addition to freshness, variety is important in your companion’s diet. A more diverse diet is far more likely to provide complete nutrition than a “formulated” diet fed over and over again. While all pet foods on the market meet the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) standards for “nutrition” for dogs and cats, that does not mean that any one of them are the ideal food for the life of your companion.
A good meal is a pleasurable experience for you, and the same should be true for your companion. However, even a good meal served over and over can become tiresome. You wouldn’t eat corn flakes at every meal for years at a time, so why ask your companion to eat cereal – the SAME cereal, for every meal, every day, for months or years at a time? It is detrimental to both your health and your companion’s to eat the same thing for months or years at every meal. Consuming the same food repeatedly over long periods of time can contribute to the development of food sensitivities and allergies.
More recently, some veterinarians specializing in feline medicine have stated that inflammatory bowel disease may develop, in part, because of food sensitivities caused by feeding one diet for over a year or two at a time. Feeding cats, who are obligate carnivores, a grain-based diet has also been shown to contribute to the incidence of Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD), also known as Feline Urological Syndrome or FUS. The resulting dehydration over a long period of time puts a great deal of stress on the kidneys and lining of the urinary tract.
We recommend varying your companion’s diet regularly. If feeding a raw diet, you do not need to “transition” from one type of food to the next. Animals eating kibble, however, should be transitioned gradually over a week or two from one to the other. Cats should not eat dry kibble as a main portion of their diet.
While the ideal diet would be a continual rotation of fresh, raw foods, most guardians do not have the time and resources to carefully formulate and make their pet’s food. So if you can’t meet the ideal, just get as close as you can with what you can afford. Here are some ways to increase the freshness of your pet’s diet:
- Home prepared food can’t be beat for freshness. This is especially valuable for animals with health issues such as allergies or immune disorders. Following a recipe is crucial so that proper vitamin and mineral supplementation is achieved. Particular attention must be paid to the ratio of calcium and phosphorus when preparing pet foods at home. Basic recipes can be found in Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats, which also includes recipes for a variety of health issues. The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care also has basic recipes and information to support home prepared meals.
- Frozen raw foods generally come either in a formula of raw meat, grains, and fresh vegetables designed to provide complete nutrition, or as pure raw meat designed to be added as a supplement to other types of food. For more information about transitioning to and feeding a raw diet, please see our article All About Raw Food.
- Only Natural Pet Store offers vegetable and/or grain-based pre-mixes that are designed to be added to raw or cooked meat. You simply rehydrate the mixture and add the meat.
- Feeding or supplementing with freeze-dried or dehydrated foods is another way to enhance the freshness and variety in your companion’s diet. Only Natural Pet EasyRaw dehydrated food for dogs and Freeze Dried Patties for dogs and cats are convenient and offer all the nutrition of frozen raw food. They can be fed for every meal, for one meal a day, or as top dressing for dry kibble to add more bioavailable nutrients, amino acids and enzymes that kibble lacks.
- If you include dry kibble in the diet, rotate the kibble you use every month or every other month (gradually transition over a week or more). Mix a variety of different high quality canned foods into the diet as a meal or mixed with kibble. If possible, mix raw meat and, for dogs, lightly steamed vegetables and fresh fruits into their food. And YES – you CAN feed your dog or cat healthy people food. If you are cooking a nice meal of pot roast and vegetables for the family, save a portion for your companion – it’s a great way to add variety and fresher food into his or her diet. Always remember, however, that to prevent weight gain you must use proportionately less of the kibble when adding canned, freeze-dried, or dehydrated food, raw meat, or people food.
Keep in mind that the less complicated you make your pet’s diet plan, the more likely you are to stick with it. If it is easiest for you to just reach into the freezer and take out an already prepared and balanced meal, consider stocking up on a frozen raw food formula. If using a pre-mix with raw meat sounds workable, by all means try it. Or try feeding your dog raw turkey necks or chicken necks, backs or wings for breakfast 2-3 times per week. You can buy them at the grocery store or from our raw food section. If you can’t manage the raw food, but cooking a little extra at each meal is easy for you, then add a bit of your breakfast or dinner to your pet’s diet. Make it easy and your companion will reap the benefits through a healthier and more interesting diet.
Here is an overview of the different types of foods available to feed your pet:
More and more guardians and veterinarians alike are discovering the health benefits of a raw food diet. Many health issues such as chronic allergies and inflammatory bowel disease can completely clear up on a raw food diet. Many other chronic and degenerative diseases may be reduced or prevented by feeding a biologically appropriate raw diet. As interest grows, so does the availability of a wider variety of pre-formulated, frozen diets for dogs and cats. Only Natural Pet Store offers some excellent Frozen Raw Diets. For more information about the benefits of feeding a raw diet, please see our article All About Raw Food.
Dehydrating is the oldest form of food preservation. Dehydrated food is made from high quality human grade meat, vegetables, and fruits and it offers all the nutritional benefits of frozen raw food, but is less expensive and easier to handle and prepare. Dehydration suspends the activity of enzymes in the food until the food is re-hydrated. Dehydrated food loses only 3 to 5% of the nutrients in the original ingredients because the temperatures used are much lower than those used for canning or for extruding kibble, where the loss can be as much as 60 to 80%. See our Dehydrated Dog and Cat Foodsections. The favorite around Only Natural Pet Store is our EasyRaw formula, which is not only the most cost effective dehydrated alternative, but looks a lot like a bowl of soup you might have for lunch once it’s rehydrated!
Another new trend in pet foods is the availability of freeze-dried or “cold processed” diets. Since heat is the number one enemy of nutrients in food, freeze drying is a far superior way to preserve the nutrition and biological nature of fresh foods. The natural enzymes, amino acids, and probiotics remain intact. The addition of grains is unnecessary in the processing of the food, so those looking for a grain-free diet can include freeze-dried foods in their companion’s rotation.
Freeze-dried food can be fed alone or top dressed on raw or dry food. Freeze dried food is an excellent way to supplement a dry, kibble diet or offer some variety in the rotation of your companion’s diet. It can also be used as a highly nutritious treat, and is an excellent food for puppies and kittens as it can be well re-hydrated and even run through a blender to make it easy for them to eat. Because it is very light weight, it is excellent for camping and traveling. One pound of freeze dried food will typically re-hydrate to the equivalent of about 10-12 5.5 oz. cans of food. See our Freeze-Dried Dog and Cat Foodselections.
Canned food is a good option for those needing the convenience of processed foods but who are trying to eliminate grains from their pet’s diet. It is especially important for cats to be on a meat protein based diet with minimal grains as discussed previously. In addition, too much carbohydrate content in your pet’s diet can contribute greatly to the problems of obesity, cardiovascular disease, acidosis, arthritis and immune problems.
Canned food is also a great way to supplement kibble for added variety and nutrition. It can also be used to increase the appeal of healthier diets and raw foods for those animals that are “addicted” to their dry kibble and are having a hard time accepting real food. Many dry foods and regular canned foods have flavor enhancers, sweeteners and sodium in them that dogs and cats become accustomed to, causing them to reject real food or healthier canned varieties. Give your companion plenty of time and repeat exposures to healthier foods and they will usually make the transition.
Use as much variety in your companion’s canned food diet as they will accept. Cats especially, can be finicky. Sometimes crushing or sprinkling their favorite treat over the food can help lure them in for a taste, and they will then eat the food.
Do not feed your companion a food that contains ingredients you would not eat yourself. The canned foods sold at Only Natural Pet Store use human grade, whole food ingredients. Organic foods offer the best of the canned options as they do not contain pesticide residues and other toxins that your companion then has to eliminate through her liver and kidneys. This is especially important for animals with a compromised immune system.
If you choose to feed kibble as part of your companion’s diet, we hope you will consider the source carefully. Become a label reader – the ingredients are not always what you might think. Many consumers are not aware that the pet food industry is an extension of the human food and agriculture industries. Pet food provides a market for slaughterhouse offal, grains considered “unfit for human consumption,” and similar waste products to be turned into profit. This waste can include intestines, udders, esophagi, and even diseased and cancerous animal parts.
In evaluating a dog or cat food there are a variety of points we look for including the quality of the protein source, the amount of grain by-products, and any artificial ingredients such as preservatives, colors, or flavors among other things. The ingredient listings are regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The ingredients listed on dog and cat food labels must be listed in order of predominance by weight. When determining the main ingredients in a food it is helpful to look for the source of fat or oil in the food – the ingredients listed before the fat or oil source make up the majority of the food (including the fat or oil), those ingredients listed after the fat or oil are present in much smaller amounts. Generally, a good quality food will list at least one specified whole-meat and/or meat meal such as chicken meal, turkey meal, beef meal, etc – but avoid any products containing meat meal of an unspecified source or any meals containing by-products. In addition a high quality kibble will list one or more sources of WHOLE, unprocessed grains in the main ingredients.
The term “meal” means that the meat or other animal materials are not used fresh, but have been heated at extremely high temperatures. The fat rises to the top and is skimmed off. The remaining solids are then pressed to remove the residual liquid to create either chicken meal, turkey meal, beef meal, OR “meat meal” “meat and by-product meal,” “poultry meal,” etc. In a lesser quality food, meat and poultry meals, by-product meals, and meat-and-bone meal are common ingredients, which indicates the use of less desirable animal products such as slaughterhouse offal.
One of the main meat sources in the prescription foods sold by many veterinarians is “Chicken by-product meal,” which translates to: chicken feet, chicken entrails and other parts of the chicken unfit for human consumption. While the processing of meats and by-products for pet foods can destroy a great deal of the nutrients in the food, it does not necessarily destroy the hormones used to fatten livestock or increase milk production, or drugs such as antibiotics or the barbiturates used to euthanize animals. This is why foods that use human-grade meat sources are the best choice.
Grain sources must be considered, as well. Along with “meat and bone meals,” grains such as corn and wheat are usually among the first ingredients listed on both dry dog and cat food labels. Most dry foods use grain products for a large portion of the protein content, but not all protein sources are as readily digested and utilized. Cats especially are obligate or “true” carnivores and should derive their protein from meat, not grains. And as with the “meat” sources used in these foods, the grains are frequently not whole grain but the by-products of milling and processing grains for other uses.
The dry foods and kibble sold at Only Natural Pet Store use human-grade, wholesome ingredients – see dry dog food and dry cat food. When feeding dry kibble, be sure to supplement with a daily multi-vitamin and mineral supplement and essential fatty acids (our favorite is salmon oil), and considerdigestive enzymes to help your pet assimilate the most nutrition possible. Top dress with people food such as leftover meats and vegetables, but not carbs like the mashed potatoes. (And don’t forget to reduce the serving of kibble in proportion to the table scraps. Overfeeding is a common problem for many companion animals and compounds their risk for poor health and disease.)
While most manufacturers of pet food market a particular product for growing animals, we do not think this to be necessarily in your companion’s best interest. If you’ve read this far you have some understanding that a raw diet is the best diet for dogs and cats. The same is true for puppies and kittens. Their dietary needs are fully met by a high-quality diet of all raw food or the best possible combination of fresh foods and processed foods you can provide supplemented with raw or cooked meat and vegetables. Many puppy and kitten foods encourage the over-feeding of young animals which can lead to a host of chronic health issues later in life. Puppies and kittens should not be round and roly-poly as they are often depicted in photos, they should be appropriately trim just like adult dogs and cats. Growing too fast can predispose an animal to joint problems as well.
Many veterinarians are recommending prescription diets on a more regular basis. While it is a great way for veterinarians and especially the pet food industry to make more money, it is a very poor way to feed most companion animals. These diets are typically highly processed and contain highly questionable ingredients. The most popular brand of these foods uses grains as a principle protein source and includes “chicken by-product meal,” which translates to: chicken feet, chicken entrails and other parts of the chicken unfit for human consumption. In addition they often contain the preservatives BHA and BHT – common ingredients in floor cleaners and paint products which, according to the manufacturer’s Material Safety Data Sheet, may be harmful if ingested, inhaled or absorbed through skin contact, and is a skin and eye irritant. Would you knowingly feed that to your companion?
These diets may help certain symptoms simply by providing a change, but they do not address the underlying causes. The best diet for any animal is a biologically appropriate diet. For dogs and cats that means fresh raw meat is the ideal. Diet is the foundation of good health. For many health issues in companion animals, a change in diet to real food can make all the difference in the world.
Maintaining a Healthy Weight
One of the most commonly asked questions in our veterinary practice is “how much should I feed my companion?” The answer is always the same – only you can determine that through time and experience. Every pet has a different metabolism, lifestyle and caloric need. Indoor cats will usually expend less energy than cats with access to the outdoors. A 50 lb. not-so-active Basset probably needs less than a hard working 50 lb. Australian Shepherd. Feeding guidelines on food labels are just that – guidelines. You have to watch your pet carefully and adjust their portion size appropriately.
If you have a hard time seeing the weight of your companion until he or she is “fat,” use a scale a couple times a month. Stand on a bathroom scale to determine your own weight, (you can do this when no one is looking – your pet won’t tell anyone), then pick up your pet and calculate their weight by subtracting yours. (Obviously this is easier with small dogs and cats). You should be able to feel your dog’s ribs, and they should not have a lot of “cushion.” Their abdomen should be hourglass shaped – they should have a waist. If their stomach protrudes on either side and they “waddle” when they walk, it’s time for a diet. Another sign of an overweight dog is extra fat around the base of the tail.
Overweight pets are at increased risk of developing orthopedic problems, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory disease, liver disease. Obesity also can affect an animal’s mental health and they can become lethargic and less enthusiastic about life. So keep this in mind when you reach for the treat jar for the tenth time and adjust dinner accordingly. For more information about keeping your animal companion fit and healthy please see Weight Management for Dogs and Cats.
Nothing can replace a wholesome well-balanced diet when it comes to promoting good health for your pet. Proper supplementation however, can make a great diet even healthier. In addition, common problems such as arthritis and “aging changes” such as poor coat and decreased activity don’t always improve when diet alone is improved. By identifying specific problems and providing additional nutritional support through supplementation, many such conditions can be helped. Only Natural Pet Store offers a wide range of food supplements for dogs and cats. If you are unsure of which supplements are best for your companion, please call our Customer Care team for suggestions and guidance.