Confused What to Feed Your Pet? We've Got You Covered.

November 17, 2019 | 11:48 AM

Choosing a pet food is a daunting task. Whether you have a new puppy or kitten, your pet was recently diagnosed with a medical issue that requires a diet change, or you just want to mix it up after feeding your pet the same food for several years; the thought of choosing a pet food quickly becomes intimidating when an internet search reveals a vast number of options.  When it comes to the pet food market, becoming a well-informed consumer is one of the best things you can do for your pet and their long-term well-being. 

Dogs vs. Cats

Dogs and cats are different in terms of the nutrients they require from their food. Realizing these differences can help you avoid unnecessary ingredients added for marketing purposes and make sure that the food you choose has all of the required nutrients for your pet. Dogs and cats have evolved from the order Carnivora, meaning they are both carnivores. However, domestic dogs have evolved and adapted to be able to obtain their essential nutrients from both animals and plants. This is why dog food often has a meat and a plant component (i.e. beef and barley).

Domestic cats, however, are less adapted to eating plants than their canine counterparts. They require protein from meat to fulfill their nutritional requirements. One example of such a nutrient is taurine. Taurine is an amino acid, or a “building-block” for protein, and is only found in meat. Cats cannot make their own taurine, so they must get it from animal protein. Without adequate amounts in their food, they can develop a heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), in addition to blindness and other health problems. This is one reason why “vegan” diets cannot be fed to cats, unless synthetic taurine is added in correct amounts with the help of a veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist. Fortunately, most reputable pet food companies today sell diets supplemented with taurine; however, owners who wish to create their own diet for their cat or dog may be predisposing them to a taurine deficiency if it is not supplemented in sufficient amounts.

How eating as a pet is different from eating as a human 

Pet food is a carefully titrated mix of a dog or cat’s daily essential vitamins, minerals, and calorie requirements. When you scoop 1 cup of food into your dog’s bowl, you are directly controlling their intake and ensuring that they get every nutrient they need. Humans pick and choose what foods we eat from a vast selection, and as a consequence, we do not always ingest a balanced diet. However, we can make up for these discrepancies by choosing to focus on a food that contains more of a certain nutrient that we desire. Pets cannot do this, and they rely on their pet food to provide all of the correct nutrients that they need.

Pet food companies such as Hill’s, Royal Canin, and Purina have put large amounts of money and time into research and development to ensure that their pet foods are balanced with correct nutrient amounts.  This is why veterinarians tend to recommend foods from these companies; however, this is not to say that smaller or newer companies don’t sell complete and balanced foods. One trait to look for in a pet food company is that their food has been tested via AAFCO feeding trials. These are trials during which animals eat only the pet food being tested for 6 months. At the end of the 6 months, they are examined and have bloodwork done to determine if they are exhibiting any signs of a nutritional deficiency. If the food passes the feeding trial, the food is determined to be nutritionally “complete and balanced.” The trials are conducted with animals in different life stages as well, and foods can be certified for “growth,” “maintenance,” and “reproduction.” This is important because it tells you, as a consumer, that your dog or cat’s food is meeting their nutritional requirements for their life stage and how that was determined. More information about AAFCO feeding trials from a veterinarian can be found here.

Home-cooked diets

Some owners we encounter in our hospital are very passionate about home-cooking a diet for their pet. A home-cooked diet can be nutritional and balanced for a pet if executed correctly and with the consultation of a veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist. Most home-cooked diets will require the purchase and addition of a supplement mix to prevent vitamin and mineral deficiencies, such as taurine deficiency. One website that sells these supplements that veterinarians in our hospital often recommend for formulation of home-cooked diets is called BalanceIT. Formulation of a home-cooked diet should always be done with the consultation or recommendation of a veterinarian. If your pet has a certain disease, your veterinarian may recommend a formulated prescription diet instead.

Grain-free diets 

Diets marketed as “grain-free” have recently become popular. With this new trend, veterinarians and the FDA have noted an increase in reports of a heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) associated with dogs that had been eating grain-free diets. This is a heart disease in which the chambers of the heart enlarge, and it becomes difficult for the heart to pump enough blood out to the body, which can result in congestive heart failure. This condition is relatively common in Doberman Pinschers and other large and giant dog breeds, but what stands out about the newly reported cases is that they are occurring in “atypical” breeds that do not usually develop DCM. The correlation was initially thought to be due to low taurine levels in grain-free diets, but many of the dogs have had normal taurine levels. One of the current theories is that legumes (such as peas and lentils) being used in grain-free foods to replace grains are contributing to the development of the disease. While the investigation into these cases is ongoing, many veterinarians will recommend avoiding grain-free diets. You can read the FDA’s statement on the reports here.

Medical or prescription diets 

Diets oriented towards certain diseases exist for conditions ranging from kidney disease to hyperthyroidism. They are often a useful tool for helping to treat disease when combined with other treatment modalities. Your veterinarian can recommend a specific diet that is best for your pet, and you may need to try multiple diets for your pet’s condition before finding a diet that they find palatable. These diets should only be used at the recommendation of a veterinarian and should not be used in an animal that does not have the medical condition that the diet is formulated for.

There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing a pet food. In general, an AAFCO feeding trial statement is a good thing to look for on your bag or can of pet food. Home-cooking a diet is an option; but requires careful formulation and supplementation to prevent nutrient deficiency. In addition, diet can be an important factor in managing certain diseases, and in those cases, a prescription diet may be best. In all cases, your veterinarian is the best resource for consultation regarding your choice for your pet’s diet. As always, balancing diet with exercise and an overall healthy lifestyle is the best to stave off future issues!