Eating healthy is a family affair, and that includes the family pet. However, what works for humans may be less than optimal for Fluffy or Fido, as each requires a species-specific, nutritionally balanced regimen. Most pet parents opt for commercial dog or cat food that comes in a bag or a can, but many are beginning to consider more natural options. “Kibble is often the most economical way to feed your pet. But its processed state makes it the least optimal,” says Angie Krause, DVM, at Boulder Holistic Vet, in Colorado.
Canned food is also heavily processed and potentially toxic. In 2017, Clean Label Project, a nonprofit testing laboratory, completed a study of 1,084 pet food products, screening them for more than 130 toxins and contaminants linked to cancer and other conditions. Results showed cadmium, a heavy metal, in 94 percent of the products, along with arsenic and lead.
Contaminants aren’t the only concern. “Up to 50 percent of commercial foods are composed of meat meal and byproducts,” says Armaiti May, DVM, owner of Dr. May’s Veterinary House Calls, in Los Angeles.
These can include meat from dead, dying, diseased or disabled animals, and even rendered dogs and cats from animal shelters, says May. “We are seeing more cancer, neurologic conditions and kidney disease, and there is evidence that the increase in these diseases may be due to harmful ingredients in commercial, meat-based foods.”
Healthy Alternative Diets
Owners that switch from commercial foods report their animals display thicker coats, brighter eyes and greater energy. However, dogs and cats require specific ranges of vitamins, minerals, fats and carbohydrates, so it’s important to ensure that nutritional needs are met and a healthy balance is maintained.
Pet food recalls have prompted some families to start cooking for their charges, but it’s not as simple as sharing the family dinner. “There are online calculators that can help you create and balance recipes for dogs and cats. Balancing a diet can be tedious and often requires added supplements,” says Krause.
Seeing a four-legged friend thrive was worth the extra time and cost for Yvonnda Stamp-Agent, a homemaker from Rockvale, Tennessee. Emma, a schnauzer mix, suffered from itchy skin, anal gland leakage, kidney crystals, vomiting and other problems. “We switched to home-cooked wild salmon and flounder protein with fresh organic vegetables and fruits, along with vitamin and mineral supplementation.” Emma recovered and is now an energetic 5-year-old.
The biologically appropriate raw food (BARF) diet, as described at BarfWorld.com, contains raw meats, vegetables and cooked grains and legumes. Proponents say it improves health from tooth to tail. “Buddha, my orange tabby, is 22 and no longer has an issue with hairballs,” says Kim Bolin, a Reno, Nevada real estate agent, who has fed raw for three years.
Stephanie Krause, in Keego Harbor, Michigan, says her three dogs are more relaxed, probably from the time and effort needed to eat large bones—and they haven’t needed a teeth cleaning since going raw. “After eating raw bones, there was plaque laying all over the floor.”
The BARF diet can be homemade, although most choose prepared frozen or freeze-dried products to ensure nutrient balance or to avoid handling raw meats. Angie Krause says the diet is controversial, largely due to human health risks from pathogenic bacteria.
Vegan and Vegetarian
For ethical and environmental reasons, homemade or pre-made, plant-based diets for companion animals are becoming more popular. “If the 163 million dogs and cats in the U.S. were their own country, it would be the fifth-largest meat-eating country on the planet,” says May.
Cats cannot survive without meat, which provides the high protein, amino acids and other nutrients their bodies require. However, a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association suggests that plant-based diets, possibly supplemented with vitamins B12 and D and some amino acids, can meet nutrition requirements of dogs.
“Dogs are omnivores, and can thrive on balanced, complete, plant-based diets. They have nutrient requirements, not ingredient requirements,” says May.
Pet diets aren’t an all-or-nothing choice, says Angie Krause. “Eventually, my patient will always reveal what works for them. Listen to your pet’s body.”
Julie Peterson lives in rural Wisconsin. Connect at JuliePeterson2222@gmail.com.