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5 Reasons to Change What You're Feeding Your Pet

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

changing pet foods

Story at-a-glance -

  • There are many good reasons to consider changing your dog’s or cat’s diet, however, downgrading the food you offer your pet to save money, or buying kibble because it’s more convenient, aren’t among them
  • Good reasons can include transitioning a recently adopted pet to a healthier diet, enhancing dietary diversity, and resolving a digestive disturbance or managing another type of health problem
  • Senior pets can also often benefit from dietary enhancements that provide additional support to aging bodies and brains

There are lots of good reasons to consider changing your pet's diet, but the most important revolve around keeping your dog or cat healthy or returning them to good health if they've been under the weather. Not-so-good reasons, if I may be blunt, include trying to save a buck by purchasing an inexpensive commercial diet or going with kibble because it's more convenient or less messy that other types of pet food.

It's important to understand that the food you offer your canine or feline family member represents the foundation upon which his wellbeing, vitality, and quality of life are built.

Just as you would select a foundation for your home made of the best materials available, it's important to create a nutritional foundation for your pet that will offer him the best opportunity for a long healthy life. If you're confused about what you should be feeding your dog or cat, or are wondering about the quality of your pet's current diet, take a look at my best-to-worst ranking of 13 types of pet food. The following are five solid reasons to consider changing the food you offer your dog or cat.

Reason #1 — You've Adopted a Pet Who's Been Eating a Junk Food Diet

When you first bring a new furry family member home, it's important to continue to feed her the diet she's used to until she settles into her new life with you. This is true even if she's eating a really awful food, because you don't want to introduce new foods while she's also dealing with the stress of a new environment and lifestyle. A change in diet can also result in digestive disturbances, which you obviously want to avoid, especially during your pet's first few weeks with you.

Once she's feeling comfortable in her new surroundings, you can begin a gradual transition to a better diet. The way to do this successfully with most pets is to begin by mixing a small amount of the new food with the old food. This will help your dog or cat get accustomed to new the tastes and textures and should also help prevent the gastrointestinal (GI) issues that often develop after a sudden change in diet.

As long as your pet continues to eat well and without signs of tummy problems, you can continue to gradually increase the amount of new food while decreasing the old food until she's eating only the new diet.

Cats can present a special challenge when it comes to dietary changes, especially if they're addicted to dry food, and also because unlike dogs, cats need to continue to eat to remain healthy. Many humans and dogs can go without food for extended periods, but the same is absolutely not true for kitties.

If you discover you have a finicky cat on your hands who isn't cooperating with your plan to feed her a better diet, you'll find lots of tips and tricks in my article How to Win the Healthy Food Battle with Your Fussy Feline, part 1 and part 2.

Click here to find out Dr. Becker's top tips against seasonal pet allergiesClick here to find out Dr. Becker's top tips against seasonal pet allergies

Reason #2 — Your Pet Has Been Eating the Same Food Forever

Unfortunately, along with the introduction of processed pet food decades ago came the notion that cats and dogs should eat the same diet every day of their lives. This is a myth that benefits major pet food manufacturers, but certainly not pets. Canines and felines in the wild eat a variety of different foods depending on availability and their natural instinct to ingest the nutrients their bodies need at any given time.

Just as humans require diversity in their diets for optimal health, so do our pets. That's why, for finicky animals, I recommend rotating through three or four different proteins every three to four months, feeding one at a time. If you feed commercial pet food, I also recommend buying from smaller companies because their ingredients are often better sourced and safer.

If you have animals that have healthy GI tracts and aren't fussy, rotating foods daily, weekly or by the bag is a great idea. After all, we eat different foods daily and many pets enjoy consuming a variety of different foods on a regular basis as well. This also helps prevent brand boredom and ingredient hypersensitivities.

Rotating through a few different high-quality brands (and different proteins) can also help ensure your dog or cat doesn't develop nutrition issues from a single commercial diet that may be deficient (or toxic) in certain nutrients or contain additives or contaminants that bio-accumulate over time.

I also suggest supplementing your pet's diet with fresh, species-appropriate humans foods such as the ones you'll find in my recent article, Should You Feed Your Pet Table Scraps? You May Be Surprised.

Reason #3 — Your Pet Has Digestive Issues

The first thing I recommend for animals over the age of 12 months with intermittent or chronic diarrhea or other GI issues who I suspect are dealing with a food sensitivity, is a NutriScan test. The NutriScan panel tests pets for intolerances to 24 different purified food extracts that recognize 56 food ingredients.

Test results can often identify the specific ingredient(s) in your pet's food that are causing a problem, which makes it much easier to customize a diet to resolve the issue. After determining an animal's food sensitivities, my recommendation is to introduce a novel diet to promote healing. This means transitioning your pet to a different food containing ingredients her body isn't familiar with.

It's very important that all reactive foods be avoided for at least several months. Oftentimes animals experience a reaction to both the primary protein and carbohydrate sources in their diet. In addition to avoiding all reactive foods, it's important to reduce or eliminate any "filler ingredients" (as well as synthetic nutrients) that can play a role in food sensitivities and inflammatory conditions, as well as all starches.

A dog or cat with food sensitivities should remain on a novel diet for a minimum of 2 months and preferably 3, to allow the body time to clear out the allergenic substances and begin the detoxification process. Once a patient has completed 2 to 3 months on a novel diet, other foods are slowly reintroduced one at a time, and the animal's response is closely monitored.

Because each case of food intolerance is unique, again, I recommend a custom formulated protocol created by an integrative or holistic veterinarian. Some pets show dramatic improvement on the new diet, and in those cases, I often don't rush the reintroduction of food that could be problematic.

When the animal is stable and doing well, I encourage pet parents to find at least 1 and preferably 2 other protein sources their pet tolerates well so that every 3 to 6 months, they can rotate proteins and hopefully avoid further intolerances.

Reason #4 — Your Pet Has a Medical Condition That Requires a Special Diet

There are many disorders and diseases dogs and cats develop that can require a change to their diet. For example, most pets with pancreatitis do best on diets containing no cooked or processed fats plus a high quality digestive enzyme supplement. Pets with urinary stones benefit from a low-carb, grain-free, starch-free, potato-free fresh food diet. My second choice is canned food or a dehydrated or freeze-dried diet that has been reconstituted with lots of water.

Dogs and cats diagnosed with cancer should be eating an anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer (starch-free) diet consisting of real, whole foods, preferably raw. The diet should include high-quality protein, including muscle meat, organs and bone. It should also include high amounts of animal fat, high levels of EPA and DHA (omega-3 fatty acids) and should be free from pesticides, glyphosate residues, dyes, preservatives and other metabolic stressors.

Reason #5 — Your Pet Is a Senior

Contrary to what many pet parents have been told and many veterinarians still believe, aging pets actually need more protein than their younger counterparts, and the quality is of vital importance. The more digestible and assimilable the protein is, and the higher the moisture content of the food, the easier it will be for aging organs to process and absorb.

If your animal companion is getting up in years, feed nutritionally optimal, species-appropriate, fresh food diet rich in healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids such as krill oil. The perfect fuel for an aging dog or cat is a variety of living, whole foods suitable for a carnivore. Eliminate all refined carbohydrates — no grains, potatoes or legumes, which foster inflammation in the body. Replace those unnecessary carbs with extra high-quality protein.

Eliminate extruded diets (kibble) to avoid the toxic byproducts of the manufacturing process. Highly processed pet feed (most pet food isn't made from human-grade ingredients and is therefore, by definition, "feed" and not "food") does not nourish aging bodies in a way that slows degeneration. Most pet foods are manufactured in a way that creates byproducts that can affect cognitive health, including heterocyclic amines and acrylamides, in addition to advanced glycation end products (AGEs).

Fresh, biologically appropriate foods provide the whole food nutrients and amino acids the aging brain requires. The right diet will also enhance your pet's microbiome, which has been linked to improved cognitive health.

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