What's the Best Food to Feed Your Pet?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • In honor of our annual Companion Animal Nutrition and Wellness Institute (CANWI) Awareness Week, Dr. Donna Raditic speaks with Dr. Laura Gaylord, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, about the benefits and risks of commercial pet food, and how it compares to fresh or homemade diets
  • Doctors are increasingly telling their human patients to eat more fresh, whole unprocessed foods, and many pet parents are looking to do that for their pets; typically, the less processed, the better for your pet
  • CANWI research has revealed there are higher levels of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are linked to disease, in dry and canned diets compared to fresh and raw diets
  • One of the “dangers” of fresh pet food is said to be a risk of contamination with pathogens like salmonella, but canned food and kibble carry contamination risks as well
  • Dr. Gaylord also encourages pet parents to contact their pet food companies to find out about their safety and nutrition practices, because you can’t always gauge the quality of a food by reading a nutrition label

In honor of our annual Companion Animal Nutrition and Wellness Institute (CANWI) Awareness Week, Dr. Donna Raditic, an integrative veterinarian and board-certified veterinary nutritionist, speaks with Dr. Laura Gaylord, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and creator of Whole Pet Provisions, about the benefits and risks of commercial pet food, and how it compares to fresh or homemade diets.

CANWI is a nonprofit organization I co-founded with Dr. Raditic, with a mission to conduct independent, unbiased pet food research and share our findings with every interested pet food company, veterinary school, pet parent and veterinary staff member that we can.

Today’s topic, though, is of special interest to pet owners, who are often overwhelmed by the number and types of pet foods on the market. Dry, canned, fresh, homemade, raw, freeze-dried — it can get very confusing.

Ultimately, what we all want is the best food to keep our pet healthy and disease-free, but there are considerations that must be accounted for — like price, shelf-life and convenience. With this in mind, Dr. Gaylord share’s her take on the best foods, and what she recommends to her pet parent clients.

The Less Processed, the Better

Dr. Gaylord gets a lot of questions about pros and cons of conventional pet foods — the dry kibble and canned varieties that have become the “norm.”

“I think most people are, more and more, looking to have more control and information about their diets. And they also want to feed more fresh foods to their pets, less processed foods overall,” she said, adding:

“And so the fresh diets give us that, in that the foods are less processed and more fresh forms. Certainly, the raw diets are the least processed, but as compared to dry kibble foods, these are going to be your more processed or ultraprocessed diets typically, which people are really trying to move away from.”

The fact is, doctors are increasingly telling their human patients to eat more fresh, whole unprocessed foods, and many pet parents are looking to do that for their pets. Dr. Gaylord believes that looking at what you feed your pet in terms of processing level is a good start:

“I think that, as veterinarians, we're so used to the dry and canned, I think this area of fresh, homemade, freeze-dried raw diets, it is a growing area in the pet food industry … We need to start categorizing pet foods based on processing. It's something they do in human foods and they do it, one, because it helps with studies and research.”

While there isn’t much research into the long-term effects of feeding pets different diets, CANWI research has revealed there are higher levels of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are linked to disease, in dry and canned diets compared to fresh and raw diets. This is one important benefit to fresh, raw and homemade diets.

Is Contamination a Concern?

One of the “dangers” of fresh pet food is said to be a risk of contamination with pathogens like salmonella. This is an overstated myth, as commercial kibble and canned foods can be similarly contaminated. No matter what type of diet you feed your pet, the manufacturers should have steps in place to ensure contamination risks are minimized. Dr. Gaylord explained:

“Most of the companies that are making these diets now, the less processed or even the raw diets are putting steps in place to check for bacterial contamination, potential pathogen risks with these diets, or they should be. And that's a question to ask the company. So if you don't know, reach out to them and ask what are they doing to assure that the food is safe.

This is no different than what would apply to any commercial dog food. So that includes dry foods or canned diets. There should be quality steps in place that are checking for bacterial pathogens, the risk of contamination and so forth. So we know that we have recalls on dry kibble diets for salmonella just like we could potentially for raw diets. So all of these foods should be subject, really, to the same standards.”

Pet parents also must be careful with safe food handling, just as you would do with your own food. It’s no different if you’re preparing your pet’s meal than if you’re preparing your own — the food safety measures you adhere to should be the same.

If you’re making homemade pet food, you’ll need to take extra care, Dr. Gaylord says, since you’re the one in charge of making sure no contamination occurs. “The risk of preparing a raw homemade diet on your own might actually be greater than purchasing a diet that's commercially raw because it has steps in place to check for pathogens,” she said. “So this is why we have these conversations with homemade diet formulators all the time.”

Dr. Gaylord also encourages pet parents to contact their pet food companies to find out about their safety and nutrition practices, because you can’t always gauge the quality of a food by reading a nutrition label:

“If we contact them and we ask questions about food safety or the nutritional analysis, all of that data should be shared with us and actually doing that, reaching out, asking those questions, see if they're able to answer those questions and what types of information they are willing to share with you.

Those are all revealing of the practices and the philosophy of that company. So establishing the trust there is a really good idea and reaching out and trying to get the information is always going to be helpful.”

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‘We Haven’t Always Fed Dogs This Way’

While opening a bag of kibble or a can of wet dog food has become the modern-day norm, this isn’t a natural way for pets to eat. Most of the commercial pet food industry is based on marketing campaigns rather than pet nutrition. According to Dr. Gaylord:

“The science we have on foods in general is actually very limited as far as whole diets [and] what the effect of an entire whole diet is for the lifetime of the pet. We've fallen into a place where we think the norm is dry kibble and canned diets, but we haven't always fed dogs this way.

This is an advent of food technology that has made this very convenient and easy for us, but we don't have a study that says that feeding dry kibble dog food is the best choice for all dogs at all life stages for their entire lives.

But we don't also have a study that says feeding fresh food diets is better or superior either. So it works both ways. We have more studies on individual nutrients within foods or combinations of nutrients, especially as they apply to maybe disease conditions.”

This is why research like that CANWI is conducting is so essential to moving the realm of pet nutrition forward, into a space that will value nutrition and health over all else. “My personal philosophy,” Dr. Gaylord said, “I believe less processed is better. I know during this conference, we're talking about processing effects and the advent of AGEs and what impact that might have on health.” She continued:

“So we know that we're going to get less of this in our less processed food forms. And we know in humans that that is a positive, that we can reduce disease risk if we do this. So it makes sense to me that this might also apply to our pets.

And so I do talk to pet owners about perhaps including more fresh foods in their diets in any way that they can accomplish that safely and still have an overall balanced diet for that dog for their lifetime.”

You can learn more about CANWI, and our efforts to advance research and education on nutrition and wellness in the pet community, as well as make a donation, at Canwinstitute.org.1

 

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