Budget-Friendly Tips to Improve Your Pet’s Meals

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • As a veterinarian and a clinical nutritionist, Dr. Laura Gaylord, is uniquely poised to help pet owners navigate the often-overwhelming waters of pet nutrition
  • Homemade fresh-food diets are often wonderful for pets, offering the least processed and most nutritious option in the pet food market, but you don’t want to wing it; a recipe tailored to your pet will ensure you’re meeting your pet’s individual nutritional needs
  • In order to offer the best nutrition for your dog or cat, Dr. Gaylord stresses the importance of being open to all food forms, whether that be commercial fresh or homemade
  • You have to work within your budget, family situation and lifestyle, but at minimum, she recommends, strive to add fewer processed foods to your pet’s diet and add in as many fresh foods as you can
  • The No. 1 disease in cats and dogs is overweight and obesity, so Dr. Gaylord also stressed the importance of choosing a diet that keeps your pet at a healthy weight

Dr. Laura Gaylord, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, brings together a passion for animal care combined with wellness, medicine, health and nutrition. As a veterinarian and a clinical nutritionist, she’s uniquely poised to help pet owners navigate the often-overwhelming waters of pet nutrition.

Dr. Gaylord sees clients through virtual meetings, guiding pet owners through the best nutritional options for their pets, which may be struggling with disease conditions or simply trying to live their healthiest life. One of her specialties is homemade diet formulations, but she’s open to combining homemade with commercial food options when needed.

Homemade Diet Tip No. 1: Don’t Wing It

We’ve been talking a lot about optimal pet nutrition in honor of our annual Companion Animal Nutrition and Wellness Institute (CANWI) Awareness Week. CANWI is a nonprofit organization I co-founded, with a mission to conduct independent, unbiased pet food research and get the word out about which foods are truly best for our companion animals.

Homemade fresh-food diets are often wonderful for pets, offering the least processed and most nutritious option in the pet food market. But the latter is only true if you incorporate the right nutrients. “If you want to do a homemade diet, make your own pet food for your pets, the main thing is we don't want you to wing it,” Dr. Gaylord said.

“We don't want you to just go out there and create your own plan because we do see pretty bad mistakes being made when you try to do that.

So, definitely I recommend getting some help with that and you can go to the American College of Veterinary Nutrition website, which is acvn.org, and there's a full list there of veterinary nutritionists and the services that they provide, and any one of them can help you get a nutrition feeding plan for your dog or cat.

And there's also some resources there for some websites that you can go to if you have a healthy pet that you can auto-generate a recipe for a very affordable fee. Most people can manage that on their own.”

You can also contact a veterinary nutritionist directly for more tailored recommendations. There are only 96 board-certified veterinary nutritionists in the U.S., which speaks to the lack of attention to pet nutrition on a boarder scale.

“I think veterinarians are frustrated with nutrition in general because we don't get maybe as much education as we would like to get and it's something that the American College of Veterinary Nutrition is working very hard on trying to promote,” Dr. Gaylord said.

“The truth is that there's very limited numbers of us out there … So we're working very hard to have more people involved to expand the education on nutrition. We need nutrition science that is for health and wellness of pets and not necessarily done for the purposes of making a product.”

Marketing Over Science in the Pet Food Realm

Unfortunately, there’s very little science involved in recommendations for pet food. Instead, marketing takes priority. “There's a ton of marketing and some of the marketing, I think, gets so confused with science,” Dr. Gaylord said.

While feeding dry kibble and canned food is considered the “norm,” you may be surprised to learn that no studies have been done comparing dry foods for the lifetime of dogs and cats with fresh foods for a lifetime.

Not to mention, every animal is unique, so there’s no one diet that serves them all equally. Just as humans have individualized nutrition needs, so do pets. This is where a veterinary nutritionist can really shine in helping to improve pets’ health.

“They're all individuals … every one of them, every dog is an individual,” Dr. Gaylord notes. “And so it does require personalization. So you have a 150-pound Great Dane and you have a two-pound Chihuahua, and they're all different. So, what diet works for one may not work for every single scenario. So, it requires some thought on that.”

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How to Improve Your Pet’s Nutrition

In order to offer the best nutrition for your dog or cat, Dr. Gaylord stresses the importance of being open to all food forms, whether that be commercial fresh or homemade. You have to work within your budget, family situation and lifestyle, but at minimum, she recommends, strive to add fewer processed foods to your pet’s diet:

“I usually tell people if you feed a commercial complete and balanced food, whatever that is, that should be 90% of that pet's diet, whereas 10% can be other foods that you may feel are appropriate for treats and snacks, avoiding, of course, the things that we consider the no-nos — the toxic foods, grapes, raisins, onions, fatty foods are usually risky, but other things can be used in that rotation, that 10%.

Or you might choose to do even like a 50/50 plan where the complete and balanced food forms are shared and rotated over time.”

On a practical level, this means that, instead of avoiding all table foods for dogs, you might give your dog small amounts of organic steamed chicken and broccoli, or a snack of blueberries or diced apples.

Even if you don’t want to go with a full homemade diet, you can get some of the benefits by adding more fresh foods to your pet’s diet. Dr. Gaylord feeds her own pets a 50/50 homemade diet and dry kibble, leaning toward an air-dried kibble that is less processed. Keeping track of changes you notice along the way can be very useful as well, and Dr. Gaylord suggests keeping a food diary as you transition between different diets:

“I tell people to keep a diary, keep a list of foods you have tried and try to track responses, save the label, save the ingredient list, save the guaranteed analysis so you have an understanding of what the macronutrients are in that food.

Because you might find over time that there are certain foods they do better on, certain macronutrient profiles they do better on, if they need a lower fat diet versus a higher fat diet or certain ingredients that are better tolerated.

All of that's really great information, so if you're taking notes and kind of keeping track of that over time, in hindsight, you can look back and see what foods, what ingredients, what types of diets your pet does best on. All that's really great information to have.”

Maintaining a Healthy Weight Supports Longevity

The No. 1 disease in cats and dogs is overweight and obesity, so Dr. Gaylord also stressed the importance of choosing a diet that keeps your pet at a healthy weight. “I think we need to be proactive about it and we want to catch it early … because it's a lot easier to restrict a little and stay on top of that,” she said.

So no matter which type of food you feed your pet, be very conscious of portion size and calories to keep their weight in check. “Preventing overweight and obesity is a priority,” she said. “It's definitely one factor we have shown that can extend their lifespan if we do a good job keeping them at a lean healthy body weight.”

I’ve previously detailed steps for helping your pet lose weight here. One of the greatest benefits of following the advice of Dr. Gaylord and adding as many species-appropriate fresh foods to your pet’s diet as possible, while avoiding ultraprocessed carbs, is that it will naturally help your pet to lose extra pounds and maintain a healthy weight, for optimal longevity and well-being.