What’s In Your Pet Food?
I’m a dog lover, and if you’re like me, you consider your furry friends a part of the family. It may not surprise you to find out that I care as much about what I feed my puppy Mocha as I do myself.
I get asked fairly often about the diet I recommend for pets, and although my expertise is human nutrition, I’ve discovered over my many years of being a dog owner certain things that did and didn’t work. In general, the same logic applies to animal nutrition as that of humans.
Raw Diets vs. Processed Pet Food
Just as people do best when they avoid processed food and eat like their ancestors, dogs, all of which descend from wolves, also benefit from the diet that they were designed to eat: one that contains lots of raw meat, bone and cartilage, and a little vegetation. The same applies to cats and other pets. For years I fed my dog Bella, a lab mix who lived to be nearly 14, a raw diet on which she thrived. If you’re going to make your own raw food for your pet, make sure that you’re giving them bone and cartilage as well in order for them to get the necessary vitamins and nutrients. I don’t mean you should suddenly start giving your pet raw chicken or raw hamburger meat, but if your dog or cat suffers from allergies or digestive issues like irritable bowel, switching to a raw diet could resolve these symptoms.
Maintaining a raw diet for your pet can be a hassle, however. It’s messy, requires lots of prep work, and makes traveling with your pet very difficult. There are some premade raw pet foods available (I recommend the brand Stella & Chewy’s), but sometimes buying kibble is a lot more practical. If that’s the case, there are a few things to remember when it comes to choosing the right food for your four-legged friend.
I’ve written a lot of articles about the deceiving health claims in human food that are perpetuated by food companies. Likewise, pet food manufacturers spend millions of dollars each year on advertising and employ a lot of the same tricks to market their not-so-healthy products!
There might be pretty pictures of carrots, peas, and steak on the bag, but look past the advertising and read the ingredients.
3 Things To Look for When Choosing Pet Food
1. Meat-based Pet Foods
Strict, grain-free diets work well for some pets, and not so well for others. Whether or not you choose to include some grain in your pet’s food, avoid relying on grain-based food. The difference here is in the amount and role of the grains.
Dogs and cats are carnivores and therefore thrive on a high protein diet. They need meat to fulfill that protein requirement. Grains can be a good carbohydrate component to their diets in small amounts, but pet foods that contain grain as a cheaper protein source lead to all sorts of health problems. Grains can pose a lot of the same problems to animals as they do to humans. They are inflammatory, difficult to digest, damaging to the gut lining, and may lead to weight gain.
When reading ingredients on a food package, the ingredient listed first is the one used in the largest amount. If a food lists corn or any other grain first, put it back on the shelf! Look for pet food that lists meat such as chicken or fish as a first ingredient. If your pet does well on a diet that contains some grains, as many do, the quality and type of grain are important. Steer clear of corn — which is almost always a GMO — and wheat, and opt for rice instead.
2. High-quality Meat Instead of An Animal Byproduct
If there’s one thing to take away from this article, it’s that quality matters. Animal byproducts in pet foods are the waste that’s leftover after animals are slaughtered for human consumption. It usually includes parts such as chicken feet, cartilage, and organs that aren’t sold commercially for humans.
Many find that disgusting, but whether or not you think it’s gross to feed your pet chicken scraps is not the issue. The bigger problem is that food produced for pets is less regulated than food produced for humans. For example, if a cow dies of natural causes before slaughter, the beef is not going to be sold for us to eat. But byproduct used for dog and cat food is not held to the same standards of refrigeration or cause of death. There’s debate over whether or not byproduct is less nutritious than other meat, but common sense dictates that if the meat is held to a lower standard, it’s not the ideal food for your pet.
It’s difficult to know for sure that the meat in processed pet food is high quality. Even companies that claim to use no byproduct in their food have recently come under scrutiny for making false claims.1 To be truly confident, you’d have to buy better grade meat yourself. If you are buying processed pet food, buy food that doesn’t list chicken or beef “byproduct” as an ingredient. Especially do not buy pet food if the animal from which the meat came is unspecified.
3. Foods Without Soy
Soy is another low-cost filler used in pet foods. Like grain, it’s a cheaper protein source than meat. In addition to the fact that dogs and cats need meat as their primary protein source, soy has certain characteristics which make it a particularly bad ingredient in pet food.
Soy contains chemicals that mimic estrogen in animals, which is one of the reasons I don’t recommend it for human consumption. Pet food made with soy contains large enough amounts of these chemical compounds to affect animals.2 Soy is also usually a GMO, so it’s clear that you should buy pet foods that don’t contain soy.
Fight Genetic Predisposition with Good Nutrition
In humans, genetic predisposition plays a role in the development of disease, yet diet and environment can tip you over the edge. The same is true for animals. Dogs and cats, especially purebred dogs and cats, have plenty of genetic predispositions for disease due to inbreeding.3 You can fight statistically prevalent diseases in purebred animals with a healthy diet. Feeding your pets well increases their chances of living happy and disease-free well into old age.
Quality is important when it comes to your pet’s food. You don’t just want them to survive, you want them to thrive. Remember, if you do make any changes to your pet’s diet, make note of any changes in mood, energy level, and weight, as well as any other symptoms that may arise just as you would do on an elimination diet. Similarly to humans, one diet is not right for every pet. Pay attention to the clues your pet provides and give your pets the nutrition they deserve.
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