Diet Recommendations in an Uncertain World

July 11, 2019

by Dr. Janet M. Forrer

I will start with my personal opinion that kibble is a great invention. Kibble is “dry food” prepared by extruding a slurry of ingredients under heat and pressure. Kibble is convenient. It is nutrient dense. It stores for long periods without overt purification of proteins, rancidity of fats or decomposition of carbs. Dogs and cats get more calories without hunting and scavenging since Purina started making Dog Chow in 1956 and Cat Chow in 1963. But, kibble is highly processed, so some nutrients are destroyed. Just like breakfast cereal, vitamins and some minerals are added back to the product as best can be determined. Just like us, our dogs and cats would be healthier with fresh food. Reality check: many of us do not prepare enough fresh food to share with our dogs and cats, if we prepare fresh food at all. I pose that if it were not for kibble, dogs and cats could not live with us in the numbers they do.

There are many people who care about the health of dogs and cats. Some of them have dedicated their careers to developing the best pet foods possible at a price that consumers will be able to afford. I salute them, and I appreciate many of the products they have developed. No company is immune from food contamination or other errors. I respect a company that recalls products quickly when there is information to support such action.

Unfortunately, commercial pet food diets have encountered several serious problems in recent years. Contamination with melamine in 2007 was perhaps the first widespread problem that was reported in our pets. After that terrible time, many consumers turned to smaller pet food companies offering locally sourced ingredients. Great! As these small companies grew, they sometimes contracted their production to larger factories losing some control of the products. Some small companies did not have the resources to monitor the ingredients and final products they produced, resulting in recalled foods and disparaging comments from veterinarians and other scientists.

Meanwhile, the grain free movement emerged. There were companies producing grain free kibble, prior to the grain free movement, but this kibble was tiny, because kibble does not like to bind into bigger pieces without grain. Then suddenly about 2016, large size grain free kibble was everywhere. Why? Because peas and other legumes are sticky too, so companies could claim a grain free diet when the kibble was mostly full of “beans”. And guess what, high bean diets are not good for some dogs, especially those prone to heart disease. We still don’t know exactly why, but I propose that anytime we make fake food (including no grain kibble or no meat sausage or other “foods”), we are setting ourselves up for trouble.

So what are my recommendations? Kibble is okay. Read the label. Every time. The first ingredient should be a named meat (beef, chicken, etc.). Some grain is okay for most dogs and cats. Whenever the label has many grains, it’s likely the total grain volume is more than the volume of the first ingredient. Dogs and cats don’t need sugar any more than we do. Avoid sugar and ingredients that equal sugar – honey, molasses, fructose, dextrose. Other ingredients are fine but unnecessary. Remember kibble is a mixture of foods cooked with heat and pressure. Not much of a blueberry will survive. If you want your dog to have the antioxidants and other benefits of blueberries, feed fresh blueberries.

There are many good foods at many price points. Canned and dehydrated foods are good too. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss these foods at length, but they are usually less processed, so may retain more natural nutrients.

In all cases, the pet food should be labeled as “formulated to meet AFFCO standards” or “tested to meet AAFCO standards”. (Get out your google for AFFCO if needed. I can probably hold your attention for just a few more paragraphs).

Feed some fresh food. Not every bite of food needs to be “completely balanced”. Fresh veggies and meat are great, including those previously frozen. I usually recommend cooking the meat, since the food you buy at the grocery is intended to be cooked. It is not processed for raw consumption. There are raw foods made for dogs and cats that are processed at the factory and transported frozen or dried to limit bacteria. These can be an excellent part of your pet’s diet.

Nutritionists warn no more than 10% “treats”. I do not consider fresh meat and veggies a treat the way my dog does. If you want to give treats, think food. No processed cookies or biscuits. Dried liver is a favorite of many dogs and cats. Just a tiny piece is enough to have the full attention of any food loving pet. NO GRAPES OR RAISINS. A bite of onion or garlic will not be harmful, but these should not be fed regularly.

Bottom line, there is no one perfect food to feed exclusively forever. No bag of food is exactly the same as another, even in the same batch. One may have a bit more vitamin C or another better quality fatty acid, but a label stating AAFCO formulated as above is a good starting point. Rotate types of food periodically if your pet’s digestion allows. You need not have multiple bags of food, just a different kibble flavor or brand when you purchase a new bag. Add some fresh food, canned or dehydrated throughout each week too.

You will likely see some variation in your pet’s stool when feeding a variety of foods. This is not a problem in most cases; however, some pets cannot rotate foods or they have DIARRHEA. These individuals may have food sensitivities or other underlying disease. If your dog or cat is restricted to one diet for such medical concerns (but looks great and has plenty of energy, and your veterinarian gives a good report too), it may be best to restrict how many different foods your pet gets.

What about a homemade diet? First, consider the time to make enough food for your pet. It is no small thing. If you are still interested in cooking a significant part of your pet’s food, watch for my second installment.