In recent years, unique pet diets have taken off as an industry of their own. Some people swear by raw food diets, others are aggressively against them, and some prefer to home-cook meals for their furry friends. No matter your preference, these diets and the opinions surrounding them have become a source of conflict between pet owners, veterinarians, and pet food suppliers.
What makes a pet nutrition expert? It’s difficult to say. Within veterinary colleges, there is little training when it comes to nutrition. However, veterinarians are obligated to stay current with trends in veterinary medicine, and pet nutrition has certainly become a prominent aspect of pet health. A responsible, credible veterinary should have reasonable general knowledge of appropriate pet nutrition. In spite of this, it seems as though there has been a cultural shift in the United States toward a general distrust of primary care small animal veterinarians when it comes to food suggestions.
I have worked as a veterinary assistant at a small animal clinic in rural Pennsylvania since 2018 and have encountered vets with different philosophies on food. One of our vets suggests dry kibble from well-established national brands. The philosophy here is that these companies have been doing research for many, many years to consistently deliver a reliable product. We may frequently hear of recalls on these large brands of food, but this is likely due to the fact that they have a quality control team regularly sampling the food. While recalls make many pet owners lose confidence in the product, it truly does suggest that the company is making an effort to ensure the safety of their food. Smaller boutique brands may not have this same level of quality control. While we may rarely hear of recalls from these brands, perhaps we should ask ourselves if this is a good thing.
Another topic for discussion in the dry kibble world is the grain free diet. The strong push for grain free seems to stem from the belief that all pet allergies are a result of grains in food. However, from personal experience, most allergies in pets are caused by environmental factors. Those allergies that are caused by foods are more commonly caused by the protein in the food rather than the grain. Of course, this is not to say that your pet can’t be allergic to grains, but this is a discussion to have with a veterinary immunologist. Remember, dogs are actually omnivores. Their wolf ancestors do not only eat the meat of their prey; they also eat the stomachs and the contents within, which generally consists of grains. Cats are obligate carnivores. They require a higher protein content in their diets than dogs, but again, cats too eat the stomachs of their prey and consume some carbohydrates.
Another veterinarian at our clinic practices Traditional Chinese Medicine in addition to Western Medicine. While she also believes that dry food is perfectly acceptable in most cases, her unique training has given her a specialized approach to pet diets. Within Traditional Chinese Medicine, diet is seen as a form of therapy intended to improve and maintain the health of one’s pet. It is individualized based on the pet’s personality, medical conditions, and balance of yin and yang. In this case, this vet personally prepares her own pets’ food, addressing each of their needs individually. For example, a dog that always seems cold (seeks out warm spots in the house) could benefit from a warming diet with a warming protein such as lamb or chicken.
Returning to the world of dry kibble, there exist a number of prescription diets that also address pets individually. These diets are specifically targeted at certain health conditions, such as kidney disease, obesity, urinary issues, and dental concerns among many others. From what I have observed, there has been a push recently in the boutique market to discredit these diets, suggesting that they are simply a marketing ploy. While it’s true that these diets are genuinely very expensive, I have personally seen them work miracles. Take for example the male Dalmatian who is genetically predisposed to urate bladder stones. A prescription diet with a lower purine content can potentially save his owners thousands of dollars in emergency bladder stone surgeries, as well as the dog’s life. It is a pet owner’s responsibility to understand their pet’s dietary needs when they are afflicted by certain medical conditions. Prescriptions diets are sometimes the best option.
Officially, many veterinarians and the FDA do not approve of raw diets. There are concerns about threats to pet owner and pet health due to bacteria in raw meat. Additionally, at this point in time, raw foods are difficult to regulate. This means that it is difficult to ensure that a raw diet is giving your pet balanced nutrition. All the dry kibble you can buy on the shelves of your typical pet store has been tested to ensure the presence of micronutrients vital to your pet’s health. Raw food doesn’t have this kind of guarantee yet. Plus, bones in raw food have the potential to puncture organs within the digestive tract. Is this to say that raw food has no place in pet nutrition? No.
Unfortunately, many small animal veterinarians are incredibly overworked in this day and age, so much so that they struggle to find the time to research specific, effective raw diets. However, an effective veterinarian should be able to either refer you to appropriate, reliable resources or other veterinary nutritionists who should be able to help you. Unregulated diets are not something to muddle through by yourself. They can have very negative consequences for your pet.
If you are feeling skeptical about what to feed your pet, your best bet is to consult a veterinary nutritionist. Don’t let anyone try to sell you something; take your advice from someone who has knowledge of pet health and has your pet’s best interest at heart. Veterinarians do not suggest exceptionally expensive diets for no reason. Most of them genuinely do care about improving your pet’s health, regardless of your financial status. Be smart, keep your mind open, and remember that no one is trying to kill your pet.