What to feed your pet can be a daunting decision.

The question I get asked the most is, “What should I be feeding my cat/dog/rabbit/other?” Most owners want to provide the best for their pets – and nutrition is no exception. But this is a very complex issue. Pet food marketing messages, misinformation about various pet food manufacturers, the costs of commercial diets, recall alerts, and a new focus on alternative therapies in human nutrition all lead to confusion about the choices.

For cats and dogs, the two primary choices are commercial diets (bags or cans from the store or vet clinic) and home-prepared diets. Pet owners may opt for one, the other, or a combination of both.

Within these broad categories are several distinctions that need to be addressed. 

Commercial Diets are not created equal. We’ve all heard the ads touting the fine ingredients in one food compared to its competitors. But “real meat” versus “byproducts” is only one small part of what you want to know about a food. What you really want to know is whether it’s going to give your pet everything he needs to be healthy at whatever life stage he currently is.

The first step in choosing a commercial diet is learning how to read a pet food label. The three main components are:

Guaranteed analysis: this section presents the minimum percentages of protein and fat and the maximum amount of water and fiber in the diet in the form it will be given to the pet. This information will likely be more important to your vet than to you – and you may want to enlist your vet’s help when comparing two very different diets (canned vs. dry, for example).

Ingredient list
: Like human food, the ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. So, those at the top of the list are found in greater amounts than those in the middle or at the bottom. Be careful to look at all the different forms an ingredient may take. For instance, rice may be shown as brown rice and brewers rice in the same list; combined, rice would have appeared higher on the ingredient list than those two separate listings.
Be cautious about choosing a pet food based simply on an appealing ingredient list. First, humans like variety in their diets; and we tend to think that’s best for our pets, too. As a vet, I prefer that dogs are kept to a short ingredient list, in the event that a food intolerance arises and a certain ingredient must be identified and avoided. In a dog that has been exposed to several common meats and grains, it’s hard to find a “novel” diet that might agree with him. Second, individual ingredients are not nearly as important as the completeness of the diet, which cannot be determined simply from the ingredient list. For that, we must read the…

Statement of nutritional adequacy (also known as the “AAFCO Statement:” This may be the most important information on your pet’s food label. An organization known as the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has been charged with setting standards for pet food nutrition. The AAFCO statement tells you the life stage for which this food was developed and the means by which it was determined to be nutritionally complete and balanced. Recognized life stages are growth (puppies and kittens), maintenance, gestation, and lactation.

Two types of AAFCO statements are allowed on a pet food label. The first is “[Specific product name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO [Dog/Cat] Food nutrient profiles for [specific life stage].” Example: “Brand X is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO dog food nutrient profiles for growth.” This statement can be used when a pet food company has followed AAFCO’s approved nutrient profile in developing the diet.

A second allowable statement reads, “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [specific product name] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [specific life stage] in [dogs/cats].” Example: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Brand X provides complete and balanced nutrition for growth in dogs.” This statement can be used only if a colony of dogs/cats were maintained in good health on this diet.

It should be noted that “prescription” diets that are used to treat a specific health issue and are purchased from a veterinarian are exempted from AAFCO testing.

When in doubt about an appropriate commercial diet, consult your vet.

Home Prepared Diets are also not created equal. In this category, you’ll find raw food diets, cooked recipes found in books and on the internet, and cooked recipes from veterinary nutritionists.

How do you know if you should be preparing your pet’s food? Most veterinary nutritionists will agree that a commercially produced diet is best for the overwhelming majority of dogs and cats. This is because these foods follow the guidelines that have been determined to support health in our cats and dogs, whereas home prepared diets generally have not. There are some situations, however, that may call for a personalized diet:

  • Your pet’s combination of ailments precludes the use of any existing commercial diet. For instance, your dog must be on a low-fat diet to support his gallbladder but a low protein diet for renal disease, which leaves home-prepared diet as the best alternative.
  • Your pet has experienced food reactions to the proteins/carbohydrates in the common commercial/prescription diets. If your pet refuses the “hypoallergenic” diets on the market, home-prepared meals can be tailored for him.
  • Your pet absolutely refuses to eat any of the commercial diets he has tried. But, before choosing a home-prepared diet for the “picky eater,” you’ll want to exhaust all the options for enhancing the palatability of the commercial diets you’ve tried.

What if you’re among the owners whose pet requires a home-prepared diet? Let’s look at what that will entail.

The recipe you use should come from a qualified veterinary nutritionist and be designed specifically to meet the needs of your pet. You should not rely on recipes you find on the internet or in books; they are not tailored to your pet and have not likely been tested for nutritional completeness or balance. Further, however tempting it might be to “mix it up” and make substitutions in your recipe, you should avoid doing so; for instance, lamb and chicken, both meat proteins, lack different essential nutrients – so a substitution of one for the other could leave the diet incomplete.

The challenges of a home-prepared diet are many. First, the ingredients are not always readily available, are often perishable, and can be expensive. Second, these diets must be prepared frequently in manageable batches, which can be time-consuming over the long run. Finally, even the best home-prepared diet has not undergone feeding trials. For this reason, your veterinarian will want to see your pet every four to six months to check weight, physical condition, and lab work.

Raw diets. Although there is much “controversy” among dog owners over raw diets, little controversy exists among veterinary nutritionists. The health advantages claimed by raw-food proponents have not been supported by scientific evidence. Further, there are three major health risks to your dog associated with many of these diets: the bones can cause tooth fractures, choking, or GI obstruction; the diet is not likely to be nutritionally balanced; and the dog can shed pathogenic bacteria (like Salmonella) in his stool from contamination of the uncooked meat. The latter is, of course, also a health concern for the humans in your home. In all, the risks of a raw food diet outweigh the benefits.

For more information about home-prepared diets, please see the “Sources for Home-Cooked Diet Recipes” section at: http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/vmth/small_animal/nutrition/faq.cfm.

Deciding what to feed your pet can be a daunting decision and one that may have to be revisited as your pet ages. Your veterinarian is a good resource for making the initial decision, as well as assessing the diet during annual visits.