Pet food: which one should you choose
Pet nutrition, like human nutrition, is an evolving science.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen robust debate about what’s the very best diet to feed your pet. Weighing into the discussion are advocates of commercial pet food, BARF and raw diets, home cooked food and grain free diets. It seems everyone has an opinion (they want to share with you) and you’re not alone if you feel like you’re being bombarded with information (of varying quality) from everywhere (online, friends, retail staff and professionals).
And still you’re left wondering: ‘So what is the best diet for my pet?’
Amid all the confusion, the answer may be a bit more simple. The best diet is usually one that your pet will eat without too much fuss, supports your pet’s nutritional needs and is affordable and practical to feed.
Let’s look at the different options.
The term ‘commercial diet’ generally refers to dried kibble or canned food diets. Companies have been producing and selling pet food for over 150 years, with the first dry kibble dog food produced in the 1950s. Since then, the easy availability of commercial pet food has raised the overall nutritional standards for pets and has greatly reduced the incidence of many nutritional diseases.
Commercial pet food companies can offer complete and balanced technically sophisticated products that offer all the known nutrients in the ‘right’ amounts. There are now thousands of different foods fulfilling just about every niche you can think of (eg dental, skin, sensitive stomachs, furball, bladder stones, stress, brain health and various breed diets to name a few).
Some companies, like Science Diet and Royal Canin, have their products undergo extensive controlled food testing, adhere to strict quality control, aim to optimise nutrition and lead advances in prescription nutritional medicine.
The verdict: Overall, commercial pet foods provide a cost effective and nutritionally balanced diet for many pets.
If you like the idea of feeding a commercial diet to your pet, to determine the quality of a product:
look for the label that says ‘complete and balanced’
ask the seller about the company's quality control measures, recipe stability, whether the products are tested for bioavailability of nutrients and the nutritional analysis of the diet
check out the company’s website to see if the information is helpful or misleading and if they have qualified staff able to answer your questions.
Home made diets
Home made diets are enjoyed by many pets either as a sole diet, as part of their meal or as a convalescence diet. These ‘natural diets’ focus on being more unprocessed; using simple whole-food ingredients like meat, vegetables and grains. Home made diets are often very yummy for pets and can be highly digestible and an excellent source of nutrition.
The ability to use fresh selected ingredients is important for many owners. Knowing and controlling what ingredients are used, where they come from and how they’re handled can provide peace of mind. Home made recipes are numerous with some based around a known recipe or philosophy like BARF.
Apart from time and effort required, the main drawback is that most home made diets lack sophistication in recipe to provide optimum nutrition for your pet, especially in growing animals or pets with specific nutritional needs. For example, a common recipe of chicken breast, olive oil, rice, carrots and zucchini has about 17 nutritional deficiencies that may impact your pet. Nutritional deficiencies are related to sub optimal health including bone, skin and heart issues in pets.
The verdict: Home made diets offer many benefits but may not be nutritionally balanced.
If you decide to feed a home made diet that makes up more than a quarter of your pet’s diet or is used longer term, we strongly recommend the use of one of the diet supplement powders created by the experts at BALANCE IT. This premium product offers bespoke nutritional supplementation to make any home cooked diet complete and balanced. You can also find a range of general and specific recipes on the BALANCE IT website.
We recommend that the ingredients and food are handled according to the same standards we apply to our own food with regards to refrigeration, defrosting, reheating, hand washing and sanitising of food preparation areas and pet food bowls.
Raw meat diets are increasingly popular as owners seek a more authentic ‘carnivore experience’ and nutrition for their pet.
Whilst there is little scientific evidence to show that raw meat diets have nutritional benefits over commercial or cooked meat diets, there is a lot of anecdotal support. Pets, particularly cats, find the raw meat extremely palatable. Some cat veterinary specialists strongly support the inclusion of raw meat, particularly in the form of meaty bones for all adult cats. The time spent by the cat devouring the meat off the bone has a host of benefits – improved satiety and dental hygiene being the most obvious.
Concerns with raw meat diets revolve mainly around nutritional imbalance and infection exposure for pets and the people living with them. There is a reasonable burden of evidence showing that pets fed a raw meat diet shed more infectious microbes in their stools than those fed a commercial cooked or home cooked diet. Studies analysing some commercial raw frozen pet foods show the elevated levels of Listeria, E coli and Salmonella. Raw meat pet diets, for reasons of infection control, are not accepted at many institutions in the USA.
The verdict: Many pets do really well on diets containing raw meat, but they’re not suitable for everyone.
If you decide to feed raw meat to your pet, we recommend using a nutritional supplement such as BALANCE IT. Please ensure that your food and pet handling hygiene standards are high. If there are pets or people in the household that are very young, old, pregnant or immunocompromised you may reconsider feeding raw meat to your pet.
Grain free and low carb
Carbohydrates, of varying type and amount, are a normal ingredient in dog and cat food. They are generally a good source of nutrients, energy and fibre. Inclusion of carbohydrates into pet food diets also attends to environmental sustainability issues by using a more sustainable plant based protein source rather than animal based. Whilst it is known that dogs and cats can digest carbohydrates, it is not agreed on exactly how much carbohydrates in the diet is optimal.
All dogs breeds have genetically evolved from wolves, who have a varied diet and are efficient at digesting carbohydrates. Dogs therefore can manage a reasonable amount of carbohydrates in the diet. Optimal carbohydrate levels in dog food will vary depending on factors such as breed, health, desexing status, exercise levels and weight management.
The common ancestor of cats is the African Wild Cat, who evolved on a diet of low carbohydrate containing prey animals. Different to dogs, domestic cats maintain many genetic digestive similarities to their wild cat ancestors so there is much investigation into how much carbohydrate should be in cat food. Some studies have focused on high carbohydrate diets and a link to obesity or diabetes in the cat. If your cat is overweight or prone to diabetes, a lower carbohydrate diet may be recommended.
Many commercial pet foods are marketed today as ‘grain free’. Rather than meaning the food is low in carbohydrates, this generally means that the diet's carbohydrate is sourced from alternative things like potato, tapioca, peas and beans (rather than rice, wheat, barley, oats and corn). Some pets have dietary sensitivities to grains and some just digest different carbohydrates better than others. If you have a pet with a sensitive stomach, grain free varieties of food may offer a novel carbohydrate that agrees better with their digestion.
The verdict: Low carb diets can be good for cats with weight or glucose management issues. Grain free options are worth a try if you have a pet with food intolerance or sensitivity.
There are specific ‘low carb’ diets but in general, canned foods and balanced home made diets contain fewer carbohydrates than dry food. When it comes to looking for a good grain free food, the same principles apply as when looking for a good commercial diet.