The Right Diet for Your Pet

Good nutrition leads to healthy, happy pets.
By Margaret VanEchaute

We know you’re dedicated to leading a healthy lifestyle, especially when it comes to watching what you eat. You count calories, read labels, and research ingredients; you’ve already cut fast food, trans fats, and excess sugar from your own diet, only consuming what you know to be healthy, natural, and good for your body. But when was the last time you actually read through that list of ingredients on the back of your pet’s usual brand of pet food?

Shouldn’t your own thoughtful eating habits also extend to the choices you make for your faithful companions? If you haven’t yet educated yourself on how to choose the proper diet for your pet, now is the perfect time to begin.

It should come as no surprise that a wholesome diet is just as essential for your pet’s overall health and wellness as it is for yours—because, at the end of the day, nothing is more important than good nutrition. However, feeding your pet wisely is not simply a matter of picking up the nearest bag of pet food labeled “healthy” or “natural” and leaving it at that. Your animals rely on you, and you alone, to provide them with the necessary nutrients they need to live a long and happy life at your side. But with so many dietary options available, making an informed decision about what to feed your pets can require a little bit of work.

Pet Love

Whether it’s cuddling a purring kitten or giggling at a hamster tumbling in its wheel, there’s no question that Americans love animal companionship. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, about 63 percent of all US households own at least one pet—and topping the list of most popular animals is, of course, man’s best friend. More US households own a dog than any other kind of animal, with cats trailing as a close second. Though interestingly enough, Americans actually own more cats than dogs, as most cat-friendly residences are home to more than one feline.

Birds rank as the third most-owned pet in the country, followed in order by fish, horses, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, turtles, and gerbils (ranked according to the number of US homes that own them, not by total pet population). As their numbers continue to grow, so does the need for pet owners to educate themselves on the varieties of diets available, since pets cannot make these decisions for themselves in their domesticated environments.

In the natural world, our pet’s ancestors relied solely on their instinctual abilities to hunt, scavenge, and provide for themselves the meals they needed to survive. Whether they were stalking live prey or munching on vegetation, their bodies evolved over many centuries to flourish on the natural nutrients they most often feasted upon in the wild. However, now that these very same species have traded forests and fields for couches and kennels, their diets have shifted from what they catch to what we choose for them—a responsibility that we as pet owners must take very seriously. But how are we supposed to choose the best from among the hundreds of available dietary options?

The Problem With Commercial Pet Foods

In recent history, the availability, convenience, and omnipresence of commercial brands of prepackaged pet food have caused the industry to inflate into a worldwide, multi-billion dollar phenomenon. If you’ve walked down the pet-food aisle at your local grocery or pet-supply store recently, you know exactly what we’re talking about: the choices, varieties, brands, and special formulas of prepackaged pet food seem endless and difficult to tell apart.

When faced with these choices, we often allow ourselves to be swayed by clever advertising, fancy packaging, and—let’s face it—the all-important sticker price. Brands that are more affordable, as well as brands with higher price tags that make us feel as though we are purchasing foods of higher quality, can convince us to make choices based solely on colorful promises of complete and balanced nutrition made with your pet’s best interests at heart. But don’t be fooled, it’s not the promises on the packages you should be paying attention to—it’s the list of ingredients.

The vast majority of Americans rely partially or entirely on bags of dry kibble to fulfill their pet’s nutritional requirements. It’s easy, convenient, and a relatively inexpensive way to keep Fido happy, healthy, and satisfied—or is it? Where many store- bought bags of dry food fail is that many of them can contain high percentages of processed ingredients and low-quality proteins, often in the forms of meat or poultry by-products. Many also contain hefty amounts of grains, such as corn, soy, and wheat, that act as filler ingredients and inexpensive sources of calories. These grains can be difficult for our animals to digest and have even been identified as potential allergens for some cats and dogs, as grains do not typically make up large portions of their naturally carnivorous diets.

Additionally, no matter how “complete and balanced” your pet’s favorite brand of food might actually be, the idea that a single food source can provide all the nutrition an animal needs in a lifetime seems to be a common misconception. What our pets eat today is a far cry from what their ancestors ate in the wild, and medical problems associated with the daily consumption of processed, grain-based formulas are already being seen. Obesity, chronic digestive problems, and dental disease are only a few of the numerous health problems that have been linked back to poor diets—but by educating ourselves and making healthy choices for our animals, we can work to prevent many of these unfortunate conditions.

What You Can Do

Every animal is an individual with unique dietary needs. While there is no “best” diet that works for every pet, many veterinarians agree that a diet similar to the one on which the species evolved is close to ideal. “Species-appropriate food is critical to the optimal functioning of their bodies,” says Dr. Jeff Feinman, VMD, CVH, who owns and operates HomeVet, a full-service holistic veterinary practice in Weston, Connecticut. “Health, longevity, and happiness depend partially on what pets eat.” This means choosing a diet more in line with what your animal would have eaten in the wild. This also is probably as close to a “natural” diet as you may ever get, since the term is not heavily regulated in the pet-food industry.

For example, if your pet is a carnivore by nature, a diet consisting of corn derivatives could have a devastating long term impact on the animal’s health. A wiser choice may be one in which fresh foods, including fruits, vegetables, and meat, are served in variety and moderation. According to Dr. Robert J. Silver, DVM, MS, of Boulder’s Natural Animal in Boulder, Colorado, “Home-cooked meals can be a good option, but they take an attention to detail, consistency with your approach, and a consultation with a veterinarian to design the right diet for your pet’s health.”

Making their meals yourself can become a great way to control the quality of the ingredients your pet is consuming. Supplementing a commercial diet with as few as one or two homemade meals a week can do wonders for your pet’s health. But since many of us lead busy lives, these labor-intensive endeavors may not be the most practical option.

If you must stick with store-bought varieties, look for brands that name real meats as the first ingredient, steering clear of products that rely on by-products or “meals” as the sole source of animal protein. Be wary of ingredient lists containing too many grains and preservatives, and remember that variety is best consider slowly switching flavors or brands of food every few months to avoid nutritional deficiencies and excesses of problematic ingredients. However, please remember that before making any new dietary decisions for your pet, nothing is more important than having your animal thoroughly examined by your veterinarian, who will know better than anyone what the best dietary choice may be for your faithful companion.

Poor nutrition is often a direct cause of both major and minor medical problems, but even small changes in nutrition can do wonders for a pet’s energy level, overall health, and wellbeing. You may be saving money now by purchasing inexpensive brands of low-quality food, but in years to come, costly veterinarian bills may quickly make up the difference. Visit with your vet today and learn what you can do to ensure that you and your beloved pets will have many happy years together!