Offering a healthy diet very early in life will set a solid foundation for an animal to thrive. This article looks at how to make informed dietary choices for both cats and dogs.
A species-appropriate or species-specific balanced diet is one of the major pillars of health. What animals eat can transform their health at the cellular level. Many of the chronic debilitating diseases that affect our companion animals arise from a combination of environmental factors, including a poor diet. Feeding the wrong diet can lead to a perpetuating state of inflammation that equals disease in the body.1
Choosing a diet for a new companion animal can be very overwhelming for clients, as there are numerous formulations (raw, home-cooked, freeze-dried, dehydrated, canned, and kibble) as well as many brands to choose from. As veterinarians, we have the obligation to educate and guide clients on choosing a diet that will provide a solid foundation of health for their companions so they can thrive and age gracefully. Many chronic debilitating conditions can be prevented with a proper diet.
When selecting a diet for a new animal companion, pet parents must take into account their budget and the diet’s affordability; the time they are able to invest in providing the diet; and the age and any health conditions the pet may have.
TYPES OF DIET
A raw diet is biologically specific, devoid of any preservatives, and high in nutrients, as it has not been altered with chemicals and processing. These diets tend to be composed of fresh meat, meat organs, uncooked bones, and other ingredients such as fresh vegetables, fruits, eggs, etc.
Raw diets can be served in the form of a commercially available formulation that is complete and balanced, or it can be prepared at home. When choosing one over the other,
owners should think about how home preparing a well-balanced raw diet requires more time and effort, but also understand that they can control exactly what goes into the pet’s food bowl.
Some examples of good quality brands for both dogs and cats include Answers Pet Food, Smallbatch, and Allprovide. Good quality raw diets contain human grade meats that have been pasture or grass fed, and humanely sourced when possible, without the use of antibiotics or hormones. If the diet contains vegetables and other ingredients, always make sure they are free from pesticides and genetic alteration. The diets should also be free from fillers, colorants and artificial additives.
These diets are still highly nutritious, high in moisture, and the owner can still control what goes into the food bowl. The drawback is that some nutrients are altered due to heat during cooking, but these diets still provide a great alternative for pets that don’t do well on a completely raw diet, or for owners who don’t feel comfortable feeding raw.
Cooked diets can also be batch prepared, stored in the freezer, and then thawed as needed. It is important to note that bones cannot be cooked and fed, as they can become fragile and potentially lead to gastrointestinal issues and obstruction.
Due to the fact that these diets lose some of the nutritional value during cooking, a vitamin and/or mineral supplement that is NASC approved should be added to the daily diet regime. Owners should always make sure the diet is well balanced with the guidance of a veterinarian.
Here are several veterinarian-written books related to home-cooked diets, with easy recipes for owners to follow:
• Fresh Food Ancient Wisdom by Ihor Basko, DVM, CVA
• Feeding Cats: A Holistic approach by Ihor Basko, DVM,CVA
• Dr. Becker’s Real Food for Healthy Dogs and Cats: Simple Homemade Food by Karen Becker, DVM
• Yin & Yang Nutrition for Dogs: Maximizing Health with Nutrition, Not Drugs by Judy Morgan, DVM and Hue Grant
Freeze-dried diets are made from raw food that has been frozen and then goes through a vacuum pressure process to remove the ice and water. In comparison to regular raw diets, their moisture content is significantly lower but they still retain the same great nutritional profile and have a long shelf life once vacuum sealed.
Of all the diets, these tend to be most expensive but are very convenient for owners who want to take their raw food while traveling, or need to leave their pets with a dog sitter or family member who does not want to deal with raw or home-cooking. Smallbatch and Vital Essentials are two companies that carry a quality line of freeze-dried products for dogs and cats.
These foods are heat processed, which removes all the moisture and affects the nutritional profile. Most vitamins and minerals are lost in this process. Dehydrated foods are less expensive than freeze-dried, and are very convenient, as owners need only add water to reconstitute and serve them. They are still a good option for owners on the go who want to feed a good quality diet but don’t have time to prepare raw or home-cooked.
Owners tend to be very familiar with these diets. They are highly processed, and most cans contain unwanted chemicals like BPA (Bisphenol A). Canned food is high in moisture, which is something to consider for finicky cats that won’t accept any of the previously mentioned diets.
These diets are also highly processed, with a very low percentage of moisture and lower nutritional content. Of all the diets, this is the least favorable to be fed as the primary source. Many of these diets contain poor quality ingredients like corn, soy, and wheat, and they have been associated with shorter life expectancy and the development of preventable chronic debilitating diseases such as obesity, cancer and allergies, among others.1 If owners decide to offer kibble, top-dressing with fresh fruits, vegetables, and good quality meat can add a lot of nutritional value.
A dry diet worth mentioning is Carna 4. They offer a dry nugget for dogs that is produced by undergoing a short cycle of heat and then air drying. Their products are free of preservatives and synthetics.
SETTING THE FOUNDATIONS FOR HEALTH
Most weaned puppies and kittens start off eating a dry kibble diet, canned diet, or a combination of both. Transitioning them to higher quality diets like raw or home-cooked is very doable, but requires the guidance of a trained animal nutritionist or veterinarian in order to avoid nutritional deficiencies, which include skeletal issues when there is an imbalance of calcium to phosphorus and under-supplementation of vitamin D (rickets); poor wound healing; and issues with ligaments when trace minerals like selenium, zinc, copper, manganese and iron are missing. It is not necessary for every meal to be balanced but it is important that every nutrient is provided during the course of each week. It is best to start with a reputable company that makes a complete balanced product. Then transition to a home-prepared diet, either raw or home-cooked, if desired.
Offering a healthy diet very early in life will set a solid foundation for an animal to thrive. Offering fresh ingredients is key, but understandably not every owner will have the time and means of providing raw or home-cooked diets. Owners can still upgrade less favorable diets like kibble by complementing with wholesome, fresh, high quality ingredients such as human grade pieces of meat, organs, fruits, and vegetables, although it is advisable that owners consult with a veterinarian first to make sure ingredients that are toxic to pets are avoided. This can be a fun activity for the whole family and can also strengthen the human-animal bond.
1 Dodds JW, Laverdure DR. Canine nutrigenomics: The new science of feeding your dog for optimum health. Wenatchee, Washington: Dogwise Publishing; 2015.
2 Basko I. Feeding Cats: A Holistic Approach. Kauai, Hawaii. https://www.drbasko.com/product/feeding-cats-a-holistic-approach/#. Accessed on August 2, 2021.
3 Basko I. Fresh food ancient wisdom: preparing healthy and balanced meals for your dogs. Makana Kal Publishing; 2011.