Providing a healthy diet for your favorite furry companion is a critical component of maximizing performance, longevity, quality of life, and disease prevention. The "ideal" healthy diet implies that it is made from high-quality, digestible ingredients which allow each cell in the body to function at its best. At the same time, the diet must have minimal negative consequences, such as with allergic reactions, unsafe ingredients, and bacterial or mold contamination. There is such a vast array of foods to choose from, it can be overwhelming to wade through the options and feel confident that the food you have chosen is the best. For the majority of companion animal owners, food is purchased at the local pet food retail store and derived from a commercial food processing plant in the form of dry kibble or canned wet food. Although the specifics of what constitutes the best diet is up for debate, a balanced diet consisting of high-quality and value-ensured ingredients tops the list of priorities to be included in what we feed our four-legged companions. Which brand is safe to buy? Which manufacturer is the best? The answers to those questions are complicated and highly debated, even amongst veterinary professionals.
One of the more important points to remember when choosing from the large variety of diets is to ensure that the brand of food has been approved by AAFCO, the Association of American Feed Control Officials. In short, AAFCO provides scientifically established guidelines for pet food production. The goal is to ensure that your pet's food provides everything that it needs: from protein and fats to taurine, zinc, and iron. To be AAFCO certified, a food has to be proven nutritionally complete and balanced by feeding trials. This means that after several months of being fed a single diet, the pet's blood shows appropriate levels of each required ingredient. Many pet foods have a by-line of "manufactured to adhere to AAFCO standards for nutritional adequacy". This means that the food has not been proven to be balanced and complete as fed, but the published recipe provides the nutrition guidelines set forth. This is just a bit slippery as ?as made? and ?as digested? may be two different things. But, the bottom line is that adhering to AAFCO standards provides a measure of quality assurance. Since most pet owners feed the same food for months to years at a time, it is extremely important that the diet be safe, balanced, and complete.
A balanced diet means very different things for dogs versus cats. Our feline friends have evolved as obligate carnivores in comparison to the more omnivorous nature of our canine companions. Their nutritional requirements vary in regards to things such as protein, vitamins, and water needs and tolerances. Similarly, the life stage and style of a particular animal needs to be considered when choosing a balanced diet. Nutritional needs vary depending upon whether an animal is growing or aged, an athlete or ?couch potato?, pregnant or nursing. For example, calcium and phosphorus must not only be provided in the correct range, but also in the correct proportion with respect to each other. Variations from the recommended guidelines can adversely affect the skeletal growth of our favorite companions resulting in painful, sometimes life-long, consequences.
There is a large discrepancy between the costs of the many different foods that exist. What goes into the cost? Certainly, if the cost of ingredients is high, the price will also be. Higher quality food products ultimately lead to a higher cost of your companion animal's dinner. More expensive meat products listed higher in the ingredients on the label cost more than grain starches and plant protein. Some less expensive diets may include fillers in the list of ingredients. Fillers provide no nutritional benefits and pass unused through an animal producing more waste products in the yard. On a different level, more money allotted to advertising will also increase the cost of a manufacturer's product. Celebrity endorsement usually comes at a cost to the consumer pocketbook.
Some animal owners, for various reasons, prefer to provide home made meals. In fact, sometimes home cooking for your furry friend may be suggested, for example after a bout of tummy troubles when it may be necessary to provide an easily digested meal of boiled chicken and rice. In the short term, a meal cooked at home every now and again may be fine. In the long run, it can be very difficult to ensure that meals made at home are completely balanced down to the level of essential micronutrients. How many of us out there know how much copper our pets need, no less what foods to offer to provide it? The long term ramifications of feeding an incomplete diet range from poor immune system functioning to heart disease. So, what started out with best intentions, ends with illness and disease consequences. The best recommendation for preparing an animal's meals at home is to prepare them according to protocols established by certified veterinary nutritionists. These diets are available ONLY through professionals and cannot be gleaned from general access websites or books.
A word about our feline friends: cats are obligate carnivores. They have to eat meat to survive. Even after thousands of years of domestication, they are still avid and capable hunters. They have no grinding surfaces to their teeth and their metabolisms are poorly equipped to handle carbohydrates. The problem is, most dry food is carbohydrate based- it's the starch that makes it a kibble! While dry food is convenient, and seemingly tasty to our kitty friends, it does not match what they are designed to eat. This results in a predisposition to the health problems we see so frequently in cats: obesity, type 2 diabetes, kidney and lower urinary tract disease.
What about raw diets? This is one of the most highly controversial areas of diet discussion. There is tremendous disagreement between pet owners and veterinarians alike. Much of the squabbling is centered around the question of "are dogs carnivores or omnivores"? One must be careful when comparing domestic dogs to their wolf, fox, or coyote relatives. Domestic dogs, even when provided opportunities, rarely hunt for their own food, but they will scavenge just about anything off the kitchen counter or out of the garbage. The teeth in the back of the dog's mouth have grinding surfaces. These are arguments that domestic dogs are equal opportunity eaters: omnivores.
The second facet of the debate is about risk potential. There are food safety issues associated with feeding your pet raw meat diets. While they are susceptible to the same food borne illnesses that you and I are (salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter, giardia, and others), food moves through their guts faster than it does through ours. This means that the pathogenic bacteria have less time to populate the gut and generate illness. However, it can, and does, happen. Furthermore, it is important to remember that your pet now has this bacteria in its mouth, and everywhere it's mouth touches- remember that the next time you get a kiss! While your pet may never get sick, he or she may inadvertently make you ill. This is especially important when family members have compromised immune systems or your pet is a therapy dog who visits children or seniors in support facilities.
So the debate wages on: is completely unprocessed raw better than over processed, artificially colored kibble? There are opinions on all sides. Our professional OPINION is that the best diet for each pet is a balanced diet, both by nutritional guideline standards as well as by that required by the pet's individual need, family budgets and lifestyles, and personal feeding beliefs.
By choosing food products certified through AAFCO and purchased through a reputable company, a safe and reliable diet that is completely balanced is achieved. However, that does not ensure that a particular animal will thrive as well on one food as they do on another. There is no one particular food that is best for all animals. Specific diseases may mandate specific diets. Some animals seem to be able to ingest just about anything and thrive, whereas others are very ingredient specific due to dietary allergies and intolerances. Some signs of dietary intolerance can include vomiting, diarrhea, gas, and skin and ear disease. A healthy diet for your pet will help support healthy skin, a good coat quality, proper muscle tone, and enhanced energy levels. If your pet does not seem to be thriving, talk with your veterinary support staff. A diet change may make all the difference.