What’s In Your Pet’s Dish?
Cutting through pet food marketing clutter can help
keep your pal happy and healthy.
By Rosie Williams
Stacy Martin-Duffy became interested in pet nutrition nearly 25 years ago. As a pet sitter, she had access to a variety of pet foods, and noticed a correlation between her clients’ choice of diets and their pets’ overall health.
“I started reading about animal health, taking more classes,” Martin-Duffy recalls. “When I was pet sitting I kept thinking, ‘How can I incorporate this into my business? How could I become a healthier pet sitter and bring it into their lives?’”
Martin-Duffy realized that most pet owners lacked knowledge about their animals’ nutritional needs. They depended on veterinarians’ recommendations or made choices based on advertising. So she created food and treat lists to offer her clients, but there were few shops offering more holistic, natural varieties. That’s when she and her husband, John, decided to open Baron’s K9 Country Store in Bel Air, Maryland.
According to the Pet Food Institute, a trade group, sales of dry and wet dog and cat foods totaled approximately $18 billion in 2014, a number that seems huge until you realize that half of all American households include at least one dog or cat. Dozens of commercial dog and cat foods are available including raw, grain-free and gluten-free varieties. This has led to an onslaught of marketing campaigns that can leave pet owners confused and unsure of what to feed their animal companions.
Veterinarians prescribe specially formulated diets for patients who have been diagnosed with various disorders, such as urinary or kidney disease. Typically, however, vets have little education about pet nutrition and may simply recommend a pet food available in their clinics.
“In veterinary medical school, this is what you learn about nutrition: Tell your clients to feed their dogs a diet that is ‘complete and balanced for the life stage of the pet.’ What that means in English is that vet schools get a lot of money from pet food companies, millions of dollars in donations,” says Carol Osborne, DVM, owner of Chagrin Falls Pet Clinic in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and author of Dr. Carol’s Naturally Healthy Cats and Dr. Carol’s Naturally Healthy Dogs (Marshall Editions). “So what veterinarians learn about nutrition is absolutely nothing.” As a result, many vets depend on the manufacturers to produce products that offer convenience and consistency while meeting minimum daily nutritional requirements.
Deva Kaur Khalsa, VMD CVA, FBIH, author of Dr. Khalsa’s Natural Dog (Bow Tie/Kennel Club), warns against feeding your pets without sufficient knowledge or guidance. “There is now a specialized field in veterinary medicine—the veterinary nutritionist,” she says. “The web has a great deal of misinformation, so researching it all yourself could lead you down the wrong path.” (You can find one of these specialists through the American College of Veterinary Nutrition at acvn.org/directory.)
Khalsa adds that, contrary to some advertising claims, today’s dogs and cats are not wolves and lions—and shouldn’t be fed like their wild relatives. “Do you know that dogs are not like wolves as they have digestive enzymes that digest carbohydrates? Dogs evolved alongside of us for a long, long time. They ate what we ate,” she says. “I feel, with one in two dogs getting cancer, that our canine friends need superfoods with phytonutrients to help protect them from disease every day.”
In the wild, dogs eat the entire contents of a kill, including the intestines, in addition to wild grasses and other plants that add alkalinity to their bodies. “I feel that an all-raw or a mostly raw and mostly protein diet is the wrong way to go,” advises Khalsa, explaining that the protein makes the body acidic.
What’s more, unless pet owners feed organic grass-fed meat to their animals, those protein sources may have been fed hormones, antibiotics and GMOs. “Europe does not buy US meat; they call it ‘un-meat,’” notes Khalsa. “The fish has radiation and PCBs and mercury in it. Last of all, we are depleting the oceans of fish and cutting down rainforests to graze beef cattle.
We really do not need to feed our dogs primarily a protein diet which, coincidentally, contributes to a decline in the health of the planet.”
To some degree, what’s good for people is good for their pets, Osborne says. “Food is food. When you’re talking about wholesome nutrition, chicken or broccoli that you buy at the store, that is food. There are fewer chemicals and cancer-causing preservatives in a raw diet than in a bag of kibble.”
Osborne adds that commercially processed kibble consists of inferior ingredients. “They are not the grades of ingredients like the chicken that you put on your table. Home-cooked real food is never going to be surpassed because real food is real food.”
Martin-Duffy asks her customers about dietary restrictions, allergies or other health concerns, and if there are any veterinary prescriptions.
“Usually they’ll come in and say, ‘My cats are sleeping more’ or ‘They have hair balls constantly.’ And just the slightest change of the food to something different, taking something minor out like [a single ingredient], takes the problem away,” she says. “And we are all about rotation here, whether it’s raw, canned, kibble or freeze-dried. Instead of staying on the same thing over and over again for the rest of their lives, we suggest rotation. Their stomachs become tolerant to the change.”
Khalsa agrees that diet rotation is important. “Do not feed the same thing every day. Have three basic meals that you rotate every three days,” she says.
Cats may resist change in their diets, however, and new foods should be introduced slowly. “It’s easier to transition them first to cooked food,” explains Ihor Basko, DVM, author of Fresh Food and Ancient Wisdom (CreateSpace).
“One has to add probiotics to help the pet digest new foods and change the gut microbiome to accept better-quality foods.” The gut microbiome consists of friendly intestinal microbes.
Basko calls dry cat food “great for the veterinary business; they will develop urinary tract infections, skin problems, allergies, obesity, diabetes, kidney disease and liver problems.”
Unfortunately, cats—who, as primarily carnivores versus the more omnivorous dogs, aren’t designed for a high-carb diet—only care that kibble tastes good. “Cats will become addicted to carbs in the dry food,”
Basko explains. “You must first stop the addiction. It is a process that may take weeks or months, but in the long run, people will save money [on vet bills], and their pets’ lifespans will increase.”
But the most needed change is often the mindset of the pet owner. Switching from the convenience of processed kibble to raw or homemade food comes with a cost in both time and money: A healthful diet based on whole, real foods takes a commitment.
“A lot of this comes down to the individual,” says Osborne. “It comes down to that person’s wallet, it comes down to education, and it comes down to how much time and thought that person wants to put into his or her pet’s diet. And as easy as homemade cooking may sound, I have learned with my clients that it is not that easy.”
Will the Kibble Crumble?
If a pet owner has no interest in home cooking because of time constraints, financial concerns or other issues, Khalsa suggests looking for a kibble that is not highly heated or compressed.
“Feed a chicken-based kibble, a lamb-based kibble and a fish-based kibble, and rotate the three,” she says. “This will help reduce food allergies and sensitivities.” (Her book includes a “Hassle Factor Questionnaire,” which can help guide you to a meal plan that best suits your lifestyle.)
Martin-Duffy encourages her customers to be avid label-readers. “Make sure you understand what the ingredients are. If you can’t understand the label, don’t buy it.”
“You are what you eat, I am what I eat, and so is your pet,” says Osborne. “This is about empowering you as the pet owner to try to take charge of your pet’s health destiny. Try to find a food that your dog enjoys, that creates minimal stool volume, leaves him bright, active and alert with a glowing skin and coat. If we try to make intelligent choices, it is a tiny step to try to make things better for our four-legged friends.”
Low-Fat Starter Recipe
Cook for your dog? Why not? “I first started cooking for my pets as a way to introduce healthful ingredients and to help clients who had dogs with health problems,” says Greg Martinez, DVM, partner/owner of Gilroy Veterinary Hospital in Gilroy, California, and author of The Dog Diet Answer Book (Fair Winds). “After cooking for my pack of three and seeing the positive effects home-cooked food had on my own dogs, I became their full-time cook.”
For your first batch of the following recipe, Martinez recommends “making a small amount and using low-fat meat or fish combined with white or brown rice.”
1 pound cubed, skinless, boneless chicken breast or lean beef, turkey or fish
1-3 oz chicken liver, hearts and gizzards
2 whole eggs (including shells)
1 tsp bonemeal (per pound of meat)
4 oz uncooked rice
1 can (14.5 oz) green beans
1. In a slow cooker, combine the meat with the chicken liver, hearts and
gizzards; add the eggs. Add bonemeal, rice and green beans; then enough water to cover the ingredients. Stir to mix in the eggs.
2. Cook on low for 4-8 hours until the breasts fall apart. Stir and add water if needed to make a moister stew. Let the mixture cool, and refrigerate.
Yield: 7–8 cups
Reprinted with permission from The Dog Diet Answer Book by
Greg Martinez, DVM (Fair Winds,
Breakfast for the Whole Family
Looking for a morning meal you can serve to everyone? “This dish is a delicious breakfast for your family as well as your pets,” says Barbara Taylor-Laino, co-owner of Midsummer Farm in Warwick, New York, and author of The Healthy Homemade Pet Food Cookbook (Fair Winds). “This is a great recipe that can be made in any quantity.”
Not all human foods are suitable for animals. Be especially careful they don’t consume alcohol, caffeinated beverages, onions or garlic, grapes or raisins, fat trimmings (which can cause pancreas inflammation in cats) or the sweetener xylitol (which has been linked to liver damage in dogs).
Zucchini and Eggs
1 dozen eggs
2 small/medium zucchini (or any summer squash), cut into 1/2” cubes
(or fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1/2” pieces)
3 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Serving: About 1⁄3 cup twice a day for a medium-sized cat; 1½ cups twice a day to a medium-sized dog. Reprinted with permission from The Healthy Homemade Pet Food Cookbook by Barbara Taylor-Laino, (Fair Winds, http://www.quartoknows.com/books/9781592335718/The-Healthy-Homemade-Pet-Food-Cookbook.html?direct=1).