What Should I Feed Fido & Fluffy?

January 8, 2014 


Happy New Year to all our WBAH clients and their furry friends! As promised, it’s time for the second entry of the Veterinarian’s Blog. As it is every year, most people make New Year’s resolutions to get healthier, exercise, lose weight, etc. Well, that’s an admirable goal for all of us but it’s also a good plan for our pets. So, today, let’s talk about cat and dog nutrition. Now, as it was with the first blog entry, this too will be my personal opinion. It is an opinion based on 30 plus years as a veterinarian, including but not limited to nutritional education in veterinary school, reviews of current medical literature and presentations at professional meetings as well as firsthand knowledge of how a poor diet can negatively affect an animal. 


So why the qualifying statement you may ask? I believe the field of nutrition, both veterinary and human, is filled with people who consider themselves “experts”. It seems that if you have internet access, you can become an expert. With some slick packaging on your website, you can become a highly regarded expert. We all eat, so we all develop an opinion on nutrition. I have to wonder what the professionals who have devoted their careers and lives to nutrition think about the unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of certain ingredients, fad diets or alternative meal plans. As a veterinarian, it can be frustrating to listen to claims about meal plans unsubstantiated by fact or research, offered by so called “highly regarded experts” who can easily be a 19 year old salesperson in the dog food aisle at your local pet supply store simply hiding anonymously behind a keyboard. So, let’s try to dispel some myths and set the record straight and get our furry friends on the right track. We could literally talk for days on this subject, but for now let’s concentrate on commercial foods and alternative nutrition such as home cooked or raw food diets. 


But before we delve into all of that, let me first state that the most important thing to cross the lips of your dog or cat is fresh, clean drinking water. Always have plenty available. This is crucial for their health and well-being. And one more thing that goes hand in hand with a good meal plan is exercise. It’s just as important to your pets as it is to you and I. Activity keeps them healthy and happy and also keeps their weight under control. Obesity can cause serious health issues in cats and dogs, especially as they grow older. Obesity in humans has been labeled an epidemic in this country. While not quite the same in the world of our pets, obesity is growing at a very quick pace. So much so in fact that special commercial foods are now produced by many manufacturers that assist with weight control and weight loss. The best one I have seen in years is a new line by Hill’s Science Diet called “Metabolic Diet”. I’ve had great success with this diet in both clients and in my own home. I have a cat that has dropped a considerable amount of weight and will now live a much healthier life.


But how are our pets gaining all this extra weight? I find it’s not necessarily over feeding of the food an owner chooses for their pet. It seems to be an overabundance of treats. Pet treats that come from a pet supply store or worse yet, the owner’s table scraps. We need to keep in mind that our pets are not garbage disposals. They don’t need our leftovers. What we choose to eat is usually a bit richer and higher in calories than our pets are built to deal with. Table scraps can upset the sensitive stomachs of your pets and should be avoided. There are also many foods that animals cannot digest properly and some of those foods can make your pets very sick or possibly even lead to an accidental poisoning or worse. Foods to keep in mind that should NEVER be given to your pet include but are not limited to onions, grapes, raisins and currants, chocolate, macadamia nuts and xylitol which is found in sugar free gum and candy. A full of list of dangerous foods is readily available on the internet. In case of an after-hours accidental ingestion of one of these foods or any household cleaners or human medications, you should call the animal poison control center at 888-426-4435 for instruction.   


Commercial Foods  

The vast majority of commercially available foods that meet AAFCO standards are perfectly fine for the needs of most dogs and cats. They are easy to feed, with minimal preparatory effort. This is also what most veterinary board certified nutritionists say as well. A very important point to remember is that homemade diets typically have not undergone animal feeding trials or even laboratory analysis to confirm that they support the life stage for which they were designed. With commercially available foods that part of the dilemma is resolved, with different diets by the same company developed for different stages of the pet’s life. There are several good pet food companies with long track records of excellence in nutrition and nutritional research (these include but are not limited to Hill’s Science Diet, Iam’s/Eukanuba, Nutro, Royal Canin and Purina). If you and your vet are happy with the health of your dog or cat and there seem to be minimal issues surrounding your pet’s diet, then my advice would be, why change? 


Home Cooked Diets  

There seems to be an increase in the interest and use of home prepared diets. Some of that is fueled by issues in the pet food industry with recalled foods. This is a valid concern. This however has led to the perception that commercially available pet foods are all lower grade foods and therefore unhealthy. This is not the case. This perception is readily exploited by manufacturers of “niche” commercial dog foods. It is important to realize that no feeding approach is without potential pitfalls and it is important to assess the risks and benefits of all feeding regimes with the help of currently available scientific evidence. 

So, what about pet owners who are no longer comfortable with commercial diets, or have a pet that won’t eat a commercial diet, or they simply feel that preparing a homemade diet ensures they are going the extra mile for their pets and giving them the very best possible shot at excellent nutrition? There are also animals with medical problems that may do better on a home cooked diet than they do on a commercial diet or a prescription diet. One of the more common conditions where homemade diets have been extremely useful is in managing food allergies. Can a properly prepared a “home cooked diet” work? The short answer is, yes. The longer answer is, it takes a great deal of commitment to do it properly. Benefits of home cooked diets include palatability, high digestibility and ability to control exactly the ingredients and/or nutrient levels of the diet. The diet can be made to the exact needs of that particular pet. Which leads to the question of “how do we know the exact needs of that particular pet”? This is where the real experts come into play. 

 Homemade diets should be formulated by consulting your veterinarian who will work closely with a board certified veterinary nutritionist. Some of the best veterinary nutritionists are located at The Nutrition Support Center aligned with the veterinary school at UC Davis. Through a website called www.balanceit.com, they offer a great deal of support for the home cook. You are asked a few basic questions about your pet’s age, status/gender, weight and body condition (don’t worry, that last one has a drop down menu to choose from….or you can just ask your veterinarian). After you enter this information, you are able to look through various recipes and chose one that sounds good for you and your pet. Upon choosing a recipe, you are provided with a complete breakdown of that recipe including calories needed for your pet, percentage of protein vs.carbohydrates vs. fat as well as how much balancing powder you need to supply your pet with the necessary vitamins and minerals required for them to stay healthy. This service is free of charge and you can even click on any health issues your pet may have. If that option is chosen, a nutritionist will request authorization from your veterinarian and once approved, they will send you a menu based on those special dietary needs for the medical condition or conditions you selected. As I said, it does take a good deal of commitment on your part to do this the right way. I have clients that chose to do this that tell me it isn’t much more expensive to do than buying a bag of dry food. BUT it is a substantial time commitment, both in preparation and feeding. If you home cook, you need to do it right, all in. Doing it wrong can severely compromise the health of your pet. Recipes must be followed and substitutions should not be made without consulting a certified veterinary nutritionist. There is a very delicate balance with this home cooking so the devil is in the details. 

 The advantages of feeding a home cooked diet are lost when a generic recipe is used off of the internet or from random books. These recipes are not custom made for your pet, and include Vague ingredients, such as “ground beef” (unspecified fat content), “cooked chicken” (unspecified cut and method of cooking), or multivitamin (what type, what one, human? animal?). Pet multivitamins are generally formulated to be safe when added to commercial diets so the levels of potentially toxic nutrients (such as Zinc, Vitamin A and D among others) are not provided in excessive amounts. That does not mean that a multivitamin added to a batch of a home cooked food is adequate or balanced. It is not. There are also potential disadvantages in the impossibility of performing feeding tests to ensure nutritional adequacy. When feeding a homemade diet, it’s a good idea to have blood work done a regular basis in the beginning to make sure all your pet’s needs are being met. In a study published in the 90’s that evaluated 116 home cooked diets, 90% were not nutritionally adequate for adult maintenance according to current recommendations at that time. We have come a considerably long way since then in formulating diets for ‘home cooking”, but the best way to formulate a home cooked diet is in consultation with a certified veterinary nutritionist. We also use the American College of Veterinary Nutritionists www.acvn.org which is another great option to review. 



Raw Foods  

Proponents of raw food diets are often very passionate in their defense of this type of meal plan. It is the closest thing to arguing politics in the exam room. I have found them to be conscientious owners who want the best thing for their pets (they are willing to go to all the trouble to prepare these foods).But, they don’t have a veterinary nutritionist in their kitchen. There is lack of scientific evidence to support any health benefit of feeding raw diets compared to commercial diets or to home cooked diets. However, there are many websites that provide testimonials and success stories of animals fed raw diets and evidence of their superiority to home cooked or to commercially available diets. These claims are fairly extensive and are not supported by any study published in any reputable scientific journal that I’m aware of. There are 3 main types of raw food diets; 


  1. Home prepared, such as recommended by Dr. Billinghurst (B.A.R.F. – Biologically Appropriate Raw Food)  http://www.barfworld.com/html/barf_diet/barfdiet.shtml 
  2. Combination diets a premix can be bought to mix with a raw meat. 
  3. Bones and raw food diet (usually sold frozen). 


There are 3 major issues as related to feeding raw food diets: 

1. Nutritional adequacy of home prepared raw foods can suffer from the same nutritional inadequacies as home cooked diets, unbalanced, vague in instruction and nutrient drift (ingredients being substituted at will). 

2. Many of these diets rely on bones to provide enough calcium the bioavailability of calcium varies depending on type and size of bone used. There are published papers showing problems with calcium and phosphorus balance in raw food diets. Bones can also cause intestinal foreign body obstructions, gut perforation, and constipation. They can also break teeth. 

3. Bacterial contamination – there are numerous published papers documenting bacterial contamination of raw meat. Pathogens (harmful bacteria), such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, E.coli 0157:H7, Clostridium perfringens.

 The percentage of bacteria found in these raw meat sources ranged from 40-60%. The risk here is not just to the dog or cat being fed these raw meat diets. It is to the human preparing the foods as well as other humans in the household. Organisms such as salmonella are very difficult to get rid of once environmental contamination has occurred. The high risk population is the young (your kids, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems). There are numerous studies documenting the nutritional inadequacies of a raw diet which I have listed at this end of this article. I offer these because I feel that I have a role here to educate. There is no known health benefit of feeding a raw food diet. Dr. Freeman (DVM, PhD, DAVCN), published a top ten myth list about raw foods diets which can be found here: http://www.tufts.edu/vet/nutrition/resources/raw_meat_diets.pdf . I also recognize that, like politics, there’s usually nothing that can be said to convince a mind that’s already made up. With that said and in the interest of safety, I must at least address some common sense practices if raw foods are going to be fed: 


  1. Hand hygiene is critical – hands must be thoroughly washed before and after handling raw meat. 
  2. Do not store raw meat where it will come in contact with other food items. 
  3. All items that raw meat comes in contact with should be disinfected after use. Ex. Cutting boards, knives, feeding dishes etc. 
  4. Cutting boards for raw meat should NOT be used for anything else. EVER.  5. Bowls should be thoroughly cleaned to remove debris and then disinfected. 
  5. High risk individuals (mentioned earlier) should not have contact with feeding this kind of diet. 
  6. Fecal contamination of the environment should be cleaned promptly, and wash hands after contact with feces. 


So the conclusion I must reach as a veterinarian is to advise my clients against the feeding of raw food diets. For most of you, this is common sense. For those that choose to feed raw food diets, I suspect I will convince only a small percentage of you. For those thinking of feeding a raw food diet, maybe I’ve reached you and you’ll think twice in consideration of the information provided here. 


In my long blog on diets, I have not addressed vegan or vegetarian diets for dogs and cats, or the current fad of “grain free diets”. I will do so briefly. We cannot make a cat into a vegetarian. Cats are obligate carnivores. No currently available vegan diet meets the minimum nutrient amounts in the AAFCO cat food nutrient profiles. It cannot be at all recommended for cats. The long term nutritional adequacy for these kinds of diets for dogs is unclear. My advice would be to avoid. About grain free diets – when did grains become bad? In looking at food allergies in dogs, the only grain commonly in the top food allergens is wheat. Corn (commonly blamed for a lot of ills) did not even make the top ten. Feed grain free diets if you so choose as long as they meet the AAFCO standards, but there is currently no evidence that a diet free of grains is far superior to feeding any other commercial pet food. 

Well, digging into foods has been fun. Next week I will tackle some other fun topic like  ???? 


Dr. Voorheis 




These are the studies documenting nutritional inadequacies of raw food diets: 

(Vet Dermatol 1992;3 2328  

Abstract Forum American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, Baltimore, MD 2005), contamination of raw foods ( J Vet Diagn Invest. 1993;5 (3): 3727,  

J Vet Diagn Invest. 1993; 5(3) 378385;  

Finley R. Msc Thesis, University of Guelph, 2005, J Am Vet Med Assoc


(5): 705709.), fecal shedding of pathogens (Can Vet J. 2007; 8 (1); 6975), clinical infection (J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 2003; 39 (6): 53842), environmental contamination (Can Vet J. 2006;47 (9): 887889),  documenting human infection (J. Clin Microbiol. 2003;41 (10): 457882).  

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