These days, there’s no shortage of advice on what we should be feeding ourselves – and our pets. Here, VCA SFVS internal medicine specialist Alan Stewart, DVM, DACVIM, debunks some common pet food myths and discusses the popular but controversial raw food movement.
A. Clients are increasingly asking me about grain-free diets for their dogs and cats, which should be expected given the popularity of gluten-free diets for people. But feeding our pets a solely grain-free diet, which means of course a higher protein content, could potentially be deleterious. People think grains and carbs give our pets diabetes, but our pets are getting diabetes because they are overeating, and getting fatter – not because they are eating grains.
Related to the grain-free diets, you hear a lot these days about feeding our pets a primordial diet – that dogs are descended from wolves and so their diet should mimic what a wolf eats in the wild. On the surface, this sounds logical, but dogs separated from wolves a hundred thousand years ago. They and their diets have evolved alongside us humans ever since.
Another myth is that by-products in pet food are bad. In fact, by-products such as liver and kidney are great sources of vitamins and minerals, and are highly digestible.
Some clients tell me they are concerned that commercially made pet foods are basically poison, leading to disease and eventually death in their pets.
These misconceptions and others often lead people down the road of wanting to make their own pet food at home, coming up with their own recipes or finding them online, in books and/or via friends.
Q. What’s wrong with homemade pet food?
A. My main concern is that pets need to be fed a complete and balanced diet for optimal health. And pets with specific conditions need to be fed a specific kind of diet. So much research goes into this, and we’ve learned an amazing amount over just the past couple decades. While some make-at-home recipes aren’t too far off the mark, most are. It’s imperative that if one wants to make pet food at home, the recipes need to be formulated and/or reviewed by a veterinarian or someone trained or boarded in veterinary nutrition.
Ensuring that you are feeding a complete and balanced diet isn’t an easy thing to do at all. For example, a study looked at 60 homemade recipes garnered from various sources – the Internet, books and friends – for pets with renal disease, and not one of the diets was completely balanced.
Q. In general, what do you tell clients about raw food diets, either store-bought or homemade, for pets?
A. For those people who are strong believers in a raw food diet, I tend to not try to dissuade them. We don’t know that eating a raw food diet is definitively bad – we just know that feeding a raw food diet can be dangerous for the human and animal.
It’s well known that raw and undercooked beef, chicken, turkey and pork are potential sources of bacteria (e.g., salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter) and pose health risks to people and pets. There are countless reports of dogs with salmonella poisoning from raw food diets.
The simple fact is that, no matter how careful and fastidious we are about cleaning and disinfecting during the preparation and feeding of raw food, it’s a risky thing. To show how tenacious the salmonella bug is, consider this study: Scientists cultured salmonella in dog food bowls that were used in the feeding of raw food diets. After seven runs through the dishwasher, the salmonella remained – this is not an easy bacteria to kill.
As far as pure nutrition, if a homemade raw food recipe is done right – meaning you have a complete and balanced diet – I don’t see big problems. But a raw food diet is just not appropriate for every person and every animal.
Where I come down hard against a raw food diet is if the animal is immuno-compromised (FIV-positive cats, etc.) or is on an immunosuppressant drug such as chemotherapy – or if the human is immuno-compromised (pregnant, HIV-positive, elderly, etc.) or on an immunosuppressant drug. In these cases, it is absolutely too dangerous and risky to feed raw food.
Q. So what’s the bottom line for us pet owners?
A. If pet owners are inclined to feed their pets a homemade diet, the recipe should be formulated and/or checked by a veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist. If either the human or the animal is immuno-compromised in any way, the food should be cooked, not raw. Why expose yourself or your pet unnecessarily?
Dr. Alan Stewart graduated with honors from the University of Chicago and went on to continue his veterinary training at the University of Illinois, graduating with honors again. He completed an internship in small-animal medicine and surgery at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston. He obtained his residency in small-animal medicine at the University of California at Davis. He completed a Don Low Fellowship in nutrition at the University of California at Davis in 2010-2011. In his spare time, he attends the theater, writes plays, scuba dives and supports wildlife causes.