Well let’s expand on our food topic. So next up, Grain Free, vegetarian/vegan, Organic, Raw diets, and Homemade diets. What do these truly mean? Well, let’s find out.
Grain- free is up first. This is a very common food I hear owners using on their animals, most commonly because they hear of animals having grain allergies. Two important things to note with food allergies is that grains are not the most common type of food animals are allergic to, it is actually protein-based products. The other is that food allergies are not as common as you may think in animals. Most animals that are struggling with allergies occur more commonly from the environment.
A concern I often hear with feeding animals grain, is they do not process it well and it is not a necessary source of nutrition, as wild animals do not eat it. While this is true, also look at the aspect of humans. Corn and wheat are not a requirement in our diet either, we do no process it well, but yet we still eat it. Most quality diets also grind up the grain to allow for easier digestion. The bigger concern with grain is the quality of the grain and how much is truly in the product. Lower quality brands may have higher amounts of grain within their diets, which in turn could lead to increased problems with digestion. The key is to find quality brands that are not trying to fill up their products with grains. The more important ingredient you should be concerned with on your pets food label is the protein source and type. Protein is the main nutrient you animal needs and one that should be of quality.
So grain free=the removal of grains. This means that something has to be substituted in its place to help hold the kibble together. What is commonly used? Starch. Starch is added to the diet which means more carbohydrates. More carbohydrates can lead to more issues with blood sugar and weight gain/obesity if not monitored and given appropriately.
Another interesting aspect about grain free diets that has recently come to light, through research, is they have the potential to increase chances of heart disease. The FDA has begun research on this, as some reports have shown diets with legumes and potatoes as the main ingredient, may increase the chances of Dilated Cardiomyopathy. Here is a link to the FDA website discussing some of their work they have started. The caveat with this announcement is this is only preliminary findings, no huge study was performed. So while this is something to consider and know about, it may not have these true affects. More research needs to be done on this topic.
Another topic of food seen with animals is vegetarian/vegan diets. The biggest no-no with vegetarian/vegan diets is to feed them to cats. Cats are carnivores, which mean they require meat. A specific amino acid that cats get and require from animal-based proteins is called taurine. Taurine is found in meat organs (heart, liver, kidney). Taurine is an essential nutrient to the cat, meaning cats are not able to make the taurine they need from other amino acids, and it is required in their diet. A taurine deficient cat can have retinal degeneration which could potentially lead to blindness, possible heart disease – which could lead to death, digestive issues, and problems with pregnancies and fetus development.
Next, organic. So what does organic mean? The USDA states, “Grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing many factors including soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives.” The soil used for organic material has had no prohibited substances applied to it for 3 years. The animals used for meat used must be fed 100% organic feed/forage with no antibiotics or hormones. They must be raised in living conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors. Just like with food labeling, organic labeling has specific meanings too. Here is a chart from the USDA explaining what organic labeling means.
Next, raw diets. Raw diets have been used in the past as they are thought to be the healthiest choice when selecting a diet. While there are pros and cons to any diet, AAHA- the American Animal Health Association- strongly believes that raw diets should not be used. Here are their reasoning’s (which I strongly agree with):
Raw food that is sold could still potentially have pathogens within them. How many times have you heard of recalls on eggs or meat from pathogens being present? Often enough. The other concern is that while humans may use that product with a pathogen in them, we cook them which has the potential to kill the pathogen. Feeding this raw to an animal, the pathogen is not killed and then can negatively affect your pet. The animal will eat and then defecate the pathogen out. Once it is defecated out, a human may handle those feces (picking them up while out for a walk, cleaning out the litter box, etc), or even just the food, and become contaminated with that pathogen as well. This is where good hygiene definitely comes to play. Certain people are at risk for contracting these pathogens : very young, old or immunocompromised people. Not only should you be concerned about handling the meat, taking into account where the dog eats, cleaning their bowls, and the fact that they have raw meat residue now in their own saliva.
Raw diets come with the risk of infecting not only the dog, but the people around them. While you may say, in the wild an animal kills and then eats the carcass. While yes this is true, there are a couple things to consider. One, the animal is killed and eaten right away. Yes there is still potential for the meat to have a pathogen, but the bigger factor is the animal eats the meat right away. This in turn makes it less likely for a pathogen to form, because as the meat rots/sits out- pathogens begin to attack. Have you ever watched a survival show in the wild? Let’s say Naked and Afraid for example. The contestants are not given food, they must hunt for it. If they kill something, they then eat the meat right away or cook it to keep it fresh and edible. I remember seeing one episode of Naked and Afraid XL, and one of the contestants found a carcass that had been partially eaten. The animal was killed semi-recently but not within minutes. He decided to take the meat back to his camp, thinking the other contestants would be happy. Well they were not. Only one other contestant ate the meat, as everyone else was afraid it had spoiled by then, which would increase the chance of pathogens. Well, long strong short- the two people who ate the meat ended up getting sick, as their body could not process the spoiled meat with potential pathogens present. This is the same thought with a dog. Unless you are going out, killing the animal, and serving right up for your pet, raw diets are not the best choice. The animal responsible for the meat, was killed an unknown time before. The handling of the meat prior to ingestion is not 100% known. You may leave the meat out longer than it should be. What do these all have in common? Increased chances of pathogens and spoilage, which in turn could lead to sickness in your animal.
Other considerations with raw diets, include proper nutritional balance and the idea that dogs are not wolves. So if you are preparing a raw diet for you dog, make sure it is properly balanced and the animal is getting the proper nutrients it needs for growth, development, and living. Taking some meat from the local Hy-Vee and putting it in your dogs bowl, may not be the answer or diet you are looking for. Another aspect, dogs are domesticated. This means they have evolved through their lives to be where they are now. So a dog and a wolf are not the exact same. While a wolf is out in the wild hunting and killing animals to survive, domesticated animals have adapted to becoming more omnivore like.
Finally, Homemade diets. Homemade diets have increased in popularity the past few years. There are commonly two reasons for an animal being placed on a homemade diet: one, the clients wants to use a homemade diet or two, the animal has certain disease that may require the use of a homemade diet.
While homemade diets can be great, the biggest concerns are they must be balanced, have proper ingredients, and be cooked appropriately. Necessary ingredients include: animal protein, animal fat, calcium, electrolytes, vitamins, and taurine if it is a cat. There are a few ways to see if the homemade diet is appropriate.
- Online software- Balance IT Autobalancer from a DVM consulting company in Davis, CA.
- Food analysis at a laboratory
- Evaluation by a veterinary nutritionist
Advantages to a home cooked diet: they can be customized. So based on the specific needs of the animal, certain ingredients can be increased or decreased to meet their needs.
Disadvantages to a home cooked diet: cost is often higher, time consuming, and possible poor nutrient quality/quantity.
So once again, it is always important to read your label, understand what ingredients you are feeding, what those ingredients mean and how they can affect your pet.
I am not saying that all of these diets are wrong, there are pros and cons in everything. My point of this post is for people to get both sides of a diet. While you often hear why a diet is good or why it is better than another diet, you often do not hear the reasons as to why the diet may not be a good fit. When selecting a diet, you should have all the information possible, both positive and negative.
A diet is a personal choice for you and your pet, but a decision should be made with all the facts.