Ever walk into the supermarket, a big box store or even a boutique pet supply store and marvel at the array of pet food options?
And then, did you wonder which product is best for your pet?
As someone who purchases prepared food and makes human food for my three dogs, I have for years wondered what are truly the wisest meals to feed my pets.
Dr. Megan Salaj, an associate veterinarian at the Norfolk SPCA, helped me out with my pet nutrition quandary.
“There is no one best thing for every pet,” Salaj told me. “In general, unless a pet has a specific condition like food allergies or kidney disease, an over-the-counter diet from the pet store is fine.”
She did, however, advise looking for the Association of American Feed Control Officials’ nutritional adequacy statement on the food package. This statement says whether the food is trial-tested and/or formulated to meet animals’ needs.
Salaj advises senior products for older pets that “tend to be lower in protein and have more fiber” and foods for young animals that “are often higher in protein and more calorie-dense.” Whether or not food includes grains should not be an issue for the large majority of pets.
“In general, as long as your pet has a good hair coat, normal stool and no vomiting, they’re likely doing just fine on the food” you are already feeding them, she explained.
She shared with me that she feeds her dogs food from one of the most well-known brand names with products available in grocery stores.
“I am familiar with the company, have colleagues who have visited their facilities and told me about their production process, and because I know they have veterinary nutritionists on staff. A lot of smaller companies can still make good food, but may not necessarily have a veterinary nutritionist on staff,” she pointed out.
People who cook for their pets should “be sure to find a balanced recipe,” she advised.
Salaj suggested getting a referral to a veterinary nutritionist for a homemade diet. She also warned about feeding too much human food for young animals to avoid missing important nutrients.
“I remember being told a story in school about a dog who was eating only boiled hamburger and potatoes, and ended up coming in to the hospital with broken bones from lack of calcium,” she reminisced.
I asked Dr. Salaj if dogs or cats could be vegetarian, since a growing number of people eschew eating meat.
Turns out that it’s easier for dogs to eat a vegetarian diet, since cats are “obligate carnivores.”
“There are actually several brands of vegetarian dog food, even some vegan dog foods, that are complete and balanced,” Salaj said.
“Some of the amino acids vegetarian need must come from animal proteins,” she noted. “There are vegetarian diets for cats available, but they are often deficient in essential nutrients. Cats fed vegetarian diets often end up with health issues.”
If a pet owner feels strongly about not feeding meat to her or his pet in order to be animal-friendly, she recommends finding a companion that is already an herbivore, like a rabbit.
Salaj sees overfeeding as the biggest nutrition mistake most pet owners make. Obesity results in difficulty walking or can lead to endocrine disorders, such as diabetes.
I always wondered if it was okay for pets to drink anything besides water. I learned that pets don’t require anything besides water, but some other beverages are acceptable in very limited quantities. Dr. Salaj advised avoiding alcohol, caffeine and artificial sweeteners. Sugary liquids can result in unneeded calories, while dairy products can lead to vomiting and diarrhea, since adult pets can no longer break down lactose. Chicken broth can be added to meals to encourage eating.
People seeking more information on pet nutrition can visit Tufts University Clinical Nutrition Service website and search “petfoodology”.