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Loving pet parents only want the finest fare for their furry friends, but with a dizzying array of choices, it's hard to know which pet diet is best. Raw food is all the rage, but is it really better than commercial kibble or homemade?
Owners are trying to figure this out. New research found that only 13% of dog owners and about one-third of cat owners exclusively fed their pets conventional pet foods as their main meals all of the time.
Nearly two-thirds of dogs and about half of cats were given homemade meals at least some of the time. And more than two-thirds of pooches and more than half of kitties sometimes got raw meals.
"Fewer dogs and cats are being fed conventional, heat-processed foods," said study author Dr. Sarah Dodd, a veterinarian and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College in Canada.
The study included surveys from more than 3,600 pet owners from countries including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
"Commercial pet diets have only been around for a few decades, and one of the reasons these products were developed was an increased interest in animals' well-being. Pets have evolved to become part of the family and people wanted to provide a more balanced diet with better nutrition," Dodd explained.
She said typical grocery store or pet store foods are generally fine, but there's really no single best diet for your pets. "There's nothing wrong with feeding different food sources, providing that you can obtain assurance that the diet meets nutritional requirements."
And, diets need to be safe.
Raw foods carry bacteria risk
Dodd said the biggest concern with a raw food diet is the potential for infections -- both to pets and to their human family.
Dodd said it's important to consider the source of the foods. "Predatory animals like a gray wolf are hunting animals and then immediately consuming them. That [hunted] animal has been free-roaming, not confined in a dirty yard. It's not coming from a feedlot, covered in feces, where there's a potential for contamination that you would not see with a wild animal. And, then when processed to make a ground product, there's more potential for contamination," she explained.
With commercially available foods or cooked homemade foods, heat-treating or cooking can kill bacteria. If you're just feeding raw food, bacteria may still be in the food.
"If you feed an animal a raw product, it gets on the whiskers and face. When the animal defecates, it leaves traces. Even if you can't see it, the contamination is potentially there. Sometimes animals get sick from raw food, but even if they're not sick, it doesn't mean that they can't be transmitting infections to people," Dodd said.
The American Veterinary Medical Association policy on raw food discourages pet owners from feeding their animals anything that hasn't been heat-treated or pasteurized due to the risk of bacterial contamination.
Dodd noted that animal bones may also harbor infectious bacteria. Bones can also cause significant problems, including fractured teeth, severe constipation and even a hole in the digestive tract (from a sharp piece of bone).
Grain-free diet worries
Another potential diet concern stems from grain-free diets. Grain-free pet foods contain a high proportion of peas, lentils, other legume seeds (pulses), and/or potatoes. In 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned owners that pets eating foods labeled grain-free appeared to be more at risk of a potentially deadly heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).
Although there's no clear-cut evidence of a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the food and the heart condition, veterinarian Dr. Camille Torres, from Colorado State University, said, "There was a pretty significant link, and when the diet was switched, the signs of DCM improved. This problem really highlights how complex food formulation can be."
Can pets go vegan?
Pet owners who forgo animal products may want Fido and Fluffy to follow suit, but both Dodd and Torres said it can be hard to meet pets' protein requirements without any animal products.
"A vegan diet is very challenging. It really comes down to the bioavailability of nutrients. Vegetarian is more practical, because foods like cottage cheese and eggs can provide necessary nutrients," Torres said. And she added that cats really can't do a vegan diet and get all the protein and nutrients they need. Torres noted that there is at least one commercially available vegetarian pet food.
How about homemade?
Cooking homemade meals for your pet may be a way to express your love, but Dodd said if you're exclusively feeding homemade foods, your pet's diet may be missing key nutrients.
"Homemade foods may be missing fiber or microminerals," Dodd said. Homemade foods are typically insufficient in fat, although they can go the other way, too. Either way can cause problems. Dogs, particularly when they're not used to eating a lot of fat, can get pancreatitis from a sudden high-fat splurge -- like giving turkey skin to a pet at Thanksgiving, she explained.
Check with your vet
"Your vet is a great place to start the conversation [on diet]. What's important is the nutrients, and you need to think about getting what your pet needs in the safest and most sustainable way," Torres said.
Dodd said pet parents often don't talk with their vets out of fear of judgment for feeding their pets an unconventional diet. But she said your vet wants the same thing you do -- a healthy and happy pet.
"You don't always have to see eye to eye, but being able to have an open, honest dialog with your vet goes a long way for keeping your pet healthy," she said.
Results of the study were published recently in the BMJ'S Vet Record.
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