What Should I Feed Muffy, Doc?
Dr. David B. Rowland
Nutrition is complicated, interesting, and important. It’s also up there with religion and politics on the list of topics to avoid in mixed company. Folks get really worked up about pet food. But I’m going to attempt to deflate the whole issue with a simple observation:
I see hundreds of pets on all sorts of commercial diets every year, and most of them are doing just fine nutritionally.
I’d never recommend Kibbles-and-Bits to anyone, but I’ve seen plenty of dogs on a steady diet of it that are mostly healthy (though they are more prone to food-amplified tissue syndrome, or FAT). Now, of course a well-chosen diet can have health benefits, so it’s worth putting some thought (and maybe a little extra money) into. Reasonable expectations include a healthier skin and coat, and maybe even feeling a bit better in general - anyone who's ever been a college student subsisting on ramen noodles can attest to that. But losing sleep over which diet is best for your pet is also unlikely to result in an extra ten years of life, seeing them graduate college, or gain super powers.
Below are fourteen facts that will help you make more informed decisions about feeding your pet, followed by my standard answer to the title question - what should you feed your pet.
- Avoid anything with food coloring. Pets do not care if kibble is red or green. Dogs can hardly tell the difference anyway.
- Look for AAFCO statements that indicate feeding trials were done on the food, rather than just meeting formulation requirements. While such trials have a lot of limitations, they do indicate the company devoted significant resources to evaluate their formulation in real animals.
- Also, if buying adult food, make sure the AAFCO statement indicates it is for adults, not all life stages. The latter means it’s appropriate for puppies/kittens, meaning it’s more nutritionally dense and thus more likely to lead to obesity.
- If your pet is overweight (and 50% of them are) look for something labeled LIGHT or LITE. These are the only terms that have set definitions and calorie requirements. You can put a cheeseburger in a bag and call it Weight Management, Healthy Weight, etc.
- Do not try any sort of homemade diet, raw or otherwise, without the guidance of a boarded Veterinary Nutritionist. Studies have shown this almost always winds up with a nutritionally deficient diet, and this is NOT Dr. Google’s area of expertise!
- Most of the terms tossed around to get you excited about foods have absolutely no meaning. Holistic, select, premium, even human-grade – these have no legal definition. I could produce terrible quality food, label it Dr. Rowland’s Vet Approved Super Premium Holistic Select, charge $100 a bag, and smile all the while.
- Organic and Natural do have legal definitions. However there is no evidence that meeting those definitions makes a difference to your pet’s health. This does denote more expensive ingredients – which may be more nutritious, but are likewise not guaranteed to be.
- 99% of the research about pet nutrition is done by the major companies (Hill’s, Purina, Iams, etc.). Purina spent 15 years (and likely millions of dollars) proving the association between obesity and reduced lifespan. Hill’s does an incredible amount of research into specific nutritional needs of both healthy and ill pets. Say what you will about these Big Food Companies, we owe most of what we know about pet nutrition to them.
- Pet food is big money (think billions annually). And if you are selling food, you make a lot more money if pets stay healthy and keep eating. Conversely, if anything bad happens to your consumer (pets) that can be remotely linked to your product, you lose a lot of money. More money than you’re likely to save putting anything in it that you aren’t 99.9% certain is safe and nutritious.
- Larger companies also have more resources for quality control and testing. This doesn’t mean they are perfect, or that others aren’t good. It does mean they are generally a safe bet.
- Grains and corn are not inherently bad for dogs, nor is a diet without them more "natural". As I'm fond of reminding people - your pug is not a wolf. There are certainly dogs who do better on a "grain-free" diet, however, just like some people do. Even still, it's a fallacy to attribute the improvement to a lack of grains. Most of these have limited and more novel ingredients in general, meaning that another non-grain ingredient in their previous diet is just as likely to have been the problem
- The most expensive thing out there is not necessarily the best…
- …but the cheapest thing almost never is (those are life-lessons that don’t just apply to pet food).
- Lastly, don't try to fix what isn't broken. If your pet is energetic, healthy, and at an optimum weight you don't need anyone talking (or scaring) you into changing their diet.
Following from these facts, my standard dietary recommendation is to choose a diet from a larger, well-known and well-established brand in the upper-moderate cost category. It may not be the "perfect" diet, and it is entirely possible there is something "better" out there - but without stressing out this will pretty much guarantee you are feeding your pet something nutritionally complete and safe. Over the following months we plan to go into more depth on some specifics of pet nutrition to help you better understand how to evaluate different diets, but I have absolutely no reservation making the above recommendation to 99% of pets.