The Ideal Pet Diet: A Q & A with Dr. Anne Luther
Feb 27, 2015 11:43PM
● By Suzi Harkola
Natural Awakenings: A growing trend in pet foods is making them in the U.S. with all-natural and organic ingredients. What are your feelings on this? How important is it?
Dr. Luther: “Natural” and “Organic” are two separate classes of food. They are both better than the typical commercial pet food, but they are quite different from one another. Companies who use the term “natural” have more flexibility than “organic.” Organic foods are always natural, but natural foods may not necessarily be organic.
“Natural” foods are often assumed to be foods that are minimally processed and do not contain any hormones, antibiotics or artificial flavors. In the United States, however, neither the FDA nor the USDA has rules or regulations for products labeled “natural,” so manufacturers often place a natural label on foods containing heavily processed ingredients.
Most dog foods at the grocery store are not natural or organic, and they contain many substances that are harmful to your pet. These include corn and soy, which are usually genetically modified, wheat, artificial colors and flavors, preservatives, antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides and animal by-products. Genetically modified corn, soy and wheat are very inflammatory. Consuming these can lead to a variety of health issues ranging from skin allergies, chronic ear infections, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, arthritis and even cancer.
Use of the term “Organic” is heavily regulated. Only organic guarantees that no toxic synthetic pesticides, toxic synthetic herbicides, or chemical NPK fertilizers are used in production, and no antibiotics or growth hormones are given to animals. Organic producers and processors also are subject to rigorous certification inspections by third-party inspectors to ensure that they are producing and processing organic products. Only pet food products that contain at least 95% of organic ingredients can display the USDA organic seal and show the “certified organic” statement. Note that the use of certified organic ingredients does not mean that the product itself is certified organic.
By law, USDA certified organic pet food must follow exactly the same requirements and standards as those established for organic human foods. That means these foods must be grown and processed without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides, artificial flavors, colors and preservatives, synthetic growth hormones, antibiotics, GMOs or irradiation.
As for the “Made in the USA” label, country of origin labeling laws are either weak or non-existent in the United States. They offer little protection for consumers, especially when it comes to the source of pet food ingredients. For a product to be labeled “Made in the USA” (or any other country), regulations require only that the product be “all or virtually all” made in that country. It is the “virtually all” term that gives them some wiggle room.
Also, there are no rules requiring the identification of sources of the individual components that were used to make a product. So, even though a company reports they manufacture a dog food completely in a U.S. or Canadian facility, there’s no way to assure a consumer that the ingredients weren’t sourced from a foreign producer.
Today, it’s nearly impossible to find a U.S. manufacturer for some essential vitamin and mineral supplements. Many are made in China.
NA: Is “grain free” always the best choice?
Dr. Luther: Grain free pet foods have become popular because they more closely mimic a pet’s ancestral diet. Compared to the typical kibble or wet food, the best grain-free recipes contain more meat protein, as well as easy-to-digest animal fats. They often contain fewer carbohydrates, too.
However, are grain free foods really better for your pet? For those with allergies to grain, the answer is absolutely yes. Grains can be inflammatory and certainly are not a required ingredient in your pet’s diet. There are other foods that also are implicated in causing allergies, and the most common proven allergens in dogs are beef, chicken, milk, eggs, corn, wheat and soy. For pets with chronic allergic conditions, I always recommend eliminating grain, as well as corn, soy and chicken. Unlike dogs, who are scavenging carnivores that can survive (but not thrive) eating grain-filled diets, cats are obligate carnivores, which means they need animal meat to stay alive.
NA: What ingredients should a pet parent look for when choosing products?
Dr. Luther: The first factor you should evaluate is the species-appropriateness of the diet. A species-appropriate diet contains lots of good quality protein, as well as moisture. Dogs and cats are designed to eat food that is about 70 percent moisture. If you feed your pet dry food only, he’s getting only about 12 percent moisture instead of the 70 percent his body demands. This is especially unhealthy for cats because they don’t supplement their moisture intake by drinking large amounts of water like dogs do. Pets eating dry food only live in a state of chronic, mild dehydration that over time can cause significant stress to their organs.
Species-appropriate nutrition does not contain many grains or carbohydrates. Corn, wheat, rice and soy are found in most commercially processed pet foods, but your dog or cat has no biological need for them.
In addition to the species-appropriateness of your pet’s diet, it also needs to contain all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients your dog or cat needs. The label should state that the food is 100% nutritionally complete.
NA: Is raw always better?
Dr. Luther: In general, yes. However, the worst thing you can feed your pet is an unbalanced, homemade diet – raw or cooked. Feeding a chicken breast and some veggies is not a healthy diet, even though it is homemade. This food is nutritionally unbalanced and can lead to endocrine abnormalities, skeletal issues and organ degeneration due to deficiencies in calcium, trace minerals and omega fatty acids.
Raw food still contains all the enzymes and nutrients that are typically destroyed during cooking so it provides a superior level of nutrition.
A balanced, raw, homemade diet is best because you are in complete control of the quality of ingredients in your pet’s diet. Dr. Karen Becker co-authored an excellent resource for formulating your own raw diet: Real Food for Healthy Dogs and Cats. The next best thing you can feed your pet is a commercially available raw diet. It’s important that the diet is balanced. The food you purchase should state “This food has been proven to be nutritionally complete or adequate for all life stages.” Some frozen raw diets are only meant for supplemental feeding and are not intended to be fed as the complete diet.
The ideal diet for most pets is a raw, organic diet. Feeding a dry, processed diet full of inflammatory ingredients and toxins will not give your pet the best shot at a healthy, long life. Your job as the loving guardian of a dog or cat is to feed the highest quality diet you can reasonably afford, since what your pet eats directly contributes to how long he will live and how healthy he will remain throughout his lifetime.
Anne Luther, DVM, MS, BA, CVA, is the owner of Sarasota Animal Medical Center, located at 3646 Birky Street in Sarasota. In addition to office appointments, Sarasota Animal Medical Center also offers veterinary house call services. To schedule an appointment, call 941-954-4771. For more information, visit SarasotaAnimalMedical.com.