Many of your clients may be turning toward foods they feel are more natural or wholesome in their own diets, and research is showing that they want to do the same for their pets1. For example, statistics from organizations such as the American Pet Products Association estimate that in 2015 pet owners will spend more than $23 billion2 on pet food alone, including some that manufacturers term as natural, organic or healthy.
As veterinary practitioners, it is important to stay informed so that you can better inform your clients about dietary decisions for their pet.
Common Client Concerns and Pet Food Diet Trends
You know that your clients want to offer the highest quality meals to their pets, yet there’s the question of whether these trendy food choices (for example, homemade, raw, freeze-dried, refrigerated/frozen) are better for their dogs and cats when compared to traditional diets.
Common Client Concerns About Pet Food
Your clients may bring you some specific concerns regarding the commercial foods they’ve been feeding their pets and why they want to make a change in their pets’ diet. These may include:
- Pet food recalls
- Special age-related dietary needs
- Food quality
- Appropriate nutrition
Common Diet Trends
The following are examples of diets that some pet owners perceive as healthier alternatives:
- Raw Food
- Freeze-dried, refrigerated/frozen
Some of your clients may raise objections to commercial pet food because they worry about the ingredients, quality or processing. There is a commonly held belief that preparing a homemade diet is healthier and more natural, because the client can control exactly what goes inside their pet’s food bowl.
Homemade Can Come with a High Cost
“The cost of home-prepared diets varies depending on the type and quantity of foods, ingredients and supplements that are used,” says Dr. Craig Datz, DVM, MS, DABVP, DACVN, nutrition and scientific affairs manager, Royal Canin USA. Dr. Datz explains, “In many cases, because of economies of scale, pet food manufacturers can source ingredients and distribute products at a lower cost than individual purchases at retail grocery stores.”
Essential Nutrients May Be Missing
Unlike many high-quality dog and cat foods available on the market, homemade diets often fall short of providing all the essential nutrients that pets need on a daily basis, and pet owners may not be able to easily obtain some of the ingredients that are needed to make the diets complete. There can be measuring or preparation errors, which can lead to over- or under-provision of key nutrients. A great deal of knowledge is required to consistently make a balanced and complete homemade diet that’s correct for a pet, especially if the pet has any special nutritional needs.
Other errors in the making of home-prepared diets include excessive quantities of protein; deficiencies in calories, calcium, vitamins and other micro-minerals; abnormal calcium to phosphate ratios and low energy density. Homemade diets are often crudely balanced and may not achieve satisfactory palatability, digestibility or safety, says Dr. Datz. “Client compliance may be a concern and ‘recipe drift’ can occur, meaning that the original recipe is changed, substituted or not followed over time.”
An Overall Health Assessment is Key
If your client is considering a homemade diet, an overall health assessment and workup of the pet should be done first. When it comes to devising homemade diet recipes, the best recommendations are those formulated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. The pet should have repeated follow-up visits to ensure its nutritional needs are being met.
Most Homemade Recipes Lack testing
Another consideration is that homemade diets aren’t adequately tested with animal feeding trials or laboratory analysis to confirm nutrient content and availability. “The most common error is relying on recipes that have not been formulated or evaluated by a qualified specialist,” Dr. Datz explains.
“A recent study found that of 200 recipes for maintenance of healthy dogs that were found in books and websites, only three (1.5 percent) provided all essential nutrients in concentrations meeting or exceeding the NRC recommended allowance.”3
In addition, the study found that 197 other recipes (98.5 percent) had vague or incomplete instructions, were deficient or excessive in some nutrients and/or did not provide feeding guidelines or caloric values.3
Cases Where Homemade Diets for Pets May Apply
In certain cases homemade diets can be beneficial to a pet’s health, i.e., when an animal has more than one medical condition for which commercial diets are not available or not acceptable. “For example, an animal may have a food allergy or intolerance and do well on a hydrolyzed or limited ingredient diet,” Dr. Datz says.
“But if the same animal develops another medical disorder such as chronic kidney disease, acute pancreatitis or congestive heart failure, then a home-prepared diet formulated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist may be necessary to address more than one condition.”
In addition, if an animal has been fed only table scraps in the past and refuses to eat commercial diets, a complete and balanced home recipe is necessary to prevent deficiencies and excesses.
Again, even under these circumstances, you should provide your clients adequate advice and information before they start a home-prepared diet for their pets and only if it is deemed medically appropriate. “Formulating appropriate, complete and balanced home-prepared diets is difficult and requires extensive knowledge of basic and applied nutrition, food science, digestion and metabolism, nutrient and energy requirements, and medical conditions,” Dr. Datz says.
“Consultations for home-diet recipes and advice should only be obtained from board-certified veterinary nutritionists [diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) or the European College of Veterinary and Comparative Nutrition (ECVCN)] or veterinarians with advanced training and experience.”
“To date, there have not been any controlled studies comparing home diet and commercial diets in terms of health, but there is no scientific basis for the belief that commercial pet foods are inferior,” Dr. Datz says.
Raw Food Diets
Feeding raw food diets to dogs and cats has been a popular trend, too. “There are multiple risks associated with certain types of raw feeding,” Dr. Datz says. “These concerns fall into the categories of nutritional imbalances, safety risks and human health threats. As mentioned above, most recipes for homemade diets (whether cooked or raw) are not nutritionally complete and balanced. They may be deficient in some nutrients and have excessive or even toxic levels of others,” he adds.
“There is no evidence that raw diets have benefits or properties that are superior to commercial pet foods. Commercial, frozen raw products may be safer than home-prepared diets but contamination with Salmonella and Listeria has been found in frozen and refrigerated raw diets,” according to Dr. Datz.
Communicate the Risks of Raw
It’s important to communicate the risks and the known facts about raw food diets to your clients. For one, raw meats and eggs often contain bacteria, viruses and parasites. Nutrient imbalances in the calcium-phosphorus ratio4 in the diet are a significant concern in growing kittens and puppies. Raw diets tend to provide excessive amounts of vitamins A and D5,6 along with mineral imbalances, and this can lead to secondary nutritionally based diseases.
Salmonella & Human Health
Risk of zoonotic transmission of Salmonella has been reported6. High-risk populations include children, the elderly, people with immunosuppressive diseases such as HIV, or those receiving immunosuppressive therapies. “Human health can be endangered from handling raw ingredients, contamination of kitchen surfaces and pet feeding bowls, or even from contact with animal’s saliva, skin/coat or feces that may contain bacteria or parasites from raw food contamination,” Dr. Datz says.
In addition, many organizations including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Animal Hospital Association and ACVN advise against feeding pets raw diets.
Freeze-Dried, Refrigerated/Frozen Pet Foods
Your clients may have questions about freeze-dried, refrigerated or frozen pet foods and whether there are any adverse effects on the food and shelf-life. “The preparation and storage methods do affect quality and shelf-life of commercial pet foods,” Dr. Datz explains.
“A ‘best by’ date should clearly appear on the packaging, and the owner should avoid freezing/thawing or otherwise subjecting pet foods to excessive heat, humidity or improper storage conditions.”
Processing and Storage
In addition, the quality and nutritional value can be affected by improper processing and storage. “Commercial pet food ingredients are generally subjected to heat and pressure during the cooking process. Frozen and refrigerated diets may be cooked beforehand or made available as raw unheated products,” Dr. Datz says. “The advantages are that with proper processing, any contaminants such as bacteria are destroyed and problems such as mold are avoided."
Whenever foods are heated, certain nutrients may be degraded so pet food manufacturers formulate diets to have higher levels of nutrients before cooking. They then test the finished products to ensure appropriate amounts are still present.
There are many trends in the pet food industry such as natural, organic, grain-free, limited-ingredient, holistic, human-grade, etc. “None of these trends have been shown to have beneficial effects on the health of dogs and cats,” Dr. Datz says. “Wheat gluten does not appear to have any adverse effects in most animals and, in fact, is a high-quality, highly digestible source of amino acids and other nutrients. A small number of dogs and cats are sensitive to wheat so in those specific cases, wheat-free diets are used.”
As a veterinarian, you should be able to trust the quality, safety, efficacy and consistency of pet foods that you recommend, just as you do with medications, vaccines, parasite products, etc. “Reputable manufacturers that produce high quality and complete and balanced diets for healthy animals along with therapeutic diets for animals with medical disorders or health concerns often perform extensive research, feeding trials and clinical studies,” Dr. Datz says.
They also provide veterinarians with:
- Comprehensive technical support
- Board-certified veterinary nutritionists
- Case consultations
- Answers to pet food and nutrition questions
- Continuing education through publications and conferences
- Support of veterinary education, including students, interns, residents and faculty
“Most large veterinary conferences and some state and local Veterinary Medical Associations (VMAs) offer nutrition CE with lectures or labs presented by board-certified veterinary nutritionists. Several nutrition textbooks are available and for veterinarians who are members of Veterinary Information Network (VIN), there is a large amount of archived information and message boards where questions and case consultations can be discussed,” Dr. Datz concludes.
- Coleman-Lochner L, Patton L. Fido goes organic as private equity eyes pricey pet food. Bloomberg Business. www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-04-17/fido-goes-organic-as-private-equity-eyes-pricey-pet-food. Accessed March 3, 2015.
- American Pet Products Association. U.S. Pet Industry Spending Figures & Future Outlook. 2014. www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp. Accessed Dec. 3, 2014.
- Stockman J, Fascetti AJ, Kass PH, et al. Timely topics in nutrition. JAVMA. 2013;242(11):
- Freeman LM, Michel KE. Evaluation of raw food diets for dogs. JAVMA. 2001;218(5):705-709.
- Food and Drug Administration. Center for Veterinary Medicine Guidance for Industry. Manufacture and labeling of raw meat foods for companion and captive noncompanion carnivores and omnivores. www.fda.gov/downloads/AnimalVeterinary/GuidanceComplianceEnforcement/GuidanceforIndustry/ucm052662.pdf. Accessed Dec. 4, 2014.
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Outbreaks of multidrug-resistant Salmonella Typhimurium associated with veterinary facilities—Idaho, Minnesota and Washington, 1999. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2001;50(33):701-704.