Feed Your Pet the Best Diet You Can Reasonably Afford.
The goal in feeding your pet a diet she can truly thrive on is to mimic the ancestral diet of dogs and cats as closely as possible without breaking the bank. Now, I know some of you might be thinking "Gee, I would like to feed myself an all-organic, free range, non-genetically modified, and fresh food diet… but I just can't afford to." That is totally understandable and reasonable. The basic recommendation is to feed yourself and your pet as much unprocessed, fresh food as you can afford.
Research shows that offering some healthy foods is better than offering no healthy food at all.
Try feeding your pet 2 to 4 fresh food meals out of 14 in a week. Or do a 50/50 split, meaning one meal a day is a processed pet food, and the other is a fresh food meal. Taking baby steps toward providing the best diet you can afford for your dog or cat will put you on the road to having a healthier pet.
Dr. Karen Becker's list of Best-to-Worst Diets to Feed Your Pet
1. Nutritionally balanced raw homemade diet.
This is the best diet you can feed your dog or cat. However, it's very important not to wing it when preparing your pet's meals at home. Many homemade diets fall far short in trace minerals, antioxidants including nutrients like manganese, magnesium, vitamin E and D, copper, zinc, iron, choline, and essential fatty acids. Additionally, if the diet doesn't have a proper fat or calcium to phosphorus balance, it can actually cause a myriad of health problems, especially in growing animals. So, it's critically important that you know your homemade diet is balanced.
Making your own pet food can provide peace of mind because you're in complete control of every ingredient that enters your pet's body. It's raw and unadulterated. It contains all of the enzymes and phytonutrients that are typically destroyed during food processing.
2. Nutritionally balanced cooked homemade diet.
This option gives you all of the benefits of the homemade raw diet above, minus the benefits of the free enzymes and phytonutrients found in living foods. Interestingly, there are a few nutrients that are actually more bioavailable when cooked.
Reasons to cook your pet's meals include the fact that some animals prefer cooked over raw food, or warm food over chilled food. Also, some pet owners simply prefer to cook the food. And then, there are some medical conditions such as recent GI surgery or pancreatitis for which cooked food is just a better idea.
3. Commercially available balanced raw food diet.
Again, it's critically important that the diet be balanced. There are a lot of raw diets on the market these days that are nutritionally incomplete. These foods should say right on the label, "For supplemental or intermittent feeding." I don't recommend feeding unbalanced foods without adding in the missing nutrients, or your pet can have nutrition-related medical problems in the future.
Commercially available balanced raw food diets are found in the freezer section of small or privately owned pet boutiques. Some big-box stores are now starting to carry a larger selection of frozen raw diets, and you can also find an excellent selection online.
There are new raw diets coming on the market every month and vegetable, bone, and fat content vary widely between products. For example, diets range from 0 to 40 percent in vegetable content. This can impact the amount of synthetic vitamins and minerals that must be added to the diet to make it nutritionally complete. In addition, vegetable content impacts digestive and stool health. So if, for example, you have a dog who suffers from chronic constipation, you may want to choose a food with higher veggie content. Commercially available raw food diets also range from low fat to high fat. If you have an obese cat, you would want to select a low-fat diet, but if you have a highly active dog on the lean side who loses weight quickly, it would make sense to choose a higher fat food.
Fortunately, this sector of the pet food industry is the fastest growing category, which means you should be able to find a food that fits your ethical and financial parameters, with the added convenience of not having to make the food yourself. The downside is you're paying for the luxury of having someone else do the work for you. As with all pet food manufacturers, you'll need to investigate the company you're buying from to make sure you're feeding the correct product for your pet's specific nutritional and medical goals.
4. Dehydrated or freeze-dried raw diet.
If you can't or don't want to feed fresh raw food, a good alternative is a dehydrated freeze-dried raw diet that is reconstituted with water. These diets are shelf-stable so they're very convenient. To make them biologically appropriate, all you have to do is add water.
Dehydrated or freeze-dried raw diets haven't been processed at high temperatures. In many cases, the nutrient value has been retained minus a balanced fatty acid profile. Keep in mind that there is a difference between fresh and dehydrated or freeze-dried raw food. Dehydrated and freeze-dried foods by definition are not the same as fresh raw diets, but they can be a great choice for people on the move, people who go camping with their dog or cat, and for pets that go to day care or need to be boarded. It's really the next best thing to a fresh raw food diet. Make sure the brand you select is nutritionally balanced for all life stages.
5. Commercially available cooked or refrigerated food.
This is a new category of pet food that is exploding in the marketplace. These diets have been gently heat-processed so the proteins are slightly denatured, but the moisture content is excellent. The food is fresher than processed diets, so the nutrient content is better than choices lower on this list. You'll find these foods in the refrigerated section of pet stores, and in many human grocery stores as well.
The quality of raw materials in refrigerated pet food ranges from absolutely terrible to excellent, so you do need to do some research before choosing which brand to buy.
6. Human-grade canned food.
If the package label or the manufacturer's website doesn't say the ingredients are human grade, you should assume they are not. Pet food made with human grade ingredients is a great deal more expensive than feed-grade or animal-grade canned food. These foods will typically be found in boutiques and small independent retailers that focus on high-quality foods.
7. Super premium canned food.
These products are typically found at big-box stores like Petco and PetSmart, or a conventional veterinary clinic. These diets contain feed-grade ingredients (which mean foods not approved for human consumption). But, the moisture content is much more biologically correct than dry food. Many have excellent protein, fat, fiber, and carb ratios.
8. Human-grade dry food.
Dry food is not biologically appropriate for dogs or cats in terms of moisture content when compared to the ancestral diet. Additionally, even grain-free dry foods contain unnecessary starch that can cause inflammation issues in your pet. Human-grade is very important because the ingredients have passed quality inspection. This means they don't contain poor quality or rendered unidentified proteins. If the food has been baked, it will say so on the label. Otherwise, you should assume it's been extruded, which means you're probably feeding a small amount of carcinogens to your pet with every meal.
9. Super premium dry food.
These diets are found at big-box stores and conventional veterinary clinics. These extruded dry foods are made with feed-grade ingredients not approved for human consumption but are typically naturally preserved. Most of these foods contain added grains or starches, which are not species-appropriate and may harbor mycotoxins.
10. Grocery store brand canned food.
These foods rank below super premium dry foods because even though the moisture content is more biologically appropriate, they usually contain high levels of unnecessary grains and synthetic toxic preservatives such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and ethoxyquin.
11. Grocery store brand dry food.
These diets have all the same issues as grocery store brand canned food, and also do not contain adequate moisture.
12. Semi-moist pouched food.
This stuff is really bad. The reason it is so far down the list is because in order to make the food semi-moist, the manufacturers must add an ingredient called propylene glycol. Propylene glycol is an undesirable preservative that is closely related to ethylene glycol, which is antifreeze. While propylene glycol is approved for use in pet foods, it's unhealthy for dogs and cats to consume.
13. Unbalanced homemade diet, raw or cooked.
Dead last on the list for good reason is an unbalanced homemade diet. Some pet owners believe they can offer their dog or cat a chicken breast and some veggies, and call it a day. Many caring pet owners are unfortunately sorely lacking in knowledge about their companion animal's nutritional requirements. Feeding fresh homemade food is a good thing, however, if the diet you're offering your pet is nutritionally unbalanced, it can cause significant irreversible and even potentially fatal health problems. These include endocrine abnormalities, skeletal issues, and organ degeneration as a result of deficiencies in calcium, trace minerals, and essential fatty acids.
Almost every veterinarian has seen seen patients that have been harmed by well-meaning owners who feed unbalanced diets. It's heartbreaking and entirely preventable. Homemade pet diets must be done right or not at all.
Where Does YOUR Pet's Diet Fall on the List?
If the diet you're feeding your dog or cat falls into one of the lower quality categories, don't panic. Most people are feeding their pets lesser quality foods because they either can't afford to feed a better food, or they simply don't know what constitutes good nutrition for their pet.
If your pet is eating from the lower half of the list, make it your goal to work your way up and feed better quality foods and provide a species appropriate diet to maximize health nutrition for the animals that are in your care. Please read labels! Corn, wheat, rice and soy are not biologically necessary for dogs and cats to consume. Follow what nature intended and feed them everything they do need and try to eliminate foods that are biologically unnecessary and potentially harmful to eat.
Lastly, variety is good for your pet's nutrition. It's important you do things slowly as not to disrupt the digestion process but nutritional diversity is really important.
If you have any questions about the food you are feeding your dog or cat, please don't hesitate to ask. We are here to help and offer any suggestions to promote the well-being of your beloved pet.