By Martha Michael >>>
If your pet has champagne taste, but you’re on a beer budget, there is no cause for concern. Providing healthy food is the main issue, not cost, according to local veterinarian Evelyn Vega, DVM.
“’Specialized’ does not always mean automatically better. Many premium diets are too rich for pets and cause stomach upset,” Dr. Vega says. “Others are surprisingly high in calories, resulting in an overweight pet when feeding what seems like a normal amount of food.”
Allergies can come into play with premium pet foods, also.
“Some pets with food allergies may do worse with a specialized diet if the organic lamb is really what they are allergic to,” Dr. Vega explains. “In general, look for a food with average calories per cup (400-500), protein sources as the first several ingredients, and few artificial ingredients.”
Expense does not really have to come into play, but foods on the lowest end of the spectrum are unlikely to be the healthiest choice.
“In general, staying away from the cheapest pet foods is a good idea,” says Dr. Vega, who owns Happy Pets Veterinary Center in Valencia. “Grocery store pet food often has high ash content and reduced protein levels.”
Reading the contents on the package will give you the information you need to make the wisest choice. “The main ingredient may be grain instead of a meat product. It is often filled with artificial dyes and colors,” Dr. Vega adds. “Foods that are promoted as being ‘in gravy,’ or that have ‘morsels,’ tend to be less nutritious. Some grocery store or boutique foods may also not be AAFCO-certified (Association of American Feed Control Officials) for all stages of life.”
Because dogs are omnivorous and cats are carnivores, owners need to see that protein sources are the first ones listed on the packaging. This includes meat by-products, which Dr. Vega says include nutritious organ meats.
“I suggest owners always check the ingredient labels, as well as how much protein, fiber and fat are in their pets’ diets,” says the veterinarian. “Some pets require low-fat or low-protein diets as they age, so getting used to checking this information is helpful.”
Weight is one method to tip you off that your pet may need a dietary change.
“Your pet should have a soft, shiny coat that sheds only mildly or seasonally; your pet should have regular, well-formed bowel movements instead of diarrhea or constipation; and your pet should be at a good weight with a normal energy level,” Dr. Vega explains. “If your pet meets these criteria – great!”
There is no one food that is perfect for 100 percent of cats or dogs, she says, but warns owners to stay away from grocery store dog and cat foods that can be bought for pennies a pound. Middle-priced to premium foods tend to be higher quality.
Dr. Vega has a list of signs that your pet’s food may need to be changed, but warns that symptoms are not always diet-related:
- Frequent vomiting, diarrhea, gas, or hairballs
- Reluctance to eat
- Unexplained weight loss or weight gain
- Dry, constantly shedding coat
- Greasy coat
- Licking paws or itching and scratching (signs of allergies)
- Frequent ear infections (signs of allergies)
The existence of prescription foods are there to treat conditions not offset by over-the-counter pet foods, Dr. Vega says. For instance, a prescription diet can, in many cases, eliminate the need for bladder surgery to dissolve a stone. Likewise, over-the-counter diets are not able to get protein and phosphorous low enough to be safe for pets with kidney disease.
“And for some dogs with severe, painful, nonstop food allergies, the only diet that works is a hypoallergenic diet that has been hydrolyzed, meaning the protein in the food has been altered so that the immune system no longer recognizes it as a threat,” the veterinarian explains. “While the vast majority of pets do not need a prescription diet, there are some things that ONLY a prescription diet can do. In other cases, a pet with a medical condition may benefit from a prescription diet, but adding supplements, changing to a home-cooked diet formulated by a veterinary nutritionist, or trying a different over-the-counter diet could also be an option.”
Pet owners should consult with their veterinarian to find options to treat their animal’s particular condition.What about a raw food diet? According to Dr. Vega, it is not necessarily superior to a good quality kibble or canned food.
“Raw food diets come with their own unique challenges, whether made from ingredients at the butcher counter or from a prepared mix,” she says. “If feeding solely raw human-grade meat, nutritional deficiencies of certain nutrients and minerals may occur over time if the pet does not also receive organ meat or vitamins. Raw diets carry an increased risk of food-borne disease, such as Listeria, Salmonella and Campylobacter.”
If a household has people or pets with suppressed immune systems, a raw food diet is not recommended, due to the risk of increased infection, Dr. Vega warns. And another downside of raw diets is the additional time and effort needed for daily feeding, especially because the preparations need an extremely sanitary setting.
You also have to calculate appropriate supplements and vitamins to prevent nutritional deficiency.
“Many pets thrive on raw food diets but it may not be a good fit for every pet, especially if the owner does not have the time, space and energy to adequately prepare a balanced diet,” says the veterinarian.
A number of pet owners and food companies are advocates of grain-free diets these days. Dr. Vega discloses a common misconception with the popular practice.
“True food allergies are only to proteins, such as lamb, chicken, or beef. The immune system in an allergic dog reacts to large molecules, like proteins, by treating them as an enemy, triggering an allergic reaction, such as itchy skin or diarrhea,” she says. “Grains, however, break down in the body to small sugar molecules that the immune system does not identify as a threat.”
In other words, while some pets truly do have digestive issues when eating corn or other grains, Dr. Vega does not eschew feeding grains to pets.
“While grain should never be the main ingredient in a pet food for a cat or dog, it can provide additional nutrition and shelf stability,” she says. “Some dogs may have more upset stomach on a grain-free diet due to their high protein content and richness. While there are a small number of pets who react poorly to grains, the average dog does not have a problem with grain. If your pet has signs of food allergy or dietary intolerance, work with your veterinarian to determine what your pet’s triggers may be.”Everyone who gets a puppy or kitten has to decide if their growing pet needs wet food or dry food.
“Wet food may increase tartar on teeth, as it does not provide a way to scrape the teeth when the pet eats. In dogs, especially those prone to dental problems, dry food is a good option,” Dr. Vega says. “However, wet food will not cause terrible dental disease in a dog with naturally good teeth, and if a dog has a good dental care program, wet food’s effects on the teeth are negligible.”
She has a different caveat for cat owners.
“For those who are more prone to diabetes, urinary problems, and kidney problems, wet food is ideal because of the high water content and lower carbohydrate content,” Dr. Vega says. “Some conditions in cats can be greatly improved by switching from dry food to wet, and cats on wet food only are less likely to become obese.”
The bottom line for Dr. Vega is that you can observe the health of your dogs and cats to see if changes are necessary. And to pet owners who don’t see any of the aforementioned conditions, she says: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”