As a society we are hyper-vigilant about our health choices and practices. Wellness websites like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop have garnered cult followings, new home meal delivery kits are introduced to the market daily, and it feels like we learn of a new cancer-causing ingredient in our foods every week. But this kind of awareness has only begun to make its way into how we approach our pet’s diets and lifestyles. Because of our own heightened consciousness, pet owners are beginning to ask the same questions about their pet’s essential health needs. And while the industry is starting to listen and more research is being conducted, the methodology is still lagging and the answers are vague. So when NHV Natural Pet Products, an online purveyor of holistic remedies for your pet, invited us to a talk on “Integrative Vet Medicine” by Dr. Donna Raditic, board certified animal nutritionist, we were eager to hear firsthand what a professional had to say about matters.
Who is Dr. Donna?
Dr. Donna Raditic, an alum of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine is a Diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition and was a Professor for both the Nutrition and the Integrative Medicine services at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. In 2014 she joined forces with colleague Dr. Karen Becker and founded CANWI (Companion Animal Nutrition and Wellness Institute). The goal behind the CANWI foundation was to “provide education to the pet vested community about nutrition and wellness” and “empower the public to embrace nutrition and achieve optimal animal wellness and disease prevention”. The CANWI objective was inspired by one basic, age-old question: “what should I feed my pet”?
Seems like a simple enough question, right? But as we learned from Dr. Donna the answers are complicated and highly nuanced. In fact, brace yourself, there is no one right answer at all….
The Only Way to Be the Best Pet Parent Is to Ask the Questions
The fact is that we alone control our pet’s weight. And what we learned from Dr. Donna is that there is no single perfect diet and there is no average body type for our pets. One animal may eat dry kibble their entire lives and never experience any ill effects, while another might consume the same diet and suffer from ailments like lethargy or obesity. So, according to Dr. Donna, there is no absolute measure for treating our pets and the only way to succeed is to educate, detach, act rationally and ask questions.
We Can’t All Be Gwyneth (and Neither Can Our Pets):
In today’s culture it seems like everyone suffers from some form of celiac disease or gluten allergy. We are being conditioned to regard carbs as deleterious to our health and waistlines. But does this reasoning hold true for our pets? Is grain free- really the best?
It seems that pet food purveyors have sensed this shift in our own reasoning and so have begun to apply it to how we view pet products. If you take a close look you’ll probably notice “grain free” being lauded on most canned food labels. However, according to Dr. Donna, our obsession with grain-free foods does not translate to our pet’s nutritional needs at all. In fact, Dr. Donna argued that when properly cooked grains are easily digestible by our pets (particularly dogs who possess essential enzymes to break down complex carbs) and can be beneficial. In her estimation when this kind of “human thinking” is applied to pet food it is only to boost sales and monopolize on our fears.
A recent article published in Pet Product News echoed this sentiment; “The pet food space is cluttered and overwhelming for the consumer, and in many cases, the differences between the various options can seem confusing. Retailers need tools to cut through the buzzwords like ‘natural,’ ‘organic’ and ‘clean’ to help consumers really find the credible and simple information they’re looking for.” So it is important to recognize when selecting a brand of pet food your choices are motivated by commerce and a company’s ultimate objective is to sell you a product. It is up to you, as the consumer, to question the gimmicks, the branding and read past the catch phrases.
So What Does The Label Tell Us?
Deciphering ingredients in human foods is difficult, but figuring out what goes into our pet’s food is nearly impossible for the “layman”. One of the most shocking facts we learned from Dr. Donna is that the ingredients on pet food labels are listed in order of weight (not nutritional factors). For example, you typically see meat products at the top of every list. So it would seem logical to assume that a label beginning with “turkey, chicken, beef” contains a food packed with awesome, natural proteins. But Dr. Donna was quick to point out that the only reason these elements are listed first is that they are heavier and weighted with water. In turn, ingredients like lentils and beans (which are actually more valuable!) fall by the sideline and are often ignored. In the same way that we are made to believe that “grain free’ is the best for our pets, we are also being conditioned to pick up on erroneous cues from the ingredient list.
What Does The Label NOT Tell Us?
It turns out that pet food labels don’t even list every ingredient! So you can never be 100% sure what’s in your pet’s food. This is where Dr. Donna stressed the importance of asking questions about where the food was produced. While we might not know all that goes into the product we can still select foods that have been processed correctly. Dr. Donna asserted that some companies use high-quality human-grade ingredients, while some use low-cost fillers and some companies apply “better” manufacturing processes (using less heat so not to remove vital nutrients) than others. So in Dr. Donna’s estimation, the best tactic for selecting your pet’s food is to research each company’s practices and gauge accordingly.
But don’t be too alarmed! Dr. Donna listed the many positives of processed foods such as convenience, long shelf lives (so you don’t have to worry about spoilage), and testing by AAFCO, FDA, and the USDA. Interestingly, Dr. Donna also pointed out that in general there are more recalls in human food, so really it’s all a gamble.
How Can We Make It All Better?
1. Variety is Everything
One point that Dr. Donna stressed (which made us laugh out loud) was that some pet owners (ourselves included!) brag about not feeding our pets human food. Our reasoning is to curb begging habits and a misbelief that canned food contains ALL the necessary elements. However, Dr. Donna maintained that there are significant benefits to adding some roasted chicken, fresh veggies, ground turkey or egg to provide extra wholesome nutrients and vitamins.
2. Alternatives to the Can:
If you’re ambitious and have the means, Dr. Donna also suggested cooking your own homemade foods. Because of the lack of preservatives and processing, these diets can be highly beneficial for your pet’s digestive system. However, the downside to these methods is they are time-consuming, can be high in fat and very expensive. Dr. Donna also touted therapeutic diets because these foods undergo high-quality control, are developed by nutritionists and specialists and list their ingredients clearly and precisely. However, this option can also be costly and has to be prescribed by your veterinarian.
3. Top It off with Some Goodness:
Dr. Donna also promoted sprinkling in some HDS’ (Herbal Dietary Supplements) like Omega 3 Fatty Acids, Milk Thistle or Turmeric. She suggested that these could improve the nutritional quality of the food and help combat chronic diseases. However, she maintained that you should absolutely consult with your veterinarian before administering any additional vitamins to your pet’s foods.
Something to Chew On
So while the whole process of choosing the “right” pet food can be daunting we learned that the most important thing a concerned pet parent can do is research and ask the questions! There is no right or wrong, and there is no “best.” You only need to figure out what could be the most beneficial and try it. We for one have started to add some roast chicken to our pet’s meals and let’s just say no one has complained yet.