There are a lot of possible reasons each of us eats the way we do. We like the way it tastes, or the memories it conjures, or maybe because we were raised eating that way. Perhaps certain foods make us feel good and energized — or an alternative food makes us feel crummy, so we avoid it. We might have allergies, sensitives, and intolerances that lead us to steer clear of big sections of the supermarket, and we may make certain choices because they align with our personal moral compass.
And, of course, we can’t discount the fact that certain ways of eating tend to become really popular, so even if we don’t necessarily need to eat that way, we might find ourselves following a trend that seems to be healthy.
The important thing to remember is that, regardless of our specific preferences or restrictions, as humans, we generally eat a pretty wide variety. As long as we’re hitting a few important nutritional marks and paying attention to how our bodies are reacting to what we’re eating, we can fine tune our eating in a bunch of different ways.
But the same is not necessarily true for our pets. And in some cases, the very diets that make us feel better might be insufficient, or even deadly, for cats and dogs. Here’s why a way of eating that works for you might not be appropriate for your pet.
Grain-Free, Exotic and Boutique Foods
In a fairly recent example, we have grain-free diets, which the FDA is investigating for potential links to canine dilated cardiomyopathy, a type of heart disease.
“Many pet owners pursued this grain-free diet trend because they were told that was the thing to do,” Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, aka Dr. V, a San Diego-based veterinarian, author, blogger, and guest on our podcast says. “And for a long time, the veterinary community had no problem with it. But now, we know better. The science is there; the evidence is incontrovertible.”
What’s less clear is exactly what the problem is.
“The first correlation we saw was grain-free, but we haven’t identified what the cause is. What we know is that the correlation tends to be BEG diets — boutique, exotic, and grain-free. And the more of those boxes you tick, the higher the correlation tends to be,” says Dr. V.
So, it may not be the grain-free part of the food that’s problematic, but rather, the legumes or alternate proteins being used. But, let’s be clear: the people who chose to feed their dogs a BEG diet prior to this investigation were certainly doing so out of a desire to improve their dog’s health, not risk his life. So, now that we know this highly risky correlation exists, what’s motivating people to continue feeding their dog a food that falls under these umbrellas?
It likely comes down to marketing — and where we’re getting our information.
“Marketing has changed pet food from a nutritional, medical choice to a moral imperative,” says Dr. V. “And then, people have trouble knowing who to trust. Someone might have it in their head that their vet profits [from the brand of food they’re selling], and not trust them. But they’ll buy from a boutique store — and that store is profiting directly from that sale. So, the question to ask yourself is, ‘Who’s profiting from this — and why?’”
That doesn’t mean that the corner pet food shop you love to frequent is trying to do your pet harm — not by a long shot. But it does mean that you should do your own research, and maybe not rely solely on the advice of someone who has built their whole business around a certain type of food. If you have questions about whether a type of diet is appropriate for your pet, talk to your vet — and if you want to know why they’re making a certain recommendation, ask them!
Organic, Paleo, and Keto
Now, grain-free is far from the only popular diet that’s made the leap from people to pets.
“Whenever we see a trend in human diets, it eventually tracks to animal diets. It’s the, ‘What’s good for me must be good for them,’ thinking,” says Dr. V. She says that a healthy pet can handle some dietary imbalances, so, for example, they may not need all the protein and fat in a keto diet, but it won’t likely hurt them. But it’s not likely to benefit them, either.
And that takes us to another potential issue with deviating from some of the mainstream pet foods: quality control.
“There’s always the potential for issues, whether it’s Hill’s or tiny boutique,” says Dr. V. “What matters, is are they looking for these things in the first place, are they testing their food, and if they find a problem, how do they handle it?”
So, if you see a pet food company issuing a recall, that may actually indicate a higher level of responsibility and attention to quality control than a company that never issues a recall. The best thing to do is, if you’re interested in a specific food, read up on that brand — and talk to a veterinarian you trust if you have questions.
Also, consider regularly checking a site like this, to see what foods — from both large and small brands — have been recalled.
Vegan and Vegetarian
First things first on this topic: Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they aren’t able to make certain necessary amino acids from non-meat sources the way omnivores and herbivores do.
To put it simply, Dr. V says, “If you feed your cat a vegan diet, you are killing your cat.”
Dogs are different, she says, and a healthy dog could theoretically handle a vegan or vegetarian diet, but it’s not as simple for dogs as it is for humans.
“It’s very, very difficult to balance properly; they’re not made to function on a vegetarian diet,” says Dr. V. “If your dog has a medical issue that needs this, you should be working with a nutritionist.”
So, unless your veterinarian (not the nice lady in the pet food aisle offering samples, not a stranger on the internet) is recommending your dog or cat follow a special diet, maybe it’s time to really think through why you’re choosing a specific food — especially if it costs more or is more difficult to get. And if you opt to keep your pet on a special diet, make sure your vet is aware of what you’re feeding him.
Does this make you think more about what you’re feeding your pets? —Kristen