What to feed our fur babies may be the most important choice we make as pet parents. Fad diets come and go, and they all claim to be the healthiest way to feed our pets. How do we know what to believe? Are the benefits of grain-free dog food myth or magic? How safe is a raw-food diet really? Is homemade dog food a reasonable option?
If you’re a little confused by it all, let us help you sort it out.
The Grain-free Dog-Food Myth
As a pet owner, no doubt you’ve heard a lot about grain-free diets. But did you know that vets don’t recommend grain-free diets for most dogs? With rare exceptions, the majority of dogs tolerate grain just fine.
And if you’ve read that grain in pet foods is nothing but poor-quality filler, you should know that this is another grain-free dog-food myth. In a complete and balanced pet food, grains provide good nutrition, energy and fiber.
You’ve probably also heard that the FDA has found links between grain-free dog food and heart disease. While they’re not sure yet what the connection is, it appears to be related to the ingredients used to replace grains in these foods.
But don’t dogs with allergies do better on dog food without grains? Interestingly, that, too, is mostly myth. Food allergies are rare in dogs. Also, studies (like this one) find that dogs are more likely to be allergic to meats and dairy than to grain!
That said, a small number of pets do have grain allergies. If you think your dog may be one of them, see a vet before making a change to be sure it’s grain that’s causing the symptoms. Also, there are a fair amount of products on the market that are loaded with stuff that’s not so great for your dog, so make sure you’re reading the ingredient label and consulting with your vet!
The “Raw Diet is Better” Myth
You may have heard the raw-food diet referred to as the BARF diet. The acronym has two meanings (Bone and Raw Food and Biologically Appropriate Raw Food), but they refer to the same diet.
So, is a raw diet better than commercial pet food? The truth is, we don’t know yet. No significant studies to date have proven that raw food is better than any other diet.
Proponents of raw-food diets claim that raw is better because it’s closer to how Rover’s wild ancestors ate. But many experts feel the science doesn’t hold up. What’s good for the wolf isn’t necessarily good for the dog.
Wolves are carnivores that rarely eat fruits, vegetables or carbohydrates. Domestic dogs, on the other hand, have evolved to digest plant matter very well from centuries of scavenging for human food.
Still, some veterinarians recommend raw diets for their patients. Some feel it’s more natural and more easily digested. Others worry that commercial dog food is unsafe based on recent high-profile commercial pet food recalls.
But is a raw food diet any safer? A lot of reputable organizations say no.
Raw animal products can also contain bacteria—including salmonella, listeria, campylobacter, E. coli and others—that make dogs and humans sick.
Some proponents of a raw diet feel that the bacterial issue is exaggerated. But the following organizations all advise against feeding pets a raw diet:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA-CVM).
- American College for Veterinary Nutritionists (ACVN).
- American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA).
The “Homemade Pet Food is Better” Myth
The pet food recalls mentioned above have sparked another trend among dog owners: making their pets’ food themselves.
But a study by UC Davis tested 200 homemade dog food recipes. They found that all but nine (including eight that were written by veterinarians) were missing at least one essential nutrient. Worse, 83% had multiple deficiencies!
These recipes were taken from veterinary texts, pet care books, and websites. The study serves as a caution against relying on recipes found on the Internet, the most common source of information for most dog owners.
It’s clear from these results that anyone wanting to feed their dog nutritionally complete homemade food should seek expert guidance.
The “Plant-Based Diet is Better” Myth
Many people are turning to vegetarian, vegan, and ketogenic diets. Some of them choose to do the same for their dogs. Some pet parents do so for ethical reasons, but others believe that a vegan diet is better for dogs.
In rare cases, it can be. For example, a keto diet may decrease seizures in dogs with epilepsy.
However, a study done by Tufts University advises that while dogs can do well on meat-free diets, they must be “carefully designed.”
Creating a complete and balanced pet food is complicated. There are currently 37 standard nutrition guidelines for commercial dog food. To further complicate the issue, there are separate parameters and ratios for different life stages.
Again, Tufts urges pet owners who want to feed vegetarian or vegan to do so only with the guidance of a veterinary nutritionist.
Healthy Pet Diet Tips and Takeaways
- Current research doesn’t support claims by “fad” diet proponents that any type of diet is better than commercial pet food.
- That’s not to say that these diets are never good choices. Vets may recommend a restrictive diet for dogs with specific needs.
- Raw, homemade and plant-based diets can be fed successfully with solid knowledge of canine nutrition and great care to avoid bacterial infection in dogs and humans. Otherwise, your best intentions may do more harm than good.
- Research any diet you’re considering with reputable and objective sources. Anyone can post opinions or recommendations on the Internet. Be sure your sources are qualified to give sound advice based on science, not marketing trends.
- If in doubt, contact the pet food manufacturer and know the right questions to ask.
- Consult with your vet—or better still, a veterinary nutritionist—before trying any restrictive diet.
We all want what’s best for our beloved pets. The best way to decide what to feed them is to educate yourself so you can separate the vegan, raw, homemade and grain-free dog food myths from reality. Your due diligence will pay off by giving your dog the best possible chance at a long and healthy life.