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A return to ancestral nutrition
Though our pets have been eating a processed kibble diet for several decades, their physical characteristics have not changed. Their jaw structure, sharp teeth, and relatively short digestive tracts show dogs and cats are meant to eat meat. Similarly, the dietary requirements of both generally mirror that of their ancestors – research has shown that our companion animals thrive on meat based diets. In the pet food industry there has been a shift towards manufacturing pet food with species appropriate nutrition – the most current is the concept of a grain free kibble diet.
Start From the Beginning
To understand why a grain free kibble diet may help pets thrive, we need to start from the beginning. To feed a diet that would be closest to what their ancestors ate, some believe a raw diet that resembles what dogs and cats in the wild would have eaten is best. For many years, there has been a small but loyal population of pet owners who feed a raw diet - consisting of raw muscle and organ meat, uncooked bones, and sometimes pulverized fruits or vegetables.
At PetPeople we are a group of dedicated and passionate pet people. We are so enthusiastic to engage our customers, exchange information, and work together to solve common pet problems. We hope you will continue to come to us with questions, problems or situations regarding your pets’ care. It is our goal to be a partner with you and your veterinarian in the health and well-being of your pet.
While we are happy to advise you and share our knowledge with you, we would never propose that our recommendations be used instead of consulting with your veterinarian about any concerns or issues. You know your pet better than anyone, and should always use your best judgement regarding obtaining the best care for your pet. ©2015 PetPeople Enterprises, LLC
“There is no known minimum dietary carbohydrate requirement for either the dog or the cat. Based on investigations in the dog, and with other species, it is likely that dogs and cats can be maintained without carbohydrates if the diet supplies enough fat or protein from which the metabolic requirement for glucose is derived.”
Source: Waltham Book of Dog and Cat Nutrition
What are dogs and cats supposed to eat?
Dogs have been domesticated for about 15,000 years, and cats for about 9000. However, up until about 80 years ago, our pets continued to eat a diet similar to what they would have eaten in the wild. Pets thrived on raw meat, real food, and some vegetables. It wasn’t until about the 1930’s when human cereal and grain manufacturers saw the opportunity to make the by-products of their industry a source of profit, and the mass-market pet food industry was born. For years pet food was made as cheaply as possible, with little thought to what was nutritionally best for the animals.
Recent years have brought a welcome change to the pet food industry. Smaller, independent pet food companies began to utilize higher quality ingredients rather than commercial by-products to create the healthiest pet foods possible.
These diets avoid the negative effects of heat processing, and retain the vitamins, enzymes, and beneficial bacteria as nature intended. Raw food can be prepared fresh by the owners or come prepackaged frozen. Enthusiasts believe there are many benefits to feeding a diet that closely mimics what a pet would have eaten in the wild. Raw diets have anecdotally shown to have many health benefits for dogs, including:
Squeamishness aside, the raw pet food movement got a lot of attention recently when wide-scale pet food recalls prompted many owners to re-think commercial foods. Suddenly, the idea of feeding a variety of fresh, well-hydrated raw foods whose enzymes and amino acids had not been altered by cooking didn’t seem like such a radical idea anymore.
Common Concerns about Raw Feeding
Is it safe?
Foodborne bacteria such as e.coli and salmonella can contaminate raw food and bones. Due to their acidic digestive systems, a healthy dog or cat should not have any problem with the bacteria in raw meat. However, humans aren’t as equipped to handle the bacteria. To minimize the risk of foodborne illness in humans, take the following steps:
Safe handling practices such as washing and sanitizing all surfaces, bowls, and utensils should be put into place when handling raw food. Keep pet dishes away from children, and wash hands thoroughly after preparing meals.
Is it ‘complete & balanced’?
Nutritional deficiencies can be a concern when feeding your pet a raw food diet. It is important to follow a recipe formulated by a veterinarian or other nutrition professional - fortunately many healthy recipes are now available. There are also several companies that have developed pre-made raw diets – they come in the form of small nuggets or larger patties that are a mix of meat, bone, and some vegetables. The ingredients are finely ground to ensure safety, and flash frozen to preserve their freshness. These products are purchased frozen and each meal thawed individually at home. Many companies have proven their raw diets to be complete and balanced just like a bag of dry food, and include the AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement.
Can I afford it?
The cost of feeding raw is inherently higher, as the diet includes more fresh meat and other fresh, natural ingredients. This can be a deterrent to pet owners who want to feed their dog a healthy diet, but are concerned about cost. Multiple pet owners may find cost prohibitive, but for just one or two dogs, or smaller dogs, the cost is usually within reason. Owners can also try buying in bulk or utilizing frequent buyer programs for pre packaged raw diets to help cut costs. For true raw enthusiasts, the benefits of raw food are worth the extra price tag.
How do I transition to a raw diet?
If already feeding a grain free kibble, you can start mixing in the raw food gradually, increasing the amount over several days.
Because grain and meat digest at different rates, digestive upset can occur if you mix the two types of food. If you are feeding a traditional kibble that has grains, it is recommended that you fast your pet for a day, then introduce a small meal of raw food, gradually increasing the amount over 2-3 days to the appropriate amount per meal. Although raw is considered more digestible long term, during the transition phase a pet may be sensitive if they have never been exposed to raw food before. If your pet shows signs of a digestive upset, a probiotic supplement is recommended.
Still not sure?
If you want some of the benefits of a grain free diet, but are unsure of the cost or time required to prepare raw food, there are many alternatives for high quality pet nutrition.
Convenience in a Can
Feeding a high quality canned food can be a good alternative for an owner who wants to feed a higher meat, low carbohydrate diet, without the inconvenience of preparing or thawing raw food. The canning process itself preserves the food, so companies do not need to add carbohydrates or preservatives to ensure the food is shelf stable. Since canned food doesn’t have to sit in a bag on a shelf, it also usually has a much higher meat content than dry food. Similar to a raw diet, benefits of a grain free canned food include –
Because canned food has been cooked and processed, it does lack some of the live enzymes and beneficial bacteria raw food has. Cost per serving can be prohibitive with large or multiple dogs if an owner feeds only canned food, and without raw bones or other abrasive chewing action dental concerns can be an issue.
Grain Free Kibble
Pet food manufacturers have seen the benefits of a grain free raw diet for dogs and cats, and there are a growing number of grain free kibbles now available. In recent years pet food manufacturers have successfully created a kibble that mimics the nutritional profile of the raw diet, and closely resembles the ideal diet a pet would eat in the wild. The benefits of a grain free kibble are similar to those of a raw diet –
In addition, feeding a grain free kibble diet holds some advantages over fresh raw food and/or traditional kibble –
The convenience of a bag of dry dog food does bring with it some drawbacks when compared to fresh, whole food. The heat processing required in the extrusion process to make dry food does give kibble a lower moisture content than unprocessed food, and some enzymes and vitamins are lost in the cooking process. However, pet food companies add a vitamin/mineral premix to make up for what is lost to heat processing.
Eat Less, Poop Less
Because of the lack of cereal grains in grain free kibble, most are inherently higher calorie, fat, and protein than a traditional pet food. Thus, grain free kibble is more nutrient dense than regular kibble. What this translates to for pet owners is feeding less – grain free kibble is higher calorie per cup than regular pet food. Because less food is required, and the ingredients are better utilized by the body, there is much less cleanup required!
Can Grain Free Kibble Help my Pet Lose Weight?
In traditional weight loss diets, calories are cut by increasing the fiber content in the food. This may work well for some pets – however, since dogs and cats were designed to thrive on a meat-based diet, some owners notice their pets have trouble losing weight on a traditional high fiber diet. Imagine trying to lose weight on an all pasta diet! In these cases, a grain free weight control food may be a better alternative for weight loss. Because our companion animals’ systems are not well suited to digest a high carbohydrate diet, excess grain may make it difficult to lose weight or maintain weight loss. The higher protein of a grain free diet can sometimes jump start a sluggish metabolism and help accomplish successful weight loss. Remember – with a grain free diet you feed significantly less than a traditional kibble – no pet will lose weight if you feed too much!
Whether choosing a grain free diet or a traditional weight control diet, the most important aspect is portion control! Feed the suggested amount for a pet’s ideal weight, not their current weight.
How to Switch to a Grain Free Diet
Dogs and cats have bacteria in their stomachs that digest their food, and these become specialized to what they normally eat. A sudden change in food upsets the balance of bacteria and can cause a stomach ache or diarrhea. In most cases it is recommended that the new diet and the old diet are mixed together for a period of time in order to introduce the new food and avoid stomach upset. This can be done by first feeding 75% old, 25% new food for several days. Then, move to feeding 50% old, 50% new food for several days. Next, feed 25% old 75% new food for several days. Finally after about 10-14 days, transition completely to the new food. Don’t forget to cut back on the amount if transitioning from a regular to a higher calorie grain free kibble!
However, a grain free kibble and traditional kibble actually digest at different rates. Because grain digests more slowly than meat, in some cases a normal ‘mixing’ transition can actually cause digestive upset. If this occurs, you can try going ‘cold turkey’ to the new grain free food. In this case, switch to the new grain free kibble immediately. It is best to drastically reduce the portion size for a few days, and add a probiotic supplement to aid in digestion through the transition. Next, slowly increase the serving size over the course of a week until they are at their correct daily portion. Generally, the serving size of the grain free food will always be MUCH lower than the previous food.
Is Grain Free Right for my Pet?
Not one type of food is best for every pet - a good rule of thumb is that the best diet for your pet is a diet with which they flourish. Any healthy diet will improve your pet’s quality of life. Senior pets or pets with certain health problems may need a diet lower in protein and higher in fiber; in this case, going grain free might not be the right choice.
In addition, many grain free foods are not formulated to meet the needs of growing large breed puppies. To avoid bone and growth abnormalities, a specific ratio of calcium and phosphorus is needed. Because of the high meat content in grain free kibble, often times these levels are too high. If you want to feed a grain free kibble to a large breed puppy, look for one designed specifically to meet their special needs.
Grain free kibble is also not appropriate for owners who can’t commit to portion control. Giving the same amount of a more nutrient dense kibble can cause weight gain. In addition, the increased palatability of the higher meat content can cause a pet accustomed to free feeding to overeat. Rather than just keeping the bowl full, put out a set amount each day – and once it’s gone, it’s gone!. Read more about Transitioning your pet's food on our education page.
All Grain Free Foods AREN’T Created Equal
So is one grain free food as good as another? The short answer is no. The term ‘grain-free’ was originally coined to showcase a food’s high meat content – which also meant lower carbohydrates. This decrease in carbohydrates is what pet food manufacturers were originally trying to duplicate from a raw or more species appropriate diet.
Due to the success and popularity of these original grain-free foods, the market has exploded with options. Some stay true to the concept of an ancestral diet, while others simply advertise ‘grain-free’ as a marketing ploy. Many have just replaced the large quantities of grains with other carbohydrate sources such as starchy vegetables, like large quantities of peas and potatoes, thus negating the intended effect of ‘grain-free’ meaning ‘lower carbohydrate’. Examine the ingredient panel and guaranteed analysis to determine if your grain free food meets the criteria you’re looking for.
Why does my pet need protein?
Protein is necessary for all aspects of growth and development – roughly half of the dry body mass of your pet consists of protein. The amino acids protein is made up of are also vitally important – dogs require 22 amino acids, and they can synthesize 12 of these themselves. The remaining 10 are considered ‘essential’ amino acids and must be consumed in the diet. A deficiency of any of these amino acids can cause health problems.
Not only is protein important, but the SOURCE of protein is also important. Some sources are better than others – every protein source contains different amounts of amino acids, and the ability of a protein to be used by the body is the ‘biological value’. Egg protein has the highest biological value of 100, with high quality meats close behind with a range of 80-95. The highest quality plant protein is soybean meal, with a biological value of only 67, and wheat and corn come in around 48. This demonstrates why you can’t look at just the percentage of protein – the crude protein on the label is just a percentage, and doesn’t tell you anything about how digestible that protein is by the body. Owners must look critically at the ingredients to make sure the protein is high quality meat protein, best absorbed by our companion animals.
Is too much protein harmful?
If your pet eats too much protein, some will be excreted in the urine and the rest will just be used as calories or converted to fat for the storage of energy – causing your dog or cat no harm.
Many people think that feeding high protein diets can cause liver or kidney problems. This probably started because in the past, patients with kidney disease were placed on low-protein (and thus low-nitrogen) diets. These diet changes were made because a damaged kidney may not be able to handle the excess nitrogen efficiently. In pets with existing kidney problems, nitrogen can become too high in the bloodstream, which can harm other tissues, and in this particular case a high protein diet would not be recommended. For pets with kidney disease, it is now known that it isn’t so much the percentage of protein, but the quality of protein used that is important. High quality protein from high biological value meat sources are more digestible (therefore producing fewer nitrogen by-products).
Unless your vet has told you that your pet has kidney disease severe enough to adjust protein intake, you do not have to worry about ‘damaging’ or ‘stressing’ your pet’s kidneys. Remember feeding a low protein diet can cause problems too – and you aren’t ‘saving’ your pet’s kidneys by feeding a low protein diet.
Pet Healthy Feeding Strategies
Along with choosing what a pet is supposed to eat, owners must decide how a pet is supposed to eat. Going back and taking a look at how dogs and cats ate in the wild, and even as recently as the early 1900s, they thrived on a diet rich in variety. Only in the last 70 years have humans started giving pets the same meal every day.
Traditionally, families choose one food and stick with that food for the life of the pet. This single food diet is the most simple and convenient feeding method for most owners. By encouraging owners to feed only one food, manufacturers successfully promoted brand loyalty and increased sales. Many also touted the avoidance of potential digestive upset that can result from improper diet transitions. But should pets eat the same thing every day?
The Rotation Concept
Rotating a pet’s food is based on the simple premise that more variety will provide better overall health for your pet. You don’t eat the same thing every day - why should your pet? By varying the types of food your pet eats, as well as the protein sources, your dog or cat will enjoy a more diverse and complete nutrient intake to improve the health and immunity of your pet. Rotating types of food and protein sources can also increase excitement at mealtime – great for picky eaters who get bored easily. Benefits of rotation include –
How to Rotate
There are two methods used to rotate a pet’s food. The first is to pick a particular type of food, such as a grain free kibble, and rotate the protein sources within that type. For example, switch from chicken, to lamb, to beef, to fish, etc. Rotating protein sources provides a diverse nutrient profile, as each protein has a unique amino acid composition. Feeding different flavors can also help sustain an increased interest in the food bowl for picky eaters. By rotating types of meat, it is also less likely your pet will develop an allergy to a certain protein source.
The second method of rotation is to rotate types of food, such as kibble, to canned, to raw food. This type of rotation enables the pet to get the benefits of each variety of food –
Many owners who rotate types of food will also rotate protein sources – in this method the pet gets a true variety of different types and varieties of food. There’s no right or wrong way to do a rotation diet – your pet can benefit from a little variety or a lot. Until your pet is used to switching, any changes in their diet should be made gradually. Follow appropriate steps to slowly transition your pet to the new food type or protein source - beneficial probiotics are also always recommended.
Good Health Begins with Proper Nutrition
What food is best to feed your pet?
There is not one food that is best for every pet. Take a step back and examine the quality and ingredients of your pet’s food – are they biologically appropriate? Any commercial diet will enable a pet to survive, but most owners want their pets to thrive. Fortunately today there is a revolution in the pet food market that brings the convenience of pre packaged foods back to the ingredients that nature intended.