The pros weigh in on food
Spot sought out regional leaders in their fields who are considered expert on pet food. While each has enough expertise and opinion to fill the following pages all by themselves, we asked each of the five to boil it down, giving us their 3 top guidelines when dealing with pet food.
Green Dog Pet Supply
- Whole Food is Good Food: We often hear, “my dog never gets people food.” While it’s good not to feed junk food to your pets, it’s important to remember that nothing magical happens to chicken, peas, or apples when they’re turned into a kibble - they’re still chicken, peas and apples. Remember - the fresher and less processed a food, the more nutrition it contains. Pieces of fresh, real food can be nutritious snacks or additions to a processed diet.
- Read Your Food’s Ingredient Panel: The majority of a food’s protein should be derived from real meat sources, not primarily from meat substitutes like corn, wheat or soy. Check that the meat and fat sources are named (ie, “chicken meal”); words like “meat and bone meal” or “animal fat” are red flags. Try to avoid by-products, BHA, BHT, and artificial colorings. Shoot for named meats, whole grains, and natural preservatives, and you might be on your way to avoiding chronic health problems caused by poor nutrition.
- People Think it’s Just a Fact of Life that Dogs Stink: Year-round shedding and itching, smelly breath, and that doggy odor that comes right back after a bath are not just par for the course when you have a dog. They are often indications that your dog (or cat’s) diet might be lacking in good quality proteins and fatty acids. Supplements like fish oil can go a long way, but often the solution is as simple as a diet change. (see guidelines above).
Christine Mallar and her husband Mike opened Green Dog Pet Supply 6 years ago in Northeast Portland. The shop specializes in environmentally friendly pet supplies and gifts for dogs and cats, and the shop’s design was achieved using almost entirely reclaimed materials. The owners and staff are also strongly committed to helping your pets live as long and healthy a life as possible through access to excellent nutrition and other forms of holistic support.
The Healthy Pet
- If your pet scratches a lot, has bad gas, lots of hairballs or loose stool, look at the food. Cats do best on a grain-free diet and dogs have trouble digesting corn, wheat and soy. If the food you feed contains any of these you may want to consider something of a higher quality. The money you save on vet bills will likely more than make up for the cost of the food.
- Mix it up! Not only will your pet get bored eating only one type of food, but feeding the same thing all the time can lead to food intolerances or allergies. Many premium pet food companies recommend rotation while makers of lower quality foods will have you believe you should never switch. Just be sure that when you do rotate you spend about a week gradually introducing the new food.
- RAW! The best thing you can possibly do for your pet is feed a raw diet. Raw is the closest we can get to feeding an ancestral diet, and raw food is great for pets with allergies to the highly-processed meats in kibble. If raw meat freaks you out there are freeze-dried diets and even safe raw options with no pathogens. Skeptical? Try it for three weeks; you won’t be a skeptic anymore.
Ponce Christie has worked at The Healthy Pet in Eugene for just over two years. During that time he says he has been lucky to work closely with Dr. Doreen Hock, the holistic Veterinarian who owns the business. Her knowledge of pets and nutrition is staggering.
- First and foremost, read the ingredient list. The first ingredient should be a clearly identified meat protein, for example: chicken, chicken meal, lamb, or lamb meal. Avoid foods that list by-products or by-product meals. By-products are typically low-quality waste from food production. I recommend avoiding wheat, corn and soy, as they are used as fillers and are a source of allergies in many pets.
- Feed your pet a variety of foods. Many manufacturers would have you believe that your pet needs only one type of food for its entire life and that switching foods may cause serious digestive problems. I disagree with that “marketing strategy” because varying your pet’s diet provides a broader variety of nutrients, is less likely to cause sensitivities, and actually leads to stronger, better digestion.
- Feeding a raw food diet is easier and less expensive than most people believe. The days of grinding your own meat and adding all the other ingredients are gone. Today, you can buy complete raw meals that you simply thaw and serve. You can also buy ground meat “chubs” to which you add vegetables to create a complete meal. If you don’t want to deal with preparing vegetables, there are easy-to-use dehydrated vegetable mixes available.
Healthy Pets Northwest has been a leading provider of natural pet foods and products for over 10 years. They are committed to providing wholesome, natural pet products from sources that match their commitment, nutritional philosophy, and values. They strive to be an active community member through educational programs, participation in community events, and support of nonprofits. Learn more at www.healthypetsnw.com.
- The biggest dog food blunder is to give a specialized dog food but use an inferior quality treat or a table scrap. The itchy dog’s base problem is almost always grain related, corn or wheat being the two biggest culprits. So you go to the vet and get a prescription diet but you still give treats from the table. Popcorn is CORN! Toast is WHEAT. No treats with food dyes.
- When we get the question, “I have an itchy, stinky dog. What kind of pill do you have to fix it?” We say, “Change the first three ingredients and eliminate, Corn, Wheat and By- Products.” Try grain-free for a complete healthy change.
- We recommend feeding raw bones 3 to 5 times a week to your canine companion. Raw bones have beneficial bacterias that clean teeth, freshen breath and solve stool issues. We have had many dogs over the years whose need for extensive dental work was completely solved by chewing on raw bones. Research shows that by eliminating dental tarter, etc., your pet will live longer.
Dani D. Wright has worked in the pet industry for 22 years. She says, “I am owned by several dogs, cats, horses, chickens and cows. I love animals and want all people to love and care for them to the best of their ability. So I am constantly researching feeds, flea cycles, and worming. The more informed and affordable you can make pet care and related food decisions, the healthier the pet.”
- The first thing I look for is named proteins, and I want them first or second on list of ingredients. By “named” I mean I want the package to say “chicken, beef, lamb or buffalo.” I am also happy with “chicken meal, duck meal and turkey meal.” I steer clear of “poultry meal, meat, or poultry byproducts,” which can mean any kind of rendered “poultry or meat,” including animals that have been euthanized or who have died from illnesses. Gross, but true.
- The second thing I do not want on my labels is wheat or corn, especially wheat or corn byproduct. These two fillers are too often used by large, uncaring companies which add them to their products to cut costs and add calories. These are also two grains that seem unregulated, and perhaps not coincidentally seem to be the cause of frequent recalls.
- Finally, when I am checking food labels, I look for no chemical preservatives. Make sure fat added is not preserved with BHA, BHT, propylene glycol or ethoxyquin. These chemicals are used in antifreeze and pesticides and can cause cancer.
When choosing pet foods to carry at my shop and in turn to feed to my dog I look for the above. MEAT’s mission is to make feeding your dogs and cats a healthy, natural diet as easy and affordable as possible. They carry an array of all natural dry and canned foods, but mainly focus on feeding raw.
Raw Food Diets - Safe or Harmful?
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In Support of Feeding Raw Meat Diets to Pets
When discussing with clients the option of feeding raw meat diets to companion dogs and cats, I will oftentimes ask a client, “How healthy do you think you could be at, say 50 years old, if you ate nothing but kibble your entire life - even the finest, most expensive human kibble on the market?” We might chuckle at the idea, but can we really expect our pets to be in optimal health at 10 years of age - eating nothing but a highly processed diet that has been heated to high temperatures and stored in a bag for months at a time - oftentimes made with ingredients deemed unfit for human consumption? Based on over 20 years experience as a veterinarian, I can say without doubt, that a completely healthy 10-year-old dog or cat eating nothing but kibble and/or canned food is a very rare thing indeed.
Everyone knows that we humans benefit form having less processed, and certainly even raw foods in our diet...fresh fruits, berries, salads. Many of the nutrients present in raw foods have been found to have anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, anti-cancer, and even possibly anti-aging properties - many of which are degraded by heating and processing. Any good doctor or nutritionist would certainly recommend lots of fresh foods in your diet - so why not for our pets too? So ok for veggies - but what about raw meat? Actually, raw meat has been consumed by humans for millennia - I’ve seen Native Alaskans eat raw seal meat with gusto. Some of us may eat sushi from time to time, but few of us would be brave enough to eat a piece of raw chicken. (And with the state of modern food production, that’s understandable.) But what about dogs and cats? Are we gambling with their health by feeding them meats possibly contaminated with bacteria and parasites? Do the risks outweigh the potential benefits of feeding raw?
One argument against feeding raw meat to our pets is that thousands of years of domestication has altered dog’s and cat’s ability to properly digest raw meat - but there are no scientific studies to back up this claim.
Another is that it takes a scientist to formulate a balanced diet for a pet. Certainly a poorly balanced homemade diet is worse that the cheapest store bought food - but it is not that difficult to follow some basic principals in creating healthy food for our pets. The issue most frequently raised, however, is the health risks to our pets - stories of pets sick and even dying from ill effects of eating raw meat-based diets. While there are certainly precautions and food safety concerns that should be observed, feeding a well formulated raw meat diet is generally a very safe practice in my experience as a veterinarian. Undoubtably, most dogs and cats have more robust digestive systems than humans do. Who hasn’t watched their dog pick up and eat some god-awful rotting thing at the park with no ill effects? Coprophagy (eating of feces), is a normal behavior of wild canines. On the other hard, conventional commercial diets have had their share of problems from dogs and cats dying of melamine tainted kibble 3 years ago, to more recent massive recalls by Proctor and Gamble of pet diets (Iams, Eukanuba, etc.) possibly contaminated with salmonella. At least with home prepared diets, you know the source of all the ingredients used, and can even make the choice for free range or organic if we choose. The subject of parasites keeps coming up by vets opposed to raw diets, but I have never seen any evidence of problems in my practice.
My first exposure to the concept of feeding raw diets to pets started over 10 years ago. I began seeing pets in my veterinary practice that had be converted over to raw home-prepared diets by their guardians.
I was sceptical, but nevertheless impressed with how healthy and vigorous they were, with shinny, beautiful hair coats. These clients told me of remarkable improvements in their pets health issues including skin problems, allergies, chronic ear infections, digestive disorders, and even arthritic conditions. I found a book written by the Australian vet Ian Billinghurst called “Give a Dog a Bone”, who described his revelation that herding dogs fed raw meat and bones were generally much healthier than kibble-fed pets. My own 2-year old Australian kelpie had been having ongoing digestive problems, and I wondered if a raw meat based diet would help her. I found that indeed, Hazel’s digestion improved significantly on her new diet. She is now almost 12 years old and still running circles around other dogs at the park. My cats, too have been on raw diets since they were kittens and are still remarkably healthy 9 years later. In the last 10 years I have been extremely impressed with the health improvements that many of my patients have have demonstrated after converting to raw. I have also become convinced that many of the diseases that we commonly see in dogs and cats are preventable through the enhanced nutrition supplied by raw meat and vegetable diets. Many of my clients that converted their pets to raw are convinced too, and could never imagine going back to feeding commercial kibble or canned diets.
Have you ever noticed how all commercial cat diets have added taurine on the ingredient list? A deficiency of this essential amino acid in cats leads to diseases of the heart and the retina of the eye. Raw meats have been found to supply sufficient levels of taurine, whereas cooked meats do not. This seems to be proof that cats are genetically designed to eat raw meat, which really, makes perfect sense. They don’t feed Purina Lion Chow at the zoo, I can guarantee you. Cheetas don’t eat brown rice either, although this is a commonly used main ingredient in many kibbles for cats.
Having said all this, raw diets are not appropriate for every dog and cat. Some animals have compromised digestion or other medical conditions that require cooked or specially formulated diets. Certainly all home prepared diets need to be nutritionally balanced and complete (the definition of which is itself a debatable issue), and then there are a certain percentage of animals that will simply refuse to eat raw altogether. Some pet guardians with certain health issues should probably not feed raw to their pets.
I’d like to say the best advice is to use the guidance of your veterinarian to decide what options exist to feed your pets - but unfortunately, most vets are completely opposed to feeding raw. Veterinarians are lobbied aggressively by the the pet food industry starting in vet school and continuing throughout their careers, so it may be difficult for some vets to be completely objective when it comes to nutrition. That leaves most pet guardians asking advice from the clerk at the pet store or finding information on the internet. It’s difficult, because there is quite a bit of conflicting or questionable information out there - so how do we sift through all of it to find a healthy, safe approach? Ask a lot of questions, keep an open mind, do your research - and go slow. And hopefully, find a veterinarian that does support feeding raw diets to pets.
- Jeffrey Judkins, DVM, Hawthorn Veterinary Clinic
Raw Food Diets - A Veterinary Perspective
The nutritional support service at the University of California Davis is the leading veterinary nutritional service in the country. They are strongly against the feeding of raw food (either commercial or home prepared) to pets. The main reason that raw food diets are not recommended is primarily because of the risk of bacterial or parasitic contamination and the potential associated health risks. Raw animal products are well documented to be common sources of such pathogens. Consumer reports recently found that over 80% of chicken intended for human consumption was contaminated with Campylobacter and 15% contaminated with Salmonella. Pets eating contaminated raw diets can shed pathogenic microorganisms which can cause them to become ill themselves and also infect other animals and humans. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that eggs, poultry and all other meat products fed to pets who live with immuno-compromised people be well cooked. These people include the very old, very young and those with immunosuppressive diseases. Pets living with any such people should absolutely not follow a raw food diet.
Advocates of raw food diets claim that the benefits include improved longevity, health and symptoms of chronic illness. Not one scientific study exits to back these claims. Likewise, there is no evidence that raw food diets are better for pets than cooked or processed diets. Many of the proposed benefits of raw food diets can be satisfied with a complete and balanced home-cooked diet.
Another big concern with raw food diets is that many are not complete or balanced. In order for a diet to be considered complete and balanced it must undergo a feeding trial performed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Very few raw food diets available commercially have undergone such testing for nutritional adequacy. A commercially sold pet food must meet AFFCO standards with guaranteed analysis and feeding guidelines, but even this does not mean it is complete and balanced. It must also undergo a feeding trial before it can claim to be complete and balanced. If a food does not say it is complete and balanced then it likely is not.
In the past six months we have seen multiple cases at VCA-Northwest Veterinary Specialists where the feeding of a raw food diet was the sole reason the pet was in hospital. Two cases come to mind, neither with a good outcome.
Six months ago we treated a 4-year-old Pit bull for severe necrotizing pancreatitis. This dog had been fed a raw food diet consisting of duck, “beef blend” and tripe. Not only was the diet not complete and balanced, but when analyzed the fat content was up to 60%. A diet high in fat is the leading cause of pancreatitis. This was the worst case we’ve seen at NWVS in several years. Despite aggressive treatment and supportive care the patient did not survive.
The second case involved a three-month-old Rottweiler puppy. This puppy’s diet consisted of raw ground beef, rice and water. On presentation to VCA-NWVS she was intensely painful everywhere you touched her. Xrays revealed multiple folding bone fractures throughout her body. She had severely decreased bone density, thin cortices and was diagnosed with Rickets. She also suffered severe muscle weakness and difficulty breathing. Unfortunately, while this can be treatable in very early stages, this puppy was too far advanced to reverse the damage caused by her inadequate diet.
VCA-NWVS is the largest specialty and emergency veterinary hospital in Portland. We do not recommend or endorse raw diets, whether commercial or homemade. We strongly encourage anyone feeding their pets a homemade diet to have the diet analyzed by a veterinary nutritionist or internist. Your veterinarian can consult with the University of California Davis or another veterinary nutritionist (or internist) to have this analysis performed.
The digestive system of cats and dogs is very similar to humans. An important question to consider is why you would cook ground beef and chicken to be safe before you consume it but then pass the same risks on to your pet by feeding it raw to them?
- Cassandra Brown, DVM, DACVIM (VCA-NWVS); Rochelle Low, DVM, Medical Director (VCA-NWVS); Jennifer Lawson, DVM, PhD, DACVN (UC Davis)