Raw food, vegan pet diets, the grain debate – it’s very easy to sniff out a lot of strong opinions and ‘facts’ about the best food for pets. The problem? A lot of it isn’t true.
Misinformation in the pet food market can be a problem for pet health on many levels, a big one being the rise of pet obesity. A 2019 report by UK Pet Foods (formerly known as the PFMA) showed that vets believe 51% of dogs in the UK are overweight or obese, while a 2021 study from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) showed that 1 in 14 dogs recorded by their vets as overweight each year. We know that added weight puts pets at a higher risk of many health conditions that can shorten their lifespan.
With lots of ‘rules’ and different opinions to deal with, choosing the right diet for your pets can be daunting. Your veterinarian will be able to offer some guidance, based on a pet’s age, size, health, and specific needs and the WSAVA and FEDIAF have guidelines that pet foods in the UK should follow.
But what about filtering out the facts from the fiction? Keep reading to discover eight of the most common misconceptions around pet food.
Myth: Organic pet food is better
Is organic actually the healthiest pet food available? Several studies have revealed the differences in nutrient levels between organic and nonorganic pet food are negligible. If pesticide exposure is a concern, it’s important to know pesticides can be used with growing organic foods, however, they can’t be synthetic and must be certified for organic gardening.
However, pet parents who wish to feed their dogs and cats an organic diet should closely check the label. Under EU regulations introduced in 2023, pet food is only permitted to carry an organic label if 100% of the agricultural ingredients and at least 95% of the dry ingredients are organic.
Myth: Homemade food is better than commercial pet food
“There are no scientifically-supported benefits to homemade diets,” states a 2019 article from the American Kennel Club. Preparing homemade food for pets can lead to nutritional deficiencies or excesses. What is recommended instead is whole, ingredient-based, balanced diets. While this can be achieved at home, it can be very difficult to do well and accurately. Commercial pet foods are made with this standard in mind, though it’s important to check labels to make sure it passes regulations.
A few reasons some pet owners lean into homemade meals: picky eaters — yes, eating the same food day in, day out can bore pets as well — and food intolerance issues. Those wanting to go the at-home cooking route should keep a few things in mind. Not all recipes are created equal. Just because it’s online or in a book, it could fall short, or be unsafe for your pet. Check with your veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary nutritionist first before taking the homemade approach, to ensure that you are feeding a diet that is appropriately nutritionally balanced for your pet.
Myth: Raw food is best for pets
Arguments in favour of raw diets have made the rounds for both humans and pets alike in recent years. For pets, this means a diet that’s often prepared at home, made up of grains, vegetables, bones, and raw meat.
One theory behind a raw diet for pets is to bring animals back to their roots of eating in the wild. Some also say that the quality of raw diets for pets is superior, more easily digested and has health benefits – ranging from a glossier coat, to less smelly poos. However, no specific evidence has been found yet that feeding pets a raw diet versus conventional food is beneficial.
Pet owners may find that veterinarians tend to discourage the practice. What’s the reasoning behind it? The primary reason in most cases, is that preparing your own food for pets is trickier than it seems, regardless of if the food is raw or cooked. It’s very easy to get the balance of nutrients wrong and cause your pet health problems – so home feeding should only be done on the advice of a vet nutritionist.
Secondly, raw meat is at very high risk of contamination. It could contain harmful bacteria, pathogens and parasites that otherwise would have been eliminated in the cooking process. And these could also be easily spread to others in your household or anyone in contact with your pet. While some commercially prepared raw diets undergo something called high pressure processing or flash deep freezing to attempt to eliminate issues, unfortunately this is not the case for all of them. This means that there are several brands of raw prepared diets on the market that are at risk for transmitting pathogens to your pet.
Recent studies have shown that there are risks of pathogens being transmitted to humans from raw pet foods, though these are lower than previously suggested. These risks will vary depending on formulation, and whether it is prepared from home vs. buying a commercial product, but it is important for pet owners to know that the risk is there. In particular, very young, very old, and immunocompromised individuals are not recommended to handle raw pet food because of this.
Myth: Meat is more nutritious than meat meal
How is it possible for meat meal to be more nutritious than meat? To gain a clear understanding, it’s important to know the difference between the two. Meat used in pet food is usually taken from striated muscles of animal sources. Unless delineated from a specific source, say beef or chicken, food labelled merely as meat can come from cattle, pigs, sheep, or goats.
One of the most common ingredients added into pet food is meat meal, which contains meat that’s been taken through a rendering process to destroy disease-causing bacteria. Through rendering, the meat’s water content is extracted. This results in a more concentrated protein source. When choosing pet food, it’s important to read labels to check out ingredients. As with human food, the main ingredients are listed first.
Myth: Grains are bad for pets
It’s false that pets shouldn’t eat grains. While many pet owners may consider grains as fillers in pet food, whole grains can provide vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and fibre, sometimes even protein. As for refined grains, like rice, they, too, can bring perks to pet diets, including the ability of pets to easily digest them and utilise their nutrients.
So why, then, are grain-free diets not recommended? Though they’re lower in carbohydrates, they can be higher in fat and calories. They may contain highly refined starches in lieu of beneficial grains and grain-free foods that substitute peas, beans, or lentils in their place can result in digestive issues.
Previous studies done by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) expressed concern for the development of a cardiac disease called Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) back in 2018, with a possible link to grain-free diets. These concerns are still being heavily researched and it’s been noted that the primary belief is still that DCM is a complex disease with many factors that impact its development.
Another reason grain-free diets gained more traction in the mid to late 20-teens, is because many pet owners believed that their suspected itchy or allergic pets seemed more comfortable skin wise on a grain free diet. While the intention here is good, the actual reason behind it is likely because when changing to a grain-free food, the pet parent was also unintentionally changing the protein source. Veterinary dermatologists state that while pets can be sensitive to grain, the much more significant and common cause of true food allergies in pets is usually the protein source. The most common offenders as of recent studies indicate beef, chicken, and dairy as the top three.
Myth: Meat-based dog food is healthier than plant-based
While some may think of dogs as carnivores, they’re actually classified as being omnivores. They thrive on a diet that includes both animal and plant sources. And though dogs are descendants of wolves, the domesticated dog’s diet has evolved over time, with vegetable sources becoming commonplace.
Before feeding your dog fruits or vegetables, though, check with your veterinarian. Also, it’s a good idea to check our list of foods that may be harmful for pets.
Myth: Dogs can’t eat pork
Pork is generally considered as safe for dogs… but it’s not always healthy. Due to its high fat and salt content, actual pieces of cooked pork should only be given sparingly. Too much of a good thing can increase your pup’s risk of indigestion and pancreatitis.
However you shouldn’t feed your dog any pork that’s been seasoned or cooked with sauces or onions as these can be very harmful for dogs.
Raw pork can also present a danger to pets, as it can cause trichinosis, an infection resulting from the parasite trichinella spiralis larvae.
Myth: Cats can eat vegan diets
Cats are obligate carnivores, which are animals who have difficulty digesting plant-based food sources. Cats also require certain nutrients only found in animal proteins, as well as taurine, an amino acid.
So, in short, no a cat won’t thrive on a vegan or plant-based diet.