Nearly two years after the massive recall of melamine-tainted pet food, veterinarians are still fielding pet owners’ questions about alternative diets.
“Even prior to the recall, we were seeing a shift in pet owners who were interested in alternatives to conventional pet foods, such as natural or organic commercial pet foods, raw pet foods and home-cooked diets,” says Sally C. Perea, DVM, Dipl. ACVN.
The recall accelerated the trend, Dr. Perea says, as pet owners began to look for what they perceived to be safer dietary options.
Perea was formerly a consultant with Davis Veterinary Medical Consulting Inc. in Davis, Calif., and now is a senior nutritionist for Natura Pet Products in San Jose. She says a lot of pet owners who tried alternative foods or home cooking have returned to conventional products, but many others have continued alternative feeding.
Perea considers alternative diets to fall into one of three categories:
- Alternative commercial pet foods
- Home-cooked pet foods
- Raw pet foods (commercial and home-prepared)
Pros and Cons
Like conventional pet foods, commercial alternatives mainly come in dry kibble and canned varieties, Perea says. These alternatives often feature things pet owners find increasingly important, such as natural and organic ingredients and preservatives.
“The main benefits of these foods are the options that they provide owners,” she says. “The con with these foods is that they may not necessarily be safer or of higher quality than conventional foods, and owners may have a hard time discerning between true benefits and marketing approaches.”
She says it’s important to consider the quality and background of the pet food companies that emerged since the recall, such as whether “they perform AAFCO feeding tests on their foods and if there is a veterinary nutritionist on staff.”
In the first few months after the recall, Beth Hamper, DVM, a small-animal clinical nutrition resident and Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee Veterinary Teaching Hospital, says she saw a large increase in requests for homemade formulations.
“I would say we still get a moderate number of requests for homemade diets, but it has decreased compared to the first few months,” she says.
Dr. Hamper says home-prepared diets may be more palatable to pets and can be formulated to meet multiple medical needs for which no commercial therapeutic diets are available.
She notes drawbacks to home-prepared diets: They require a greater investment of time and money and need to be formulated by a veterinary nutritionist.
“Many diets listed in books and over the Internet aren’t balanced, meaning excesses or deficiencies leading to nutritional imbalances,” she says. “The owner needs to strictly adhere to the recipe provided, and there may be variation in the nutrient content of specified ingredients.”
“A well-designed diet (commercially made or homemade) should be properly formulated for the age, weight, body condition, activity level and medical history. It should also be easy to obtain or simple to make, and provide a nutritional margin of safety that allows for variety.”
~ Rebecca Remillard, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVN
The popularity of raw diets has grown in the wake of the recall.
“Owners may have the belief that raw food is a more natural feeding method or may feel that the ingredients used in commercial raw food diets are of higher quality and freshness,” Perea says.
Owners who prepare raw foods may develop a closer bond with their pet, Perea adds. “Others may appreciate improvements in health related to this feeding method, such as dogs or cats with food allergies or gastrointestinal disease that respond well to highly digestible foods.”
Whatever the motivation, owners tend to select raw feeding based on a belief that it is the best option, she says.
Whether such a diet is the best option for pets—or are even safe for pets and their families—remains an issue of great contention among veterinarians.
Rebecca Remillard, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVN, a veterinary nutritionist at MSPCA Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, says several published studies and case reports document that pathogenic bacteria found in homemade raw diets are shed and viable in the feces of household pets.
She notes that this can increase the household risk, particularly in young children, the elderly and immuno-
“There are also case reports of pathogenic bacteria causing illness and death in pets, meaning the same bacteria was found in the diseased organs of the pet as was isolated from the raw diet fed to the pet,” she says.
Because of such risks, Dr. Remillard says, veterinarians should inform pet owners of raw food risks and document such discussions in medical records to protect themselves from potential liability.
In addition to bacterial contamination, Hamper notes that raw diets may have significant nutritional imbalances and that the ingestion of raw bones may cause gastrointestinal perforation. On the upside, however, she says the protein in raw diets may have increased digestibility and bioavailability.
“Although infectious disease is possible, they also occur with commercially heat-processed diets,” she says. “In all of these alternative diets, they may also provide additional phytochemicals—flavonoids, polyphenols—and other nutrients that have yet to be recognized by nutritional science.”
Hamper is concerned about the potential for infection and disease with raw meat diets. “If there are benefits, more research needs to be done to find safer ways of feeding these diets,” she says.
Finding the Best Fit
Indeed, despite her concerns over raw diets, Remillard says she will not waste time being vehemently opposed to any one diet.
“I see my time best spent informing and educating clients and vets on the pros and cons of whatever diet selection they are considering,” she says. “Very few food combinations cannot be corrected to a complete and balanced recipe.
“The issue of raw versus cooked is not a nutritional issue because there is, contrary to popular rhetoric, no known nutritional advantages yet properly documented to feeding raw over cooked,” she adds.
Remillard says there is no single best food for a given pet, as the optimal nutrition is likely to change over time and new products will continue to emerge.
Overall, she notes: “A well-designed diet (commercially made or homemade) should be properly formulated for the age, weight, body condition, activity level and medical history. It should also be easy to obtain or simple to make, and provide a nutritional margin of safety that allows for variety.”
Hamper agrees and notes that monitoring is key to ensuring a given diet is right for a pet. “With any of the alternative diets, I recommend checking blood work, urine and doing a physical exam in three to four months to monitor how the animal is doing,” she says.