Written by Dr. Candice Bittner
A Veterinarian Q & A to Choosing the Right Pet Food
What is the right food to feed my pet? What happens when my pet needs a special diet?
There are a lot of questions about specialty pet food and pet supplements out there! Dr. Bittner, a beloved veterinarian found on the Hello Ralphie network, offered to drop some pet food knowledge and help us bewildered pet parents by offering her wisdom on how to solve the pet food puzzle.
Q: What’s the most important aspect of pet nutrition? What should pet parents look for?
A: I’ll start by saying that aside from being a veterinarian, I’m also a pet parent. More specifically, I’m a pet parent to a dog with skin issues, so I have a lot of experience with diet and how it can affect your pet’s overall well-being. (Since starting my dog on a diet for sensitive skin, her life AND my life have greatly improved!) This applies to the generally healthy pet as well as the pet with particular health needs.
All that said, a well-balanced diet is very important. The easiest and best way to achieve this is with a good quality pet food.
It is becoming trendy for people to home-cook for their pets. This is time-consuming and my biggest issue with home-cooked diets is that they are lacking in the essential nutrients that pets need. Pets’ nutrition requirements are different from ours. (Take it from someone who had to sit through hours of nutrition lectures in vet school!)
Q: I take a multivitamin supplement, so why shouldn’t my pet?
A: Reputable pet food companies employ animal nutrition specialists to devote time, research, and quality control testing to ensure their diets are both safe and offer completely balanced nutrition. This is why your veterinarian isn’t suggesting you feed a multivitamin to your puppy or kitten- their food has them covered! Supplements/nutraceuticals are something that your veterinarian might suggest if your pet has a known health issue but this is another blog post for another day.
Q: Should my puppy or kitten be eating a special diet?
A: Navigating the wide array of puppy and kitten diets can certainly feel like a pet food puzzle! However, puppy and kitten diets are SO important. They offer the additional protein and vitamins your pet needs to grow. I recommend that cats and small-breed dogs be fed these diets until they are 1 year-of-age and large breed dogs are fed until they are 18–24 months old. It is important to mention that these diets have more calories (and fat) than adult diets so after your pet is spayed or neutered (and I recommend that they are) the portion sizes should be adjusted to prevent your pet from becoming overweight.
At the other end of the spectrum, senior diets are something your veterinarian might recommend if your pet has developed a condition seen commonly in aging pets (heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, arthritis to name a few).
Q: I keep seeing social media ads for “raw” and “grain-free” pet food? What does that mean? Should I be feeding my pet these diets?
A: Raw pet food is just that: feeding your pet raw (uncooked) meat, organs, and/or bones. Grain-free pet food contains no grains such as rice, barley, corn, wheat and any other grain.
Many smaller, “boutique” brand pet foods sell these kinds of diets. These brands stress that they are unique and give your pet better nutrition by either being grain-free or raw, even mentioning that it is akin to feeding your pet as their ancestors ate. Be cautious of these marketing strategies. The FDA recently released years-long research linking grain-free diets to heart disease in both dogs and cats.
Additionally, raw diets can be dangerous to both pets and people in the household. Think about it: your pet eats raw meat, defecates, then sits on your sofa, groom themselves, then licks your face, exposing you to bacteria found in raw meat.
The reality is your pet is not it’s ancestors. Thousands of years of selective breeding have removed them from the primitive needs of their wild cousins. Modern dogs are actually closer to omnivores, eating meat, vegetables, and grains. Grain is also an important source of fiber that promotes healthy digestion! There are unique circumstances when your veterinarian might suggest a grain-free or raw diet, but I strongly recommend steering clear of these otherwise.
Q: What is a pet food specialty or prescription diet?
A: Specialty diets, or prescription diets, are diets prescribed by your veterinarian to treat or prevent specific health requirements of your pet. Some circumstances when this is indicated include: inflammatory bowel disease or generalized food sensitivity, skin allergies, kidney disease, dental disease, diabetes, and urinary health issues. These diets are either the sole treatment or management of disease or part of a broader management plan. Prescription diets are only suggested as a treatment of an ongoing health issue and are not considered maintenance diets for normal growth and lifestyle.
Q: Still struggling with solving the pet food puzzle?
A: The best way to get the most solid advice on pet food is by asking your veterinarian for help in selecting the right diet! We are here to help at any time you have a question about nutrition and pet food. You can even video chat or text us on Hello Ralphie.