Dog owners today faces a truly dizzying array of choices when it comes to feeding their pets. There is an ever-growing selection of brands and types of commercial dog food available, trying for their piece of the $18 billion pet market. You can also opt to feed your pups home-cooked foods prepared with pet-friendly recipes, or a raw food diet, complete with meat and bones, that aims to replicate what a dog would eat in the wild.
Different types of dog foods and different overall diets each have their passionate advocates and detractors. Many people treat their animals as their children and are willing to go to any lengths to feed them the best possible diet, no matter how much time or money it takes.
But what if you have time and money constraints but still want to do right by your dog? Should you feel guilty if you can’t afford the organic, all natural, whole grain or no grain, human-grade ingredient stuff? Should you forego having a canine companion if you don’t have time to cook food for it?
Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, had similar questions, and she and co-author Malden Nesheim dug into the research and wrote a book, Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. Their surprising findings may reassure you about your pet’s diet.
Most Words on the Label Are Meaningless
While you can still buy basic dog kibble like Purina Dog Chow, many higher-priced brands tout their foods as better for your dogs, using labels like “premium” or “all-natural.” There are no official regulatory definitions for these words, and no standards that the foods have to maintain to have a particular label.
One label that is meaningful is “human-grade”, which means all ingredients are at the same standard required for human food production and in fact, are often manufactured in the same production facilities. Is it better? Dr. Nestle says that the biggest health risk with any dog foods is not the ingredients but contamination during manufacture. For this reason, human grade food may be somewhat safer but there are frequent recalls of human food for contamination as well.
“Complete and Balanced” Is What Matters
The most important words to look for are “complete and balanced”, which indicates that the dog food meets the nutritional requirements for pet foods set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. Just about every pet food sold meets these basic standards, and contains similar ingredients. Non-premium, lower-priced brands have the same ingredients as the premium ones, but bulked out with more grains, and more meat, poultry, and fish by-products.
Just about every pet food sold meets these basic standards, and contains similar ingredients. Non-premium, lower-priced brands have the same ingredients as the premium ones, but bulked out with more grains, and more meat, poultry, and fish by-products.
There Is Very little Research Evaluating the Value of Different Types of Dog Diets
Nestle and Nesheim found almost no research comparing dog health and longevity when fed with premium vs. store brand dog foods, or commercial dog foods vs. home prepared food or raw diets. Any claims for one being intrinsically better than another is based on anecdotal evidence only, and is colored by people’s beliefs about what foods are healthy, whether it’s organic, high protein, whole grain, grain-free, or even kosher.
All Commercial Dog Food Is Made From By-products of Human Food Production
Dr. Nestle found that commercial dog food fills an important ecological niche, in using up meat and vegetable by-products that are left over from human food production. Not only would these be thrown out, adding to the food waste going into landfills, but she points out that feeding all pets on cooked human foods would strain the food production system severely.
“If everyone cooked human food for the 472 million cats and dogs in America, it would be like feeding an additional 42 million people,” she said in a New York Times interview.
What’s in the Food Is Less of a Problem Than How Much Food Dogs Eat
Like humans, dogs in the United States have a weight problem and it has the same underpinning as the human obesity issue: too many calories taken in, and not enough exercise burning the calories up. Feeding your dog too much of the highest quality food is ultimately worse for your companion than feeding it the correct amount of the cheapest nutritionally balanced kibble out there.
The bottom line: feeding a pet basic supermarket food is not cruel. If it is labeled as “complete and balanced”, it has what your dog needs to survive, and is healthier than the diet of scraps and forage that most of the world’s dogs eat.
Some dogs have allergies and do better with or without particular ingredients, and if people feel better feeding their dogs premium or home made dog food, that’s fine. But no pet owner should be guilty about not being able to afford expensive dog food.