You know what toy she loves, or which ear he prefers to be scratched—but how can you know what food your four-legged friend's digestive system would prefer? We asked local animal experts to weigh in on all-natural pet food.
Try thinking about pet food the way you think about your food. "When you're giving yourself ingredients and foods that are in their natural state—they're not processed, they haven't gone through any synthetic stages or chemical processing—then your body can really digest those more optimally," says Eric Emmenegger, senior brand manager of Instinct with Nature's Variety.
But do your research and read the labels. Unfortunately, plenty of what’s out there is “a marketing hoax,” according to Dr. Stacey Wallach of Town & Country Veterinary Hospital. "'Organic,' 'holistic,' 'gourmet,' [or] 'human-grade,' have no legal definition for pet food, and are purely marketing terms."
Wallach recommends purchasing pet food that follows Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutritional guidelines; by doing so, she explains, you can be sure you're providing the proper nutrition for your animal's life stage. Additionally, she recommends picking a food with meat listed in the first three ingredients. "I have actually had vendors come in here and tell me certain brands of food that they carry will sustain life," Wallach says. "To me, that is not sufficient…I could be kept alive on bread, but am I going to be in good health? No."
Depending on activity level and life stage, Teresa Miller, founder and owner of Treats Unleashed, says dogs should eat food that is 25 to 40 percent protein. She also recommends a high-protein wet-food diet for cats, "because they need as much moisture as they can possibly get and they just don't need the carbs."
The term 'byproducts' often is mentioned in regards to unhealthy pet food, and it may not deserve the entirely-negative reputation it has gotten. "A lot of byproducts are actually still good meat that are left for the animals," explains Wallach. "Byproducts are not always the worst thing to have, but you want to make sure that the first ingredients are going to be of good quality—not just fillers."
By feeding a pet more nutritious food, pet owners can expect to find less pet waste in the yard. "The more quality food—the more bioavailable it is to the body—the more they absorb," says Wallach. "The more they absorb, the less waste there is."
Visible perks of a balanced diet may include healthy skin, coat, weight and teeth. "A lot of the benefits that you end up seeing are from the inside out; you feed them well and give them the right nutrition internally, and you see all the benefits externally," Emmenegger says. Similarly, negative results with an opposing diet also may be seen. Unnatural ingredients—such as artificial coloring or preservatives—may be behind some animals' food allergies or intolerances, explains Miller.
If you plan to change your pet's diet to all-natural, remember to transition slowly, advises Emmenegger. The transition process should take seven to 10 days, if not longer, he says.
When switching to an all-natural food, Emmenegger recommends pet owners think about the cost-per-feeding as opposed to instant sticker shock. "If you're looking at the retail price of a natural food versus more of a standard brand, you're going to see a difference—but, you're feeding a lot less per meal because it's more nutritiously dense," he says.
Miller reiterates the importance of the feeding amount. "Where we see pet parents go wrong is [remembering] that a cup is not a cup is not a cup—they all have different calorie counts and protein levels," Miller says. "Your higher quality foods have a much higher calorie count; just feeding the same amount can get you into trouble. Portion size is key."