Auburn University veterinarian comments on fresh pet food vs. standard pet food

Auburn University veterinarian comments on fresh pet food vs. standard pet food
A cat and dog eat natural, organic food from a bowl at home. An Auburn University expert in veterinary nutrition says the best food options for pets aren't necessarily a matter of fresh vs. standard food, but a question of how the food is formulated and how it fits the individual animal's needs. (Getty Images)

As many dog and cat owners become more focused on their pets’ diets, some are feeding their pets fresh food instead of standard pet food under the assumption that it’s better for their pets’ health.

Dr. Sara-Louise Newcomer of Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine comments on the trend.

Is a diet of fresh pet food better than standard pet food?

Newcomer: Not necessarily. When I think about what to feed any pet, it’s important to remember that every pet is an individual and each individual has different needs. Fresh pet foods, home-cooked diets and raw diets are at a much greater risk of being nutritionally imbalanced or having bacterial or parasite contamination, all of which could be very detrimental to the pet. It depends every time on how the diet was formulated and how it was made. It also depends on the current health of the pet. A dog or cat that is battling an illness may be at greater risk of developing further serious illness particularly with a diet that has bacterial contamination or nutritional imbalance.

My concerns with a diet with fresh ingredients as well as a standard kibble or canned diet are the same for each pet. I want to know about how the diet is formulated. Formulating a diet for a pet is not a simple process! I want to know if it is complete and balanced and appropriate for the life stage of the pet. For example, a puppy has much higher nutritional needs and is a greater risk for nutritional deficiency because it is growing. But even two puppies have different nutritional needs — a growing Labrador retriever puppy has a much more narrow calcium need than a growing Chihuahua puppy. Too much calcium provided to a growing Labrador puppy can lead to developmental abnormalities in the bones.

Dr. Sara-Louise Newcomer is the coordinator of student success and a clinical lecturer in Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine(Auburn University)

How is the diet produced and are there good quality control measures in place to ensure it is safe to feed?

Newcomer: It’s easy to focus on the ingredients that go into a diet, but unless those ingredients are digestible so that the nutrients are available for that animal to use, then it doesn’t really matter. There are particular pets that might benefit from a diet that is homemade with fresh ingredients — I think of those that have skin conditions, for example, associated with food allergies.

It is important to note, feeding a pet a diet that contains fresh food would not be safe unless it is supplemented with the necessary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids that that animal needs. Therefore, with each pet it is essential to work with your veterinarian or veterinary specialist to help ensure your pet is on a diet that is safe and effective. Furthermore, the American College of Veterinary Nutritionists has many board-certified nutritionists who are willing to work with pet parents to formulate a home-cooked, fresh diet that is safe and balanced; that’s my best recommendation for someone who is interested in feeding their pet a fresh diet rather than simply cooking at home or purchasing a diet online.

There are so many diet options out there, and how we feed our pets is often just as personal as how we choose what to eat ourselves. Find a veterinarian who is willing and able to support you and your pet in feeding them something that is in line with your preferences, but also effective in supporting the health and wellbeing of your pet for this stage of their life, and in the ones to come.

How do their nutrients compare?

Newcomer: This depends on the individual ingredients of the diet, their digestibility and bioavailability. You cannot determine what nutrients are provided in any diet just by looking at the ingredient list. A nutrient profile is done through analyzing the diet and determining the nutrient levels that it provides. Nutrients include things such as the amino acids, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, etc.

In general, I’m much more comfortable with diets that have research backing their safety and efficacy for pets, have been tested using feeding trials and have ingredients that have been shown over time to provide the necessary nutrients an animal needs for health and wellbeing.

Is it worth the added cost for pet owners?

Newcomer: Sometimes a homemade diet that is formulated with fresh ingredients could be worth the added cost, particularly if recommended by your veterinarian to help manage a particular health condition. It’s important to be aware that the cost of the pet food does not consistently correlate with the quality of the food; the marketing can be very misleading. More expensive ingredients can drive up the cost of the food, but I want to know that the quality control and the production of the food is also consistently providing a safe product.

Cats are more selective eaters than dogs, but that doesn’t mean they naturally prefer the food that’s best for them. (Getty Images)

Do pets know the difference?

Newcomer: Sometimes it does appear that our pets have a preference for certain ingredients in a fresh pet food, but not always.

Most dogs are not discerning with what they eat — have you seen a dog eat spoiled food, a dead animal or even cat feces? In eating these potentially contaminated sources of food, they exhibit that they do not know the difference between what is healthy for them and what is not. Their taste preferences are not specific and because they evolved as more scavengers than hunters, they are usually inclined to not be specific in what they are eating. They do have a taste preference for fat (as many humans do). Fat increases the flavor of food, but also the calories. Many fresh and raw food diets have an increased fat content that can cause problems for our dogs, particularly with those that have certain health conditions such as pancreatitis.

Cats tend to be more selective with their eating, but sometimes that is tied to what types of food and forms of food they were exposed to when they were younger.

Often with our pets, their eating preferences are more tied to their breeds and their appetites, as opposed to the taste and nutrients of the food provided.

This story originally appeared on Auburn University’s website.

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