Note: You do not have deja vu. This article really does start off exactly like the last one. I thought I would write one article addressing diets in both humans and animals. I couldn’t do it. Humans are hard! We have so much going on in our brains that gets in our ways. I had to really address that part of it first, before I could start talking about the details of diet selection for pets.
Discussions on Nutrition and Diet are fraught with peril. We carry the baggage of “Diet Culture”, “Convenience Culture”, family bonds, emotional eating, fears surrounding “incomplete” or even “toxic” diets, concern for causing disease, concern for damaging the planet, concern for cost of products, and hope for a magical cure with “food is medicine”.
Trying to write any advice or even loose guidelines around food can be an invitation to debate. And those debates can turn nasty when core values or fears come in to play. It can feel like anything not in perfect alignment with your way of eating is a personal attack on who you are as a person. A judgement on how a person spends time and money, or a judgement on their level of morality even (meat? Environmental impact? Parenting?).
When I work with clients, I start by understanding their personal value systems and their lifestyles. This is part of what makes Holistic Medicine unique. Instead of starting with an industry standard, I start with an individual need. As a result, I do not have a specific brand or style of food that I recommend. I do work with a set of personal guidelines that I can apply to the various goals and values that a client brings to the table.
Here are my primary Requirements for a Diet:
1. It must meet the basic nutritional needs of the pet.
2. It must be something the client can stick with long term.
That’s it. And yet, these two things often keep me busy. Sometimes clients come to me wanting to do an elimination diet for allergies, or a ketogenic diet for cancer, or a vegetarian diet, or a just a “clean” homemade diet. They mean well, but they are uncertain where to start and default to something like lean chicken breast and steamed vegetables. This is a nice singular meal, but it is not a lifestyle. Most basic homemade food attempts are woefully inadequate in all areas. They have enough protein, and may enough carbs for some dogs, but not enough minerals, vitamins, fat, micronutrients, fiber, etc.
So I start by offering a set of options.
- Would you like to create several balanced recipes that meet “all” of the pet’s nutritional needs with homecooking (or home raw)? This almost certainly involves using a supplement of some kind to balance things out. It is more work than you may expect and can be expensive for large breeds especially.
- Or would you prefer a commercial fresh food option that needs to be prepped at home but not formulated and measured individually? This is less work, but still some work, and is even more expensive sometimes.
- Or would you prefer a pre-made commercial option that is complete and balanced, and then is “top dressed” with fresh homemade extras? This is sometimes the most affordable option for most people, and the least stress-inducing on a daily basis.
Once we establish where a family falls within this set of options, we can tailor the recommendation more specifically based on price point, medical condition, patient preferences, and additional client values.
Additional things I consider for a diet (but are not met with every situation):
1. Prioritize a rotation of foods rather than relying on one single food for life.
2. Prioritize high quality whole food ingredients rather than isolated extracted nutrients
3. Prioritize sources of food that support a healthy planet
4. Prioritize prey-based nutrient profiles rather than relying on carbohydrate sources for calories and nutrients
5. Prioritize food-based sources of micronutrients and anti-oxidants
6. Prioritize companies that use feeding trials to limit risk of invisible nutrient gaps
I will be clear that so far, there is no single food in existence that meets all of my desires. In my opinion, there are almost no adequate feeding trials done anywhere in the industry. Even the “big three” only require short term feeding trials. The only foods with long term feeding trials on the market today are foods that are inadequate in all other areas of my priorities list.
So what are we to do?
Focus on rotational feeding and nutrient density.
Rotational feeding refers to the practice of rotating through several different types and styles of food. If you cook at home, use several meat sources, several veggie sources, several carb sources, and vary which supplements you use. The more varied that a diet is, the less risk there is of major nutrient gap.
Nutrient density refers to consciously selecting foods that have many great macro and micro nutrients all packed into a small volume. Some examples include organ meats, well-cooked leafy greens, concentrated broths, fruit purees, etc. Muscle meat is a bit like “kitty candy”. It tastes good, but it is actually lacking in a lot of vital nutrients. We need the fat soluble vitamins and the stored minerals found in organ meats and bones. By focusing on nutrient density, we can ensure that even if a pet has an “off day” or a temporary break in normal routine, or a significant health challenge, the body is in the best shape possible to manage that setback. Each meal does not have to be perfect, because we are using many healthy foods over the course of the week.
No matter whether you feed a kibble or if you are hunting game on your own pristine private reserve, you can utilize the principles of rotational feeding and nutrient density to ensure that your pet has the best possible nutrition with the least risk of toxicity or nutrient gap.