RAW, HOME COOKED, OR PACKAGED FOOD: WHICH IS BEST FOR MY PET? by Dr. Katherine Evans, DVM
Dog and cat owners are faced with many choices when it comes to feeding their pets. And just as with our own diets, there are many vocal advocates of a specific diet touted to be the best (i.e. The Atkins’ Diet, The South Beach Diet, etc.). We should realize that it’s impossible to recommend one diet that’s right for all people just as it’s impossible to recommend one diet that’s right for all dogs and cats. This article hopes to clarify this issue for pet owners by discussing each type of diet available, namely raw diets, home cooked diets, and packaged commercial pet foods, and presenting the pro’s and con’s for each type. Each individual commercially available food will not be covered, instead the pet owner will be presented with information necessary to allow him or her to make an educated decision on what is the best food for their pet.
- Commercially available
- Natural diet intended for carnivores?
- Ease of feeding
- Palatability (except cats)
- Complete and balanced?
- Not tolerated by immunosuppressed animals
- Owner handling of raw food
- Possible contamination
- Difficult to get most cats to eat
Today few people actually prepare their own raw food diet from a recipe or a book (the raw food diet was popularized by Dr. Ian Billinghurst in his book Give Your Dog a Bone) instead most pet owners buy a raw food diet that is already prepared. These raw diets generally contain lots of protein, fruits, and vegetables, but very few if any grains. There is some concern however that these commercially available products are balanced and complete. There are many companies that now prepare this type of food. See the list of resources at the end of this article for the names of some of these companies.
Raw diets are great for cats-this is what they have evolved to eat! Unfortunately, it can be hard to get a cat to accept a raw food diet. Even though their primordial diet consists of small rodents, birds, lizards, and insects, it’s the hunt and kill that tells their brain to eat it! That plate of raw food just isn’t fun enough to eat! In addition, cats eat prey that is about 100-102 degrees. When we feed them raw food, it is at best room temperature. Cats are very picky, but their pickiness has evolved with their survival. Food that is not freshly killed may have spoiled and will therefore make the cat sick (ever notice how easily cats vomit?). Furthermore, a raw food diet prepared from beef, lamb or rabbit may not contain enough taurine, an essential amino acid necessary for proper heart function. Despite these potential limitations, raw food diets are best for most cats, and dogs that are robust with lots of trouble with ear infections, hot spots, and urinary tract infections (in short, problems that generally require antibiotics to improve).
Raw diets are generally easier to feed than home prepared diets, but raw diets generally require handling of raw meat. This is a legitimate concern for pet owners and opens the possibility of bacterial contamination for both you and your pet. Any fear of contamination should eliminate this type of diet from consideration.
HOME COOKED DIETS
- Can be cost effective
- Complete control of all ingredients
- Palatable (except cats)
- Great for sick pets, pets with allergies or GI problems
- Used in cancer treatment and detoxification
- Time consuming to prepare
- Can be difficult to balance
- Can be difficult to get cats to eat
- Initially is difficult to make
Home cooked diets have the advantage of actively having the owner involved with the pet’s diet and having control over the ingredients in the diet and their source (we can all remember too well the melamine tainted pet foods that caused kidney failure in so many pets). The difficult part of home cooking for your pet is making sure the diet is well balanced. Dogs are more tolerant of excesses or deficiencies in their diets than cats. In addition to adequate protein amounts, cats require an animal source of vitamin A and adequate amounts of taurine, an amino acid. The most important thing when looking into a home cooked diet for your pet is to find a recipe and follow it completely (see resources). Make sure your pet does well on the food and doesn’t have a poor coat, weight loss or gain, or digestive problems. If you are concerned with creating a balanced diet, a veterinary nutritionist will be happy to help you create a diet, for a fee (see resources).
Home cooking a diet obviously requires time, but it’s time well spent and hopefully will lead to more home cooking for the rest of the family. Home cooked diets are great for sick pets, pets recovering from surgery, pets with allergies and GI problems. Home cooked diets are perfect (I think necessary) for pets with cancer, aiding the body’s natural detoxifying processes. But once again, it may be hard to get your cat to take a liking to your home cookin’. Home cooked diets can seem like a burden initially, but stick with it- you’ll be rewarded with a healthier pet.
COMMERCIALLY PACKAGED FOOD
- Palatability (especially cats)
- Many varieties
- Processing destroys the nutritional quality of the food
- Lack of control of ingredients
- Contamination/ toxicity
- Generally contain too many carbohydrates and too little protein
Cost and convenience-the real reasons we choose commercially packaged foods for our pets. However, commercial foods are sometimes the only thing our cats will eat. Cats (and children) are neophobic (fear of the new) when it comes to food. Cats, when they are young, learn which foods to eat. If they are given access to live prey, they will learn to eat that (and will likely take to a raw food diet). If they are given access to dry food, they will learn to eat that (and will likely only eat dry food their entire life!). This food preference develops in response to the limited ability to detoxify substances. Essentially that young kitten will learn that dry food is safe, but will not venture to try “new” foods for “fear” of being poisoned. Cats also develop strict preferences for the shape, texture, and smell of specific foods. This is what makes cats so picky! Cats also develop a preference for the carbohydrates in the food (as do people) and this can lead to over eating and weight gain.
The two biggest downfalls of commercially packaged pet foods are the nutritionally poor ingredients and the lack of ingredient control. Dry dog and cat foods are subjected to high temperatures and pressures in the extruding process that makes the kibble. These high temperatures change the structure of the proteins and fats, along with breaking down the natural vitamins and minerals in the food. That is why manufacturers add the vitamins and minerals back into the food! These changed (aka denatured) proteins and fats can become toxic to the pet or cause a reaction by the immune system. This is a common cause of the development of food allergies, especially in dogs.
Commercially packaged dog and cat foods contain a large number of ingredients (just read the label) especially when you compare them to a home cooked diet. Most of this is done for marketing purposes. You buy the food because it has all kinds of meats, vegetables, and fruits that sound good to you. Unfortunately, these types of foods become too complex for your pet to digest easily. The dog or cat can only produce a limited amount of digestive enzymes at one time, causing incomplete digestion and subsequent health problems, such as weight gain/loss, chronic diarrhea, recurrent urinary tract infections, allergies, hot spots, and anal gland problems, to name just a few. These facts, along with the recent melamine contamination of pet foods, may have you wondering if commercially packaged pet foods are worth the convenience!
As a pet owner now presented with the facts about pet foods, you can now start experimenting with different types of diets for your pet. Remember, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to feeding your pet. Some pets, particularly cats, can be difficult to switch to a different diet. As a pet owner you can also mix and match the diet types. For my dog I do a combination of home cooked foods and packaged foods. This is a compromise that fits into my schedule. As she gets older, I will no doubt be cooking more for her. Change takes time, so be patient. Realize that your hard work today will pay off in a healthy pet for years to come. Bon Appetite!
Commercially available raw food diets
- Bravo/ Bravo Balance
- Nature’s Variety
- Oma’s Pride
- Steve’s Real Food
- Healthy Pet Products
- BARF diet
- Honest Kitchen (freeze dried)
- Ziwi Peak (dehydrated)
- Primal Pet Foods
Books on home cooked diets and raw diets
- Give Your Dog a Bone/ Grow Your Pup on Bones Dr. Ian Billinghurst
- Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, Dr. Richard Pitcairn
- The Ultimate Diet: Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats, Kymythy Schultze
- Home Prepared Dog and Cat Diets: The Healthful Alternative, Dr. Donald Strombeck
Commercial pet food companies
- Halo/ Spot’s Stew
- Wellness/ Eagle Pack/ Old Mother Hubbard
- Diamond/Taste of the Wild/ Chicken Soup
- Natural Balance
- Natura/ California Natural/ EVO/ Innova
- Solid Gold
Nutritional Consulting Services