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Pet Nutrition 101: Are You Giving Your Pet the Best?

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Pet food - Dr. Axe

Most of us love our furry friends — cats, dogs, bunnies, horses, etc. — to the extent that we treat them as members of our own families. These innocent, unconditionally loving animals bring much to our lives. In fact, research shows there are many health benefits of owning a pet. They are there for us when we are stressed or sad, always happy to see us (no matter how tattered and torn we may be) and full of love and devotion. Thus, it only makes sense that we want to feed them the best pet food possible.

According to the Pet Nutrition Alliance, “Dogs and cats need over 30 essential nutrients including protein, essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, and vitamins and minerals.” The problem is, at your local grocery store where there’s usually at least one aisle entirely devoted to pets, the options for healthy pet foods are slim. You’ll find treats, litter, toys and, of course, a variety of foods, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find any products that offer your pets all the nutrition they need.

The pet food selection in most grocery stores ranges from store brand, super cheap options to more expensive, recognizable names. Are any of these actually a good choice when it comes to promoting your pet’s health? Learn more about pet nutrition needs and the best pet food ingredients.


Pet Nutrition 101: What Do Your Pets Need?

When it comes to your pets’ health, they too need to have certain nutrients in order to live long, vibrant lives – just like humans. Providing them with real foods instead of fake foods and supplementing their meals with additional nutrients they need is one of the best ways to love your pet.

The majority of packaged pet foods are loaded with fillers, additives, preservatives and nasty ingredients you simply don’t want to put into your beloved pet’s body. Most of these foods are similar to the ultra-processed foods we find at the grocery store made for humans. They’re laden with ingredients bound to make us sick, not those that support health.

What nutrients do pets, especially dogs, need daily? As you’ll learn more about below, pets/dogs are their healthiest when they eat pet food that contains quality protein, healthy fats, omega-3s and probiotics. Vegetables and other plant foods are not considered by every vet to be “essential” components of pet nutrition, but they do definitely offer benefits, such as providing fiber.

For the most part, our pets’ ancestors ate protein-rich meats, fish and other foods that they caught in the wild. In fact, it wasn’t until post-World War II that pet food was mass-produced and fillers like corn and wheat were introduced into dog food. Today, some vets tell us that the average dog’s diet should consist of 50 percent vegetables, 40 percent meat and 10 percent grain.

Overall, pets need a mix of protein, carbs and fats. While it’s recommended that pets not be given corn, cornmeal, soy and wheat, most can handle easier-to-digest grains like rolled oats, quinoa, brown rice and millet. Your pets also need to stay hydrated, just like you do.


8 Common Pet Food Ingredients and What They Really Are

Pet food is regulated at both the federal and state levels, including by the FDA in the United States. When reading pet food ingredient labels, you’ll find ingredients listed in order of weight. This means that ingredients with the highest volume (such as water) are listed first, before those that are added in smaller amounts (such as fresh and dry ingredients). According to veterinarian Dr. Jan Becker’s website, PetNutritionInfo.com, these are some of the most common ingredients in commercially available pet foods: (4)

  • Lamb and Lamb Meal
  • Poultry Meal and Poultry Byproducts Meal
  • Soybean
  • Meat and Bone
  • Animal Fat
  • Poultry Tallow
  • BHA, BHT
  • Fillers

1. Lamb and Lamb Meal

We all know what lamb is, but did you know that lamb meal is dehydrated lamb that contains up to seven times more lamb meat than you may think? Meat meal in general can be made from various tissues, exclusive of blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents. The animal tissues are cooked and then dried, forming a denser source of protein.

2. Poultry Meal and Poultry Byproducts

Poultry byproducts include beaks, heads, necks, bones, feet, innards and feathers of poultry. These are often discarded parts of chicken or turkey that are deemed not fit for human consumption. If you’re going to purchase pet food that contains either of these ingredients, poultry meal is the better of the two choices.

3. Soybean

Soybean is a common ingredient in many pet foods because it adds protein and texture. Soy is a more affordable source of protein than meat or eggs, so it’s usually added to keep costs down. Most dogs can tolerate soy, but it’s something that can be hard to digest for some pets and may causes gas or digestive issues.

4. Meat and Bone

This is really just a nice way of saying bone, since this ingredient contains very little meat. That’s not all: The bone you’ll feed your pet is usually from an unknown source, and that source can change at any time without notification to consumers.

5. Animal Fat

This is usually the cheapest and therefore lowest-quality fat on the market. Animal fat in pet food is also typically derived from an unknown source and is inconsistent from brand to brand.

6. Poultry Tallow

This is another name for poultry fat. It’s more expensive than undisclosed “animal fat” and usually a better choice for your pet.

7. BHA, BHT

These are chemical preservatives that are abundant in pet foods. These ingredients can accumulate in the animal’s system, because unlike humans who eat a diverse diet, pets usually eat the same food on a daily basis.

8. Fillers

The most common fillers for pet foods are corn and wheat. Carnivorous animals are not meant to chow down on either of these grains, especially not in high amounts. They enable the pet food manufacturers to produce cheaper pet foods. However, they can be difficult to digest, and pets don’t fill up on them easily so they have to consume more.


Healthy Pet Food vs. Unhealthy Pet Food

The Veterinary Medical Center at Tuft’s University offers the tips below when it comes to choosing healthy pet food:

  • Keep in mind that expense doesn’t necessarily equal quality. It’s more important if a pet food contains vital nutrients and is quality tested.
  • Larger companies generally have more stringent quality control protocols, so their food products are more likely to be consistent.
  • Products that have an Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement on the label, which indicates they have undergone animal feeding trials for the appropriate life stage, are generally preferable.
  • Check out the manufacturer’s website. Look for evidence that it does ongoing testing and product improvements based on the latest research.
  • A long list of ingredients is not necessarily better. This is often done for marketing reasons but doesn’t reflect quality.
  • The phrase human grade has no legal meaning in the pet food industry.
  • The quality of byproducts (such as organ meats) used in pet food can vary, so it is important to select manufacturers that have stringent internal quality control standards.
  • There is currently no evidence that raw diets offer any additional benefits for pets over cooked diets. Raw food needs to be handled very carefully because it can be associated with dental fractures, bacterial and parasitic infections, and other health concerns.
  • Cats are carnivores and do best on a high-protein, low-carb diet. They can’t digest plants well, which is why wet food is typically better than dry food for them.
  • Don’t fall for marketing gimmicks. Check ingredient labels for highly refined starches, such as those from potatoes or tapioca (cassava), which are often used in place of grains. These ingredients often provide few nutrients and are used as fillers in”grain free” products.

Believe it or not, recent research shows that many domesticated (household) dogs carry around loads of chemicals that damage their health. Eating processed, chemical-laden pet food is just one source of chemicals among dogs and pets. Others include chewing plastic toys, rubbing against carpeting treated with chemical cleaners and spending time in yards that have been sprayed with pesticides.

Unhealthy pet food is likely one of the biggest sources of chemicals in your pet’s life. Here are some ways to tell the difference between unhealthy pet food and healthy pet food:

  • Check out whether pet food is packaged in any materials made with nonstick chemicals. Switch to a brand that doesn’t use these if yours does.
  • Flame-retardant PBDE chemicals are most likely to be in contaminated farmed seafood, so it may be wise to opt for a different type of dog food.
  • Don’t feed your dog anything off the floor. Treats on the floor tend to soak up pesticides and heavy metals dragged in from people’s shoes.

Top 6 Healthy Ingredients for Pets

Now that you know a bit more about what not to feed your pet, let’s take a look at what you should give your pet.

When it comes to your pet’s diet and health, it’s important to know that animals’ diets have evolved the same way as humans’ diets have. Although our bodies were built for and need certain nutrition, a typical diet today is devoid of many essential vitamins and minerals.  Therefore, it’s important to make an effort to not just feed your pet the right foods, but also to supplement your pet’s food when needed.

Below are healthy ingredients that your pet can greatly benefit from:

1. Omega-3s and DHA

Back in the days when dogs ran wild they were able to obtain omega-3s and DHA from the natural foods they ate. Wild canines would eat reptiles, organ meats, bone marrow and fish, giving them their needed supply of these healthy fatty acids.

Of course, today, a time when pets eat processed dog foods, this doesn’t happen. For that reason you should consider the best ways to get your pet, particularly your dog(s), a regular dose of omega-3s. The DHA in omega-3s are very important for dogs’:

  • Skin
  • Hair
  • Retina support
  • Arthritis
  • Learning
  • Behavior

You can supplement your pets’ food with one to two tablespoons of cod liver oil or fish oil daily or serve your dog fresh, wild salmon a few times per week.

2. Probiotics

Probiotic products are the best way to increase the good bacteria in the body, especially in the gut, while decreasing the bad bacteria. This is particularly important if your pet has been on medications, especially antibiotics that kill off beneficial microbes. Just like humans, dogs/pets need to have good bacteria outweigh the bad or else the body will suffer.

Probiotics are essential for a number of reasons, including because they:

  • Help manufacture B vitamins, especially biotin and folic acid
  • Help balance blood cholesterol levels
  • Improve antioxidant activity
  • Increase energy levels
  • Remove toxins
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Increase digestion

Probiotic supplements can help overcome the following in pets:

  • Diarrhea
  • Digestion problems
  • Skin problems
  • Food intolerances
  • Chronic health problems

Consider live bacteria supplementation for your pet to give it needed probiotics. There are also freeze-dried supplements and liquid supplements, but the live types are usually the best.

3. Quality Protein (Collagen)

Protein is essential for pets because it helps with growth, maintains muscle mass, satisfies their appetite and more. Collagen is a type of protein that forms tissues in both pets and humans. In humans as well as dogs, you can find collagen in the muscles, bones, tendons, skin, blood vessels and digestive system. Collagen for dogs can be a great way to maintain their overall health because it supports connective tissue healing, digestion, skin health and bone health.

Derived from sources including chicken collagen, fish collagen and bovine collagen, this protein source is packed with all essential amino acids, plus compounds that support joint health like glucosamine. When choosing a collagen supplement for your pet, look for a high-quality collagen that is hydrolyzed for easier digestion. You can try powdered collagen, collagen capsules or liquid collagen for dogs, depending on how you want to use it.

4. Healthy Fats

Fats in your pet’s diet, such as fat found naturally in meat and animal parts such as skin, is important for maintaining a healthy coat and weight regulation. Just like with people, healthy fats also support brain health and reproduction.

5. Bone Broth

There are many reasons to give bone broth to dogs and pets, considering it provides dozens of different nutrients, including amino acids like glycine, collagen, gelatin, and trace minerals like calcium, potassium and magnesium. Many of these nutrients can’t be obtained easily from other foods, especially highly processed dog food. You can use bone broth to fill in gaps in your pet’s diet and help it deal with common health challenges, like joint aches, dehydration, diarrhea, an upset stomach and allergies.

Homemade bone broth can be time-consuming to make (it takes one to two days minimum), so a good alternative is bone broth powder. Use about a cup of bone broth as a pet food topper, pour some liquid broth over your dog’s meals, add some to the water bowl or freeze bone broth in ice cube trays to serve your pet as a frozen treat.

6. Plant Foods for Vitamins and Minerals

Most pets, including dogs, are omnivores like people. This means they can eat a wide variety of foods, including vegetables. Vitamins and minerals from veggies like potatoes, carrots, green beans, broccoli, etc., support your pet’s immune system, prevent fatigue and fight inflammation. Plant foods that provide these nutrients are also sources of fiber, which is important for your pet’s digestion and “regularity.”


Where to Find the Best Pet Food

With such a wide variety of dog food brands available, how do you know which is best? Some of the best dog food brands are available from your veterinarian, online or through speciality pet stores. Because each pet is unique, and age/life stage affects the type of food pets should eat, there isn’t just one ideal pet food brand.

It’s most important to read the ingredient label and do your research. You can also ask your vet for specific recommendations if your pet has special needs, such as an allergen-free food. You might also choose to consult with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to ensure your pet’s needs are adequately met. When shopping for dog food/pet food, your best bet is look for the AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement on the pet food label to see if that food is complete and balanced for the specific pet’s life stage.

When it comes to nutrient-dense pet food, a popular pet food brand is Hill’s Pet. According to the company’s nutritional philosophy statement on its website:

At Hill’s, our decades of science and research guide us in making food with the precise blend of taste and nutrition your pet needs — so they can live their best life… Backed by the most extensive evidence-based clinical nutrition, Hill’s strives to deliver the highest quality pet food products that meet a diverse spectrum of unique needs.

Is Hill’s Science Diet a good dog food? Hill’s pet foods contains high-quality ingredients that are based on the needs of pets at different life stages and sizes. Their pet formulas are quality-controlled and contain a good mix of protein, fat, vitamins and minerals, making them a good choice. There are also a number of other brands offering quality pet foods, such as popular brands like Life’s Abundance, Blue Buffalo and Taste of the Wild.


How to Make Healthy Meals for Pets + Recipes

Before making healthy meals for your pets, here are steps to take:

  1. Talk with Your Vet — Don’t switch your dog’s diet without consulting with your vet. Choose a vet who has the same approach to your dog’s health as you do and is willing to try tackling any health problems with diet management rather than just prescribing medications.
  2. Use Real Ingredients — Use real, recognizable ingredients (no fillers) like meat, bone broth, fish, whole grains and vegetables. Switch to high-quality grains, and skip corn, wheat or soy in most cases. Grain-free dog food is good for some pets, but it’s not necessarily the cure-all diet for every canine. However, remember that cats are carnivores and do best on a high-protein, low-carb diet, so the healthiest cat food includes high-quality meats and little grains or fillers.
  3. Avoid Problematic Foods — Many pets cannot tolerate onions, garlic, chives or scallions very well.
  4. Introduce Changes Slowly and Monitor Your Pet — It’s best for your pet if you gradually change its diet. Add grain-free dog food or high-protein foods to your dog’s current dish, mixing it in little by little and gradually increasing the amounts over several weeks. Throughout the process, monitor your pet’s progress.

Once you get your pet on the best diet, here are a few recipes to try:


Precautions

Be on the lookout for signs that your pet may have an allergy or intolerance to something in its food. It’s estimated that about 10 percent of allergies in dogs are due to their pet food formula. The most common allergens in pets are beef, dairy, wheat, egg, chicken, lamb, soy, pork, rabbit and fish. Beef is actually believed to be the No. 1 food allergy among dogs, while dairy is second. Your pets might experience any of the symptoms below if they are not responding well to their food:

  • Shaking their heads often
  • Constantly licking or scratching themselves
  • Gastrointestinal problems, like chronic diarrhea to chronic gas
  • Itchy rear end
  • Loss of appetite and weight changes

Final Thoughts on Pet Nutrition and Healthy Pet Food

  • Like people, pets need to get certain nutrients from their diets in order to live long, vibrant lives. The most important nutrients for pets include protein, healthy fats, omega-3s, probiotics and plant foods.
  • Some of the most common ingredients found in commercially available pet foods include lamb and lamb meal, poultry meal and byproducts, soybean, meat and bone, animal fat, poultry tallow, BHA/BHT, and fillers like corn, wheat and cornmeal.
  • Benefits of supplementing your pets’ meals with bone broth and/or collagen may include improved bone, joint, skin, hair, nail and digestive health.
  • Talk to your veterinarian if your pet/dog has specific health needs and you’re trying to address these with dietary changes. Change your pet’s diet gradually and monitor their progress.

Read Next: Best Digestive Enzymes for Dogs & How to Give Them to Your Pet


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