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American consumers spent 18.4 BILLION dollars on pet foods in 2010. It’s a huge market and everyone seems to want a piece of it. The airwaves and Internets are full of cutesy-wutesy commercial messages, each extolling the virtues of this food or that. What’s a concerned pet owner to do?

Begin dream sequence: You find yourself sitting in your physician’s office, where a clean cut young (but not too young) woman wearing a white coat and stethoscope greets you with her perfect smile and impossibly white teeth. She holds, face high, a neatly inscribed box of food product for you to admire. “Eat perfectly complete and balanced Health Nuggets morning, noon, and night,” she advises you authoritatively,“ and you’ll be happy, healthy, and irresistibly attractive to the opposite sex.” She tips her head intimately, whispering, “It makes it’s own gravy!”

Snap out of it! Who would ever buy an argument like that? No one! Never! It’s ludicrous! Ridiculous! Crazy! And it’s exactly the argument we buy every time we choose a food for our pets. From the pet food manufacturer’s viewpoint, this really is a dream.

There is no perfect diet. That said, there are thousands of perfectly adequate diets, but none of them are perfect and whatever deficiencies or excesses a diet contains will be magnified by long-term use. “But, but, but…” some will sputter, “I thought I wasn’t supposed to change my pet’s diet.” Yeah? Who told you that? Could it be… (echo on) THE PET FOOD MANUFACTURER?

Certainly, there are some animals that are sensitive to changes of diet, particularly EXTREME or SUDDEN changes, but for most animals the benefits of dietary monotony are vastly overstated. Animals change over time and their dietary needs change too, with changes of growth rate, age and activity. Even if there was such a thing as a perfect diet, the animal’s changing needs eventually renders that diet imperfect, and perhaps even harmful as the animal progresses through life. Everyone agrees that senior dogs should not eat puppy chow.

I feed my animals a variety of high quality foods and typically keep two or three brands of food available at any given time, feeding one food and then the next in an effort to avoid dietary monotony. This way, my pets are accustomed to different foods and, should the time come that one of them needs a specialized diet to help treat a health problem, they are more willing to accept the unusual food. This is particularly important with older cats, whose tendency to develop kidney disease in later life often necessitates a specialized diet. In these cases, the cat’s willingness to accept a different food can add months or years to its life expectancy.

What brands? The good ones! Stick with long-established companies and avoid house brands and gimmick diets. I don’t believe that dogs benefit from brightly dyed foods or those that make their own gravy, no matter how appetizing the product looks on TV. My patients don’t watch TV anyway.

What about raw foods? We cook foods because doing so kills pathogens (like E. coli and Salmonella) and because cooking breaks down food molecules to make them more digestible. While it may be ‘natural’ for dogs to eat raw food, our dogs are no longer natural animals and neither are the ground-up chickens some people suggest we feed them. The ‘natural’ argument doesn’t hold much water; salmonella is natural, cavities are natural. It’s ‘natural’ for human beings to die toothless and broken at age 36. No thanks. I’ll take the un-natural pathogen-free food, please. My pets will too.

Yet some people really believe in raw diets and claim their pets benefit from them. I have seen no proof that raw food confers any health benefit, but have seen only a few animals sickened by them. I recommend great caution when feeding (or personally consuming) uncooked fish or flesh. Allowing raw diets to sit unconsumed for an hour or two is begging for trouble.

People food (AKA table food) is a mixed bag. If we make our dogs a plate of food and feed them exactly what we eat, most of them do just fine (enjoy your salad and oatmeal, Fido!). Unfortunately, what’s referred to as “people food” is often just garbage. We don’t feed dogs what we eat, we feed them what we DON’T eat! This material is typically very high in fat and has often been in the frig for a week. If you like spending money with your veterinarian, feed garbage!

Pet owners must always be cautious consumers of information, especially about a subject as important as nutrition. Beware of claims that are overly broad or suggest unproven benefits. Foods are the first medicines, but using them requires a long view of health. We’ll return to this topic in a future column.

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