Questions about pet foods: what foods are best, how much should I feed, how will I know if my pet has a food allergy? These are some of the most common questions that we get in veterinary medicine these days, and unfortunately, the internet is full of wrong answers! Here are the answers to a few of the most common questions that we see!
1. What brand should I buy?
The truth is, there is no one brand or formula of food that is the end-all be-all for all animals. Every food that is sold in stores is required to meet AAFCO standards, meaning that they should all have the basic nutrients that your pets need to survive. That being said, all pet foods are not created equally. We recommend sticking with the larger, reputable companies. The main reason for this is safety. Large companies have far more research behind their diets, and they have more safety measures in place to prevent contamination or other health problems. That’s not to say that these foods will never be recalled, things happen, but because of the sheer number of animals who eat these foods, any problems with the diets are discovered and corrected quickly. Smaller companies with only a handful or pets on their diets are just as likely if not more likely to need to recall a food, but it will take you much longer to find out about it.
2. My groomer says they’re putting antifreeze in my pet’s food!
Your groomer is wrong-mostly. The ingredient that they are referencing is Propylene Glycol. Propylene Glycol is an ingredient used in both human and animal food and pharmaceutical production. It is generally recognized as safe by the FDA. The typical antifreeze used for cars and involved with toxicity in animals and children is ethylene glycol. These are two entirely different compounds with two entirely different toxicity levels. Now, the reason that your groomer is only mostly wrong is that, in recent years, companies have started making environmentally friendly antifreeze using the less toxic propylene glycol, particularly for aquatic use.
3. The kid at Petsmart says that my pet should be on a grain-free diet!
The kid at Petsmart is wrong. Grain free diets have become a fad over the last decade, mainly because of the increasing prevalence of gluten and grain allergies in humans. Grain allergies certainly can happen in pets, but they are amongst the least common allergens. The most common food allergens in pets are chicken, beef, egg and dairy (fish for cats as well). That doesn’t mean that chicken is evil or that no dogs should eat chicken. It has simply been a very common ingredient in pet foods for a very long time, so some animals are beginning to develop sensitivities to it. Try to think of food allergies in pets the same way we think about food allergies in humans. The whole world obviously didn’t stop eating peanut butter because some people happen to be allergic to it, so all of the dogs in the world don’t need to stop eating chicken because some of them are allergic to it. And they certainly don’t need to stop eating grains because way less than 1% of all pets in the world are allergic to it. Moreover, grain-free diets have recently been tied to the development of dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs, a severe heart condition believed to be caused by a lack of taurine in the diet or inhibition of taurine absorption from the diet. Go to https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/news-events/fda-investigation-potential-link-between-certain-diets-and-canine-dilated-cardiomyopathy to find the most up to date information on the FDA warning and research.
4. How do I know if my dog has a food allergy?
This is actually a reasonably difficult diagnosis to make. The three main categories of allergies in dogs and cats are: flea allergy, environmental allergy, and food allergy. Unfortunately, all 3 of these types of allergies can have very similar clinical signs. Food allergies are the least common of the three, but they do appear to be on the rise. For us poor folks here in Richmond, VA environmental allergies FAR outweigh all other types of allergy.
The really difficult part about diagnosing a food allergy is that the majority of allergy testing that we do in pets isn’t accurate for food allergies. The easiest way to diagnose a food allergy in pets is with a diet trial. This is usually an 8 week long elimination diet where you severely limit the variety of foods that your pet is exposed to. This is most often achieved through what is called a hydrolyzed protein diet. These are prescription foods where the proteins have been broken down to a size so small that the immune system doesn’t recognize them, so that it can’t mount a response. If your pet’s symptoms improve during the 8 week trial, then their symptoms are related to a food allergy. At that point you can choose to leave them on the hydrolyzed diet, or begin re-introducing foods one at a time to see what foods they do and don’t react to.
5. How many cups of food should I feed?
This is a question we get all the time, and it’s 100% impossible to answer with a general “ ½ a cup a day” sort of response. Again, try to think of your pet’s nutrition like you would think about your own. If you ate a cup of butter 3 times a day, it would be far different from eating a cup of broccoli three times a day right? That’s why in human medicine and fitness we always discuss food in terms of calories. The same goes for our pets, the number of calories in has to match the number of calories out or they will gain or lose weight. Almost every pet food company will list the number of calories (kcal) per can or per cup of food on their website or on the packaging of the food itself. A veterinarian can calculate how many calories per day your pet should eat to achieve their ideal weight, and using the calorie count on the food you can figure out how much they should get.