Diet choices can keep pets healthy, happy

Meals range from store bought to homemade


Many pet owners have long sought alternative ways to feed their animals and avoid commercially produced pet food altogether.Whether people are concerned about the safety of commercial foods, or simply want to find ways to help pets live long and healthy live, there are three common choices, each with pros and cons.

Go To The Store

Critics, however, say these foods contain too much grain or carbohydrates, which can cause gas and illness in sensitive animals. Pets can also develop an allergic reaction to the artificial additives and fillers found in commercial foods.But veterinarians such as Dr. Penny Kupferberg of the Coral Springs Pet Resort in Florida prefer commercial foods over other options. Kupferberg says these foods are specially made for animals and contain the nutrients they need to stay healthy, active and at a desired weight.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals agrees. In a statement released shortly after the recent recall, the ASPCA "cautioned pet parents to fully research homemade diets before pulling out the chef's hat."

"The ASPCA still generally recommends high-quality commercial diets for pets. Such foods are highly research-based and are formulated with nutrients specific to your pet's well-being," said Dr. Steven Hansen, a board-certified veterinary toxicologist and senior vice president with the ASPCA.

Make Your Own

The second most-popular pet diet is a natural homemade diet. Homemade diets have three basic components: grains, protein and vegetables.

"The best diets for both dogs and cats are natural ones," says Dr. Anna Maria Gardner, who writes on PetSynergy.com and is a holistic veterinarian in Spokane, Wash.

Proponents say the fresh ingredients in the diet provide more energy, reduce allergies, maintain a healthy weight and help pets live a longer life.

But homemade diets demand a lot of time that most pet owners simply don't have.

"Homemade diets can certainly provide pets with an adequate diet, but they do require a substantial amount of work and guidance by your veterinary team to ensure that the final product includes a complete nutritional balance," explains Hansen.

Owners may also make the mistake of feeding their pets according to human nutritional guidelines that are often not suitable for pets and can sometimes be deadly.

In The Raw

The third most-common pet diet is a raw diet. Popularly known as the BARF diet, an acronym for "bones and raw food" -- it was developed by Australian veterinarian Dr. Ian Billinghurst.

The BARF diet is based on a belief that the best way to feed your pet is to give it a diet similar to what it would eat in the wild -- raw, meaty bones, muscle, organ meat, vegetables and supplements.

"BARF is about feeding dogs properly. Artificial, grain-based dog foods cause innumerable health problems. They are not what your dog was programmed to eat during its long process of evolution," Billinghurst says.

But critics say that health problems can occur if the diet is not balanced. They also warn that your pet can choke on raw bones. The ASPCA also advises against feeding pets raw foods since it may lead to E. coli or salmonella poisoning.

Choosing For You

Good nutrition is the basis of a healthy pet. But there's a right way and a wrong way to alter your pet's diet. Veterinarians say that simply replacing pet food with people food isn't the answer. Never alter your pet's diet without first consulting your veterinarian.

Dr. Louise Murray, director of medicine at the ASPCA's Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York City, offers this advice:

"Ask your veterinarian to refer you to a specialist with an advanced degree in animal nutrition, certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition," she says.

Start Simple

If you're too busy to cook but want to add some natural food to your pet's diet, start with a natural, high-quality pet food -- one with no artificial preservatives, colorings or flavorings. Mix it with vegetables, grains and meats, and add a vitamin and mineral supplement, says Gardner. Chemicals to avoid include BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin. Dr. Ihor Basko, a Hawaii-based holistic veterinarian, recommends introducing a new diet gradually, since sudden changes can lead to vomiting and diarrhea. Other things to consider include your pet's age, health, metabolic rate, activity level and breed.

Finally, beware of scams that prey on your fears. Remember that marketing can be skewed to make you believe just about anything. As with nutrition for humans, pet nutrition hype is as close as a Google search away.

Separating the hype from reality is the first step to making informed decisions about what to feed your pet to keep it healthy and happy for its entire life.