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Food for Thought

“What pet food do you recommend?” is a question frequently posed by conscientious owners to their trusted veterinarians.  When the subject of pet food comes up here at Four Paws, we always answer as completely and honestly as possible, but the truth is that during an appointment that has already included a physical exam, maybe some screening tests and vaccines, and probably at least one “oh and I wanted you to look at…”, sometimes our answer is the Reader’s Digest version of the truth.  Here is the REST of what we wanted to tell you….

Let us start by recognizing some pertinent facts: Fact #1 is that the pet food industry in the USA as of 2016 topped $24 BILLION DOLLARS.  Even the pet supplement market is nothing to sneeze at, coming in at around $580 million for the same period. That, my friend, is a big, juicy pie from which many many companies would like a hefty slice.   Fact #2 is simply that advertising works.  Don’t believe us; believe the corporations who shell out five million dollars for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl.  That’s not charity, that’s an investment in future sales.  Fact #3 is that pets neither consume advertising nor shop for pet food.  So those commercials showing a happy pet with a beautiful coat frolicking (often in slow-mo) through a field of wildflowers, then ingredients that probably look better than what you have planned for dinner tonight displayed in a modern spotless kitchen, that’s marketing for humans, not pets. Which leads us directly to our final, but most important, Fact #4: cats and dogs may be our babies, but they are not human babies.  The best food for your pet is a pet food is formulated to meet his or her specific nutritional needs. 

So, with these facts in mind, how do veterinarians evaluate pet foods?

Start with a trusted company. Always look for established companies who invest in research to make certain that their products are nutritionally complete and appropriate.  Further, we have confidence in companies who own their own productions plants with strict quality control and quality assurance procedures.  Because there are literally hundreds of pet food companies (with more entering or leaving the market seemingly every day), we usually name off the “big four”:  Purina, Hills, Eukanuba/IAMS, and Royal Canin – companies that have a track record for good nutrition and quality.  Some other companies may as well, but we have knowledge of and faith in these four guys.  Even if you have one of those rare pets with special dietary requirements, always start with a company you can rely on to produce safe, nutritionally complete food.  Many “designer” foods are manufactured in rented factory space with less than impressive standards, and the result can be sick pets and product recalls.  Boo.

Recognize a fad when you see one.  Remember when we all used olive oil for everything and nobody ate eggs because the cholesterol would probably kill you dead right there next to your frying pan?  Ha! Now everybody knows that coconut oil can cure anything with the possible exception of having eaten grains, which will surely kill you right there next to your cereal bowl.  There are diets with almost no fat, diets with almost no carbs, veggie diets, raw foods diets, and (infamously) this one guy who lost a ton of weight eating at a sandwich shop every day for a few years.  People, if you need or want a restrictive diet to feel better, live longer, or jump higher, go for it.  We are talking about your pets here, and with very very very few exceptions your healthy pet will do well with a standard high-quality pet food.   If you suspect that your pet may have a food allergy (they do happen, just not very often) see your veterinarian for allergy screening.  Recently one of our patients with chronic miserable itchiness got his allergy tests back and found out that, among other things, he was sensitive to potatoes.  Unfortunately, his people had been feeding him an “allergy” diet that avoided chicken and grains in favor of salmon and potatoes.  Bless his heart; he would have been better off eating “Old Roy”.  “Grain-Free” is a great marketing strategy, but is almost always a waste of your hard-earned money.  Raw pet foods can be fine, but spoilage is a real worry.  If you want to make pet food at home, know that rotisserie chicken is NOT a balanced diet. You must be VERY careful to make absolutely sure that you are including ALL needed nutrients (we could tell you ACTUAL horror stories)!.  Better yet, just stick with the aforementioned high-quality nutritionally balanced commercial diets, and KNOW that your pet is well-fed.

Don’t be a food snob.  A lot of people have a negative reaction to the ingredient “by-product” on your pet food can or bag.  We don’t like that term either – let us call a spleen a spleen, shall we?  Just because you don’t think the yummiest part of a deer is the guts, your dog, trust me, does NOT share your bias!  Internal organs are where so many important micronutrients are found, and pet foods that snub these nutritional gold mines end up having to add vitamins and minerals from a chemistry lab.   If pet food commercials were targeted to the pet instead of the owners, we might be treated to slow motion sequences of a Bassett Hound disemboweling a bunny, or a Persian eating a mouse (hint: they don’t fillet it first).   We used to chuckle that “by-product” probably meant “beaks and feathers”, but since a leading national brand has introduced a very effective and nutritionally appropriate hypoallergenic food that uses feathers as the main protein source, even that has stopped being a joke.   Tuck your food prejudices back in when judging pet food: nutrition, quality, and taste are what matter here.

Do we seem kind of judgmental on this topic?  Really, we are not.  This is the answer to “what do you recommend?” not “what should I feed my pet?”.  The best foods for your pets are those that you can afford to buy, that they like to eat, that gives them good nutrition without negative side effects.  Healthy weight? Check. Shiny coat? Check. Lots of energy? Yep. They like it? Awesome. No diarrhea or vomiting? Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a winner!  As long as everyone is happy and healthy, we are pleased as punch.  If you have more questions, do feel free to set an appointment to discuss your pet’s specific nutritional needs with the doctor.  We really are just “Caring for the Life of Your Pet” here at Four Paws Veterinary Hospital.


Our friends here are simply THE BEST! They care about our pets like we care about our pets. They go the extra mile. Dr. Phillip knows SO much about veterinary science, in his calm and unassuming way. Some people are born to it: that's him.

Rebecca K. / San Marcos, TX

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