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North Hills Monthly

Diet Important to Ensure Pets’ Optimal Health

Nov 30, 2015 06:14PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch
The pet food industry has grown exponentially over the last decade or so—now there are more choices than ever regarding what to feed Lucky or Gizmo. For pet parents, navigating the aisles of pet food stores can be confusing.

Part of the reason for the growth in the industry is that pets are seen as another member of the family, translating into the consumer’s desire to feed healthy foods to their loved ones.

Consumer buying trends include raw diets, all natural diets, and diets that contain no byproducts or wheats and grains, said Dr. Sherwood Johnson, DVM, DACVIM, a specialist in veterinary internal medicine with Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Center (PVSEC).

Raw diets refer to unprocessed food. “The concept behind this is that dogs and cats would eat raw food in the wild, not processed food, and eat the entire animal prey, including bones,” said Johnson.

Indeed, that is the philosophy behind the many of the products stocked by Toni Shelaske, owner of Healthy Pet Products in the North and South Hills. “I’m really a believer in that they need meat, bones and organs,” she said. 

There are risks to raw diets, though, warns Dr. Johnson, including potential bacterial contamination and parasitism, as well as the potential for intestinal obstruction or perforation by ingested bone fragments. 

Many pet food companies now also offer grain-free foods. Dr. Johnson said that most dogs do not exhibit gluten sensitivities, and that the majority of allergies in dogs come from proteins, not carbohydrates. Nonetheless, “Although use of a grain-free diet is not problematic as long as the diet remains balanced, whole grains are an excellent source of fiber and vitamins and minerals that must be replaced with other ingredients,” he said.

Shelaske said that if there are grains in the food, they should be quality grains, such as barley or oatmeal rather than corn, wheat or soy, as those are harder for dogs to digest.

Both dogs and cats can experience allergies traceable to their food sources based on overuse of proteins. “Cats are now eating more chicken and turkey and other proteins, and dogs are eating all kinds of proteins,” said Marti Ludwig, an employee of Leone’s Animal Supply in Wexford. “The rule of thumb is to rotate foods as much as possible so that the animals don’t develop an allergy to something. That’s why they’re coming up with venison and kangaroo, because dogs haven’t tasted them.” Some companies have also begun adding ingredients to foods to address digestive, joint and skin issues.

Because of strict labeling regulations, consumers should feel comfortable buying food that was made in the U.S. or Canada. By the same token, consumers should beware of pet food that was made in China, as they do not have the same labeling requirements. In 2007, the toxin melamine was found in some dog food made in China, which led to illness and resulted in recalls.

Shelaske noted that some American companies do source food outside of the United States, but added that there is no way to tell from the packaging. 

Of course, there are many foods that should never be fed to dogs; some of the most common ones include chocolate, onions, grapes, raisins and dairy. Shelaske also cautions consumers to be careful with rawhide, in part because larger pieces can get stuck in the digestive track. Popular alternatives include bully sticks, antlers and pig ears.

Reading labels is important, and the number one ingredient in any food should be protein. Shelaske also advises staying away from foods that have food coloring or chemical preservatives and to look for the words ‘whole grade.’

While some folks cringe when they see the word ‘byproduct’ on a label, Dr. Johnson said that not feeding animals byproducts often has to do more with human preference rather than what is appropriate for the animal. “The nutritional quality and digestibility of byproducts and meat are virtually indistinguishable,” he said, adding that it is fine for pet owners who wish to stay away from byproducts to do so, provided that their animals receive a nutritionally balanced diet.

One major problem among dogs, especially, is the ‘food is love’ syndrome. More than half of the dogs in the U.S. are obese, leading to related health problems. That is why calories in both primary food and in treats need to be taken into consideration.