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North Hills Monthly

Many Options Available When it Comes to Feeding Pets

Nov 30, 2018 12:04PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Food shopping for pets can be daunting, as there are more choices than ever before. Kibble versus wet food? Raw diets? Home cooked meals? It can be confusing.

Not only do pet owners have differing opinions, but so do the experts. While some believe that raw diets are best, others are okay with commercial foods, so long as they contain the daily nutrients that pets need.

“A lot of this controversy is related to the fact that most veterinarians have little nutrition training prior to vet school,” said Cynthia Maro, DVM, CVA, CAC, VMRT, senior staff veterinarian and director of integrative veterinary medicine at several area pet hospitals, including Cranberry Holistic Pet Care. “The training we get in veterinary school is focused on how to feed sick patients for specific illness conditions.

“One of the biggest problems facing veterinarians and pet store owners is that we do not have a good way to compare these diets, because a breakdown analysis of every food is not being performed,” added Dr. Maro, who has a background in animal science and nutrition with extensive experience in diet formulation. “The nutrient profile of pet food ingredients does not reflect contaminants, variations in soil nutrient content and variations in in animal feeding practices, which all greatly impact nutritional value.”

Raw Diets

Some experts believe that animals should follow their ancestral diets, i.e., raw diets.

According to Toni Shelaske, owner of Healthy Pet Products and Healthy Pet Grooming, “Pets fed these diets will have a leaner and more muscular body, fresher breath, clean teeth, healthy digestion, more vitality and an improved immune system that helps keep disease at bay. 

“The more real food they eat the better off they are, and by real food I mean minimally processed,” added Shelaske, who was recently named 2018-19 Retailer of the Year by Pet Product News. “Kibble (dry food) is highly processed.”

“Pets who are healthy and active with good digestive function should eat a wide variety of foods to obtain nutrients,” said Dr. Maro. “In order for pets to accept a variety of different food textures, taste and types, the ideal situation is for them to be exposed to raw, canned and kibble as puppies and kittens.”

Dr. Maro tends to support an evolutionary diet whether it is cooked or raw, and adds that the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association’s (AHVMA) members lean toward raw and evolutionary feeding for wellness and cancer prevention. 

“When I investigate diets, I look at how they are formulated and how disease spread is controlled; the diets that I advocate using have staff microbiologists who test for pathogenic bacteria before that diet is sold,” she said. “I do caution clients about feeding raw that is not tested for these bacteria, and I discourage long-term feeding of a home-prepared diet without a veterinary nutritionist balancing that diet.”

She adds that she does not recommend going to a butcher shop and simply feeding raw, ground-up bones and meat without diet balancing. “I see many pets suffering from nutritional diseases based on some of these practices,” she explained.

Shelaske added that animals in the wild would never have eaten the same meal every day, so she highly encourages switching foods to incorporate different proteins into a pet’s diet, providing different amino acid and omega profiles.

Commercial brands

Not everyone agrees with raw diets, however. Citing from the American Veterinary Medical Association, Brendan Cloonan, DVM, Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center (PVSEC), said that raw diets are discouraged due to the risk of illness to cats, dogs and humans alike.

“I think that it is important for us to define what constitutes a ‘natural’ diet,” he explained. “Dogs and cats have been domesticated for thousands of years. Their dietary requirements and ability to digest certain meals are different than those of wild dogs and wolves and wild cats.

“Dogs are omnivores, which means that their primary diets consist of meat, fat, carbohydrates and certain vegetation including fruits and berries,” he continued. “Cats are strict carnivores, which means that they derive nutrition solely from meat and fat. The majority of commercial pet food is geared toward the nutritional requirements of domesticated dogs and cats.”

Matt Pietropaoli, manager of communications at Humane Animal Rescue, agreed that cats absolutely need meat to survive. He added that cats should be getting wet food regularly, as they get most of their water intake through wet food.

According to Dr. Cloonan, wet food tends to have a lower caloric density when compared to kibble and is often used to supplement kibble-based diets. “The majority of wet and dry food is sold as ‘complete’ diets, which means that it contains all of the required nutrients for the specific life stage of the animal to which it is marketed,” he explained. “There are some instances where we prefer our patients to have an increased intake of water and will recommend wet food diets. Ultimately, the decision to feed dry versus wet should be discussed with your family veterinarian.”

He added that while most commercial foods are formulated to meet a pet’s dietary needs, these requirements can vary throughout a pet's life. “For instance, you would want to feed a puppy-specific diet to a juvenile pet and a senior diet to a geriatric pet. Of course, this refers specifically to healthy pets since there are certainly diseases among dogs and cats that dictate alterations to their diets.” 

When shopping for commercial food, consumers should look for a seal or statement from the AAFCO, a nongovernmental agency that assesses nutrition in pet food. As for changing up your animal’s diet, “In general, unless otherwise directed by a veterinarian, pets should receive the same diet regularly since frequent changes can lead to GI upset,” Dr. Cloonan said.

If you do switch up food, make the transition gradually, as an abrupt change in diet can lead to vomiting and diarrhea, added Pietropaoli.


While grain-free diets have recently been in vogue, Dr. Maro cautions pet owners considering this option. “The grain-free movement stemmed from veterinarians recommending evolutionary diets which were grain-free; unfortunately, pet food manufacturers were substituting grains with lentils and legumes such as chickpeas, peas and other sources of protein, which are high in lectins and have no meat qualities,” she said.

This, in turn, has led to health problems such as heart disease from low taurine levels in these grain-free foods. “It is important to stress that grain-free foods are not the problem. The problem comes from how the pet food manufacturers are using semantics to substitute meats with nutrients, which are not good for pets,” said Dr. Maro.

Table Scraps/Home cooking

If a table scrap or two just happens to fall off the table and into the mouth of a waiting pet, that is not so awful, so long as the food is nutritious and neither processed nor toxic. Taboo foods include chocolate, macadamia nuts, onions, grapes, raisins and food with sugars and artificial sweeteners like xylitol. If in doubt about the safety of a particular food, visit the ASPCA’s toxicology website.

Both Shelaske and Pietropaoli agreed that home cooking is fine, but you should seek the advice of a veterinarian to make sure that the food you’re serving meets the animal’s nutritional needs. You should also be careful of choking hazards such as pork bones, or items like corncobs that they could pull from the trash.

Treats and Rawhide

Feeding treats in-between meals can be a great training tool, as many dogs are food-motivated, but beware of excessive caloric intake. Some acceptable treats include berries and certain vegetables like carrots and green beans.

While some pet parents do give their dogs rawhides, others are more wary. “Rawhide is a great interactive treat for a dog, but it does pose a choking hazard. We do not typically use rawhide in a shelter environment because dogs are left unsupervised for long periods of time,” said Pietropaoli.


Pay close attention to food recalls, which are listed on the website and the FDA website as well. Up-to-date information can also be found at

Both Dr. Maro and Shelaske said that they post any recalls on their Facebook pages and websites. “It's important to always keep the bag that the food comes in, because it has an important date and lot code,” said Shelaske. “In case of a recall, this is the first thing that you need to check.”

While there are many options available to pet owners, the most important thing to keep in mind is that every animal is different, so what may work for one may not be the right choice for another. Do your research to find out what might be best for your furry friend.