Feeding your pet a safe and nutritious alternative diet

A brown dog wearing a red collar eats out of dog dish on the ground


By Karli Longthorne

The uptick in alternative diet trends such as high-protein, low-fat or plant-based in humans has the food industry buzzing. Now, new research is pointing to similar trends in companion animals, such as dogs and cats.

According to a survey by Dr. Sarah Dodd, veterinarian, ECVCN resident and PhD candidate at the University of Guelph, seven per cent of dogs and four per cent of cats in the US, Canada and Australia are exclusively fed home prepared diets. However, over half may be fed home-prepared foods as a component of their diet.

Conventional pet foods are commercially prepared, heat-processed (cooked), and include animal ingredients. If formulated and manufactured properly, they also contain all essential nutrients, in the correct proportions, and are made to target a specific nutrient profile. Testing may be performed on raw ingredients and in final products to ensure the food meets the nutrient profile intended and is safe for consumption.

Alternative diets may not meet all of these criteria. Many kinds of alternative diets exist including homemade raw, homemade cooked commercially prepared raw, commercially prepared freeze-dried raw, commercially prepared fresh food, or vegetarian/plant-based.

Home prepared diets mostly comprise whole foods and can be cooked or raw. Owners may or may not choose to follow a recipe when they are preparing their pets’ food themselves and may or may not use a vitamin and mineral supplement. Recipes can be found online or can be formulated by board certified veterinary nutritionists.

The reality is, most recipes that are found online are missing essential vitamins and minerals.

At the recent University of Guelph Fueling Wellness Symposium, presenter and veterinarian Dr. Caitlin Grant said alternative diets are becoming a more common choice among pet parents, for a variety of reasons.

Some owners mistrust pet food companies and believe that homemade diets are healthier than conventional diets. Grant says that’s not necessarily true.

“Dogs and cats need nutrients, not ingredients, so the healthiest diet is one that provides them with all the nutrients they need in correct proportions,” she says.

As well, some pet owners think because they may spend more for a boutique alternative diet that this means it is better for this pet, but Grant says that doesn’t necessarily equate to a superior product.

Here’s her checklist for considering an alternative diet for your pet:

  1. Talk to your veterinarian. Have on-going conversations with your veterinarian about whether an alternative diet is the best decision for optimizing your pet’s health and well-being.
  2. Expertise. Be sure that home prepared diets have been formulated by board-certified veterinary nutritionists.
  3. Check labels. For pre-packaged food, check the label to ensure the diet contains all essential nutrients and if there is a nutritional adequacy statement. This statement identifies which life stage the food is intended for and confirms that all nutrients are provided in the correct amounts and proportions for that life stage.
  4. Supplementation. Check if additional supplementation is required. Home-prepared diets always require a vitamin and mineral supplement to ensure the diet is providing the pet with all of the nutrients it needs. There are several supplements available on the market, but choosing one that has been manufactured by a board certified veterinary nutritionist is best.
  5. Introduce one new food at a time. More than one new food makes it difficult to monitor how your pet reacts. When introducing new foods, choose a routine time when your pet has no environmental stressors and ensure new foods are being introduced over a span of several days or longer.
  6. Record. Keep a record of when you introduce new foods before, during and after you make changes so you and your veterinarian can evaluate any changes in your pet’s body weight, body condition score, fecal score and frequency of bowel movements.