The topic of choosing what to feed your pet is one that comes up time and time again. The busy and cluttered online world often creates and promotes untrue myths about pet food, and this understandably causes confusion to many pet owners.
Like many vets, I have strong views on pet nutrition, based on a combination of learning (vet students are taught a detailed course on animal nutrition) and experience (I see pets every day as part of my work, and I routinely try to discuss what sort of diet is being fed). With this background, you might think that there would be a general acceptance of a vet's views on nutrition. However, there are two excuses bandied around online that can undermine belief in what vets say about pet food.
The first is that vet schools sometimes receive funds from commercial pet food manufacturers. While it's true that this type of funding does exist, (as does funding from other commercial entities: private-public partnerships are part of our education system), it does not devalue the science of nutrition: vet schools are there to teach the truth, not to tell some "version" of the truth, as dictated by financial backers.
The second excuse for disbelieving vets is the fact that most pet vet clinics sell dry pet food, in the form of kibble in bags. Some people feel that because vets do this, they are no longer able to offer objective advice. The truth is that vets select pet food that they know is good for pets, and they sell it because they know that it's good for their patients. This is the same idea as selling pet accessories, parasite control and other medications that vets know are effective: the job of a vet is to help pets, and it's all part of the same mission.If you talk to vets, you'll find they don't just recommend the foods that they sell. Advice on pet nutrition is given on an individual basis, depending on what suits the particular animal.
I'm aware that those people who believe the anti-vet myth will not believe me as I write this. There are some who go much further, even believing that vets deliberately promote food that they know will cause allergies and cancers in pets, because they will then profit from the extra business of treating those pets. This is crazy conspiracy theory stuff, but sadly, some people seem to think that it's true.
So why can't dogs and cats be fed on regular ingredients from the supermarket, just as we humans feed ourselves? Why are vets so keen on suggesting commercial pet food?
The reason is that commercial pet food is legally obliged to be nutritionally balanced and complete: professional nutritionists are employed to ensure that this is the case. Vets know that if pet owners choose this type of food for their pet, it will definitely provide the correct nutrients. It also happens to be convenient and reasonably priced: it genuinely suits most pets and most people very well indeed,
In theory it's possible to home cook for pets, but in practice, it's more complicated than you'd think. A pet's nutrition must be properly balanced, and it is not so easy to make that happen. Internet-sourced recipes for home-cooking for dogs and cats have been reviewed by independent nutritional researchers, and nearly all have been found to be unbalanced. Over time, this can result in deficiencies or excesses of specific nutrients.
One of the challenges is that essential supplements - like calcium, potassium, Vitamin B12, taurine and other nutrients - need to be included in pet diets. If human versions of these are used, it's difficult to split capsules designed for adults into correct amounts for small pets. It's easy to overdose small pets, even giving toxic doses. Pet food manufacturers are able to make up their recipes in large batches, making it much easier to get doses of supplements correct.
Errors in formulation of a diet may take months or years to develop, so if a home made diet is incorrect, it's rarely immediately obvious. Pet nutritionists say that around 1 - 3% of pets on home made diets have problems linked to imbalanced nutrition, compared to less than one in a million of those eating commercial diets.
It's true that a small minority of pets do suffer from allergies and sensitivities to particular diets. And this minority of pets may benefit from being fed home cooked, raw meat based, or specific types of commercial diets. But the most common nutrition based problem seen by vets is obesity, most often caused simply by giving pets too much tasty food. You don't need to start to home cook to solve this problem: you just need to start to measure how much you feed your pet, and given them a strict daily amount. It's no accident that it's exceptionally rare for a vet to own an obese pet. The rules for keeping a pet slim and trim are obvious when you know how.
My view is simple: choose a commercial diet (because you know it will be balanced), make sure that you pet enjoys eating it, and feed it for two months. If your pet looks well, with a glossy coat and well-defined musculature, with a gleam in their eye, then the diet suits them. If not, try a new diet. And you don't need grain free or exotic ingredients. No more than you need these yourself in your daily diet.
It isn't rocket science: it's nutritional science.