If I challenged you to pick one meal and only eat that for the next 6 months - breakfast, lunch, and dinner - how do you think it would go? Variety in cuisine is definitely one of the greater pleasures of being human, especially a human in a well-developed country such as the United States. It is a shame we do not extend that same luxury to our pets.
It is common knowledge (or at least seems to be amongst the clients I come into contact with) that one shouldn’t feed Fido “human food”. After all, when Fido gets sick and we take him to the doctor, we are asked if Fido gets any “scraps” or if he has gotten into the garbage lately. With a downcast eye and chagrin we admit that yes, we occasionally give Fido a taste of what we are eating for dinner, and are quickly reprimanded and told that that is why Fido has gastroenteritis/pancreatitis/garbage gut/diarrhea/etc. But what if we have the cause and effect backwards here? What if Fido is NOT getting sick because we slipped and fed him something different, but BECAUSE we do not feed Fido variety on a regular basis, we set him up for these situations where his body goes haywire?
Going back to my challenge, if you were to only eat beef and broccoli for 6 months, how do you think your body would respond if you ate a piece of bacon at the end? Other than your mouth thinking it had died and gone to heaven, your gut would probably have other ideas. This is called a food sensitivity. It is different from a food allergy. While food allergies are reactions of your immune system to a certain substance, food sensitivities are localized to reactions in the gut and often change with differences in diet, concurrent disease states, and stress levels. Hence, one can have certain food sensitivities in their youth that either change or go away entirely in adulthood, or vice-versa. So in essence, by choosing to feed Fido only a single brand, single formula food for their entire lives, we are inducing a state where the gut has increased risk for sensitivity reactions to anything not found in that food.
Not only does exclusive feeding set Fido up for food sensitivities, but it also sets him up for malnutrition. “But wait!” you say, “My bag of dog food says it is ‘Complete and Balanced’! Doesn’t that mean my pet is getting everything they need??”
Unfortunately, the issue is more ambiguous than that. For a food to earn the label of “Complete and Balanced”, it has to meet requirements made by the AAFCO. Those requirements for the most part only require a certain minimum amount of basic nutrients in the food - very few nutrients have maximum allowed amounts. This means that there is HUGE variation in how much proteins, fats, and calories are in dog and cat foods - even between similar formulas (such as weight loss, senior, kitten/puppy, etc). The AAFCO also does not have strict requirements for the quality of the nutrients used - meaning the ability of your pet to actually absorb the listed amount of protein or fat may be quite diminished depending on the source. For a deeper look at this issue, I highly recommend this article written by Susan Thixton.
All these issues with the AAFCO aside, feeding one kind of meat,vegetable, and starch for Fido’s entire life cannot be considered complete and balanced. Each food has a unique nutritional profile. It is only by combining a variety of meats, vegetables, and starches can we achieve a truly “complete and balanced” diet. As way of example, see Table 1 for a comparison of the most popular types of meat and their nutritional strengths and weaknesses.
So what does this mean for Fido? It means that we need to drastically change the way we approach feeding our dogs and cats.
For my clients, I highly recommend varying the proteins in their pets’ food. It can be as simple as purchasing a different formula every time your dog food bag runs out. For those clients who wish to keep their pets on dry food or kibble, I recommend staying within the same brand of high quality, biologically appropriate food and starting out slow. Transitions between formulas should initially take 5-7 days, with the goal being no transition time between bags. For those pets who already have a sensitive gut, I recommend first completing a veterinary-prescribed nutritional therapy protocol aimed at healing the gut and immune system. Ideally, the most biologically appropriate diet for a dog or cat would be a fresh or raw diet rotating between a different protein source every 4-10 days.
Another incredibly easy way to provide some variety in Fido’s diet is to “feed from the cutting board”. This mainly applies to vegetables and fruits as contamination becomes an issue feeding raw meat that may not have been handled properly. My dog regularly receives not only the stems of our broccoli, asparagus, carrots, parsnips, cauliflower, etc. while we prep dinner, but also egg shells from our omelets and leftover broth from our poached meat or soup stocks!
As with any nutrition advice, if you are intrigued and wanting to try some variety in Fido’s diet, I highly recommend seeking nutritional counseling from a holistic or integrative medicine veterinarian before trying any of the ideas presented in this article. Nutrition is a powerful tool that when employed correctly can help instill long and healthy lives to our canine and feline friends.