Type, “what to feed your dog/cat” into Google sometime and see what happens. I got 262,000,000 results. Some were reasonable suggestions, some were ‘so so,’ and some were downright bizarre. It is not that I am opposed to feeding crickets to my dog. I just have not seen them for sale at Sobey’s or the Superstore recently. Many bloggers suggested there were way too many additives, fillers, and nefarious chemicals added to grocery store pet foods. Or that the proteins were all derived from disreputable sources or were likely to be contaminated with toxic waste. Hmmm, so what should you feed your dog? Well, that is not an easy question to answer. To be sure, I do not find a dog, or cat, food either appealing or appetizing, but my dog loves it. As far as I can tell, she is quite healthy. I have considered cooking food for her, and there is no real impediment for me doing so. But, I still buy her commercial dog food from the grocery store, and she loves it.

The science of animal nutrition has been steadily added to since the first commercial pet food was introduced in England in the 1800s. In America, the Gaines Food Co. introduced prepared dog and cat foods in the 1930s. Ken-L Ration, now owned by Heinze Foods, offered foods made from horse meat, (possibly as a means to dispose of dead horse carcasses). However, a scientific approach to maximizing the benefits of domestic livestock production began in the 1950s. That is when we intensified agricultural production of milk, meat and eggs, subsequently taking our cows and chickens out of the field and putting them in a closed barn. The economics of what went into, and then came out of; those creatures pushed scientists and marketers to find new sources of revenue for livestock products that were unfit for human consumption. With the post-war boom and the rising middle class, domestic pets moved from the back yard to the living room. Naturally, foods for the dog and cat which could be prepared, stored and shipped to the grocer replaced table scraps and food wastes previously offered to the family pet. But it was not until the 1980’ s that any form of standardization was applied to the content or production of domestic pet foods. Today the domestic pet food business is worth 23 billion dollars annually. That is a lot of Old Roy and Meow Mix!

But if you don’t want to feed your furry friend regular store-bought, packaged pet food, there are lots of options out there for you too. Another quick Google search provided 172 million articles for you to scan.

Our bodies are one big pot of chemicals, and all those chemicals interact with one another to create and sustain life. So, think of food as the supply of additional chemicals to keep it all rolling along on your walk with Max through the park. But I never really like chemistry all that much, so let’s look at it this way; food is a carbohydrate, protein, fat and some minerals or vitamins. Some of those things provide energy, while others supply the building blocks of the minute cells that form the various tissues in the body. Let’s begin with energy.

Energy, (chemical energy from food, not electrical energy) powers those tiny cells that make up our muscles, bones, and organs. We get energy from carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Water and minerals provide no real energy but are required to keep all the chemical processes going. A ten-pound puppy needs about 1000 calories of energy/day, and a ninety-pound hunting dog needs more than 2000 calories/day. My mother’s thirteen-year-old cat, who sleeps on her bed all day, only needs about 200 calories/day. So, depending on your pets age, size and level of activity, their individual needs will vary greatly. Where do calories come from? One kilogram of organic free-range chicken breast has the same amount of energy as regular chicken breast; 1000 calories. A large cob of corn provides about 100 calories, while a cup of white rice has 200 calories.

Now as a clinician I hear people say something like, ‘dogs and cats are carnivores, and should not eat carbohydrates.’ Well, that is not true. Most animals can eat carbohydrate as a significant portion of their food. I am pretty sure a wolf would eat a bowl of corn if it were available. It is just that bowls of corn are not often found walking around the woods. More importantly, dog and cats are not equal in their dietary needs as you will see below. Cats historically have a much greater fat and protein content to their food, as mice are made up of those things.

Further, the addition of carbohydrates to feline foods and their potential health implications has been a huge issue of debate. I think the real issue is that commercial pet foods contain a lot of grain-based carbohydrates because it is a much cheaper way to supply energy compared to organic free-range chicken breast. OK, so energy is a good thing, and there are many ways to get it into our pet’s body. Think of cereals, rice, potatoes, and meats as options there. Let’s move on to minerals.

Minerals, such as calcium, copper, iron, sodium, and phosphorous are essential parts of your pet’s diet, albeit a very small part of the overall content of the food. Vitamins are larger compounds that usually act as keys to allow chemical reactions and metabolic activities to work the correct way. The problem with minerals and vitamins comes from the fact that too little, or too much of anyone can cause real medical problems for our pets. Think rickets, which comes from not ingesting enough vitamin D, which helps us absorb calcium and phosphorus from food. Rickets results in soft, or deformed bones. Salt, sodium chloride, not only makes food taste better, but it is essential for regulation of blood pressure, the function of our nerves, and movement of substances across cell membranes. But too little, or more commonly too much salt can be a problem for our pet’s health and wellbeing.

I really think people would like pet food better if they could read and understand the labels better. I don’t mean the name on the can, but the nutrition label on the back. That is the one with all the difficult to pronounce chemicals, the ones that sound bad. Try to say, carboxymethyl-cellulose, or D-calcium pantothenate ten times fast. What are they, and why are they in Buster’s food bowl? Well, carboxymethyl-cellulose is used to thicken food and stabilize the oils and contents of the food, so it can be stored without separating. You might also find this product in your toothpaste, ice cream, and those reusable cold packs you put in the cooler. D-calcium pantothenate, otherwise known as vitamin B5, sounds like something terrible, but you need it in your diet as you do other B vitamins. There are a lot of other things the food companies put in there to stabilize and preserve pet foods during storage. Otherwise, the food would spoil, and no one would feed spoiled food to their loved one. The part I find interesting is how pet foods are presented. Marketers know you want the canned foods you buy to look like real food, so they shape it into ‘chunks of real meat.’ They are even allowed to put in colour additives. Usually, red dye, to make the food seem more…’real’. That is done to get you to buy it. Trust me your dog does not care but you want to cook for Baxter, so how do you do that?

dog holding food bowl

Again, there are as many recipes for homemade dog and cat foods published on the web as there are crazy cat videos. But be careful, some foods are toxic. My advice would be to cook meals you are already comfortable buying and cooking for your family. Just check online to see if things are known to be toxic first.

Check out this list:

Humane Society – Foods that can be poisonous to pets
SPCA – Toxic for dogs: what to avoid feeding Fido

To begin, pick a carbohydrate, a protein and fat. For dogs, the ratio of 50-60% carbohydrate, 20-30% protein, and 10% fat is about the right mix. Cats do need more protein and way more fat, so use about 40% fat, 40% protein and 20% carbohydrate. Mix up the types of foods you are putting in there, and don’t forget about vegetable-based proteins either, think chickpeas, beans and tofu. Be careful though, pulses such as lentils and chickpeas as a sole dietary protein may not be adequate for overall health. Grain-free diets with these protein sources have been implicated in a common doggy heart condition. Finally, you could probably add a standard multi-vitamin for good measure. Taurine, an amino acid, should be added to food for cats and dogs, it is what we call an essential amino acid. Cook the food and store it in bags in the freezer or make it fresh every day. You will notice I said to cook it first, as I do not advocate feeding raw meat to your pet. It is straight forward to good hygiene because food born illness is a real thing. Whatever you feed your pets, store-bought or homemade, don’t forget to monitor their weight. I think there is something about feeding our pets which gives us all great happiness but don’t make your pet suffer from obesity because of it.

Written by: Dr. Kip Grasse