Natural, holistic, organic, gluten free, raw … sound familiar? If you live with pets, it’s likely you’ve seen (and are looking for) these terms on their foods as well as yours. We humans consider Buddy and Whiskers part of the family—and that translates to serving them healthier foods and treats.
The animal nutrition market—which Nutrition Business Journal defines as natural and organic pet food, supplements, and supplies—now tips nearly $4 billion annually in U.S. sales. You can trace a lot of that explosive growth to a high-profile pet food scare in 2007, when Menu Foods recalled 60 million cans and pouches of conventional pet food containing the toxin melamine from imported Chinese ingredients—an outbreak that poisoned 471 cats and dogs and killed 104. Before that, most pet owners “didn’t have a clue about quality,” says Brad Kriser, founder and CEO of Kriser’s, a chain of natural pet stores. In subsequent years, a string of recalls for everything from salmonella to toxins made headline news.
Nowadays, “Made in U.S.A.” and “human-grade ingredients” are two of the hottest terms on pet food labels. And when it comes to pet food, natural actually means something: no artificial flavors or colors, chemical preservatives, or flavor enhancers. Forward-thinking companies also incorporate whole fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, and even trendy ingredients like ancient grains, chia, and coconut oil into pet products to boost health cred.
You may be surprised to learn that “gluten free” is not just for people. Pet sensitivities to gluten, wheat, corn, and certain proteins like chicken and beef are on the rise, too, so pet food makers are answering with special-diet treats. “Gluten free” was among the first claims on pet foods; more companies now feature grain-free and corn-free products as well.
“Pets can only have true allergies to proteins, but they can be sensitive to anything in their diet, and some react poorly to the artificial flavors and colors found in some [conventional] pet foods,” says Al Townshend, DVM, who consults for Wellness Natural Food for Pets. Simple ingredient formulas with, for example, only one protein source or a grain-free carbohydrate like sweet potatoes echo the “less is more” approach in people food.
More lean protein
Because protein costs a lot more than low-quality carbs like corn, many mass-produced pet foods rely on entirely too much cheap grain. As a result, your dog or cat may get too many carbs and not enough protein. Dry pet kibble typically includes 15 percent to 30 percent protein, but you’ll find some fresh or freeze-dried natural products packing up to an impressive 80 percent protein.
“Protein quality can vary greatly between conventional and natural pet foods,” notes Townshend. “Foods that use higher-quality proteins typically have higher digestibility, meaning that a higher percentage of nutrients are absorbed into the body and used for fuel.” Early on, natural pet food companies made products stand out by using hormone- and antibiotic-free meats; newer companies up the game with free-range, organic, or human-grade proteins. And because pets can develop allergies to proteins, such as chicken and beef, you’ll see unique alternatives such as bison, venison, kangaroo, duck, and cod.
Keeping weight in check
They say that pets start to look like their owners … and the increasing rates of pet obesity prove the point. Today, nearly 55 percent of dogs are considered obese, compared with 43 percent in 2007. Innocently overfeeding your pet and neglecting proper exercise can lead to diseases like diabetes, which can cost you more than $900 on average per year in pet-related medical costs.
The first step to reverse this trend is to understand animals’ diets. For example, the average domestic cat eats far more carbohydrates than its wild feline cousins. Researchers now realize cats can eat and digest these foods, but they’re more likely to develop diabetes. If your cat is chubby, consider reducing or eliminating grains like wheat and corn.
Then there’s the matter of portion control. Whether they’re snacking on treats throughout the day (we know what happens when your dog trains those big brown eyes on you) or overeating calorie-dense foods at mealtimes, most pets simply eat too much. “Pet parents tend to feed to satisfy their pets’ appetites, rather than to maintain lean body mass,” says Townshend. “Feeding your pet the appropriate serving size is the most important step to preventing weight gain.”
For both your sakes, practice portion control for your pet and prioritize healthier, fresher, nutrient-dense foods based on specific dietary needs. Natural brands are rising to this challenge by squeezing ample doses of key nutrients into smaller portions.
Keep in mind, though, that grain-free foods typically contain more calories than other types because protein and fat have replaced the grains, says Townshend. “While still nutritionally balanced and beneficial, grain-free recipes are super-concentrated, so pet parents may need to feed smaller portions with these diets.”
Our pet food picks
Caru Stews. Homemade without the hassle. U.S.-sourced, ready-to-eat stews in BPA-free Tetra Paks; no wheat, gluten, corn, soy, GMOs, or animal byproducts.
The Honest Kitchen. High-quality, dehydrated food made without refined carbs or sugars; ideal for pets with weight issues.
Wellness Core. Grain-free foods for cats and dogs; contain only lean proteins such as salmon and turkey.
Whole Life. “Farm-to-friend” foods made with hormone-free, free-range, and organic proteins from farmers, ranchers, and fishermen.