Fort Worth, Texas If you really want to start a heated debate up at the dog park, don't bring up Iraq or the presidential election: Ask the dog owners what kind of dog food they use.
You'll get an earful about raw food diets, antioxidants, organic and holistic dog foods, steamed vegetables for dogs and the best books with instructions for making your own dog food. Unsubstantiated rumors fly - such as the particularly nasty one that big-brand dog and cat foods are made of euthanized companion animals. Cat owners can be just as vocal about the very best foods for their finicky feline friends.
It used to be that everyone picked up a big bag of dried dog or cat food and stuck it in the garage closet. Not anymore. Some pet owners drive to special stores and even have their frozen raw pet foods delivered to their doorsteps. Others buy specialty foods from their vets. Many owners turned to these specialty foods during the pet food recalls this spring and haven't turned back. By all accounts, it's a booming industry.
But do dogs and cats really need these specialty foods? Are they healthier and happier with holistic foods than with old-fashioned kibble? We called some animal-nutrition experts and asked them to fill us in on how our companion animals should fill themselves up.
What type of food is best for my dog or cat?
"If I'm dealing with a healthy animal, I will recommend any major brand of food," says Bonnie Beaver, who heads up the community practice service at Texas A&M; veterinary school. Beaver says if dogs or cats are picky or finicky eaters, owners might consider changing flavors of pet foods, but they don't need to do it if the animals finish their bowls.
Mainly, she said, owners can trust their own judgment.
"Owners know their animals. If Fido has always licked the bowl clean of brand X and all of a sudden he's not eating, that's not normal. Then we start to worry," Beaver says. "On the other hand, if Fluffy has always been a finicky eater and will not eat more than two days in a row of that flavor, then owners probably shouldn't worry if she leaves some food."
Can you just feed them the same dried food, day after day?
Yes, Beaver says, dogs and cats can eat the same food day after day with no ill effects. Often that bothers the people more than the pets, but if you do have a finicky eater, variety may help.
So do dogs and cats need food formulated especially for them?
Some do. Beaver says puppies and kittens should have special food, as should large-breed dogs. Older dogs and cats may have different needs, depending on the breed. "Giant-breed dogs, like St. Bernards, may be ancient by the time they are 6, while for a wirehaired fox terrier, 6 years old is middle-aged."
Beaver said activity can also affect the needs of dogs and cats - active hunting dogs need more calories and energy than "couch potato" dogs. Pregnant animals also have special nutritional needs. Animals that are ill may need prescription diets - for example, an animal with kidney problems may need a special diet that is low in protein and doesn't challenge the kidneys.
Canned vs. dry
What about nutritional differences in canned versus dry food?
Beaver says canned food has more water per volume than dried food, so a cup of canned food has fewer calories and less nutrition than a cup of dry food. Big dogs, she says, have a hard time eating enough canned food to meet their needs, and "I don't want to be picking up all the poop that they are going to be putting out, either." (Hey, she's a vet, she's allowed to say these things.)
It may be tempting to give table scraps when facing those hard-to-resist puppy-dog eyes, but owners should be wary of overfeeding their pets and upsetting the nutritional balance of their regular pet food.
What about all those gourmet cat foods? Are they better for your cat?
"Cat owners want to pamper their animals, so they give them all the different flavors. It doesn't matter to most cats," Beaver says. She adds, however, that some cats do seem to prefer one flavor over another.
What about all the small "boutique" pet-food companies?
Beaver is wary of all the new brands of "natural" pet foods. She said the major brands have paid for the research to create a careful balance between vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin A, Vitamin D and fatty acids. The amounts and balances have been worked out, she says, and tinkering too much with supplements can cause health problems.
Beaver says pet owners should look for foods that have passed the standards of the Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO, the regulating body of the pet-food industry.
Scott Freeman, owner and manager of Tejas Pet Products, which manufactures and distributes Nature's Logic food for dogs and cats, says the market for holistic and organic foods has skyrocketed since he started in the business 20 years ago.
Although the "alternative" pet-food market is still only 5 percent to 7 percent of the pet-food industry, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, Freeman says growth rates far outpace big name brands. He says that whereas the growth in sales for large-company pet foods has been below 5 percent, many natural-food companies have had double-digit growth for the past decade.
Even the traditional pet-food companies are getting in on the act. This year Iams launched a Healthy Naturals line, touting beta carotene, vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.
The same shoppers who have made Whole Foods Market a huge success in the United States want are craving natural, organic or holistic food for their animals as well.
Making the choice
But are organic foods any better for animals? What about raw foods?
Beaver says organic foods are a personal choice for pet owners.
"If I were a person who ate organic foods, wouldn't I love to have an organic food for my dogs?"
But Beaver says raw-food diets have the potential for salmonella poisoning in dogs and in people who handle the foods. She says she had three salmonella cases in the past week in her office. (Warning: Mention to the raw-food diet fans that dogs can get salmonella poisoning, and you might find yourself in a fistfight.)