16 Practical Suggestions to improve your Pet’s Nutrition and Well-Being
by Mark E. Russo, V.M.D., Dipl. A.C,V.I.M.
Excellent nutrition is an amazingly powerful vehicle to promote the health and wellbeing of pets. Like humans, animals can benefit in numerous ways from adding locallysourced foods to their diets. Fresh fruits and vegetables and protein sources such as seafood, poultry, and meat can all be found here on the South Shore and South Coast. Because these foods are not processed and do
not have to travel long distances to reach your pet’s food bowl, they deliver a greater nutritional impact while leaving a significantly smaller carbon footprint.
Still, pet nutrition is a subject rife with controversy. It can be a challenge to sort out the fact from the hearsay and the strident opinions that lack validation. What follows are some relatively moderate (though maybe a bit “holistic” and idiosyncratic) suggestions aimed at a simple, balanced, and safe approach to pet nutrition.
1. RESPECT THE INDIVIDUAL STUDY VARIATION & LISTEN TO THE BODY’S MESSAGES
It is striking how often one pet will thrive and prosper on a diet that doesn’t work at all for another. Surely if a pet is not prospering on a particular diet, it makes little sense to doggedly (forgive the pun) continue on that diet no matter how reasonable the diet might seem in theory.
2. RESPECT SPECIES DIFFERENCES
Similarly, good recommendations for one species do not necessarily work for another. Both dogs and cats can become quite sick eating the onions, chocolate, grapes, raisins and certain artificial sweeteners that humans eat. Cats cannot survive without animal protein in their diet. In addition, they can become quite ill if their diet consists solely of dog food or if they eat too much raw fish. Respect species differences!
3. CHOOSE APPROPRIATE PROTEIN SOURCES
Many societies and healing traditions have noted the temperature effect different foods have on the body. An easy way to take advantage of this wisdom is with the choice of protein source for pets. A cat who is chilled all the time (moving from one warm or sunny place to another all day) might benefit from a more warming protein source such as chicken, turkey, and lamb. A dog who seems overheated much of the time (such as a retriever who loves the snow and pants even at moderate temperature) might benefit from a more cooling protein source such as fish, duck, egg, or pork.
4. CONSIDER A HIGHER GRADE COMMERCIAL PET FOOD
Though home made diets can have significant advantages, most pet owners prefer the convenience, ease, and balance of commercial pet foods. While there are many well known brands available which are often quite adequate, an excellent way to improve pet nutritional quality is to switch to a higher quality food. Choosing so-called “premium” foods (often recognized by checking the ingredient list for a protein source as the first ingredient rather than meal or byproducts) is an excellent step up. The advent these days of readily available “holistic” diets is a great option. These foods are generally based on human grade ingredients and contain less filler and no preservatives. Though usually quite a bit more expensive, they are often well worth the cost.
5. IMPROVE COMMERCIAL DIETS BY ADDING FRESH FOOD
Despite the quality of many of the better commercial pet foods, they are still cooked, processed, manipulated, and often stored for long periods in bags and cans. Though many pets will do well on commercial food alone, adding fresh foods offers a great opportunity to significantly improve the diet and to customize the diet to the individual pet’s needs. What is gained is the chance to offer the enzymes, phyto-chemicals, and just plain vitality that we tend to intuitively know are in fresh foods. Generally the kinds of fresh foods to add are exactly what the human beings at home are eating, including a protein source (such as meat, poultry, and fish), vegetables, and fruit. Quantities to add could range from a small daily treat up to ¼-1/3 of daily food intake. Though fresh is probably best, frozen is a decent second choice.
6. LEAN HEAVILY TOWARD AN “ANTI-INFLAMMATORY” DIET
It is becoming increasingly clear that some foods (such as saturated fats, heavily processed foods, refined carbohydrates, excess sugar) tend to push the body toward an increased or exaggerated inflammatory response. Other foods (such as fruit, vegetables, and foods with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids) seem to dampen damaging inflammatory responses. Just as in human beings, pets eating a diet which emphasizes the latter rather than the former tend to just plain feel better and be healthier. Cooked fish, especially sardines and salmon, may be particularly helpful in this way.
7. LEARN TO LOVE THE GIFT OF PHYTO-CHEMICALS
The anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and other beneficial effects of fruits, vegetables, and other plant food is clear. Particular benefit comes from variety and including as many colors as possible.
8. DEFINITELY INCLUDE LOCAL INGREDIENTS
In addition to environmental, political, and socio-economic considerations, using local ingredients makes great sense as a way to better come into tune with the local environment and to naturally adjust for seasonal change. Consider lighter, cooling foods in the summer and heartier warming foods in the winter.
9. CONSIDER COOKING AS THE FIRST STAGE OF DIGESTION
It is commonly suggested by those advocating a raw diet that cooking destroys enzymes and key nutrients. Surely there is some truth to this—especially with aggressive cooking or overcooking. Nevertheless, another perspective is that cooking (and especially light cooking) of plant foods actually releases more nutrients by breaking down what might otherwise be indigestible cell membranes. Many healing traditions see light cooking as the first phase of digestion. Taking advantage of this benefit of cooking might be particularly important in older, weak, ill pets and those with sensitive digestive tracts.
10. USE SUPPLEMENTS JUDICIOUSLY
We are a society trained to lean heavily toward supplementation. In moderation this may well make some sense. Nevertheless, many pets (and many humans) are being over supplemented. This can become quite expensive and may even become counterproductive. A really strong case can be made that it is best to get nutrients from foods themselves (for example, Vitamin C from fruit rather than a tablet, fish oil from a piece of fish rather than a fish oil supplement, anti-oxidants from fresh fruits and vegetables rather than from a bottle). Fresh foods also offer other fine nutrients that support each other in a way that an isolated nutrient from a bottle does not.
11. MODERATE TREATS & DEFINITELY LIMIT FATTY, SUGARY ONES
Most treats manufactured for humans and pets tend to be heavily laden with fat, sugar, and/or salt. They tend to be extremely high in calories, promote inflammation, and generally can be quite detrimental to health and well-being. Strongly consider limiting these treats as well as excessive treats in general. Healthy alternatives might include any of the fresh foods mentioned above.
12. MAKE CHANGES SLOWLY
Though some pets handle rapid change easily, changing too quickly risks digestive upset and especially diarrhea. Making major changes gradually over several days or weeks makes a lot of sense, as does listening to the body’s messages and adjusting accordingly.
13. AVOID FOOD FADS
We seem to live in a society particularly enamored with the trendy, newest, and most improved version of things. Nutrition is particularly prone to the new improved wonder diet to cure all ills. This is in no way a suggestion to ignore new developments, understanding, and wisdom. Yet at the same time, leaning toward time-tested and fundamental principles seems like a sane and prudent approach.
14. PROMOTE JOY
Forcing unwanted food types on a reluctant pet could easily become counterproductive. In general, there are enough food choices and alternatives that it makes sense to find something the pet likes, and even better, truly enjoys.
15. BE PREPARED ADJUST FOR UNDERLYING IMBALANCES OR ILLNESSES
Many ancient, and not so ancient, healing systems have seen food not only as sustenance, but also as medicine, recognizing that various adjustments and combinations can be used to correct or at least improve fundamental imbalances. In the hands of a skillful healer, such changes can be an incredibly powerful way to correct underlying imbalances, treat short and long-term illnesses and promote well-being.
16. GET HELP PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER
While any of the suggestions above can be helpful in improving pet nutrition, pulling it all together can seem like a challenge. Though word of mouth and the internet may be helpful, it can also be excruciatingly difficult to sort out authoritative insight from mere hearsay advice. Knowing that dogs may be originally descended from successful wolf scavengers and cats have been surviving in the wild as hunters for millennia suggests there is likely a fair margin of safety. Nevertheless, it makes great sense to not do it all alone—especially if major changes are contemplated and all the more so for older or ill animals. Best choices for advice are help from a trusted veterinarian, or possibly other talented and knowledgeable sources wise in the ways of using nutrition to promote well-being and health. Having such advice is very reassuring and a great blessing.