The contents inside the food bowls for my dogs, Kona and Bujeau, are no longer boring brown from kibble and canned food. Each bowl now sports colors of green, blue and orange from the addition of green beans, blueberries, minced carrots and canned pumpkin.
I also treat them on occasion to cartilage-rich bone broth from free-range meat bones. My go-to treats are freeze-dried single-source proteins, such as duck or rabbit from a couple of well-respected pet food companies. I pay more attention to scrutinizing ingredients on pet food labels.
My days of dumping kibble mindlessly into their bowls are over. And I am not alone. A growing number of pet parents see the direct impact their food choices have on the health of their dogs. Welcome to the age of dishing up clean foods for Fido.
“You are what you eat, and so is your dog,” says Dr. Judy Morgan, a veterinarian who operates a holistic pet health-care practice in Woodstown, New Jersey, and is a pet food cookbook author and certified veterinary food therapist. “Dogs deserve to eat clean, and by that I mean real food you can identify by looking at it and not highly processed food filled with preservatives.”
If you have hopped on the clean-eating route for your dog — or are considering doing so — it is easy to be bombarded with advice from well-meaning friends, pet food companies and veterinarians as well as be influenced by headlines about the latest pet food recall.
You may find yourself feeling like you’re learning a new language. Let’s run down some key food terms and what they mean:
Holistic: It may mean the food is less processed, but there is no standard regulated definition in the pet food industry for this term. Holistic brands may include probiotics or vitamins or consist of air-baked kibble or be grain-free.
Natural: Pet foods with this term on their labels must be free from chemically synthesized ingredients, additives or preservatives, according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
Organic: Such foods must not contain any synthetic hormones, pesticides, preservatives or antibiotics and meet federal regulations to be labeled USDA-certified. At least 95% of the content must be organic by weight to display the 100% organic seal.
Raw diet: The homemade raw diet consists of uncooked meats, bones and, in some cases, raw eggs, cooked vegetables or grains. Two commercial forms offer convenience: freeze-dried (the moisture is removed, but the nutrients remain and are activated by adding water) and raw
frozen diets available in freezer sections of pet food stores or available to be shipped directly to your home from the manufacturer.
Unrefined: This means the food is less processed than foods sent through processing machines that can extract out nutrients.
Whole-food diet: These are real foods you buy rom the supermarket, such as cooked chicken, beef or fish, plus vegetables like kale or carrots, and fruits like blueberries and apples. Experts recommend you work with a veterinarian knowledgeable in nutrition to add needed vitamins or supplements to meet the specific needs of your dog for a balanced diet if you choose this option.
Plant-based diets: This is a meat-free diet that contains proteins from eggs, soybeans, peas or potatoes and is supplemented with vitamins, minerals and amino acids.
In seeking information locally, reach out to owners of pet supply stores who work closely with veterinarians and carry all-natural pet food brands from companies who provide in-store educational seminars. Paws on the Avenue store in Lake Worth Beach, Florida, is a beacon for pet parents seeking reliable information on selecting healthy food choices for their pets.
“Nutrition is not a one-bag option,” says store owner Caroline Clore. “Rotate foods and offer as much fresh as you can. If you want to feed kibble, opt for baked kibble over kibble cooked at high temperatures with vitamins sprayed on afterwards.”
Laura Brown of Alexandria, Virginia, owns PetsRMe professional pet sitting company and proudly calls herself a DIY raw feeder. She stopped feeding kibble to Lola, her Chihuahua, years ago and now makes homemade meals from beef and organ meat that she buys directly from grass-fed small farms and farmer’s markets in her area.
“My veterinarian is amazed by the health of Lola,” Laura says. “She is a 15-year-old Chihuahua with no arthritis who has a lot of puppy-like energy.”
Dr. Morgan encourages you to read the package label carefully. Any ingredient listed after salt packs no real nutritional punch.
“Everything below salt is less than 0.5% of the contents,” she says. “So, if healthy foods like blueberries are listed after salt, it is probably just one blueberry. Make sure that the first five ingredients on the label you [can] pronounce and recognize, such as salmon or chicken breast. Stay away from meat byproducts or ones that list things like corn in the first few ingredients.”
Another major challenge in your decision to feed clean is money. Preparing homemade meals with fresh ingredients, shopping for freeze-dried or frozen raw foods or ordering meals from all-natural pet food companies can take a healthy bite out of your family budget.
To be a bit more budget friendly, consider topping your dog’s kibble with these healthy foods recommended by Dr. Morgan:
Blueberries and cranberries: Both are loaded with antioxidants and aid in bladder health. Both also contain less sugar than other fruits.
Kale: “In order for your pet to get nutrition out of kale, run it through a food processor or chop it up and then sauté it in olive oil or coconut oil,” Dr. Morgan says.
Sardines in water or an ounce or two of salmon. “Both fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids that are great for joint, heart and brain health,” she says.
Related: How to Feed Sardines to Dogs
Shiitake mushrooms: “Go for this exotic mushroom, not the white button or portabella versions,” she says. “The shiitake mushroom is a great fiber source and has been shown to fight cancer. Try sautéing in olive or coconut oil.”
Colorful vegetables, such as carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin, yellow peppers and beets. “All are good sources of vitamin A,” she says. “Add to your dog’s bowl and see the healthy rainbow.”
“The bottom line is that the clean pet food movement is a new step in pet nutrition,” says Ernie Ward, DVM, a leading veterinarian in pet nutrition. “Since food is the foundation of health, clean pet food using recognizable ingredients, complex carbohydrates and high-quality protein sources can help you make decisions that fit your pet’s needs and lifestyle.”
Top photograph: millann | Getty Images