Nutritional Myths vs Facts

A crucial part of the work of veterinarians is educating clients about proper care of their pets. Unfortunately, much of this education necessarily focuses on challenging misinformation. Clients readily pick up myths and misconceptions from breeders, pet stores, other pet owners, and the internet.

One area in which such myths are abundant and widespread is nutrition. Pet owners are highly motivated to find the “right” food for their animal companions. Rightly so. This is one factor related to health they can control, so feeding acquires an almost magical status as something that can prevent all disease or destroy health if there is the slightest misstep in the choices made.

The reality, of course, is our pets are resilient and able to thrive on a variety of diets. In most cases, nutrition is only one of many variables interacting in complex and subtle ways to impact health. A wide range of diets are probably acceptable, but the pressure to find the perfect diet can lead to extreme and unhealthy choices.

Clients who start investigating feeding options for their pets beyond traditional canned and dry commercial diets quickly run across terrifying claims about the negative health effects of such diets. Proponents of alternative feeding practices routinely claim a host of devastating health problems can be traced to conventional diets, or to specific components of these. Here are a few myths of the more common and pernicious beliefs about nutrition.

Myth #1: Foods labeled as “primal,” “holistic,” or “all-natural” are healthier.

Fact: Anyone can put these labels on almost any bag of pet food. Terms like “primal” and “holistic” have no legal definition when it comes to pet food, so anyone can put these labels on their bags regardless of the quality of the diet or the ingredients used to make it.  While the term “natural” does have a legal definition according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), it encompasses such a wide range of ingredients that it is virtually meaningless. Terms like these are just marketing meant to grab your attention, so don’t fall for them!

Myth #2: Reading the ingredient list is the best way to choose a pet food.

Fact: The ingredient list tells you nothing about the quality of the food. Many pet care websites like to rank pet foods based on their ingredients, but this is notoriously unreliable. Even a trained veterinary nutritionist cannot glean much useful information from the ingredient list alone because it does not provide any information about the sourcing, quality or quantity of ingredients used.

Myth #3: Homemade diets are healthier than commercial pet food.

Fact: Homemade diets are often not nutritionally complete and balanced. A healthy diet for your pet must be nutritionally complete and balanced. Otherwise, your pet will not get all the vitamins, minerals and nutrients they need. Unfortunately, most homemade diets are missing some essential nutrients, which can lead to health problems in the long run. If you really want to feed your pet a homemade diet, it’s best to consult a board certified veterinary nutritionist first to develop a recipe that will meet all of your pet’s needs.

Myth #4: A raw diet is more natural for pets.

Fact: There is no proven benefit to feeding raw, but there are many risks! To date, researchers have not identified any significant benefits to feeding raw diets vs. traditional pet foods. In fact, most homemade and many commercial raw diets are not nutritionally balanced. Raw diets also carry a significant risk of bacterial contamination. Pets eating raw diets shed the bacteria in their saliva, posing a significant risk of infection to their human family members. Freeze-dried foods fall in this same category. Freeze-drying does not kill bacteria. Plus there is the risk of broken teeth from eating bones. It is true that animals in the wild eat raw meat (and also plants, berries, etc.) but they only live a few years. And remember, dogs have been domesticated and have adapted to eating basically human diets for thousands of years.

Myth #5: Grain-free diets are better

Fact: Grains are just as appropriate as other carbohydrate sources.

The body treats all carbs the same. Grains provide fiber, essential fatty acids and other nutrients. Grain-containing diets are comparable in nutrition to grain-free diets. Grains are uncommon causes of food allergies. Grain-free diets have been implicated by the FDA as a possible cause of heart disease in dogs, so we do not recommend feeding them.

Myth #6: Gluten-free diets are better

Fact: Gluten-free diets are good if your pet is allergic to gluten, but that is not common.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Corn gluten is a different protein, and does not cross react. Gluten allergy (Celiac Disease) is only documented in 1-2% of people, although others feel better eating gluten-free. Gluten allergy is very rare in dogs. It has been documented in a line of Irish Setters in the United Kingdom but gluten has not been documented to cause harm in other pets.

Myth #7: By-products are bad

Fact: By-products can be very nutritious

By-products consist of clean parts of the animal other than meat, including lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, liver, blood, bone, and stomachs and intestine freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth or hooves. While we might not relish the idea of eating these parts, many of these items have a higher nutritional value than meat.

Myth #8: Corn is bad

Fact: Corn is a highly digestible source of carbohydrates and other nutrients.

Corn is rarely a cause of food allergies. Corn is not a filler. Fillers are ingredients that don’t add any nutritional value. They are added purposely to some low calorie diets to make your pet feel full, but corn does not fall into that category.

Myth #9: Animal digest is bad

Fact: Animal digest is a very good source of protein

This term animal digest has nothing to do with the contents of the digestive tract. Protein from muscle and soft tissue is “digested” using enzymes to break it down into amino acid chains similar to digestion in the body. The resulting liquid is very palatable and an excellent source of protein.

Myth #10: You should choose your pet food based on the bag.

Fact: Research your products and ask your veterinarian for recommendations to choose the best food for your pet. Your veterinarian is your best resource to help you choose a diet that is best for your pet’s life stage, activity level and overall health.