This week, I was flooded with questions and concerns from clients worrying about feeding an “unnatural” diet to their pets. Some had been told by unqualified laypeople that they were doing something ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ by feeding their pet a complete and balanced commercial diet, because it wasn’t natural. Unfortunately, some of these pets became ill in the process of switching foods, leaving the owners feeling even more confused than they started. Natural has become somewhat of a buzzword lately thanks to the world of human nutrition, with the catch-cry that feeding a natural or less processed diet is far healthier than feeding a complete and balanced commercial diet. But is that really the case?
Before we jump in, please keep in mind that your veterinarian is a highly qualified and skilled medical professional who is best placed to provide you with a recommendation on what to feed your pet; the advice you receive from a friend, breeder, groomer, pet store, social media or website (unless its authored by a veterinary nutritionist) should never replace your vet’s professional opinion. Always consult your vet before switching diets, or if you have any questions or concerns with your pet’s health.
So first up, let’s think for a moment about what ‘natural’ actually means when it comes to pet food:
“A feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices.”AAFCO Talks Pet Food
Commercial diets are no less natural than a home-cooked diet. Read that again. A complete and balanced diet that has been extruded, rendered, heat processed or been through enzymolysis is still considered natural. Vitamins and minerals can (and absolutely should) be added in a natural diet and can be either synthetic or natural, without the food losing the ‘natural’ claim.
As the US Food and Drug Administration has not actually defined what is considered natural in pet foods, it instead relies on the above definition from AAFCO and advises it should not be false or misleading.
But are natural diets actually any better than diets that aren’t considered natural?
The short answer is no; there is no requirement or statement that natural feeds or ingredients are safer or superior than those produced by a chemically synthetic process. Considering that natural is a very broad term term that includes more ingredients than it excludes (as most pet food ingredients are derived from “plant, animal or mined sources”), a feed ingredient can be subject to a number of processes during manufacturing and the feed or feed ingredient can contain trace amounts of chemically synthetic compounds and still be considered natural, there really is no difference between a pet food that states it is natural to one that isn’t. Majority of popular pet foods may have a 100% natural label claim already, or may state they are ‘natural with added vitamins and minerals’ if they contain vitamins that otherwise cannot be called natural (such as chelated minerals or preservatives such as BHT/BHA) so to state a complete and balanced commercial feed is ‘unnatural’ is generally incorrect and a gross generalization. In fact, despite having chemical sounding names, most vitamins are derived naturally which you can read more about here.
The current scientific evidence supporting nutritional benefits of natural pet food products is limited; the inclusion of whole food ingredients may provide higher nutrient concentrations as opposed to split ingredients (as are present in some commercial foods) however, processing can improve digestibility of these nutrients. An ‘unprocessed’ diet may have higher nutrient levels, however these nutrients might not actually be bioavailable to the pet, and therefore not providing any additional benefit to the animal. To guarantee your pet is able to benefit from the additional nutrients, a higher digestibility would be required which can be achieved with a high quality, well formulated, processed diet.
Again, less processed or home-cooked doesn’t guarantee a diet is safer or that it contains all the necessary vitamins and minerals for your pet’s needs and life-stage, a recent study showed 95% of home cooked diet recipes available in textbooks and online were deficient in one or more essential nutrients. Natural and unprocessed diets (such as raw diets, or home cooked/low processed diets) are more commonly recalled for bacterial contamination as a result of less stringent quality controls and a lack of processing, compared to commercially available foods, so this is another factor to be aware of when considering an unprocessed diet.
So next time you are choosing a pet food, remember that there is nothing ‘bad’ about feeding a complete and balanced commercially prepared diet; you are not a bad pet parent for choosing to feed a diet that doesn’t claim to be natural, in fact, you are probably feeding a fantastic food that is healthy, safe and delicious.
Do you feed your pet an all natural diet? Is it a complete and balanced commercial diet, or a home prepared meal? Let us know in the comments below!
P. R. Buff, R. A. Carter, J. E. Bauer, J. H. Kersey, Natural pet food: A review of natural diets and their impact on canine and feline physiology, Journal of Animal Science, Volume 92, Issue 9, September 2014, Pages 3781–3791, https://doi.org/10.2527/jas.2014-7789
Sarah A. Wilson, Cecilia Villaverde, Andrea J. Fascetti, Jennifer A. Larsen. Evaluation of the nutritional adequacy of recipes for home-prepared maintenance diets for cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2019; 254 (10): 1172 DOI: 10.2460/javma.254.10.1172