Fresh foods for pets: is it better?

The latest trend is fresh foods for pets, particularly the type that is available as a subscription, getting delivered to your door on a recurring basis. More and more pet owners have asked me about these products and if they are good quality, so I thought we should take a deep dive into this new category of pet food and if it can provide high quality nutrition to your pets.

What is ‘fresh pet food’ and how is it different to traditional diets?

Fresh pet food diets are generally in the form of a gently cooked diet that is then frozen or vacumn sealed and transported to pet owners, similar to human ready-made meals. They are not the same as commercial raw foods in that they have been gently cooked or lightly processed before being sealed in pouches or frozen in servings. Many of these products come as subscription programs, or can be purchased as individual meals allowing for variety to mix and match formulas. These diets have become increasingly popular lately, again as a result of human nutrition trends; as many subscription healthy meal delivery companies now exist for humans, the pet food industry has now transferred this to companion animals. They are also growing in popularity due to the “fresh food” movement, owners want to eat healthy and because they feel like these diets look closer to “real” food, they are more inclined to want to feed it to their pets.

What does the science say?

Are these diets any better than regular commercial diets? The research is quite limited on these diets are they are a new and growing market, however one piece of research that came out of University of Illinois showed that human grade, gently cooked pet foods did show a higher digestibility in comparison to traditional diets – however, all diet types used in this study performed well, and had digestibility ranging from 85-90% and admitted that digestibility doesn’t tell the whole story – diets with higher fibre had lower digestibility which is expected as insoluble fibre (or indigestible fibres) will naturally affect the overall digestibility of the food, despite offering significant benefits being present in the diet. The study advised that fibre should still be included, provided amino acid digestibility remains high. Other than this study, no others have been conducted on fresh or gently cooked foods of this description.

As for the products themselves; with so many of these products popping up, it’s hard to keep track of them all and whether they truly are better than the options already available to pet owners. Some are created by Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionists which are fantastic options for pets wanting an alternative diet, however others are being made by pet parents or other unqualified nutrition ‘enthusiasts’ who lack the high level of knowledge required to formulate pet foods. Diets created by Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionists would be equally as good as commercial alternatives but these are few and far between, which is why I advise clients to investigate the manufacturer you are interested in to ensure they are following the same key rules that all pet foods should be judged by.

Why fresh foods might be a good choice for your pet

Fresh foods do have their advantages in some instances. Pets who are very fussy or are suffering from inappetance may find gently cooked foods more appealing and potentially more tasty than commercial foods, particularly if they are recovering from surgery or a bout of illness. Some pets with sensitive digestion may also benefit from gently cooked foods as they may find them easier to digest and given they often contain less ingredients than a commercial pet food, they may find the diet less irritating to their gut, particularly if they have allergies to additives or certain proteins. However, I’d always recommend getting your vet or nutritionist’s opinion before switching to this type of diet as it may not be suitable for all types of gastrointestinal conditions. Adult or senior dogs with no underlying health issues generally are the best cohort to gain benefit from these diets; adult dogs that enjoy the flexibility and variety that a fresh food diet offers, and senior pets as it can keep them interested in eating and prevent food aversions developing.

Why fresh foods might not be a good choice for your pet

As mentioned above, in some cases a fresh food diet may not be the best choice for your pet. I’d think twice about feeding these types of diets to a growing animal due to their susceptibility to nutritional deficiencies and excesses and that these diets are often not formulated for growth. I’d also avoid these diets in pets with diagnosed health conditions, particularly where a prescription diet would be a primary treatment as these diets are usually for adult pets with no health concerns. This could create potential health problems down the line if it isn’t addressing their medical needs – there are exceptions here though, some fresh food companies do provide prescription diets, if they have a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist on staff who can custom formulate diets for health conditions. Another instance where these diets are not suitable is for cats; many aren’t made for cats at all, due to their very specific nutritional requirements and that cats usually do not respond very well to these types of cooked diets – they are notorious for refusing cooked diets so many of these companies don’t invest in formulating meals for them.

What should you look for in a fresh food?

As with all pet foods, many of the same rules apply to fresh foods. The diet should be complete and balanced for your pet’s lifestage as defined by the AAFCO guidelines, you should know (or be able to find out) who formulates the diet and what their qualifications are, the brand/manufacturer follows strict quality control processes, the diet is based on science not marketing, and the food has been trialled on animals to ensure it will not cause long or short term health consequences. I also recommend pet owners try to look objectively at the marketing tactics – if the manufacturer is busy promoting why other foods are bad, demonizing ingredients or fearmongering, it says more about how the company lacks confidence in its own food and the benefits they claim – instead look for a food that backs it’s claims by research and doesn’t accuse other foods of being bad or low quality.

In my opinion, a fresh food diet can be beneficial in some cases – especially if it encourages patients to eat when they otherwise would not – but always judge these foods as you would judge any other food on the market. Not all will be suitable for your pet, and not all will be nutritionally superior than a well balanced commercial food.

References

Patrícia M Oba, Pamela L Utterback, Carl M Parsons, Kelly S Swanson, True nutrient and amino acid digestibility of dog foods made with human-grade ingredients using the precision-fed cecectomized rooster assay, Translational Animal Science, Volume 4, Issue 1, January 2020, Pages 442–451, https://doi.org/10.1093/tas/txz175

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