Diet and Nutritional Consultation
The dietary needs of dogs and cats vary significantly depending on age, size, breed, genetics and lifestyle factors. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to your pet’s nutrition. During your pet’s routine wellness exam, we will evaluate their weight, body condition and muscle condition. We will ask about their diet and their preferences and make any recommendations that we think can help improve their nutritional health.
While our dietary recommendations will vary for each patient, there are a few important dietary considerations that we feel are important for everyone to consider:
Raw Food Diets
The majority of veterinary health organizations (including AVMA, AAHA, ACVN) and human health organizations (including FDA and CDC) do not recommend the use of any animal-source protein that has not first been subjected to a process scientifically proven to eliminate pathogens because of the risk of illness to both the pet and humans.
Several studies reported in peer-reviewed scientific journals have demonstrated that raw or undercooked animal-source protein may be contaminated with a variety of pathogenic organisms, including Salmonella spp, Campylobacter spp, Clostridium spp, Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes, and enterotoxigenic Staphylococcus aureus.
Cats and dogs may develop food-borne illness after being fed animal-source protein contaminated with these organisms if adequate steps are not taken to eliminate pathogens; secondary transmission of these pathogens to humans (eg, pet owners) has also been reported. Cats and dogs can develop subclinical infections with these organisms but still pose a risk to other animals and humans, especially children, the elderly and immunocompromised individuals.
Over the years, an increasing number of pet owners have taken an interest in alternatives to commercially prepared pet foods. Some may not trust the quality of the ingredients in commercial pet food, others may consider religious beliefs or personal ideologies such as veganism, vegetarianism or cleaning eating principles when choosing their pet food. Regardless of the reason, purchasing ingredients and preparing meals in their own kitchen often provides owners with a sense of control over their pet’s diet as they know exactly what they are eating, how it was handled, and how it was prepared.
While the motivation behind these decisions is always in their pet's best interest, the vast majority of recipes available in books, online and even from veterinarians who are not certified in veterinary nutrition do not provide an adequate nutritional profile for pets. Most home-prepared diets have been shown not to be nutritionally sufficient. leading to dangerous under or overconsumption of vital nutrients.
Lake Ontario Veterinary Clinic encourages all owners interested in feeding a home-prepared diet to consult with a licensed veterinary nutritionist before embarking on this valuable (though often costly and time-consuming) nutritional path. If you have an interest in feeding a home prepared diet, we can help you locate a certified veterinary nutritionist to help you build a proper diet for your pet.
Grain-Free Diets and Heart Disease (DCM) in Dogs and Cats
In 2018 the FDA announced that it had begun investigating cases of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs whose breeds did not carry a genetic link to the disease. Many of these dogs were being fed pet foods that were labeled as "grain-free." These foods also contained a high proportion of peas, lentils, other legume seeds (pulses), and/or potatoes in various forms (whole, flour, protein, etc.) as main ingredients (listed within the first 10 ingredients in the ingredient list, before vitamins and minerals).
Since that announcement, further research has shown that “grain-free” food is not the only source of diet-associated DCM. Instead, many foods high in peas, lentils, and other legume seeds (pulses) with and without the “grain-free” label appear to be associated with this disease. Research is ongoing to try to further clarify the science behind this disease process.
While there have been more than 1,100 cases of diet-associated DCM reported in dogs, there have also been more than 20 cases reported in cats. It is also likely that many cases in both dogs and cats go unreported. More information is needed to fully understand the impact of this disease in our pets but at this time, we recommend paying close attention to the ingredients in your dog or cat’s food to make sure you are feeding a well-balanced, nutritionally sufficient diet with ingredients you feel comfortable with.
What is a Food Allergy?
Food allergies occur when an animal’s immune system identifies a protein from food as an invader and mounts an immune response. This may result in itchy skin, itchy ears, skin or ear infections, vomiting or diarrhea. Some unlucky pets may have both skin and gastrointestinal symptoms.
Food allergies are just one possible cause of these symptoms and it is important to have the guidance of your veterinary care team when trying to distinguish food allergies from the numerous other more common causes of these symptoms.
Foods Most Commonly Associated with Food Allergies
While the overall percentage of dogs and cats with food allergies is quite low, there are some ingredients that are more often associated with confirmed cases than others. The most commonly reported food allergies in dogs and cats are chicken, beef, dairy, and egg (and fish for cats). There is nothing particularly special about these ingredients other than they have been the most common ingredients in pet foods for the past few decades, so both cats and dogs often have been exposed to them a lot.
What surprises many pet owners is that, despite what they have often heard from others, grains and dyes are actually very uncommon causes of food allergies. The vast majority of pets are allergic to animal proteins. While there is the occasional pet that is allergic to a specific grain, or even another plant-sourced ingredient such as potato, this is much less common than an allergy to an animal protein.
Unfortunately, many companies advertise grain-free diets as good for pets with allergies. Some companies also advertise gluten-free diets for pets when gluten allergies appear to be extremely rare in pets. Gluten allergies have only been clearly documented in Irish Setters and possibly in Border Terriers, and never in cats.
Diagnosis of Food Allergies
One of the most frustrating things about food allergies is that there isn’t an easy test. None of the currently available blood, salivary or hair tests has been shown to be accurate. The best method for diagnosing food allergies is a dietary elimination trial. A dietary elimination trial involves feeding your pet a prescription diet that contains only a limited number of ingredients that your pet has never had before or that are hydrolyzed (broken down into very small pieces that can hide from the immune system). This diet is the ONLY thing your pet eats for up to two months. If your pet improves during the trial, a food allergy is likely.
Does it Really Have to be a Prescription Diet?
Some companies make over-the-counter diets that they market as “limited ingredient diets.” Many of these actually contain more than one protein and carbohydrate source. They may also contain fruits and vegetables or other ingredients that could interfere with a diet trial. Even those that do have only one protein and carbohydrate may still be contaminated with other ingredients as the manufacturing of these diets is not strictly controlled. It is a common practice to run one diet after another in the same manufacturing line at the factory, without thoroughly cleaning the equipment in between.
If your pet undergoes a well-controlled food allergy trial and a food allergy is diagnosed, you may be able to manage your pet afterward with specific over-the-counter diets (once the specific allergen is identified), keeping in mind that you could see a flare-up if you unknowingly purchase a contaminated bag.
The Dietary Conundrum of Domestic Cats
The nutritional needs of cats are very different from dogs and present an interesting challenge to veterinarians and owners as they work together to balance the nutritional needs of each individual cat.
In the wild, cats are exclusively solitary hunters and they generally hunt and eat animals that are much smaller than they are. This requires them to hunt and feed several times throughout the day and night. This may explain why some cats seem to be hungry all the time.
Despite this continued link to the dietary habits of wild cats, domestic cats appear to have lost many key metabolic enzymes resulting in very narrowly defined nutritional requirements. Deficiencies in any essential nutrients could result in severe health problems. No matter the life stage, to help avoid potential nutrient insufficiencies, cats should be fed diets labeled with an Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement of nutritional adequacy.
Obesity in Cats
Domestic cats frequently struggle with maintaining appropriate body weight. Being overweight or obese can predispose cats to a variety of chronic health conditions including diabetes mellitus, lameness, skin disease, urethral obstruction, constipation, cardiac disease and possibly even oral disease. Obesity generally arises when the calorie intake of a cat is greater than their energy expenditure in the form of exercise. It is important to note that a cats energy needs change throughout their life and careful monitoring by owners and their veterinary care team can help catch these changes before they become a problem. For instance, the calorie needs of a 10-week-old kitten are substantially higher than those of a 10-month-old kitten. Surprisingly, the calorie needs of senior cats (those older than 10 years of age) often increase rather than decrease in order to help maintain body weight as their digestive capabilities decrease.