I originally wrote this post in April 2011:

After the tragic 2007 melamine contamination of pet food and the subsequent recall, alternative pet diets gained popularity. The convenience of commercial pet food was suddenly outweighed by a degree of mistrust. It wasn’t just the bargain brands of pet food that were affected—the recall included some “premium” brands as well. What a shock it was to discover that many brand name pet foods are produced by relatively few manufacturers. If you seek an option to commercially manufactured pet food, consider an alternative diet for your best friend.

Alternative diets fall into two categories: raw and homemade.

Raw diets

Raw food proponents point out that this diet is based on the ancestral origins of our dogs and cats, and mimics prey and carrion feeding. Whether purchased commercially or prepared at home, raw diets contain animal muscle and organ meat, bone, plus some plant matter and grains. The representation of these ingredients will vary for cats and dogs, including any specific health and nutritional requirements. Raw diets are inherently high protein, low carbohydrate formulations. The health benefits of a raw diet generally mirror those of any high quality diet: healthier skin and digestive tracts, fewer allergy symptoms, smaller stools, less shedding, more energy and improved overall health.

Detractors of raw diets cite safety concerns. First is the issue of food borne bacteria such as e coli and salmonella. The digestive tract of healthy dogs and cats can generally handle this kind of bacteria. Humans who handle the food or the pet’s stool could be subject to illness and should follow safe handling precautions, such as keeping the food frozen and using immediately when thawed, wearing gloves when handling the food or the stool, and sanitizing all surfaces and bowls before and after feeding. The other concern, especially for homemade raw diets, is ensuring complete and balanced nutrition for your pet. Follow a diet formulated by a veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist (see Resources), or purchase commercial raw foods from reputable manufacturers, such as Bravo and Nature’s Variety.

Homemade diets

If a raw diet is just not for you – or your pet has a health condition that makes raw inappropriate – consider home-cooked meals. You use the same ingredients you purchase in the grocery store for yourself, plus some supplements. If you like to cook and have some free time, a homemade diet gives you the confidence of knowing exactly what is in your pet’s food and that it is safe to eat. Time-starved pet owners can supplement their pet’s complete and balanced commercial diet with fresh fruit (no grapes or raisins!) and vegetables (no onions or garlic!) or home cook the treats you give them.

If you are preparing your dog’s or cat’s food, you are responsible for ensuring that all their nutritional needs are met. Don’t “wing it.” There are resources (below) that can help you formulate a complete and balanced diet for your pet. With the proper nutritional balance and safe preparation methods, homemade diets also have the same health benefits as high quality commercial and raw diets.

Making the transition

Want to make the switch to an alternative diet for your pet? Start with a conversation with your veterinarian. He or she can advise you if your pet is a good candidate for a diet change and what type of diet might be beneficial. Find a good source for formulating the diet. And make the transition gradually to ensure your pet’s digestion is not adversely affected.

Resources at your fingertips

Petdiets.com: Homemade diets, nutrition counseling and a nutrition library from Veterinary Nutritional Consultations, Inc.

BalanceIT.com: Homemade diets, nutritional supplements and a professional resource from American College of Veterinary Nutrition

Petfinder.com: Articles on raw and homemade diets, plus homemade treat recipes

Dr. Pitcairn’s New Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats: a widely-recognized reference book on holistic pet health approaches, including alternative diets

Carol Peter is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of Cold Nose Companions, LLC Dog Training. She offers private in-home training for people and their dogs throughout Geauga County. Carol focuses on resolving problem behaviors and teaching good household manners using positive reinforcement training and behavior modification methods. She can be reached at carol@coldnosecompanions.com.

©2011, Carol Peter, Cold Nose Companions, LLC