We love to feed our pets. Food and love are so deeply intertwined in human culture that it’s no surprise we want to ensure that our pet gets the “best” food and enthusiastically enjoy every bite. The pet store shelves are lined with hundreds of options, all of which claim to be the best choice, not because they are, but because they’re trying to sell their product.
Many veterinarians shy away from making specific food recommendations. The most commonly cited reasons for this are that they don’t want to seem like they’re “pushing an agenda” or that they don’t want their clients to think they’re getting kickbacks from any particular pet food company.
I will admit that this was my anxiety when I first started as a veterinarian. If a pet parent asked me for a specific recommendation on a food that would be good for their pet, I’d deflect, saying that “anything with an AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement” would be fine. We both left the conversation dissatisfied.
Over time, I’ve come to accept that it isn’t fair to my clients for me NOT to tell them my professional opinion on which pet foods would be good for their pet. I’ve spent countless hours thinking about pet food – its nutritional value, the research behind it, the potential problems associated with it, its palatability, its caloric content, and the experiences of thousands of pets and their pet parents. I think about pet food every single day – pet parents don’t have that kind of time.
Therefore, below I’ve compiled a list of my favorite pet foods and why they’re my favorites. This list is by no means exhaustive of all food that is good for your pet. If you don’t see your pet’s food on this list, that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t a good fit for your pet. This list also represents a moment in time, as foods are constantly changing and my own recommendations change based on new science and new experiences. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy this insight into my favorite pet foods!
My Favorite for… Weight Loss
Prescription diet: Royal Canin Satiety Support. This is the food that I feed my own cats, and I’ve been incredibly happy with the results. The magic of this food is that it has an extremely low caloric density while still maintaining relatively high protein and high fiber, so pets can eat a relatively normal volume of food but still get fewer calories. As an added bonus, the cat version includes Royal Canin’s “S/O index,” which decreases urinary problems (a common challenge in overweight kitties!)
Non-Prescription Diet: Hills Science Diet Adult Perfect Weight. Although I LOVE Satiety Support, many clients would prefer to avoid the hassle and cost of a prescription food if possible. For pets who are just a *little* overweight, my favorite is the Hills Science Diet Perfect Weight option. I’ve compared all the weight loss options and I’ve found that this one has the lowest caloric content of them all (around 300 kcal/cup). Caloric density is gold when it comes to pets losing weight without feeling like you’re starving them!
My Favorite for… Dental Health
Disclaimer: Brushing your pet’s teeth is still the gold standard for dental health. BUT feeding a diet formulated for dental health is a great alternative.
When choosing dental products, I consult the list of products accepted by the Veterinary Oral Health Council. This independent organization reviews research submitted on dental products and adds them to their “accepted” list if they actually make a scientifically-demonstrated difference in dental health. Science!
My favorite food for dental health is the Hills Healthy Advantage Oral+ for both dogs and cats. These are my favorite because 1) They are VOHC-accepted for both plaque AND tartar (as opposed to just one or the other); 2) They are available over-the-counter – I like the fact that my clients can get these foods while avoiding the cost and hassle of a prescription diet; and 3) I like the Healthy Advantage line of foods because of their focus on comprehensive health as opposed to JUST oral care.
My Favorite for… Allergies
Oh, allergies. This section could (and maybe should) be a whole separate post by itself. If there’s any particular area that triggers my “don’t tell them your opinions, they’ll think you’re being bought out” button, it’s this.
Briefly, I will make the following statements: 1) Marketing, not science, has told you that your itchy, allergic dog needs a grain-free food; 2) Your dog is *most likely* allergic to protein and not to grains; 3) Grain-free foods are *almost* never necessary and may be harmful. I discussed this further in my post, What I Feed My Dogs and Why It Isn’t Grain Free, so I won’t belabor the point further now.
My favorite non-prescription food for allergies is Purina ProPlan Sensitive Skin and Stomach Salmon and Rice. This is based on anecdotal, personal experience with pet parents and pets reporting that their pet’s skin is improved on this food as well as trusting Purina as a brand.
My favorite prescription food for allergies is Royal Canin Ultamino. The best way to evaluate if your pet has food allergies is to do a dietary trial. Ultamino is my favorite food for dietary trials because you can see improvement in as little as 4 weeks, as opposed to the other prescription foods used for dietary trials, which have to be used for 6-8 weeks. Dietary trials are challenging for everyone, and seeing progress 2-4 weeks earlier makes a big difference!
My Favorite for… Feeding During Pregnancy
Your pregnant mommas (dogs OR cats) do NOT need an increase in their food intake until the third trimester of pregnancy (the last 3 weeks). At that point, there’s the double challenge of the fact that she needs more calories, but she also has less space for food because the babies are taking up more real estate. Consequently, it’s critical that she be on a high calorie diet to solve this problem. My favorite for dogs is Purina ProPlan Sport 30/20 and my favorite for cats is Purina ProPlan Focus Kitten food (yes, kitten food for the adult momma).
My Favorite for… Puppies and Kittens
When it’s time for puppies or kittens to be weaned, my favorite food to introduce is the Royal Canin Starter Ultra Soft Mousse for both species. This food has the finest grain of all the kitten/puppy foods out there, which makes it easy to eat and digest. It also has great palatability! My favorite kibble is Purina ProPlan Focus (Puppy, Kitten, or Large Breed Puppy). Royal Canin and Hills also both have great puppy/kitten foods. I do also like the breed-specific diets from Royal Canin, but also acknowledge that they might be over-the-top for some.
My Favorite for… Healthy Young Adults
If your pet is a healthy young adult that is a healthy weight and has no underlying diseases such as allergies, arthritis, or other internal organ disease, congratulations! It truly is these pets that my previous statement about “any food with an AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement” applies. I recommend sticking with one of three companies – Royal Canin, Hills, and Purina Pro Plan. These companies employ veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists, perform research and feeding trials on their diets, have strict quality control measures with multiple checkpoints during production to ensure quality is maintained, and own/run their own manufacturing facilities. Here’s a helpful handout from NC State on Evaluating Pet Foods.
Additionally, the FDA has named 16 pet food companies whose diet may have a link to canine heart disease, specifically DCM. I discussed this more in my previous article, but in general I recommend that clients avoid food made by these pet food companies – Acana, Zignature, Taste of the Wild, 4Health, Earthborn Holistic, Blue Buffalo, Nature’s Domain, Fromm, Merrick, California Natural, Natural Balance, Orijen, Nature’s Variety, NutriSource, Nutro and Rachael Ray Nutrish.
I want to very clearly acknowledge that the research on this topic is incomplete. Researchers do not know why these particular diets are correlated to an increase in DCM and they may not be causative at all. However, my personal recommendation for my patients is to switch. My reasoning is as follows:
1) DCM is a very scary disease because it can present in sudden death. In other words, your pet seems completely fine, and then they die.
2) There are excellent pet foods readily available that do not have this correlation.
3) Switching away from these brands may be overkill or preemptive, but if I were to tell a client that it was ok to feed one of these foods, knowing that there was a correlation, and that pet then developed and/or died of DCM, I would feel that I hadn’t fulfilled my responsibility to advocate for my patient’s health.
What about home cooking or raw diets?
Both of these options have significant challenges. Here’s a great handout to get you started. This is not to say that they can’t be effective, but it is VERY rare that I see a pet parent who is home cooking for their pet and actually producing a nutritionally balanced diet for their pet. It is NOT adequate to cook some rice, mix in some peas or carrots or green beans or sweet potato, add some beef or chicken, and call it done. Therefore, I recommend that anyone who would like to cook for their pet reach out to a veterinary nutritionist (such as NC State if you’re local to North Carolina) and work with them to develop a nutritionally-balanced plan.
Whoo! I had more to say about this topic than I realized! This list of my favorite foods is just that…MY favorites. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to like any of them! Nevertheless, I hope you found this helpful and that it helped you think through why you’re feeding your pets the diet you’ve chosen for them. May it be based on science and not pretty marketing!