When people see their pets as members of their families, it’s no wonder that man’s best friend is susceptible to the same marketing tactics as humans when it comes to their food. After all, you wouldn’t feed your children anything but the best, right? And you wouldn’t give your fur babies anything less than the cat’s meow.
But it begs the question: Are any of these gourmet trends truly better than basic kibble?
“Many gourmet pet foods do have better ingredients,” says Sara Ochoa, a doctor of veterinary medicine who serves as a consultant for DogLab.com. “Most of these pet foods use ‘human-grade’ ingredients. This means that the food that they use in their pet’s food is fit for human consumption.”
“Human-grade” and “fresh” are two popular trends for pets, with meals akin in appearance to bowls humans might order for themselves, featuring carbs, meats and veggies. Johnna Devereaux — a clinical pet nutritionist, the director of nutrition and wellness for Bow Wow Labs and owner of Rhode Island pet boutique Fetch RI — says these foods can make a difference.
“Without a doubt, a dog’s health will benefit from a food that is as minimally processed as possible and full of protein that is both highly digestible and high in biological value,” Devereaux says. “What’s most important in foods that are using human-grade ingredients is the quality.”
But Devereaux says keeping the breed of dog in mind and a balanced diet are key, no matter what type of food the animal is eating.
“An unbalanced diet of the highest quality, like home-prepared, is worse for your dog’s health than a complete and balanced store-bought kibble,” she says. “Dogs of all breeds can benefit from being fed a better diet, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach, as each dog is an individual with unique needs as it relates to their current state of health, activity level, age and other type factors.”
Meg Marrs, founder and CEO of K9 of Mine, says that can be one of the major benefits of what she has seen from companies such as The Farmer’s Dog, Ollie, Nom Nom and Pet Plate. In many cases, meals are semi-customized, with intake quizzes leading the way.
“The company will then choose the best recipe for your pet, based on your pet’s unique needs,” she explains. “These brands boast numerous advantages for pups and kitties, from a healthier digestive track and firmer poops to even behavioral improvements.”
But Marrs also cautions that while fresh meals can help pets with sensitive digestive systems, they often cost considerably more, and objective studies on the long-term benefits are hard to find. “There are plenty of customer stories about happier, healthier pets, but most of these stories are anecdotal,” she adds.
Plus, as Ochoa says, “Some regular pet food also uses human-grade food. While gourmet diets usually are very pricey, many dogs will live just as long on and be just as healthy if they are fed regular dog food.”
Devereaux says the key is knowing how your pet’s food is sourced. It is completely legal for pet food companies to use sources humans might consider questionable for meat. Ochoa adds that, even sourced well, the common kibble makeup might not sound appealing to humans.
“The ones that are not human-grade just means that the food is not something we would really want to eat, more like what we would see in a really low-quality hot dog,” Ochoa says. “It is perfectly safe for your dog to eat these things, just not the most appetizing thing to consider.”
For those on the fence, Marrs ensures there is no harm in trying a fresh diet, as long as people slowly transition with mixtures to avoid gastrointestinal distress in their pets. “Since most of these fresh foods offer steep discounts for new customers, it’s worth giving them a try and seeing for yourself how your pet is affected by a better-quality diet,” she says.
Marrs says she has seen clear evidence that, at the very least, her pooch enjoys the fresh meals. “He’s definitely a fan, with the pile of drool that appears whenever I take out the fresh food as evidence,” she says. “I can’t say I’ve noticed dramatic changes from switching, but his poops are definitely smaller and less smelly, which is certainly a boon for me.”
Jennifer Coates, a doctor of veterinary medicine who serves on the advisory board for Pet Life Today, says stools can be an important sign when choosing the right diet.
“Watch how your pet does while eating a particular food,” Coates says. “If your pet is maintaining a healthy weight and has normal digestive function — firm stools, no vomiting — good energy levels, normal amounts of shedding and that ‘glow’ of good health, the diet you’ve picked is probably a good match.”
Coates says terms such as “holistic,” “ancestral,” “instinctual,” “gourmet,” and “premium” are marketing jargon. But “organic,” “natural,” and “human-grade” all have specific definitions. She recommends making sure any food meets the standards of the Association of American Feed Control Officials for the species and age, as well as taking a close look at the ingredients.
“There is an element of ‘you get what you pay for’ when it comes to pet foods,” Coates says. “It’s generally wise to avoid the cheapest pet food options, but the priciest choices are not always worth the extra expense.”