BY ROBERT S. GOLDSTEIN, VMD
There has been a huge transformation in the veterinary field over the past 15 years that has had a significant impact on the pet industry, especially the pet food area. The holistic veterinary movement, now appropriately called integrative veterinary medicine (IVM), combines natural and alternative treatment approaches with conventional veterinary therapies for treating animals. An integral part of IVM is therapeutic nutrition, or the use of food to help treat a condition or disease. Consumer understanding of what constitutes good nutrition to enhance the health of their animals has evolved and, along with integrative veterinarians’ influence, has fueled the growth and feeding of biologically-appropriate diets for dogs and cats.
You might call this movement the “natural awakenings” of pet food. It’s a return to evolutionary diets that contain moderate to high flesh-based proteins (rather than plant-based proteins), moderate fat, and minimal carbohydrates and starch. These diets contain minimally processed, real foods, with active life force ingredients, as opposed to heavily cooked, highly processed foods that have largely been the norm in the industry.
Raw diets and dehydrated diets are the categories that have led the way in this revolution. Raw diets, available in both frozen form and in freeze-dried form, are one of the fastest growing segments of the market. Raw diets, in either form, do not undergo any processing with heat and thus contain fully intact nutrients. Dehydrated diets are shelf stable and are made by using gentle heat to remove the moisture from the food. Dehydrated diets may be air-dried, which leaves the food still moist and chewy, or fully dehydrated, often in a powdered format, to which the consumer adds water. All of these diets are very nutrient-dense in species-appropriate ingredients, and consumers have made it clear they are willing to pay more for real food with minimal carbohydrates, high quality meat-based proteins, and clean labels.
As a result, many pet stores are now offering consumers numerous choices in frozen raw foods, as well as dehydrated and freeze-dried options. All of these real food offerings provide excellent, nutritionally sound alternatives to kibble and they are a giant step away from heavily processed foods.
Much of the popularity of these real food, species-appropriate diets has developed because both consumers and veterinarians have seen significant improvements in the health of companion animals with which they live and work. Even in seemingly healthy dogs and cats, pet parents usually see softer, silkier coats once the animal has been on the diet for three to four weeks. Other typical results are better smelling breath, elimination of doggy odor, eyes that stop “running” and smaller stools. Additionally, lethargic animals may display more energy and hyperactive animals may become more behaviorally balanced.
Integrative veterinary practitioners also report significant improvements in many animals with clinical disease when these animals begin eating high quality, species-appropriate diets. Arthritic animals often become more mobile. Animals with inflammatory bowel disease, chronic ear infections, chronic hot spots and severe allergies often improve, or are even eliminated, once they are switched to species appropriate, real food diets. None of this is a complete surprise when you understand that 65 percent of the immune system is located in the gastro-intestinal tract. Real food, with more bioavailable, easily absorbed ingredients that are species-appropriate promote a healthy gut and therefore support a stronger, more balanced immune system.
The shift to viewing high quality, natural diets as direct tools to influencing and maintaining health is still expanding. This can be seen in the growing number of diets that contain specific functional ingredients like Omega-3 fish oil, glucosamine, chondroitin and foods that are recognized and included for their beneficial antioxidant properties.
It was Hippocrates who said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” The pet food industry and the world of integrative veterinary medicine are following that advice by merging to use species-appropriate, natural diets to enhance the health of dogs and cats.