The Myth of the Natural Diet

Over the last 40 years the word “natural” has been used to persuade owners to pay more for their pet food and treats. Blame the hippie movement, smart ad executives, or high-profile pet food recalls. Whatever the reason, pet food companies big and small have latched on to the term “natural” and have used it to generate substantial profits. Pet food and treats sales in the US alone are expected to exceed $22 billion in 2014, with products marketed as “natural” or “organic” accounting for a quarter of that market. By 2017 sales of “natural” pet food and treats are expected to reach over $7 billion in the US, and everyone seems to want in on the game. Movie stars and celebrity chefs, dog and cat enthusiasts, veterinarians, small town bakeries, and large multinational corporations all want to sell pet owners on the benefits of “natural” pet foods.

Some of these companies are doing what I consider to be a good job from an animal health standpoint. They spend money on research and development of their foods and not just marketing; they are responsive to consumer questions and concerns; and they have independent quality control procedures in place to help ensure all foods meet safety and nutritional standards even if their food is produced by a third-party manufacturer. At the other end of the pet food spectrum are companies motivated more by profit than animal welfare. Companies whose sole reason for marketing a “natural” pet food are to grab a piece of this growing market; companies who outsource formulations, manufacturing, and distribution; and who don’t understand nutrition principles or why they are important for dog and cat health. After all even 0.5% of a $7 billion a year industry is still $35 million, not bad for a small business.

There is a legal definition of the term “natural” to help even the playing field for pet food companies. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) defines the term “natural” as a product…

“…derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”

The idea that any food that has been “subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation” is more “natural” than another similarly manufactured product has always struck me as a bit farcical. Personally, I want pet owners and veterinarians to give up on the idea of “natural” diets for dogs and cats. All pet foods from commercial canned and dry to home-prepared or raw-meat diets contain ingredients that are more highly processed and refined than the “evolutionary” diet of dogs and cats.

Dogs adapted to life with human over 10,000 years ago and until the last 150 years existed off midden scraps (i.e., our leftovers), and whatever small animals, berries, roots and grubs they could get into their mouths. Cats started living with humans about the time that we started storing grains, approximately 5,000 years ago, and survived by hunting small wild prey such as mice, birds, and crickets. You can forget the idea of complete and balanced in these “ancestral diets”. Survival and reproduction were the only benchmarks used to evaluate the healthfulness of foods. Can they eat to survive day-to-day? Check. Can they eat enough of the right things to have offspring? Check. And when these dogs and cats reach their “natural” life-span (which is still 4-5 years for feral domestic dogs and cats) you would simply replace them with one of their copious offspring and the cycle would repeat. Yes, there were people who managed to keep their dog and cat living well into the geriatric years, but this was the exception rather than the rule. The truly “natural” diet of domestic dogs and cats is not a can of food, or dry nibbles in a bowl, or even raw muscle meat bought from a boutique butcher, but unbalanced subsistence living; not a diet that I want to go back to.

In fact, very little about what I consider basic dog and cat husbandry is truly as nature intended. Nature wanted for us all to live outdoors or in crude shelters, surviving long enough to reproduce, and then moving out of the way so that the next generation can take over. It wasn’t until our relatively big human brains figured out how to harness the gifts of nature and transform them into something new that our societies began to flourish. With crops to feed our families, shelters to keep us safe, and medicines (Eastern and Western) to help fix our ills, we took control of our own biological destinies and that of the domesticated animals living with us. Things like vaccines, diagnostic tests (such as blood work and x-ray), medications, and life-saving surgical procedures all work against the natural processes of disease and death.

I’m ok keeping dogs and cats in the “unnatural” existence that is our modern home life. My cats are neutered, live only indoors, and have been vaccinated against infectious disease. They also receive a daily diet designed to provide all of their essential nutrients in the correct balances to help them living long, healthy lives. I don’t want just any cats, I want my cats, and I don’t want these cats merely to survive, but to thrive. These are the same goals I have for dogs and cats all over the world. I would encourage pet owners and veterinarians to shake off the ideas planted by the pet food companies. Accept that all complete and balanced foods are equally “unnatural” on the evolutionary timescale and instead of a “natural” diet select one that optimized health for your companion dog or cat.