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.

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18 thoughts on “The Myth of the Natural Diet

  1. Thank you so much for starting this blog! I’m a first-year vet student with an interest in nutrition, but it can be hard to sort through all of the claims out there about grain free, raw, and all the others. There is even a lot of misinformation among my classmates regarding diets. I try very hard to base my opinions only on what science supports. Hoping to see more posts in the near future!

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    • Thanks, Katie, glad you are enjoying my blog so far. If your email matches your vet school, Dr. Sarah Abood is a wonderful resource for you and your classmates. You can also join the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition (AAVN), which is an organization made up of a academics, industry experts, veterinarians, technicians, and vet students with special interest in animal nutrition (large and small). It is also free for students and as a member you receive the quarterly newsletters and have the opportunity to attend the AAVN annual symposium. This is held in conjunction with the ACVIM conference every year and is a great place to learn about what is new and interesting in the world of animal nutrition.

      I wish you all the best with school!
      ~Lisa Weeth

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  2. Pingback: Location! Location! Location: What’s the REAL difference between grocery and “premium”? | weethnutrition

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with your article, with one exception. It was not 150 years ago that pets started getting commercial pet food, it was closer to fifty. There are still a lot of pets in rural areas who survive on table scraps and whatever else they can find to eat. I grew up on a farm in Tennessee and we always had dogs, particularly hunting dogs but also pets, and I don’t remember my dad EVER buying dog food. They ate what we ate. The main hazard for them was being hit by a car. (We kept the beagles in a pen.) Our cats caught mice and rats and other rodents. Now, today our two dogs and one cat eat commercial food, their shots are kept up to date and they spend most of their time indoors. They’re definitely better off.

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    • Hi Sam,

      Good point. I should have said that the commercial pet food industry was launched with the introduction of hard tack biscuits and that some foods were marketed as “complete and balanced” at the turn of the last century, but these were considered a luxury and only available to the wealthy. Purina Dog Chow was introduced at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair in an attempt to market pet food to the masses, but it was considered a “specialty” food and didn’t really take off until after WWII. For the first 50 years of the 20th century the majority of pet owners still fed exactly what you described, whatever the people ate or didn’t want to eat. Now after 100+ years of advancing nutritional science and pet food marketing we’ve done a complete reversal. The majority of pet owners feed commercial complete and balanced pet foods and I would agree that they are better off for it.

      Lisa

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  4. Hi there – I came across your blog thanks to a link being shared on VIN and I am so glad I did! I just wanted to say that I have been enjoying reading your articles and the way you present information so that it can be understood by the majority of the people that many end up reading it (whether they work in the veterinary field or not). It’s helpful to have some common-sense advice that I can pass on to my clients when they ask about pet nutrition, foods to feed, and so on. I also appreciated your professional, spot-on responses to those who may disagree with your take on subjects such as the feeding of raw diets. I have been a practicing veterinarian for 18 years and now own my own small animal practice, and there is not a day that goes by that I have to discuss with a pet owner why I don’t recommend raw diets, or why “grain-free” isn’t necessarily better. Thank you for putting your knowledge and expertise out there and making it “easy to digest” (pun intended)!

    Kirsten Ura-Barton, DVM

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    • Thanks for reading, Kristen, and taking the time to add a comment. I’m glad you found me and I am happy that I can make pet food more “palatable” for you and your clients. I do like a good food pun. 😉
      Lisa

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  5. Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is an extremely well written article. I will make sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your useful information. Thanks for the post. I’ll definitely comeback.

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  6. Hello There. I discovered your blog the usage of msn. This is a very well written article. I will make sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your helpful info. Thank you for the post. I will definitely return.|

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    • Thanks for reading and taking the time to post a comment. The last few months have been a bit chaotic as I just relocated back to the US from the UK, but have plans for more posts to come in the near future. Stay tuned!

      Lisa

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