It's been quite a while since pet food stopped being a boring topic and turned into one that scared people half to death, thanks to a headline-making contamination with a deadly toxin called melamine. My fears have quieted since then, though many pet owners still have questions. My bottom line: Feeding your pet a healthy, tasty diet doesn't have to be complicated--so long as you keep a few key points in mind.
Commercial pet food is a healthy option. If you're straining your purse to buy a boutique brand, relax. All the brands sold in supermarkets or pet stores are nutritionally adequate: They're regulated by the FDA and the Association of American Feed Control Officials, guaranteeing that they meet a cat's or dog's "basic" nutritional needs.
But you get what you pay for. Though I've seen some dogs live to a ripe old age on discount brands, I'm not a fan of buying the cheapest bag of pet food. Cut-rate labels typically use relatively large amounts of filler (such as bulk fiber, meaning your dog will poop threefold!). They're also more likely to contain less nutritious or less palatable ingredients from cheaper meat sources, such as chicken by-product meal--it's made from some particularly gross parts of the bird, like the bones and intestines, among other things. (Plain old chicken meal has a lower ick factor.) Stick with a large, reputable, research-based pet food company (such as Purina, Science Diet, or Iams) that has a commitment to quality food sources. You can check a company's Web site to make sure it does ingredient- and quality-control testing.
Think of canned food as a condiment. Canned food is mostly water--you can use a dollop as flavoring for kibble (add extra water to broth it up), but it's not necessary unless your vet recommends it because your pet has a medical condition, such as a kidney or bladder problem.
If you want to cook for your dog, get a vet nutritionist's advice. I applaud your energy--but if you just throw some meat into a pan, your dog's getting an unbalanced diet. A veterinary nutritionist can quickly steer you right and guide you to a few necessary extras, such as a multivitamin and supplementary calcium. You can find a nearby vet nutritionist at petdiets.com. Don't rely on just any Internet info--there's a lot of misinformation out there. When in doubt, get a reputable site from a vet nutritionist.
Don't cook for your cat, period. Cats have very particular nutritional needs--and if they come up short on certain amino acids (especially taurine), they can go blind or develop heart failure. Even pampering them long-term with your own favorite brand of canned tuna can backfire because enzymes in seafood break down crucial vitamins, leaving cats deficient. Cat-food versions of tuna are heavily supplemented to prevent this. (Wild cats steer clear of trouble, probably because they eat every bit of their prey--organs, eyeballs, and all--which may provide extra nutrients.) If you're still up for the challenge of cooking for your cat, make extra sure you follow a reliable pet-nutrition guide.
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