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Ask an expert: Does my dog need chef-prepared food?

Brands like Butternut Box, Denzel's and Honey's are selling pet food that's good enough for humans to eat. Can our dogs really tell the difference?

Vitamin-enriched raw food for dogs from Maev

Expert interview

What’s on the menu tonight? Beef and pumpkin stew, or duck and venison sausages? For the dog, that is.

For millennial pet owners, these products are far from an absurd extravagance – they’ve become kind of normal, summing up a wider trend taking place on the online pet food aisles. The dog’s dinner now sounds a lot better than ours.

Brands like Butternut Box, Denzel’s and The Farmer’s Dog, all launched in the roughly the past decade, have been driving this change, creating chef-prepared menus using quality, human-grade ingredients, no additives and employing a lot of the trends we see in our own diets. Ketogenic, vegan, gluten free: all possibilities in this new world of dog food.

But are these brands really offering something that’s nutritionally superior for our pets, or is it all just marketing? We wanted to know, so we asked pet food nutrition expert and Global Nutrition Advisor at the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition, Richard Butterwick. - Healthy, Everyday Snacks for dogs

Why is pet food starting to look more like human food?

The relationship with our pets has changed massively over the last 20 to 30 years, going from seeing dogs as having a more of a functional role to now being important family members. That’s what’s driving a lot of the human food trends within the pet food industry.

To be fair, these new products do look tastier than chunks in gravy.. But are they better for our pets?

From a nutritional point of view, there isn’t really a difference. Chunk jelly foods that you see in pouches or cans are effectively sterilized, meaning these foods have a long shelf life – however, the down side is the temperature required to [do this] can result in the loss of some nutrients. Our formulation colleagues take this into account and supplement the formulas so the finished product is nutritionally complete.

There is a difference, though, around the signals and cues the owner gets around food authenticity. That’s a big challenge for large-scale manufacturers like Mars and Nestle Purina, [who create pet foods] that don’t necessarily resemble the raw materials that go into the product.

What do you think about seeing human dietary trends, like keto or raw, in pet food?

Brands in those spaces often make claims around health benefits which are completely unproven. If a brand is marketing food based on trends in human food chains, consumers should question whether it’s right, whether it’s relevant and, most importantly, whether it safely fulfils the nutritional needs of the pet (labelled as complete and balanced). Try to seek out an expert – someone like Marge Chandler, who is very specialised within pet nutrition. Say: “Show me the proof”!

One problem we have in the industry is the development of foods that contain ingredients pets previously haven’t been exposed to on a regular basis in their diets. In the US, the number of dogs diagnosed with a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy has spiked. The FDA has been investigating, and their analysis indicates there’s an association with grain-free diets, which have become popular in recent years. Further research [is needed to] understand why only relatively few dogs that are fed grain free diets develop this condition. - A fresh approach to pet food

What about CBD supplements for animals?

We’re keeping a close eye on CBD for pets. There’s so much unknown around it, but I think it’s an area where there’s huge potential. The primary question first is safety. Then, does it actually work?

I know owners get [excited] when they see a potential health benefit, particularly [with CBD and] dogs with arthritis. If they want to use these products with their pets I’d say that’s fine, but make sure the safety data is there. We’re not going to get into it before we’re satisfied that it is. The efficacy data you can probably wait for.

Who regulates the pet food industry?

Strictly speaking, there’s no legal regulations in Europe that govern [pet food] nutrition. There’s an organisation called Fediaf, which is essentially the European umbrella organisation for the pet food industry, which provides a lot of guidance around pet nutrition and has set up the industry best practice. Any member of Fediaf or its organisations is expected to apply those, but there’s no way to check that pet food companies are complying.

What would you like to see more of in the pet space?

More intentionality around creating diets that ensure we don’t overfeed our pets. Pet obesity is the biggest nutritional health issue we see. There are lifestyle factors too, but I think the pet food industry could play a greater role in helping owners understand how much to feed their pets. Outside of food directly, I’m interested in brands taking an integrated health and wellness approach, like [Mars company] Whistle, which essentially makes a FitBit for dogs.