During the last few years, Americans have cracked down on food ingredients and the way that they are regulated and labeled. It may be unsurprising then, that when it comes to pets, as much interest has been dedicated toward their dietary needs. One current debate includes not only the ingredients in in cat and dog food, but the underlying health factors.

It started as far back as 1932 that the raw diet theory was tested. In a study known as Pottenger’s Cat, Francis M. Pottenger Jr. studied around 900 cats fed either a cooked or uncooked ration of the same meal. The study initially proved that the cats fed the cooked diet formed degenerative diseases and reproductive difficulties that could be passed to their offspring. The cats who were fed a raw diet had more energy and were less prone to postoperative death. However, it was later determined that the heat from cooking food depleted the vital amino acid taurine, which can cause the noted degeneration. Studies later proved if the taurine was replaced post-cooking, then a cooked diet was equivalent to a raw diet.

As proven in Pottenger’s study, raw diet enthusiasts believe that any heat applied to raw food may contribute to the depletion of nutrients that are key to an animal’s health. For this reason, a raw animal diet typically consists of unprocessed or sometimes fermented meat, organs, bones and dairy. They may also include nuts, sprouts, fruits and vegetables to supply what is often found in a prey’s stomach. Some claims made by raw diet supporters include gum and tooth health, breath odor elimination, and improved skin and coats. Many of these claims have been proven true due to singular aspects of raw foods, but veterinary professionals have also concluded that they are risky due to imbalance. As an alternative, they recommend a homemade diet arranged by a nutritionist certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.

While raw diets have shown benefits for pets, there are notable risks for humans. Studies have indicated that household pets that consume a raw diet can contribute to the spread of E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria. In one such case conducted by the FDA, out of 196 samples of commercial raw pet food, 15 tested positive for Salmonella and 32 for Listeria. Out of the 752 commercially processed dry and wet foods, one tested positive for Salmonella. Although all commercial products are subject to recall, the FDA warn that non-commercial raw products can not be regulated and if used should be handled with care and be followed with proper sanitization.

It is important to realize that while processed pet foods have been proven substantial, that does not mean that all are equal. When selecting any commercially processed food, it is crucial to know what is necessary in an animal’s diet and what could potentially harm them. For example cats, as previously mentioned, must have taurine added to processed food. This is now an industry standard for any cat food, whereas dogs are capable of producing their own taurine. One of the best ways to select a food is by the ability to identify ingredients. When looking at an ingredient list, the first will always be the predominant element. Any ingredients found in human-grade food will also indicate a higher quality versus a feed-grade food. It is best to conduct some research at home before going into a store and being overwhelmed by products, or by consulting a veterinarian for recommendations.

While there are few notable benefits from processed foods that can not be recreated through a raw diet, there are singularized additives. Some foods, rather than creating a balance, offer excess nutrients of a specific kind to meet common pet deficiencies. Different blends can utilize ingredients to reduce hairballs in felines or increase weight in dogs. If a raw diet is preferred then these additives would need to be otherwise prescribed by a vet if not compensated by other foods.

Despite any preference for what an individual chooses to feed their pets, one consensus is knowing an animal’s needs. Before panicking over an easy change or jumping to a new solution, consult a vet and be patient. Avoid settling for the first success and try a couple of options. It can take a few months to see varying differences but they can be big enough to change any initial decisions. In any case, dogs and cats will give tell-“tail” signs of what suits them best for a happier, healthier life.