Is it OK to Play Switcheroo with Your Pet Foods?

By Patricia Khuly, DVM 

Originally published as a three-part series on Fully Vetted.

Do you switch your pet’s food around? Be honest. Assuming you feed commercial, do you succumb to whatever super-premium canned kitty food is on sale this week? Is it one month Halo, next month Canidae? If so … you shouldn’t feel so bad about it (prevailing veterinary sentiment notwithstanding).

Yes, veterinarians can be kind of funny on this topic. Get us chatting on the subject of pet foods and you’ll find we tend towards the conservative. So, too, does it go on the subject of switching pet foods.

For example, when asked if the occasional food switcheroo might be OK, most vets will offer up their best frowny face and lace their next few sentences with ominous gastrointestinal details involving the words "bowels," "gut," and "microflora" — none of which sound too promising with respect to your pet’s potential diet change.

So you know, we vets tend to cop this cautionary attitude for one understandable (if sometimes paranoid) reason: The vast majority of our gastroenteritis cases revolve around pets whose diets were suddenly changed. Hence, our profound and persistent distrust of pet owners when it comes to messing with our patients’ diets. Because it sucks to have to hospitalize a patient for three days after her three-year-long love affair with lamb and rice ended in a venison and potato-ey pool of bloody diarrhea.

Yet if we’re honest with ourselves, veterinarians might admit we bear some responsibility for the kind of confusion that leads to multiple mud-piles in the living room a day or two after a big switch. After all, our profession’s reliance on commercial pet foods as the end-all-be-all of our patients’ diets has contributed mightily to a dearth of common sense on the subject of pet food in general — and food changes in particular.

Here’s how I see it:

There’s no doubt that the advent of nutritionally balanced pet foods (beginning in the 1950s and ‘60s) made pet-keeping doable en masse — convenient, even. It’s also true that a great many pets would still be suffering nutritional diseases if these pet foods were not inexpensive and readily accessible.

However, the way the pet food industry evolved, the "one bag for life" concept became the accepted mantra. (Madison Avenue might've had something to do with it.) So, too, did veterinarians latch readily onto the concept, citing the pet food industry’s "proof-of-life" testing (i.e., proving a pet's reasonable longevity on one-formula alone). Sure, it’s a low bar. A beagle’s ten to fourteen years' survival rests on one bottomless bag of food. But all of us tacitly accepted this as a good-enough metric at some point. Indeed, many of us still do.

Fast-forward to today’s take on pet foods and the heightened dedication of the average pet owner — not to mention our cultural emphasis on nutrition and the proliferation of brands — which has gotten lots of us to thinking our past pets may not have had it so great. Maybe we should have been mixing it up all along, we posited. Problem is, when we finally did take the plunge and tried that pretty new bag of Nulo or ordered a shipment from Honest Kitchen, some of us inevitably did a double-take when we experienced what the new food bought to us.

In too many cases, a malodorous mess urged owners to go back to Beneful and leave well enough alone. Our veterinarian’s "I told you so" after the rapid-switching trick often sealed it. And yet, we know changing foods doesn’t have to be all gloom and doom. This we know from our own human experience as modern omnivores, right?

There's obviously much more to this food-switching issue than meets the eye.

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