Imagine a warm, fragrant entrée of oven-baked chicken with whole-grain brown rice, steamed yellow squash and pan-wilted spinach.
Or slow-roasted leg of lamb with pearl barley, broccoli and crispy whole-wheat croutons with cheddar cheese.
Those aren’t offerings at a tony French bistro. They’re on the menu at Chef K9’s Doggy Bistro and Café in Pompano Beach, Florida, which customizes meals for your dog and sends them to you.
The subscription-based company is just one of dozens that offer canine and feline foods that go well beyond run-of-the-mill supermarket chow.
According to Packaged Facts, a researcher in Rockville, Maryland, the premium pet-food sector accounted for nearly half of the $26 billion U.S. pet-food market in 2013. Apparently, we want our pets to have not only a spot on the sofa but a figurative spot at the dinner table too.
However, delicious-sounding dog and cat food recipes are just good marketing, says Chicago veterinarian Donna Solomon.
“The descriptions and the suggestions of wholesomeness, homemade and gourmet are aimed at our taste buds, not our pets’,” she says.
Dogs simply can’t discern different tastes the way we do.
Dr. Stanley Coren — professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of many books about dogs, including, most recently, Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs (Hubble & Hattie, 2016) — explains why.
There’s taste-bud allotment, for one thing: Humans have around 9,000; dogs only about 1,700.
Dogs’ ancestors consumed salt in their meat, so they never developed our highly tuned salt receptors or our tendency to crave salt, Coren says. But they’ve got a keener sense of taste for water; both cats and dogs have a water-sensitive taste bud at the tip of their tongue.
And then there’s that amazing sense of smell.
The Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University found that dogs can smell about 10,000 times better than humans. Dogs have 300 million scent receptors, cats a still impressive 80 million.
Alexandra Horowitz, a canine cognitive researcher at Barnard College and author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know (Scribner, 2010), writes that we know when someone’s put a spoonful of sugar in our coffee, but a dog would detect that spoonful in a million gallons of water (roughly two Olympic-size swimming pools).
Nutrition trumps gourmet cuisine
So if Fido or Fluffy doesn’t really need poached squab, what’s the best way to meet their nutritional needs?
“The main thing you want to be concentrating on is a complete meal, with a good balance of micronutrients and protein, that’s easy to digest and meets the pet’s needs,” says Solomon.
Read ingredients on labels, and investigate the food online. Solomon likes a resource called Balance IT, started by a UCLA veterinary nutritionist. Consumerlab.com reviews pet supplements, too.
Watch out for onions and garlic, which have high sulfur content. Grapes, chocolate and high carb/high glycemic foods should also be avoided.
Some pet owners have opted to reduce or eliminate grains, soy, corn or wheat because of allergy concerns — but Solomon says only a small percentage of pets have such allergies.
Still, certain breeds are prone to diseases that may require special diets, she says. Pet owners should contact a canine nutritionist or veterinarian for advice.
Solomon says it’s probably OK to offer different foods now and then — rotating your protein source, for example. But she cautions, “Some dogs and cats can’t tolerate switching.”
Introduce variety slowly and conservatively. Watch for gastrointestinal upsets or lack of appetite, and consult your vet if those occur during the transition.
More trendy pet foods
Freeze-dried pet foods that you reconstitute with warm water or broth are popular, says Sid Hawkins, a spokesman for Pet Pantry Warehouse in New Rochelle, New York. Owners like that the bags are less cumbersome than regular kibble bags and are shelf-stable.
Primal Pet Foods offers a protein and vitamin-rich freeze-dried blend of beef heart, liver and ground-up bones, as well as dark green vegetables. There are feline feasts, too, like Primal’s organic kale, carrots and blueberries with chicken and salmon.
Honest Kitchen’s got a turkey and parsnip or chicken and quinoa blend, as well as a fish and coconut mix designed for “touchy tummies.”
Fresh pet food is another area of dramatic growth; supermarkets are adding refrigerated sections where protein and vegetable combos from companies like FreshPet are offered in tubs or slice-and-serve form.
There are some exotic meats on offer, too. Taste of the Wild has dry or canned recipes that include wild boar, smoked salmon and roasted bison mixed with berries, garbanzo beans or sweet potatoes.