Should I Feed My Pet Fresh Fruits & Vegetables?
Let’s face it, we are human, always learning, and evolving. As far as nutrition goes, you hear one thing one week and it changes the next (butter or margarine for example). For our pets, the topic of nutrition is very much like a religion. There are many different philosophies and people will fight over whatever belief they believe to be true.
The problem with many of these arguments is that they are largely based on emotion and not science. While there is scientific evidence to support many different nutrition philosophies, the way that evidence is interpreted can bend truths leading to potentially unsafe practices. Marketing practices further complicate consumer perception leaving pet owners (and veterinarians) unable to tell fact from fiction.
Regardless, we’ve seen large shifts in recommendations for both humans and pets – and the prevalence of diet-related diseases like insulin-dependent diabetes and obesity in pets and humans cannot be ignored. In humans, there are mounds of evidence to support a causative relationship between high intake of processed foods (containing refined carbohydrates/sugars) and insulin-dependent diabetes, obesity, and other metabolic-related diseases. That said, it makes sense that we would worry about the same issues in our pets considering most dry pet foods contain between 40-60% refined carbohydrate.
Can Pets Digest Carbohydrates?
We know vegetables are important in the human diet, some more nutritionally beneficial than others, and the same applies to our pets. While the debate amongst many within the pet nutrition industry may disagree – our dogs are not wolves (read more here), and they can digest carbohydrates. While the ability to do this varies between various breeds, the focus of this blog isn’t the ability of our pets to digest carbs – instead, it is the benefits they obtain from fiber, antioxidants, and other phytochemicals contained within fruits and vegetables.
Our canines & felines need muscle meat, organ & bone partly due to the bioavailability of amino acids and other nutrients. If you were to give your dog the option of meat or plants/vegetables, studies show they would choose meat. However, when offered together, most dogs and some cats will consume fruit or vegetables too. Some trial and error with various cooking methods, chopping, mincing, or even blending in a food processor may entice those who may be pickier.
Why Supplement with Fresh Food?
If your pet doesn’t like veggies, or even if they do, you may wonder why then would you supplement them? Isn’t pet food already complete and balanced? Vegetables and plants have an abundance of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fiber, and even beneficial bacteria. However, with fresh plant-based foods, I would make the argument that they provide protective benefits for those pets who eat a diet primarily consisting of canned and/or kibble. These foods tend to have high levels of carcinogenic chemicals called advanced glycation end products, or AGE’s.
AGEs are naturally present in animal-based products, additional AGE’s form during the cooking process. Since dogs and cats primarily eat these types of food their entire life their toxic load is much higher as a result. Toxic loads can negatively impact various organ systems, overall health and even shorten the lifespan of pets and people. The good news is that antioxidants and other phytochemicals present in fruits and vegetables, particularly leafy greens and berries, help to ward off some of the negative effects of AGE’s. In addition, even the best raw, kibble or dehydrated foods lack the benefits of fresh, organic, raw, or “lightly” cooked plants and veggies.
Ideas for fruits and veggies you can feed to your pets include:
- Leafy greens (rotate for variety)
- Green beans
- Summer squash
….just to name a few!
How much to add?
These additions for cats should be kept low, however, they can be added to dogs diets in greater amounts. Cats should consume no more than 5%, and dogs should be no more than 15-20%. There are actually very few things dogs and cats can’t have, the quantity is what is most important to monitor. For example, large amounts of onions can cause Heinz body anemia. However, a small amount in tomato sauce, for example, is likely to be fine. Garlic is also safe and may actually benefit the immune system. It’s been used for many years as an effective flea & tick preventative.
It’s always smart to avoid grapes and avocados because these may affect pets differently. Otherwise, it is ok to experiment with a small amount of new fruits and vegetables one at a time and to observe for any adverse reactions. Have fun and remember it is OK to share table food with your pet as long as it is fresh and healthy!
For cats specifically, avoid high-starch foods like potatoes, pumpkin, and grain-based products. Cats lack adequate enzymes to digest carbohydrates and instead benefit from the antioxidants within vegetables that are low-starch.
*This article is for informational purposes only. It is not meant to provide medical advice or replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.
About the Author: Nicole Cammack
Nicole is the founder & owner of multiple-award winning NorthPoint Pets & Company, in Connecticut, USA. She has completed undergraduate work in biological sciences, business and holds an M.S. in Nutrition. Currently, Nicole is pursuing a PhD in Comparative Biomedical Sciences (Canine Nutrition/Metabolomics) at the prestigious University of Georgia in the USA.
Her background includes experience in the pharmaceutical industry on multiple R&D projects and has had the privilege to learn from leading figures in the human and pet health industries. Nicole has been heavily involved in police canine nutrition within the USA, helping to improve the modern care and feeding of working dogs. Her interests include working dog nutrition, raw feeding, pathogens, metabolomics, and nutrition’s relationship to disease in humans and canines. Her current research involves the exploration of the canine urinary metabolome and the relationship to diet.
Publications: Cammack, N.R., Yamka, R.M., and Adams, V.J. (2021). Low Number of Owner-Reported Suspected Transmission of Foodborne Pathogens From Raw Meat-Based Diets Fed to Dogs and/or Cats. Frontiers in Veterinary Science 8. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2021.741575.