BY Conor Tomalty & Oliver Eng

Sara Clark is a dog owner from Montreal. She feeds peanut butter as a treat to her pets, but had to change her ways when she heard about the dangers it actually poses.

“I avoid peanut butter that says ‘sugar alcohol’ or ‘xylitol,’” she says. Clark is among many owners scouring the internet looking for what is appropriate to feed their pets.

Dog eats from his food bowl in a suburban home

Dog eats from his food bowl in a suburban home. Photo by Conor Tomalty.

Ashley Bridges is a certified veterinarian technician at the Pierrefonds Animal Hospital specializing in nutrition training. For the past five years, Bridges has worked on numerous cases for clients involving nutrition, ranging from nutrition consults to weight loss and dietary programs.

Bridges warns owners to stay away from trends and internet articles that go against kibble and canned foods.

“Animals are very lucky in that everything they require—from the macronutrients to the micronutrients—are all in the diet without having to supplement like humans,” she says.

Bridges points out the misconception among owners who compare their pets’ dietary needs to those of humans. While humans can suffer deficiencies due to a poor diet, this isn’t always the case for animals.

“In reality, if you choose the right brand of food, it’s a one-and-done,” she says.

Bridges looks for products that follow guidelines from The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). It has set ingredient definitions, labels and laboratory standards for more than 110 years.

Shelves of dried raw dog food inside locally owned pet shop

Shelves of dried raw dog food inside locally owned pet shop. Photo by Conor Tomalty.

“You want to go for a brand that has scientific backup and scientific research,” she says. Bridges added that eye-catching slogans should not be what owners go towards.

“For instance, Royal Canine and Purina are all name-brands that I recommend,” Bridges said. “Those brands are not only backed up by scientific research, but in each of their facilities they have a veterinary staff on site that are continuously performing case studies.”

Dog food brands that are smaller-scale typically pose a greater risk, according to Bridges. She says this is because “unfortunately, in the veterinary world, everybody and anybody can produce a line of food.”

Leah McIntosh is the manager at Yazoo Pet Supplies in Pointe-Claire, Que. While she is aware of the AAFCO and does sell food brands that carry the seal, she recommends Canadian food brands over most.

“It depends on the dog itself, for what I’d recommend,” says McIntosh. For basic needs, her go-to selections are Go, Nutram, and Canadian Naturals—all Canadian brands.

Pet shop workers make suggestions based on their own experiences, according to Sonia Lacombe, assistant manager at Nature Pet Supply in Westmount.

“My animals have always been eating [Nutrience]. They’ve never had any issues with it. It’s a Canadian company,” she says.

Paws And Play: Keeping Your Dogs Active During Wintertime. Video by Oliver Eng.

Vicky Brunet is the owner of Boutique Pattes D’Amour. She says her supply ranges from mid to high-end quality.

Brunet believes in serving raw food to pets, and the prices tend to be higher due to the natural ingredients. She serves raw food brands to her pets, but admits to having kibble on hand because raw food “isn’t always the most convenient option.”

“Imagine like a hamburger patty for humans,” says Brunet. “[Raw food brands] are not all in patty form, but most of them are. It has all the organs and the bones that are ground up together for the diet, but it’s raw instead of cooked and processed.”

Natalie Gore is a co-owner of Bailey Blu, a pet store that specializes in raw food based in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Que.

“I think on the whole, there’s an issue with the pet food industry. It’s a very poorly regulated industry,” Gore says. Her outlook is that dogs are carnivorous and therefore need a diet that is rich in animal protein.

Bridges, however, is not a fan of serving raw food to your pets. Raw food is a selling point that many clients justify for why they selected that brand. Bridges says that raw food is a “big debate right now.

“When companies make food…a lot of the time they go back to, ‘well, what did the wolves eat?’ and ‘my dog is a descendant of wolves, therefore if a wolf eats this then my dog can eat this,’” she says.

Bridges differentiates the care needed for domesticated animals versus their ancestors.

“If you take a chihuahua and you take a wolf, genetically you will find maybe one similarity because they are both in the canine family,” says Bridges. “But does your little chihuahua…really need the same requirements as a wild animal? And the answer will always be no.”

This is applicable to larger breed dogs, such as huskies, malamutes, and German shepherds, she explains.

“With a wolf, their lifespan in the wild will never be anywhere close to what modern medicine has done for our domesticated animals. Our animals are living far longer.”

Dogs in a dog park

An owner looks at a dog who is fascinated by his surroundings. Photo by Alice Martin.

Veterinary check-ups, living indoors, and advancements in collective pet health knowledge have aided in this category.

Affordability tends to be a prominent obstacle for pet owners to overcome. In February 2023, Rover, a Seattle-based online pet marketplace, surveyed over 700 pet owners. They found that pet food costs vary by breed and can range from $215 to $1,340 annually.

While the first instinct for many pet owners may be to consult a pet shop worker, Bridges advises new owners, or owners with animals living with a health condition, to speak with a veterinarian.

“What pet shop owners and pet shop workers will do is sell a product either from their preference or from a company,” says Bridges. “Workers are told by salespeople from food companies as to what to say. Also, the emphasis on protein—not just all nutrition—is what makes workers want to sell the product because they believe in what they are told by the company just as much as their clients.”

“There’s really no conversation you can have with vets, I think,” Gore says. “We (pet store workers and vets) are so far apart in our views of nutrition. [Vets] get their nutritional training from the companies that make Royal Canine, Pills. It would be like a nutritionist getting their training from Ronald McDonald.”

Clark still feeds peanut butter to her dogs but is weary about certain brands and “sugar-free” options. “It’s all confusing still,” she says.

Main image by Conor Tomalty.
Published April 11, 2024.