As pet parents, we're the ones responsible for meeting our pets' basic needs. Yes, this includes meeting their cuddle and love needs, but it also includes their more concrete and fundamental needs—like for shelter, water, and food. The first two of those are pretty simple: Water is water and shelter is, in most cases, just the same safe-from-the-elements place we call home ourselves. But food? Now, that can become a little more complicated.
How to nourish your pet's body is a big decision—probably one of the biggest you'll make as a pet owner. Here's the good news, though: No matter what you choose, meal time will pretty much always make your pet do a happy dance.
When it comes to feeding your pet, there are so many options available, each with their own unique pros and cons. Here's everything you need to know about the three most popular ways to meet your pup's nutritional needs.
Option 1: Traditional dry or wet pet food
This is by far the most common and most well-known of the options. In fact, when you think of feeding a dog or a cat, your thoughts probably immediately turn to a giant bag of kibble or a can of wet, meaty dog food (possibly pouring in slow motion into the bowl, per every pet food commercial ever) or little packed cakes of fishy cat food.
When it comes to convenience, nothing beats the traditional approach to feeding your pet. It comes ready-made, it's easy to store, and it's easy to take with you if you travel with your pet. Plus, you can buy in bulk and eliminate the need to constantly pick up or order new food (most dry food has a shelf life of a year if stored properly and not opened, while most canned foods are good for two years after the date they're manufactured).
Another benefit of the traditional method of feeding your dog or cat is the price tag—in general, this will be the cheapest option for feeding your pet. For the purposes of breaking down cost, we'll focus on dog foods. Dry dog food averages $1-2 per pound and canned dog foods range from $1-3 per can on average (premium dry and wet foods can cost more than this, of course). This means, if your dog is eating two cans of food a day, you're looking at an average cost of $4 per day to feed wet food. A medium-sized dog will eat about 2 cups of dry food per day, which will run you an average of $1 per day (a pound of dry dog food roughly translates to four cups). Again, this is all assuming that you buy midrange dry or canned food for your dog—premium brands will cost more.
So where's the downside of traditional dry and wet pet food? It comes down to things like freshness, quality, and nutrition. For dogs, at least, cheaper brands of dry food are more likely to contain carbohydrates as filler—this isn't necessarily bad for dogs (unless they have grain allergies), but it's also not adding anything nutritionally for them, since dogs don't actually need carbs in their diet at all, according to findings from the National Research Council. Traditional dry and wet foods also loses points for freshness, which consumers are prioritizing in both pet and human food (more on why freshness is so important in pet food below). Additionally, the reason that dry kibble bags and canned wet food can sit at room temperature for a year or more is because they have added preservatives to increase shelf-life, which some pet owners view as a negative.
Option 2: Home-cooked pet food
An increasingly popular option among health-conscious pet owners is to extend their pets' status as members of the family to the kitchen and cook meals for them at home. There are clear benefits to cooking for your pet, the most obvious of which is that it gives you total control over what goes into their body. This can be vital for dogs and cats with a long list of dietary restrictions, but it can also provide peace of mind for any pet owner who wants absolute certainty about the nutritional content of their pet's food.
Homemade meals are also incredibly fresh, obviously, and fresh food is increasingly being studied as a way to help pets live longer, healthier lives.
In an article about the benefits of fresh dog food, Bark Magazine cited a 2005 study from researchers at Purdue University that showed that just adding fresh vegetables to a dog's kibble could help prevent and decelerate cancer cell growth by 70 to 90 percent.
While the pros for home-cooked meals are obvious, so are the cons. The first and most glaring of which is the time commitment; cooking food for your dog or cat from scratch takes a lot of time. It's not just the time that goes into preparing the actual meal, either—cooking for your pet at home means learning a lot about animal nutrition, crafting a meal plan that meets all of the pet's nutritional needs, and adding supplements safely (in exactly the right quantities) when needed to round out that balance. For example, people who want to start cooking for their dogs will often default to chicken & rice, but a long-term diet of only these foods will lack critical fiber and omega-3, among other key nutrients.
"It can be done, it just takes a lot of dedication, a lot of work, and for some pets and some ingredients, quite a bit of expense," pet nutritionist Cailin Heinze, VMD told the pet experts at WebMD about striking the right nutritional balance with homemade food.
The work can be well worth it though—one study showed that dogs fed homemade food lived about 2.5 years longer than dogs fed traditional canned food.
Homemade pet food can also be pricey. According to the Daily Puppy, the standard ratio for dog food recipes is three-fifths meat, one-fifth grain, and one-fifth vegetable. Budgeting platform Mint estimates the cost of homemade meals for a 30-pound dog at $3.52 per day—or $5.58 if you decide to use organic ingredients. Of course, there are ways to minimize these costs, like by cooking for yourself using ingredients that will also work for your dog's meal (or even making pet-friendly meals for yourself and eating the same thing as your dog).
If you're considering going the homemade route, you should definitely talk to your vet about your pet's nutritional needs (which could vary, depending on their personal health issues) and make sure that you're armed with all of the knowledge you need for your new side hustle as a pet chef.
Option 3: Fresh, refrigerated commercial pet food
Somewhere in the middle of traditional and homemade pet food lies a relatively new choice: fresh, refrigerated pet food. This option, being made popular by companies like Freshpet, is growing in popularity, especially among health-conscious pet parents who want their animals to eat fresh and healthy food like they do, but who don't necessarily have the time to devote to making those meals from scratch.
And, if you're a pet parent who is strapped for time, it doesn't get much easier or more convenient than these fresh, refrigerated options, which involve zero prep and minimal cleanup. Freshpet, in particular, is made from recipes designed by veterinary nutritionists and made from real, U.S.-raised meat and vegetables (which they guarantee are steam-cooked to lock in essential vitamins and nutrients for your beloved furbaby). This makes refrigerated, fresh food options a great choice for pet owners who want the nutrition benefits of homemade food, but don't have the time or energy to give up the convenience of store-bought pet food.
This all sounds great, right? But are there reasons not to go this route? The potential barriers to switching to refrigerated fresh food options like Freshpet are price and availability (although it's now available on Amazon and at nearly 20,000 retail locations nationwide, making this less and less of an issue for most consumers).
That leaves cost. Are refrigerated pet foods like Freshpet way too expensive for the average person? The answer is...not really.
When it comes to cost, these foods, which comes in rolls, bags of food, and stews, can definitely be on the more expensive end of the scale, ranging from about $2.50 to $5 per pound, but the real measure of cost is in the price per meal, and from that standpoint, products like Freshpet aren't prohibitively expensive for pet owners who are already investing in high-quality pet food.
For the sake of price comparison, we looked at Freshpet's recommended serving sizes for a medium-sized dog. The company recommends feeding a 30-lb dog between half a pound and one pound daily of its chunky beef slice and serve roll. The roll is one of the company's cheaper offerings, costing an average of $2.50 per pound on Amazon. This would mean that feeding a 30-lb dog on Freshpet rolls would cost about $1.25 to $2.50 per day, making the option more expensive than many traditional dry foods, but similarly priced to or cheaper than traditional wet foods or homemade pet food.
"Fresh diets for dogs have a variety of benefits," Dr. Justin Shmalberg, DVM, board certified veterinary nutritionist and clinical associate professor at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine told Bark Magazine. "It's nutrition you can see. Going forward, we all need to be looking for ways to provide fresh diets to our pets."
So what makes fresh food the best food? According to vets, it has to do with how pets' bodies are able to absorb and use the nutrients from the food they're eating.
"Fresh foods are indeed more bioavailable than those made with highly processed ingredients," Dr. Catherine Lane, DMV told Bark.
"Bioavailability" is a fancy way of saying the amount of the nutrients that enters the bloodstream and actually have an active effect on the body. What this means is that processed and preserved foods might contain the same base levels of nutrients as their fresh counterparts, but the way they're processed renders some of those nutrients unable to enter the bloodstream and go to work for the body in the way fresh versions do.
The pet food industry, in general, is moving toward introducing more fresh food into our pets' diets, so pet parents who choose fresh, refrigerated foods are already getting ahead of the curve.
At the end of the day, the way you choose to feed your pet is a personal decision, based on a range of factors from budget constraints, to free time, to your pet's specific nutritional needs. Talk to your vet about the nutrients that are most important for your dog and look for foods that meet those needs in the best way possible while still fitting with your lifestyle and budget. In general, of course, you'll find the most nutrients and health benefits in premium and fresh foods.