Once and For All: Is “Human Food” Bad For Pets?

Pet care & safety

If you think about it, “human food” is an odd term. I mean, how is it we’ve come to call anything we give our household animal companions “pet food”… while everything else is ours? As if we held dominion over the foodstuffs on earth.

Well… to some extent I guess that’s true. After all, without us there would be no agriculture. So yes, all those grains, veggies, fruits, and other grown things could arguably be called “human food.” Yet a meat source, a tuber, a grain, a fruit –– these are neither inherently designed for, nor dedicated to human consumption alone.

Which is probably why the concept of "human food" has a way of annoying me. Perhaps nowhere is this more the case than when it comes to my everyday life in the veterinary exam room.

It happens mostly when I’ve asked about a pet’s diet. It’s here when many of my clients will congratulate themselves on their adherence to a "no people food" regimen. As in, “Oh NO, Doc. We would never even think of giving Snickerdoodle here anything but bona fide dog food.”

It’s kind of a strange sentiment seeing as animal feed is arguably the most highly-processed fare on the planet and, yet, plenty of my most responsible clients consider feeding anything else potentially tantamount to animal abuse.

Seems somewhere along the way my veterinary predecessors taught the average pet owner to eschew anything for their pets but the stuff that comes in a bag or can. Which makes sense if you’re trying hard to get people to feed their pets a balanced diet and you want to be sure they don’t feed anything that’s potentially toxic (like grapes and raisins, macadamia nuts, onions and garlic, etc.).

Yet this safety-based recommendation stops making sense when you consider the following:

#1 The Pupperoni-plumped Puggle owner - “Carrots? Apple slices? But they’re people food!

#2 The security-minded or liability-fearing veterinarian - “What if I recommend a non-commercial diet and my patient gets sick? I prefer to stick to foods that are designed by a specialized crew of company nutritionists.”

#3 Pet food manufacturer X - “We are voluntarily recalling this diet. But we don’t recommend that people take drastic measures and cook for their pets. Feeding a balanced diet is an exact science and we don’t recommend you try it at home.”

In other words, when the divide between the terms "pet food" and "human food" becomes a solid wall across which veterinarians, pet food manufacturers, and pet owners can no longer communicate freely, I start thinking I don’t like the terms.

After all, it doesn’t take a doctorate in nutrition to feed ourselves, so why should it be so hard to provide food for our pets –– whether as a supplement to their diet or as a wholly home-cooked alternative?

As long as pet owners have their pets' well-being in mind, research their choices, talk to their veterinarian, take precautions against gastrointestinal side effects, and are mindful of the need to provide a nutritionally complete diet, where's the harm?

In fact, I’m rather more concerned when owners come to rely too completely on manufactured pet foods. That’s because the life-in-a-bag philosophy often leads to a dearth in creative thinking –– an attribute I dearly need when dealing with pets whose nutrition-based or nutritionally manageable diseases often require serious “human food”-based creativity on an owner’s part.