Updated: Nov 4, 2022
When it comes to finding the healthiest and most well-rounded food for our pets on the market, one mantra is hard to escape: “Complete and Balanced.” Just about every pet food on the market makes this claim on their nutrient profile, so much so that the general concept of “complete and balanced'' has slowly started to lose its meaning. Is a healthy diet really just going down a list and ticking off nutrient quotas? This week, let’s look at what makes a meal truly complete and balanced, including which Red Dog Blue Kat meals meet that definition, which don’t, and why.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) defines a complete and balanced diet as a “product [that] contains all the nutrients required in the correct ratios.” This means that most kibble brands (and plenty of other pet food brands) match this definition with the precise measurement of nutrients your pet needs to survive, and no more. Doesn’t that sound utterly boring and unappetizing? Imagine someone gave you the protein shake of your nightmares, made from the exact amount of salt, magnesium, sugar, vitamin D, protein, fats, etc., and told you it was precisely what you needed to stay alive…would you be satisfied with that? Every day for the rest of your life?
We’re not saying nutrient standards aren’t important, but we would argue that a healthy and well-rounded diet should be more than meeting just the basic nutritional requirements. So what makes a diet truly “complete and balanced”?
EVERYDAY Raw Meals meet and exceed AAFCO’s requirements for Complete & Balanced in a single meal.
Complete Meals (Dog + Cat) meet and exceed AAFCO’s Complete & Balanced when fed in rotation.
The AAFCO Complete & Balanced guideline defines the basic nutrient requirements your pet needs to simply sustain their basic functions, not thrive in their optimal health.
Complete & Balanced guidelines are designed for dry food; the required nutrient values are based on synthetic nutrients, which differ significantly from whole food nutrients.
“Complete and Balanced” Starts With Diet Diversity
Human dietary diversity has been steadily declining over the last 50 years, with an even more dramatic downwards trend for our pets. The pet food industry has been working diligently for decades to convince pet parents that their pets only need the same food, day in and day out. After all, it’s so convenient and backed by science, right?
Thankfully, times are changing: as the science behind a healthy and diverse diet gains a foothold in the public conscience. People are starting to acknowledge that a “convenient” diet is not necessarily the healthiest option. Instead, the healthiest diets start with daily fresh foods to create balanced nutrition over time. This has been RDBK’s education goal from the beginning: to remind our fellow pet parent’s that our animal companions aren’t just livestock who get “feed” to get them to a certain weight quickly or to keep them adequately healthy in the short term. We give our pets real food with the intention of keeping them in peak health and happy for—hopefully—many years to come. With these principles in mind, we can focus on our pets’ long-term, overarching health—just like we would do for ourselves!
The importance of diet diversity for your pet starts in a place you might not expect: their gut. When you rotate through various foods, you’re not just providing your pet with a variety of macro and micronutrients—you’re cultivating a diverse gut microbiome that strengthens your pet’s overall digestive system. This allows your pet to process more nutrients more efficiently and increase their resistance to disease and gut upsets if, for example, they happen to go foraging while on a walk or encounter a new “food” that could potentially upset their stomach. The overall benefits of a diet filled with a variety of fresh foods aren’t just a healthy amount of gut bacteria, either: think back to the nightmare protein shake. Changing up your pet’s nutrient sources isn’t just nutritious, it’s enjoyable!
What Does It Mean To Go Beyond Complete & Balanced?
When we started Red Dog Blue Kat, we knew we could offer better, more nutritious food for our animal companions than what was currently on the market. We put our time, money, and resources into ingredient research to understand the latest science of animal nutrition—though we went about it a little differently than how AAFCO traditionally describes “complete and balanced.” We started by using formulas from the “Godfather of raw,” Steve Brown, an innovator, raw food leader, and strong advocate in North America, with recipes that focus on creating healthy, long-term balances of nutrition. Since then, we’ve spent over 20 years testing, reviewing, and continually improving our recipes to create food that goes beyond the bare minimum of nutrients as defined by AAFCO, because we believe our pets aren’t just meant to survive; they’re meant to thrive.
Our Meals Go Beyond Complete and Balanced By Following These Principles:
1. Whole Food Ingredients
Aristotle first said, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” and rarely is that ever as true as when it comes to food. Whole foods are absorbed, metabolized, and utilized differently than isolated or extracted vitamins and minerals. They’re also more satiating than processed foods and can help with weight loss! In addition, whole foods are packed with an assortment of micronutrients and antioxidants that can aid in so many things like heart health and reducing inflammation.
2. Variety and Rotation
AAFCO’s definition of a complete and balanced diet means pet food brands try to shove every single nutrient into a single meal. As we’ve discussed, while that might be convenient for you, the pet parent, it’s not what’s best for your furry best friend. Remember, your pet’s diet needs variety to introduce and promote a healthy diversity of gut bacteria! In addition, overfeeding a single protein can leave your pet vulnerable to developing food intolerances or allergies because their body can become sensitized after being exposed to the same thing over and over again. The best and easiest way to avoid these issues is by rotating through a diverse range of foods to achieve a complete and balanced diet via whole foods. According to Dr. Karen Becker, an internationally renowned veterinary advocate on species-appropriate nutrition, a complete and balanced diet requires:
Rotation between different species, as well as which parts of them your pet is consuming (ex. Muscle meats, organs, bones etc.)
Using a 5 and 5 rule, which consists of feeding 5 different species and 5 different organs in either a rotation or combination.
Choosing a variety of colourful vegetables! These serve as a valuable source of insoluble fibre that isn’t digested by your pet, but rather they feed your pet’s gut microbes and provide antioxidants and phytonutrients. They also provide GI support to pets who spend most of their time indoors and with a sedentary lifestyle, who are therefore not exposed to a diverse variety of good environmental bacteria that contribute to a healthy gut.
Note that Dr. Becker doesn’t say these variations all have to appear in a single meal! By rotating your pet’s meals, you include nutrients and minerals that we know are integral to optimal health but aren’t listed as essential by AAFCO standards. So feeding your pet a mixture of foods ensures your pet will be getting a variety of nutrients, antioxidants, phytonutrients, healthy fats, enzymes, and trace minerals—not just what they need to “survive” with the bare minimum of nutrition.
Keep in mind that rotating through a variety of meals isn’t something you can do once and call it a day—a healthy diet is an ongoing process of continual improvement! As you learn more, you’ll be able to continually adjust and improve your feeding system, so be patient as you settle into a routine! And don’t worry; before you know it, it’ll feel like second nature, as nature intended.
The Formulation Of Red Dog Blue Kat Meal Lines
While we stand by our recipes, we’re firm believers in the practice of feeding the pet in front of you. We know every pet is different, and not all pets will thrive with the same diet. That’s why we’ve created our two dog lines and a cat line that come in an assortment of different proteins, so there’s an option for every pet’s particular needs and tastes!
EVERYDAY RAW™ Dog Meals
Meets and exceeds AAFCO Complete & Balanced in single meal. ** Fed in rotation still recommended
While we may disagree that the literal and specific requirements of an AAFCO diet are the be-all-end-all of peak pet nutrition, we can’t deny that it’s a great starting point. That’s why our Everyday Meals for dogs are formulated not only to meet but to exceed AAFCO nutrient standards by combining multiple protein sources. We also include whole food supplements in this line like black soldier fly larvae for their high levels of manganese and calcium! While these meals are excellent for helping get a variety of proteins into one meal, we still recommend rotating this line in order to reach the 5 and 5 rule of optimal nutrition. This is especially important for puppies and lactating dogs, who have more demanding and diverse nutrient requirements. They may even require additional individualized supplements as well to support their ongoing growth!
Foundations Raw Meals (Dogs + Cats)
Meets and exceeds AAFCO Complete & Balanced when fed in rotation.
On the other hand, our Foundations Meals need to be rotated in order to achieve a truly complete and balanced diet. This is a line that is perfect for dogs or cats with food allergies, a particular distaste for certain proteins, or for parents who want to have more input on what foods and supplements they give their pets. Each meal includes meat, bones, and organs from the same species—with the exception of our kangaroo and venison meals, which contain lamb organs instead.
That all said, the multitude of supplement options can seem overwhelming for some pet parents, who may be compelled to stay away from a limited ingredient raw diet for this reason. But by rotating through different proteins with unique nutritional profiles and benefits, it’s possible—though not necessarily ideal—to meet and exceed AAFCO standards without supplementation. We know this is true because our Foundations Raw line of protein options undergo a combination of software and lab analysis to get each formula as close to AAFCO standards as possible when fed on their own. Once we understand the full scope of micronutrients available in each protein, we use studies on nutritional requirements for both cats and dogs to determine the amount of rotation and varieties of red meat, poultry, and fish meals required to go beyond AAFCO standards. This isn’t to say you need to know all these specifics yourself—we’ve done the research for you!
Here are some examples of complete and balanced weekly rotations:
3 x Chicken Complete, 2 x Beef Complete, 2 x Salmon Complete
3 x Turkey Complete, 2 x Kangaroo Complete, 2 x Herring
3 x Chicken Complete, 2 x Beef Complete, 2x Venison Complete
3 x Turkey Complete, 2 x Kangaroo Complete, 2 x Lamb Complete
Why Not Add Synthetic Supplements?
Rotating proteins can already feel like a big ask for some pet parents, and recommending whole food supplements can seem like it’s adding to the perceived complexity of a raw diet. So why don’t we add synthetic supplements to our recipes to round out the remaining nutritional standards?
It’s because using synthetic supplements isn’t as simple as it first seems. As we said at the beginning of this article, whole foods are complex and metabolize differently than synthetic vitamin and mineral supplements; even when synthetics seem like a convenient method to tick off nutritional requirements, they’re not equivalent to a healthy, balanced diet. Part of the convenience of synthetic supplements is that because they’re so concentrated, you don’t need to add much.
The flip side of that argument is that it’s easy to add too much—and an excess of some of these synthetic supplements can be dangerous. For example, too much synthetic calcium can cause a calcification build-up in your pet’s arteries and damage their heart; excess synthetic vitamin D can cause kidney failure. Your pet can get exactly as much as they need of these supplements from a meaty bone (calcium) or an egg (vitamin D). As if it needs to get worse, some synthetics can trigger allergic reactions or intolerances from their specific chemical combinations—which is somewhat counterproductive for pets suffering from allergies. In these instances, it becomes obvious that messing with what nature naturally provides in the proper ratios for the sake of convenience can actually set your pet’s health journey back a few steps.
Aren’t All Commercial Raw Diets Complete & Balanced?
At this point, you might be tempted to look at other commercial raw diets that claim to meet AAFCO standards consistently in a single meal with fresh food ingredients—but again, it’s just not that simple. The nutrients in whole food ingredients aren’t set in stone: everyone’s had fresh produce that seems to change in quality from batch to batch, and pet food is no different. For example, while lamb liver is usually higher in vitamins and minerals than other organ meats, the specific nutrient content in a single lamb liver depends on where the lamb was raised, what it was fed, and even the time of year.
It can get even trickier with bones—not all bones are equal! A recipe with 10% of chicken frames will have significantly different nutritional values than a recipe with 10% beef joint bones, and not all labs are proficient in extracting precise nutrient levels from whole food ingredients, particularly bones (as people don’t generally eat bones). This means the margin for error in vitamins and minerals can be as high as 25%! If anything, this is just another reason to make rotating your pet’s diet a priority; that way, you’re not basing your pet’s health on a single protein or formula.
Creating a “Complete and Balanced” Diet Is A Balancing Act
The bottom line here is that you don’t need to focus on giving your pet their exact nutrient quota in every meal, every day. After all, we don’t eat with a calculator and scale in hand, analyzing every bite—so why not allow our pets the same flexibility? Instead, try to focus on creating a balance of nutrients over several meals.
If you’re ready to feed your pet a “truly” complete and balanced diet with the nutrients they need to live their best, fullest life and not just the bare minimum of nutrients defined by AAFCO, then RDBK meals are a great choice for you! It might seem like a little more work at first, but we’re confident you’ll see the difference in your pet’s health and quality of life—and in the end, that’s all any pet parent wants.