Karl Malone begins his day with a breakfast of ashwagandha root, psyllium kernel powder, and psyllium husk. After he finishes his meal, he takes his joint supplement. He takes two brisk jogs daily and avoids eating out because his doctor suggested that he lose weight.
Karl Malone is a dog — an 11-year-old sandy-brown Australian shepherd mix.
Darshna Shah, Mr. Malone’s owner, believes that this wellness regimen — a blend of advice from friends, her veterinarian and pet newsletters, and nutritional remedies her family grew up with in India — has greatly improved her companion’s health.
Ms. Shah (64), a former insurance executive who lives in Cerritos. She used to believe that her pets would be fine if they were well housed and fed. She realized that wellness is becoming more important, especially among younger people. “Their quality of life depends on their health.”
As the rate of pet adoptions in the United States has skyrocketed in the pandemic — to nearly one million in 2021, a six-year high —pet owners are devoting considerable thought and money to what their dogs, cats, hamsters, goldfish and other domesticated animals eat.
For many owners, the answer is customizing their pets’ diets to match their own eating habits.
Pets can follow raw-food diets. Pets will eat treats made with CBD or turmeric latte, and they will also consume probiotics or vitamin C supplements. Some owners make their own special menus, while others go to the store to find the right products for their pets.
Oscar, a terrier/Chihuahua cross, lives in Brooklyn. He is vegetarian just like his owner Roopa Kalyanaraman Marello, 42. She is a public-health policy specialist and feeds him dog food that has been purchased at pet shops.
“He is part of our family,” Ms. Marcello said. “It would be weird to me if one of my kids started eating meat.”
Jennifer Donald suspects that the wheat-laden kibble she gave to Moses, her Labrador retriever, last year was responsible for his digestive problems.
Ms. Donald (52) has celiac disease. She does not eat gluten. She recently adopted the same diet for Moses, feeding him wild-caught salmon, sweet potatoes, boiled eggs, coconut oil and rice — the same ingredients she uses to make grain bowls for herself and her husband.
“It helped me to be more in tune with him, and it is helping me stay on track with my own illness,” said Ms. Donald, who teaches criminal justice at the University of Maryland.
There are no easy rules or guidelines on how to feed pets. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings about certain pet diets and regulates how pet foods are manufactured and labeled. However, it offers less specific guidance regarding the ingredients. Veterinarians may have different opinions and scientific research on pets is slower than that of humans. There is an abundance of information and advice on the internet. It’s primarily up to owners to decide whom to trust.
The American Kennel Club is a registry for dogs that offers online education and diet recommendations. All materials have been vetted by the chief veterinarian officer. So it dismays Brandi Hunter Munden, the organization’s vice president of communications, to see people turn to fad diets that she says can pose the same hazards for pets as for humans.
They can perpetuate generalizations about health, she said, promote regimens that aren’t backed by research and capitalize on people’s anxieties about not doing enough for their animals.
Jennifer Donald and Moses, her dog, follow a gluten-free diet.Credit…Jennifer Chase for The New York Times
The market for what the pet-food industry calls “nutritious pet food” — higher-priced products that claim to contain premium or nutritionally enhanced ingredients — is expected to reach $17.9 billion by 2026, according to a report last year by Pet Insight, an independent analytics company. Pet wellness has become a larger industry. This has led to a subset devoted to improving the diets of all domesticated animals.
Many Americans have begun to consider pet ownership a form of parenthood as the human birthrate has steadily declined in the United States.
“It is a flex to say, ‘My dog eats as well as a human,’” said Sean MacDonald, 30, a Toronto chef who prepares elaborate meals of primarily raw food for his chocolate Labrador, Hazelnut, on his TikTok account.
According to Ms. Hunter Munden of Kennel Club, the intense focus on pets’ diets is also linked to increased time spent at home with pets during the pandemic. This was when many people became more aware of their own health.
But imposing a new lifestyle on a loved one can become fraught when the beneficiary isn’t able to communicate — or make its own decisions, she said. “Dogs will eat anything you put in front of them, but it is not necessarily in their best interests.”
In 1999, the human and animal nutritionist Kymythy Schultze, 63, self-published a book on raw pet food called “The Ultimate Diet: Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats.” She had started feeding her pets that way after eliminating processed foodfrom her own diet to alleviate health problems. It is similar to the Paleo diet in that it teaches that people should eat as their Stone Age ancestors.
Many readers found her suggestions too extreme. Veterinarians, she said, told her that pets couldn’t survive on anything but canned or bagged food. “How did cats and dogs thrive for thousand and thousands of years?” said Ms. Schultze, who lives on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. “The stuff in bags and cans hasn’t been around very long.”
The book has sold thousands of copies. And raw feeding — which includes vegetables, animal proteins, bones and other uncooked ingredients — has gone from fringe to trendy, even though numerous authorities have warned gainst it.
The Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Veterinary Medical Association have all condemned the diet in recent years. They cited the possibility that some raw foods may be contaminated by harmful bacteria.
Wes Siler is a Bozeman, Mont. writer who claims that the diet Ms. Schultze recommended for Wiley, Bowie, Teddy’s health has been transformed. He has been feeding them raw chicken drumsticks and chicken liver for almost four years and claims that their skin irritations have disappeared. Mr. Siler, 41, considers kibble to be “poison to dogs,” he said — likening it to fast food, which he said he hasn’t eaten in 25 years.
Raw diets are controversial, he knows. “I have never ever gotten a single death threat from any of my anti-N.R.A. articles,” he said. “I probably get one death threat a week from people upset about my raw-feeding article.”
There are many ways to discuss pet diets online. Many owners post videos of their pets.
Luke Hagopian, 21, has 3.6 million TikTok followers who watch him carefully feed his 45 or so goldfish frozen bloodworms, boiled spinach and boiled cucumber — ideas he picked up from talking to other fish owners online, and from reading websites like wikiHow. He also fields questions about fish diets — even though, he admitted, he is not a medical expert.
Notions of expertise in the pet-health field are changing, and embedded in many owners’ interest in wellness is a growing distrust of veterinarians.
Ms. Schultze wrote the raw-diet cookbook. She said that pet food manufacturers heavily influence the profession by offering discounts to veterinarians and even owning their own veterinary hospitals.
When her veterinarian wasn’t supportive of a raw diet, Kayla Kowalski, a 21-year-old dog owner, switched to a holistic veterinarian who was. (Holistic veterinarians often combine Western medicine with practices such as acupuncture and homeopathy.
Haley Totes started adding fresh foods like bone broth, beef short ribs, green beans and kefir to her dogs’ diets after seeing a TikTok of someone listing the processed ingredients in pet food and reading about diets online. “Some vets are wary of raw, even homemade,” she said.
When people believe more in social media than doctors, veterinarians can become frustrated.
“Owners trust us enough to make recommendations about their pets’ health in areas of like, ‘Your pet has a mass we need to remove it and do a biopsy,’” saidDr. Marcus Dela Cruz, a veterinarian in San Luis Obispo, Calif. “But when we make recommendations about food, owners don’t feel the same way.”
Dr. Dela Cruz, 30, acknowledged that he receives a discount on pet food, but added, “I don’t recommend that company to every client.”
He stated that misinformation online about pet health is widespread and that animals are suffering from it. Raw meats can have antibiotic-resistant bacteria, while homemade meals can lack essential nutrients. Vegetarian diets are not recommended for cats, as they contain animal protein. But, they can be suitable for dogs.
What’s especially unsettling to Dr. Leah Reilly, a veterinarian in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, is the increasingly common messaging from pet food companies that pets should eat as people do. Petshave specific dietary needs that are different from those of humans, Dr. Reilly said, and can’t detoxify and digest certain foods, like onion and garlic, in the same way their owners can.
“It’s easy to make a big contrast between, look at this fresh food you have to keep in the fridge and it is just like your meal kits, versus this giant bag of excreted kibble,” said Dr. Reilly, 41.
For example, the pet food company Nom Nom Now, which was bought in December by the global food manufacturer Mars, markets its products as “human grade.”
“You have to anchor it in something people understand,” said Alex Jarrell, a founder of Nom Nom Now, whose packaged meals contain recognizable ingredients like brown rice, potatoes and carrots. “When I eat a salad, versus fast food, I do feel better and healthier, so translating that to my pet, of course it does make sense.”
For all the pet owners who believe they’ve found the key to improving their animals’ health with these diets, there are others who feel confused and frustrated by them.
Shom Mazumder, a 29-year-old New York City line cook, was shocked to discover that the adoption agency required him to feed Lambrusco a raw diet.
“I haven’t really seen any scientific studies show that this is better,” he said. But he’s making it work for now.
Yishian Yao, 30, who runs an animal care business in El Cerrito, Calif., said pet wellness culture can feel not only classist, as many owners can’t afford to buy their animals fresh food and supplements, but also manipulative.
The messaging is, she said, “if you don’t do this for the health of your pet, you are not as good a pet parent.”
She wondered if the popular belief that pets are like family has actually been detrimental to animals by “putting a human value lens on their food,” she said.
“It’s not that I don’t think pets should be treated and cared for like family,” she said. “It is when we equate them to being human when they are not. Is it really what’s best for them?”