Which pet foods are the healthiest and most Earth friendly?

Dear EarthTalk: Which pet foods are the healthiest and most Earth friendly? Can I feed my dogs and cats vegetarian?

—Carolyn Cacciotti, Bridgeport, CT

With consumer demand for organic food growing in leaps and bounds, it’s no wonder that pet owners are starting to think about what they are feeding to Fido and Scruffy as well.

A few brands stand out for their commitment to all-natural ingredients. Health conscious pet owners have looked to Breeder’s Choice for more than five decades. The company offers several all-natural lines of age-appropriate dog and cat foods. Other reputable producers, many with organic or hormone-free ingredients, include Honest Kitchen, Yarrah, Eagle Pack and Urban Carnivore, among many others.

Meanwhile, actor Paul Newman’s company, Newman’s Own Organics, known for providing people with organic salad dressings, pasta sauces and popcorn while donating all profits to charity, recently introduced a line of healthy pet foods with all profits going to support animal welfare causes. All of the company’s pet food varieties contain certified organic ingredients and avoid antibiotics, hormones, chemical ingredients, artificial preservatives, colors and additives.

As to turning your pet into a vegetarian, even though your values may dictate otherwise, putting your dog or cat on a vegetarian diet might not be the most responsible course of action. Both dogs and cats evolved eating meat, and both rely on it as nutritional staples in their diets.

While dogs are used to a more varied diet by nature, cats, as natural predators and true carnivores, thrive on meat, and will often seek it out the old-fashioned way—by hunting neighborhood birds and rodents. Cats require certain nutrients from meat that they can’t get from plant-based foods. Deficiencies of these nutrients can lead to blindness and even death. Meanwhile, dogs are omnivores and can survive on an otherwise varied diet without meat, but they do better when fed a regular source of animal protein.

Luckily, dog and cat owners whose vegetarian beliefs extend to their pets’ diets do have some options. Yarrah’s Organic Vegetarian Dog Food, for instance, contains whole wheat, soy, sunflower seeds, maize, yeast, sesame chips and minerals, and is recommended for overweight dogs. Meanwhile, Evolution Diet, available from petfoodshop.com, takes a wide range of healthy vegetarian dog and cat foods that contain nutritional supplements to keep otherwise carnivorous pets healthy without the meat.

The Animal Protection Institute offers a handy online set of guidelines for choosing healthy foods for your dog or cat. While these pet foods can be found at pet stores across the country, they are also starting to appear in health food stores like WholeFoods and Wild Oats.