This week on Ireland AM, we discussed the best way to feed pets. Feeding your pet properly is one of the most important aspects of good pet care, and it’s one of the most contentious.
There are many different types of pet food available, from a variety of sources, and it can be very confusing. There are many “right” ways to feed a pet, not just “one true way”, but it’s common for people to find a way that works for their pet, and to believe that this is the best way for every animal: this is not necessarily so. I believe that this is the reason why people sometimes become almost fanatically passionate about certain ways of feeding pets (such as “raw meat and bones”)
There are broadly three ways to feed a pet animal.
‘Human’ food or home prepared.
Some people choose to feed their pet on scraps from the table, on specially prepared ‘human’ type meals or on “raw” meat and bones. This method of feeding may be fine as long as the resulting diet is balanced, with the correct combination of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. It can be difficult to ensure that the best balance is attained, which is why most people choose to feed their pet on commercial pet foods which have been custom-made to provide all of the necessary nutrients.
Commercially prepared food
Pet food manufacturers are bound by law to produce food that is nutritionally balanced for pets. The type of ingredients used vary, and while the raw ingredients may not look appealing to humans, the final product is carefully designed to appeal to humans as well as pets.
Moist pet food
Tinned pet food is the traditional way to feed dogs and cats: in recent years, packaging has improved so that sachets and cartons are now also available.
- A cat may be fed on tinned food (such as ‘Whiskas’ ) with perhaps a scattering of dry biscuits.
- A dog may be fed on tinned food (such as ‘Pedigree Chum’) combined in the bowl with dry mixer biscuits.
Whilst this traditional way of feeding animals is perfectly adequate, it is not necessarily the best quality, most convenient or most economical diet.
Complete dried pet food
High quality complete dry biscuits have been increasingly used to feed pets over the past 20 years. These are effectively a combination of meat and biscuit rolled into one. In the past, ‘muesli’ type dry diets were very popular, but technology has enabled the production of so-called ‘extruded’ biscuits, which are meaty looking pellets of various sizes.
These modern dry foods are popular for a number of reasons, including convenience and economy. A wide range of products is available, with considerable differences in price and quality. A good quality dry food can be the best way to feed most pets.
Comparison of the three types of feeding
Home-prepared or “raw meat” diets
- Most palatable
- Need to be sure that it is properly balanced
- Raw meat diets inconvenient – need to buy frequently and keep in fridge
- Some studies have shown incidence of salmonella risk to vulnerable humans
- Probably better to limit “home prepared” to 10% of total diet
- 80% water
- Relatively expensive
- Inconvenient – heavy tins/containers, need to buy every week, and can be unpleasant having open containers in fridge
- Tends to be tastier/stronger smell than dry food, so pets often prefer it
Complete Dried Food
- 5 – 12% water
- Price depends on quality, but generally cheaper than moist food
- Convenient – buy a big bag once a month. Keeps fresh for a long time if stored in a cool dry place
- Palatability depends on price – cheaper dry foods less attractive to pets than more expensive, better quality products
- Dry biscuits can be good for dental health – chewing helps to keep teeth and gums healthy, but replacing a portion of the daily meal with a custom-designed dental chew stick is more effective
Controversies and conclusions
The latest fad in pet nutrition is “raw feeding”, using raw meat, raw bones and raw herbage. Proponents claim that is a “natural” diet that allows dogs to achieve optimum health and longevity. These claims are not backed up by data.
Last year, a team of Swedish researchers compared the genomes of wolves and dogs and found that a big difference is dogs’ ability to easily digest starch. At the time that dogs became close companions to humans, they adapted to be able to digest wheat, rice, barley, corn and potatoes. There is plenty of evidence that dogs thrive, and live long healthy lives being fed on complete dry or moist food produced by commercial pet food manufacturers.
Many manufacturers of expensive dried foods also maintain that their products are made of better quality ingredients that are therefore better for dogs. And many vet clinics stock ranges of dried pet foods that are often more expensive than grocery products. Are these foods better for pets?
Every pet is individual and has different nutritional needs. You should choose a diet that is balanced and that your pet enjoys eating. If the diet suits your pet, they will thrive with a shiny coat, bright eyes, and good health.
My experience is that if the cheapest foods, with the lowest quality ingredients, are fed, pets tend to have dry, unkempt coats, with dull eyes and they are obviously not thriving. If such pets are changed to a high quality, more expensive diet, their condition will often improve – not at once, but after around 6 – 8 weeks which is the length of time that it takes for nutrition to have a visible external effect.
Additionally, more expensive dried foods, with high quality ingredients, tend to be more digestible, with less indigestible bulk, so that animals produce less faeces every day (which means you have to pick up less when out on walks).