In this vet spot, we discuss the important topic of choosing food for your pet. Watch the video to learn more, or read on below.
It’s often been said about humans that “you are what you eat”: the same general rule applies to pets. It’s easy to forget that living bodies are made of chemicals, and that those chemicals come directly from the substances that absorbed through digestive tracts. So the food that we introduce into our pets’ digestive tracts is the base substance from which our pets are made.
Animals that are fed on poor quality diets begin to demonstrate their poor nutrition in their appearance, with dull coats, sunken eyes and less energy. In severe cases, they can even suffer from diseases of malnutrition, with diseases like scurvy being seen in extreme cases.
Conversely, animals that are fed on the ideal nutrition can be living examples of the way that things should be: their coat has a shiny gloss, they have bright, sparkling eyes, and there’s a spring in their step.
So where do you start?
Whatever pets may want to eat, you have a duty to provide them with a balanced diet to ensure that they stay healthy.
You need to provide a combination of different nutrients in the correct quantities, and in the correct proportion to each other.
Constituents include protein, carbohydrate, fat, fibre, vitamins and minerals, and the correct amount of each needs to be included.
You can home cook, feed raw meat, or use different types of commercially produced pet food.
Home cooking for pets
It is possible to home-cook for your pets, but it’s not always easy to ensure that the food in the dish contains every necessary ingredient. But a recent survey found that over 95% of the home cook pet food recipes available on the internet provided nutrition that was not complete and balanced.
If you’re going to attempt this, you need to talk to your vet about your plans, and your vet may even recommend that you consult with a professional nutritionalist. In some instances, people have tried creating diets on their own, without consulting professionals, and they have made serious mistakes, such as feeding too much liver, or not enough minerals. Pets can suffer from serious illnesses as a consequence. For most people, it’s easier and safer to use commercially available pet food, and this is available in different formulations.
Raw meat and bones
The feeding of raw meat to pets appeals to many people: there seems to be something pure and natural about it that makes intuitive sense. If you imagine dogs and cats in their natural state, they’d obviously eat raw meat. And if you ever feed your pet raw meat, you see them hungrily tucking into it with enthusiasm.
Some dogs thrive on raw meat, but I have three reservations that people need to know about:
- Is it balanced? It is not enough to feed dogs on just meat: I have seen growing dogs suffer serious joint problems due to a deficiency of calcium. You need to ensure that if you feed raw, that a nutritionist has evaluated the total diet to ensure that it is complete.
- Is it safe? Commercial pet food (kibble and pre-cooked moist foods) are generally safe from bacterial contamination, because they are heated during preparation. Raw food is not heat treated, so any bacteria present in the meat can multiply, and can be passed on to humans and animals. This can lead to diseases being passed on to humans, and sometimes to pets too (TB has been seen in cats in the UK which have been on raw diets).
- Is it convenient: raw food tends to be pricier, and transport, storage and preparation is more complicated and time consuming.
Commercial pet food
There are many logical and historical reasons why pre-produced processed pet food has been so popular and successful over many decades
- It’s nutritionally complete
- It’s been proven by many feeding trials to be good for pets’ health
- It’s an economic way of mass producing pet food
- It’s safe for pets and people).
There is a great deal of confusion, especially online, about the idea that pet food has been “processed”: comparisons are made to ultra-processed human food like frozen pizzas, instant noodles, donuts etc. It’s important to realise that the only similarity between these products and pet food is the word “processed”: these are genuine “junk foods” which do not contain full nutrition at all. In contrast, commercial pet food is nutritionally balanced.
By definition, “complete” pet food (such as the Petfix Club brand) has been formulated to meet the precise requirements of pets, so you can be certain that it will provide the correct balance of nutrients in the right quantities to ensure that your pet enjoys all of the nutrients that their body needs.
Wet or dry pet food?
When it comes to commercially produced pet food, there are two main categories: wet ( or “moist”), in tins, sachets and foil containers, and dry (or “kibble”), sold in bags.
- Moist, or “wet” pet food, was traditionally the most popular type. This was originally only available in tins, but now is often sold in sachets or wrapped in plastic. Dogs often have mixer biscuits added to the wet food in their bowl, whereas cats are generally fed it on its own. Moist food tends to have a rich odour, and pets tend to find it more palatable, but it tends to be messier, more expensive and less convenient than dry food.
- Complete dry pet food is a more recent arrival on the pet food scene which has become increasingly popular over the past thirty years.
The food is sold in a wide range of product types that include pellets and shaped biscuits.
- Complete dry food is normally purchased in a paper or plastic bag.
- It tends to have a long shelf life, even when open, so it’s possible to purchase a large bag which lasts for a month or more.
- This type of food tends to be cheaper and more convenient than moist food.
- Obviously, the water content of dry food is very low at around 8% (compared to 75% water – nearly ten times as much – in a typical moist diet.) This means that it’s critically important to ensure that fresh water is continually available to pets on dry food: you’ll notice that your pet drinks far more than if a moist food is fed.
Which pet food brand is best for my pet?.
Pet food varies significantly in terms of both price and quality. As for most things in life, you tend to get what you pay for. The more you pay, the better the food is likely to be. This is not an absolute rule (there are other reasons for high prices), but is a useful general guide.
Pets that are fed on better diets (like the Petfix Club range):
- Look healthier – with a brighter eye and a glossier coat.
- Their internal systems are also likely to be healthier with higher quality nutrition.
It’s worth taking the time to read the label of a pet food container, to gain extra information about exactly what has gone into the food that you’re feeding your pet. Choose brands of food that list ingredients on the label that you can understand, rather than vague, catch-all terms. Look for ingredients like chicken meal, lamb meal, corn or maize are examples.
It’s better, generally, to avoid “catch all” terms such as the following:
a) Derivatives of vegetable origin is a vague term used to describe by-products of vegetable origin. This can include anything that has been derived from a vegetable, and so it could be used to hide unspecified ingredients that a manufacturer may not wish you to know about.
b) Meat and animal derivatives can describe any meat or animal by-product, without being specific about what it is – or even what species it comes from. This enables the manufacturer to change the protein source with every batch without changing the label. It may be handier and cheaper for the manufacturer to be able to do this, but it may not be ideal for your pet.
Choose a diet that has been designed for your particular pet:
- “Puppy food” is designed to help pups grow
- Adult diets are perfectly formulated for pets in their prime
- “Senior” diets contain nutrition specially tailored to older pets
These specialized diets are more likely to provide nutrition that suits your individual pet.
How much food to give?
Most pets prefer to be fed twice daily, and it’s very important to get the quantity of food right
Obesity is the most common nutrition-related disease seen in pets.
Use the instructions on the container as a guide to how much to give, but use common sense too.
Regular weighing of your pet is the best way to make sure you’re feeding the right amount. Most vet clinics have walk on scales that make it easy to do this, and there’s usually no charge for doing this.
Food allergy can present as skin disease or as gastrointestinal disturbance in dogs, but it is far rarer than most people think. When it does happen, the allergy is caused by a protein ingredient in the food. To stop the allergy, you need to stop feeding that specific protein.
Vets sell special low allergy diets with non-allergenic hydrolysed protein. These can be used to do a dietary trial to make a diagnosis of food allergy, as well as in some cases being used as a long term diet for a pet that is very allergic.
The typical scenario would be a dog with itchy skin disease that the vet thinks may be caused by an allergy to something in the diet. The vet would suggest putting the dog onto a trial diet with very few ingredients (e.g. mutton and rice). If the dog stops itching, then this confirms that the dog was allergic to something in the previous diet and it’s avoided in future. Other ingredients are gradually added to the mutton and rice, to work out precisely what was setting the allergy off. By a process of trial and error, the specific protein causing the allergy can often be tracked down, and avoided in future.
On the open market, there are many “hypoallergenic diets” available: these contain fewer ingredients – less allergens – than standard pet diets. The Petfix Club range is an example.
So feeding a so-called hypoallergenic diet may, in theory, expose your dog to fewer allergens than standard diets, but this is more theory than something that is going to make any individual dog less likely to be itchy.
“Grain free” is a trend based on a false belief that dogs can’t digest carbohydrates. We know from genetic studies that five thousand years ago, dogs evolved to produce amylase, the enzyme that digests starch and grains. Domestic dogs have always eaten scraps from the human table, including bread and rice. There is no scientific reason for them not to eat grain, and indeed, there have been some reports from the USA that some grain-free foods may even contribute to health issues, such as heart failure, either because of missing nutrients or because of extra ingredients in cereal-alternatives that may in some way interfere with cardiac health. Research is still underway on this topic.