Animal nutrition: how to choose the right pet food
There are a hundred ways to feed your pet, but not all of them are healthy.
And, with the huge range of pet food products on the market, as well as an ever expanding raft of opinions about animal nutrition, the simple task of feeding your furry friend is becoming ever more complex.
Unless you’re knowledgeable about pet nutrition, reading the ingredients on a bag of dry dog kibbles or tin of “wet” food might confuse more than enlighten, and if your dog or cat is overweight or suffering from a medical condition, choosing the right food can be even more of a hit and miss.
Veterinary experts often compare pets to humans, pointing out that if you feed your pet low-grade “junk food” full of carbohydrates and chemicals, you will get similar results as you would in humans. Their nutritional needs, like us, are proteins first, and vegetables second, although in different ratios, with protein being king.
Proteins are the building blocks of all animal nutrition. Before animals were domesticated, their biggest challenge in the wild was getting enough of it. However, while cats are carnivores, dogs are omnivores like humans, so proteins are not the only nutrient that they need.
Adult dogs need between 15 and 30 percent protein in their food, depending on their species and condition, but veterinarian nutritionist Dr Louis Boag at Royal Canin warns that it needs to be highly digestible (that is chicken and fish) as not all proteins are equal. “Protein digestibility ranges dramatically in pet food. Sometimes only 40 percent of the protein is digestible, meaning it gets excreted,” says Boag.
Chicken and lamb are highly digestible, and if they are listed as the first ingredient on the label, you can assume the food is of a good quality protein source, according to the authoritative Drs Foster and Smith website. “If the first ingredient is chicken by-product or other meat by-product (which are lower in digestibility), the food is an acceptable protein source. Poorly digestible sources include meat and bone meal,” it says.
In order of preference, raw or home-cooked food is widely regarded as the healthiest way to feed your dog or cat, and according to Isis Limor, partner at Paleopet, which sells tubs of frozen fresh pet food with raw ingredients including mince, bone and veggies, there is a growing demand for it.
“More and more pets have arthritis, joint or intestinal issues, and natural, raw food does wonders for them. The dog food is selling very well. We do a cat food, but cats are far more difficult to transition if they’ve grown used to eating kibbles or canned food,” she says.
Bought raw food can be prohibitive – a 1.5kg tub of Paleopet chicken-based dog food costs R60 – but if you have the time to cook, you can feed your pet unprocessed food more cheaply.
Well-known vet in Hillcrest in KwaZulu-Natal, Dr Mike Lowry, is vocally averse to commercialised pet food brands, and an ardent believer in fresh food for animals. “Give your dog pets’ mince, chicken necks, giblets and a small amount of liver. Bones must be good and hard. Pork bones are softer and cause trouble with obstruction if a large piece is swallowed. For veggies, give sweet potato, pumpkin, spinach and some carrots, which are easily cooked,” he advises.
If your dog is overweight, he recommends a Banting-type diet. “A dog’s digestive system is similar to ours. We have put plenty of animals on a regular Banting diet, with their owners cooking, and you can’t believe the change. Cut out carbohydrates, particularly for cats,” he says. Raw meat is also fine, he says, if the hygiene at the abattoir it came from is well regulated.
That said, most pet owners opt for commercialised pet food, canned or dry, or a mixture. Unfortunately, while supermarket brands are cheaper, they are inferior in nutritional quality to the premium brands like Hill’s, Royal Canin, Eukanuba and Iams.
Dr Paul van Dam, head of the SA Veterinary Association, says supermarket brands tend to contain more carbohydrates than is recommended, and also, due to the lesser quality of the ingredients, “there is less nutrient absorption”. “The consolation is that you use less food with the scientific-based brands, as most of the nutrients are absorbed, so it lasts longer,” he says.
Dr Maggie Wepener at Ridge Animal Hospital concurs. “The best products are the diet super premium brands, as they spend a lot of money doing the research and getting the nutrient formulations right,” she says.
If weight is an issue, it’s important to resist “treating” your pet with scraps, a habit practised by many pet owners. And remember, domesticated animals are far more sedentary these days, so daily walks are necessary.
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