Good nutrition is important to improve both the quality and quantity of our pets’ lives. Proper nutrition can help prevent diet associated diseases like obesity and assist in management of other diseases such as chronic kidney disease. While most people agree that it is important to feed our pets well trying to decided which foods to offer can be confusing and frustrating. It is important to feed your pet based on their lifestage, activity level and overall health. The types of ingredients used and how a food is manufactured are also important to know when picking a diet. Pet food labels can be deceiving and having an understanding of what the information on a label means can make picking a good quality food easier too.
The lifestage of our companion animals is typically broken down into three basic categories. Growth is the puppy/kitten stage and is usually up to 1 year of age. The adult stage is between 1 to 7 years of age in cats and most dogs. Cats and dogs over 7 years of age are considered seniors. Large breed dogs are typically considered in the adult stage between 1 to 5 years of age and seniors over 5 years. Due to the high-energy requirements of puppy and kittens, growth diets are higher in calories, fat and protein. For large breed puppies, nutrition with less calcium and fat is important to help reduce bone and joint abnormalities. Adult pets need less protein and fat and a balance of vitamins and minerals to help them stay healthier longer. Our senior pets often need increased amounts of fiber and lower levels of phosphorus and sodium to help maintain gastrointestinal, kidney and heart health. Due to the uniqueness of cats the amino acid taurine should be added to all stages of their foods. Since the requirements are different as your pet ages it is important to select a diet for each lifestage and avoid a single diet labeled for “all lifestages.” Fresh water should also always be available to your pet.
Nutrients are the structural components that provide the energy needed for our pets to live such as protein, fat and carbohydrates. The ingredients used to make pet foods are what supply the proper nutrients and make them desirable for our pets to eat. A balance of quality ingredients is needed to deliver the right amount of nutrients for our pets’ health. No single ingredient makes a food better or worse. Corn is a common ingredient in many high quality pet foods that unfortunately has many misconceptions associated with it. Corn is used to deliver several important nutrients including protein, carbohydrates and fatty acids. Grains need to be cooked to make them digestible. Once corn is ground and cooked it becomes highly digestible and the nutrients easily absorbed. The protein in corn is more digestible than rice and wheat. Many pet owners are concerned that corn, and grains in general, are going to cause allergic food reactions in their dogs and cats. Corn is not a common cause of food allergies in dogs and cats. Most food allergies in dogs are caused by beef, dairy products and wheat and in cats are caused by beef, dairy products and fish.
On the pet food label, the ingredients are listed in descending order by weight and not by the amount of nutrients in the food. In addition, the guaranteed analysis only looks at minimums and maximums amounts of nutrients not the types of nutrients used. Looking at the actual nutrient content of a food, such as the type of protein source used, is a better way of evaluating it. Nutritional adequacy of a food can be determined by a formula or by a feeding trial. Feeding trials look at how the food will perform as the sole source of nutrition in actual cats and dogs. Companies such as Hills and Purina use the gold standard of feeding trials when making their diets.
Many pet owners feel that making their own diet may be a better alternative, after all what better way to ensure exactly what is going into their pet’s body! Unfortunately, studies have shown that up to 90% of homemade diets are nutritionally unbalanced and incomplete for pets. Dogs and cats have different nutritional requirements from humans and often homemade diets have improper levels of nutrient. Many diets contain incorrect calcium and phosphorus ratios that can be dangerous to pets. If you are interested in making a homemade diet talk with your veterinarian first. There are several sources available to help you to make a nutritionally balanced diet that your veterinarian can suggest.
Lastly a word about raw diets. I never recommend feeding raw diets to cats and dogs. There is no scientific data to support the usage of raw diets. Using raw diets exposes both pets and pet owners to the risk of food poisoning and bacterial contamination. Studies have shown high levels of dangerous bacteria like salmonella and E. coli in raw diets. In addition, the BARF formula uses meaty bones which can put pets at increased risk for intestinal obstruction, fractured teeth and gastrointestinal perforation.
Whether you are feeding a new puppy/kitten or looking for a good quality diet for your adult pet your veterinarian can be an excellent source of information. Talk with your veterinarian to decide the best diet to meet your pet’s needs and help give your best friend a long, healthy and happy life with you!
Dr. Rudd is an Associate Veterinarian at the Crofton Veterinary Center in Crofton, Maryland. She graduated from Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2000.
She is also a full time mother to 9 year old son Joseph and 7 year old daughter Bryn and has been married to her wonderful husband Joe for almost 14 years!