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Posted July 25th, 2012 under Austin Pet Sitting

The Skinny on Pet Food

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The Skinny on Pet Food

While working at the vet’s office, the question I’m asked more than any other is “what food is best for my pet”? First of all, if you are even asking this question, it shows that you have your pet’s best interest in mind. Unfortunately, with all of the marketing gimmicks, and lack of regulation in the pet food industry, it’s very difficult to know what foods are truly healthy or just expensively claim to be. There are a few interesting tips I’ve picked up over the years that I hope will prove helpful when choosing a long term diet for your cat or dog.

The first thing to look at when choosing a food is exactly what the food manufacturers want you to look at, the bag or can. Wording is everything when deciding whether a food is what it claims to be. The only information that is legally required to be on a pet food container is the minimum percentage of crude protein, and crude fat, and the maximum percentage of crude fiber and moisture. The actual ingredients have almost nothing to do with the percentage requirements; a leather boot, some charcoal, and a bag of lawn clippings could be prepared to meet the minimum requirements, but that doesn’t mean it’s edible.

It is also important to realize that the order of ingredients on the bag or can doesn’t mean as much as you might think. The ingredients listed are measured raw, which means that chicken, which contains a great deal of moisture, is going to weigh a lot more raw than say rice, which has almost no moisture when raw; this means that after processing, there will be more rice than chicken, but they can still list chicken as the first ingredient on the bag. This isn’t always a bad thing however. It is essential to remember that dogs are not carnivores but omnivores; they need to consume carbohydrates as well as protein, just like they would in the wild. Cats are true carnivores, and can handle more protein than dogs, but there are many health issues in cats that can be exacerbated by too much protein, so it is important to consult your veterinarian with any questions you may have about feeding. Don’t automatically write off a food that lists bi-products either, this simply means that most of the parts of the animal are used. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a dog in the wild would pick off the breast and thighs of a chicken and leave the feet, just because we might not want to eat the feet doesn’t mean a dog wouldn’t, you can bet that dog will eat as much of that chicken as it possibly can.

It seems that lately our society has become a good deal more health conscious than we were twenty years ago, which is a great thing. This has also left us susceptible to marketing gimmicks meant to play on our desire for the healthiest choices. You must remember that the regulations on pet food packaging are very minimal. A food manufacturer can put almost anything on the bag without it impacting the actual ingredients in the food at all. The words “Natural” and “Holistic” mean absolutely nothing, they are simply meant to catch your eye. Watch out for spelling as well; “Light” food must actually be somewhat lower in calories, while “Lite” food can be exactly the same as any other food. “Organic” food has to be made primarily of certified organic ingredients, while food titled “Organix” isn’t necessarily organic at all (With the exception of the Newman’s Own brand Organix; it actually is primarily organic ingredients).

Another thing to look out for on food packaging is what life stages it claims to be appropriate for. Puppies and kittens should eat puppy and kitten food and adults should eat adult food; the only exceptions to this are puppies and kittens that are severely overweight (unusual), or adults that are severely underweight. In general, puppies and kittens should start eating adult food no later than one year of age. Very small breeds may need to switch over sooner. Senior food isn’t bad, but it may not be necessary. Senior food may focus more on joint health than weight, when often healthy weight maintenance is a more pressing issue. A well balanced adult food as well as an omega 3 fatty acid supplement and/or joint supplement is usually the way to go for senior dogs and cats. Avoid foods that are for “all life stages”. Generally this means that they are formulated to meet the nutritional needs of puppies and kittens, since they have the most specific nutritional needs, and are far too caloric for adult dogs and cats.

The last little tip on food packaging is about the feeding guide. The amount of food that the feeding guide lists is always for the highest weight in the range. Obviously a 40lb dog needs less food than a 60lb dog and so the owner should adjust accordingly. We usually advise owners to feed 1/3 to ¼ less than the bag or can recommend. There are of course exceptions to this. One of my dogs, for instance, cannot keep weight on, so I feed him exactly what the bag recommends and it seems to be the perfect amount.

I read an article in Readers Digest a few months ago titled “50 Things Your Veterinarian Won’t Tell You”. There are a number of interesting statements in this article, but the one’s regarding pet food are particularly telling.

25. “Some people are really into a raw-food diet for pets, but it’s a huge public health hazard. Think about it: You have raw meat, you’re touching it, your dog touches it, and then your dog goes and licks the baby. I’ve had two patients die and two patients get really sick from it.”- Amber Anderson, DVM, a vet at Point Vicente Animal Hospital in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. (Hart 5)

Raw food has become a big trend lately, but I have yet to hear from a vet who believes it is healthy or even safe for your pet or your family. One fourth year vet student who did her externship at the vet that I work for said that at the vet school she attends, they practically dress in hazmat uniforms when dealing with pets that are on raw diets and won’t let them touch the floor for fear of contamination to other pets. If you are considering a raw diet, please do your research and consult with your veterinarian first.

38. “Home cooking for your pet is harder than you think. I once saw a dog who was fed a home- cooked diet of chicken breast and vegetables for a year, and his bones became so weak that his jaw broke. If you would like to cook for your pet, find a veterinary nutritionist who can help guide you or check out balanceit.com.”- Monica Revel, DVM, a vet in West Hollywood, California. (Hart 8)

I remember once we had a client that absolutely refused to feed her cat manufactured cat food and requested that we print up a list of all of the ingredients she would need to include in her home cooking to make a balanced diet. There were literally 30 ingredients that she would need to include in every meal that she prepared in order to provide her cat with the nutrients that it would get from traditional kibble; needless to say, she decided to give up on the home cooking. Supplementing your pet’s food with some ingredients like plain yogurt, carrots, peas, or pumpkin can be a good thing, but the pet food manufacturers haven’t spent billions of dollars on research and development for nothing. A well balanced kibble or canned diet is in general going to be healthier for your pet than a home cooked diet every time, despite the best of intentions.

37. “Giving food is not giving love. Obesity will hurt their health and decrease their life span. Instead, give affection. Pet them, brush them, love them, and walk them.”- Bernadine Cruz, DVM. (Hart 8)

Like in humans, obesity is one of the leading killers of dogs and cats. Heart disease, diabetes and some cancers can all be linked to obesity, not to mention arthritis and an overall diminished quality of life. Dogs and cats cannot and will not regulate their own diet; they count on us to make good decisions for them. Humans are easily trained animals, and if you give your dog a treat every time it whines, then I can guarantee it is going to whine a whole lot; whereas if you take it for a walk when it whines, then it will probably be too distracted and tired to keep whining. You may think that treats and food are what makes your dog or cat happy, but I bet they enjoy human interaction just as much if not more.

I realize that I have given a lot of information to look out for, but I still have not told you what to feed your pet; I’m not going to. My intention is not to endorse or discredit any pet food in particular, but simply to help consumers make an informed choice based on health not hype. Ultimately, the choice for a lifelong food for your dog or cat should be based on your veterinarian’s recommendations as well as what realistically works for you financially and logistically.

Hart, G. K., and Vikki Hart. "50 Things Your Veterinarian Won't Tell You." Reader's Digest. N.p., May 2012. Web. 14 July 2012. http://www.rd.com/.

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