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Pet Nutrition - An Insight

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Some 40 years ago our family pet dog was fed on the leftovers from the kitchen table and scraps from the butchers which included tripe and sheep heads, we also used the unsold wholemeal bread from the local bakers, garden vegetables that my family used to grow and the odd piece of fish, we even fed rabbits and hares when she was lucky enough to catch them.

Society has changed dramatically from those days. Supermarkets now dominate the food supply chain and food processing is more the norm than natural foods. Parallels remain strong in term of human food consumption and that of our pets. We are both eating more processed foods, driven, I believe by the convenience factor.    

A major divergence between our eating habits and that of our pets emerged in the mid 1970's.  Around this time puppy foods came onto the market, followed a few years later by senior foods for older dogs. Scientific research was credited with this major advancement in terms of feeding pets and sales of life stage foods is now estimated to be worth £100m in the UK this year.

In the early 1990's the raw food diet emerged primarily as a result of the increasing awareness of pet health problems and degenerative diseases. Responsibility for the health issues were laid at the door of commercially prepared pet foods and in some cases the manufacturers were accused of deliberately causing health problems for commercial gain. Living and working both in the United Kingdom and United States I feel very privileged to have met and spoken with advocates of varied approaches to nutrition and pet health. As a consequence I have heard many contradictory views on how our pets should be fed.

I have always believed that education, my own included, is something that evolves on a daily basis and any comments should be looked upon as contributing to the debate for the benefit of our pets. Given the historical perspective of pet nutrition there are a few issues that should be considered with an open mind.

Attending many dog shows I am often asked about puppy foods and senior food. Never in my wildest dreams can I imagine a mother pushing her shopping trolley through the aisles of a supermarket looking for a lower protein food for her 8 year old son who is on the big side. Similarly, saying to her friend, that the child's grandmother switched to a lower protein food 4 weeks ago and is doing much better. It has been well documented that higher levels of protein and fat are required for growth of young animals and that less is needed for older animals. People seem surprised when I ask them, "What level of protein do you feed your children?"   We normally don't worry about special or unique diets for our children, beyond infancy, yet the attention that this subject is given with regard to young pets, strains belief. Concerning special foods for older pets, again, we ask whether you buy "older people foods", of course not.  

At this writing my mother (Mrs. Burns) is in her 92nd year, she does her own shopping, she doesn't look for food for older people; she eats the same diet she has done most of her life, only she eats less. Old age is normal, and eating less in old age is normal. What is not normal are the many degenerative diseases which seem to accompany old age in our animals and fellow human beings.

I recall being at a seminar at Tuffs University in Boston USA where a new senior food was being introduced. The addition of certain nutraceuticals was cited as the major benefit compared to another adult maintenance food.  The other adult food happened to be an own brand. "Surely the inclusion of these nutraceuticals in the adult maintenance diet would have negated the need for the senior diet" someone in front of me asked, he  got a blank response. This experience should not be generalized but raises questions about the scientific research always quoted to validate products in the market place.

Senior diets appear to have resulted from such an approach, the protein, fat and nutrient levels were cut to match a more sedentary lifestyle. Large breed puppy foods were introduced to offset the perceived and real problems of feeding more nutrient dense foods or 'traditional' puppy foods.  Pups are fed more food per body weight than adult dogs, and so tend to take in more protein. Add to that the effect of "high-protein" diets for puppies and we see a potential for skeletal problems. High protein intake could force growth of the muscle beyond the capabilities of the skeletal system, putting strain on the joints. We suspect a correlation between the advent of high-protein foods for growth and the rise in problems like hip dysplasia. In fact a German vet and scientific journalist have suggested that canine hip dysplasia arises not from heritable causes but from problems associated with diet.(1)

The raw diet emerged with a vengeance promoted in the main by the experiences of an Australian vet. The philosophy that underpinned his approach appears flawed. So earlier in the year I spoke at length with Katie Merwick, author, behaviorist and recipient of the American Red Cross "2000, Hero of the Year" award. Katie has devoted more than 23 years of her life to animal welfare, training and rehabilitation for both domestic and wildlife. Katie has taken in many wolves from the wild all of which were malnourished. She argues that the rosy picture painted of wild dogs and wolves by the proponents of the raw diet does not match reality.

That said, I have spoken with a great many people whose pets have done wonderfully well on the raw diet. Confusion reigns in the pet owning public, they are naturally anxious to do what is best for their pets. The above points illustrate in many ways how the confusion has arisen and what to believe. My own approach is simple in terms of pet nutrition – Do No Harm!
Three major factors pertain to the health of pets in terms on nutrition.

Too much food, unhealthy or non-optimal ingredients and harmful formulations can make the difference between health , vitality and attending the vet on a regular basis. Too much food may seem obvious but when I suggest this to owners they often refer to the weight of their dog and suggest that it is not overweight and they are right.

On the other hand being the correct weight does not mean that their dogs are eating the correct combination of ingredients. A dog can be the correct weight but may be diabetic from too much sugar intake over time.  Unhealthy or non-optimal ingredients falls in to this category.

Sugars are derived from many food sources and have many different names. Harmful formulations and additives are the primary cause for concern. The Animal Protection Institute in the USA have identified over 8000 additives covered by formal legislation which may be added to pet food and considered safe. Chemical colouring's, preservatives and flavours are the most obvious culprits.

In the United States the American Animal Feed Control Organization (AFFCO) have very strict rules regarding pet food labeling and enforce then them with full time officers in every state. They insist on differentiation of ingredients like poultry by-products and poultry meat meal, corn glutten meal from whole corn etc. The worth of such an approach is only of value if the individual pet owners take the time to research and learn the differences in terms of digestibility and nutritional value.

So far I have been impressed by the US pet owners in the United States as a whole, who have used this approach and continued to educate themselves in terms of nutrition which benefits the well being of their pets. So what is a good diet?  The ingredients should be of high quality, easily digested and without added chemicals and above all – Do No Harm! (1) Marc Torel and Klaus Dieter Kammer –  Tierarzliche Umschau (German Veterinary Review 1996)


By George Burns BA
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Author: BA

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