With the current furore over the influence major pet food companies are having in our Veterinary Nutrition curriculum, the question “what is the best thing to feed my pet?” has never been more relevant. If the designated experts in our community are not being taught in an unbiased manner, how can they be relied upon to provide unbiased advice?
At the moment the majority of graduating veterinarians advise people to feed their pets a premium dry commercial dog or cat food. They are supposed to contain all the nutrition your pet requires for optimum health. But the immediate question that springs to mind is, “If I go to a human nutritionist, they would never advise me to live on a diet of highly processed, mass produced biscuits. So what is different about our pets?”. The answer is “nothing” of course, highly processed food is not ideal for your pet.
The pet food marketing situation has reached the point that new pet owners are afraid to feed their pets anything but “Pet Food”, for fear of injuring their pets.
The reality is that a large number of health problems are caused by commercial pet food diets, and that every day animals are suffering and even dying (many in agony) because of the excellent marketing techniques of the large pet food companies. Seeing a male cat die in agony because he is unable to urinate is a strong motivator for someone who has committed their life and career to the wellbeing of animals. There is a genuine animal welfare issue at play.
Let me give you an example of the mismatch between dry food and our pet’s normal diet. The domestic cat is an obligate carnivore that originated from a semi-arid part of the planet. In the wild they live on a diet of small mammals, reptiles, insects, birds, etc. These meals contain approximately 70% water (rather than 5% in biscuits), they also contain a range of proteins, fat, bone, and the gastro-intestinal contents of whichever animal they have just killed. So, for a start they normally receive a large amount of water directly from their food. Now fast forward to the modern house cat living on a diet of “premium biscuits” and a bowl of water. The biscuits provide practically no water and anyone who has a pet cat knows they’re oddballs when it comes to drinking water from a bowl. Often they prefer to drink it from the shower recess or a running tap. One of the most common health issues we see in domestic cats are urinary tract complaints. Ranging from kidney failure, to cystitis and blocked urethra’s. Many cats live with these problems for years and are managed with medications, “special biscuits”, and even surgery. In my hospital, when I compare the concentration of the urine from a cat that is fed biscuits (and has as much water as it wants), to a cat fed a wet food or raw meat based diet, I invariably find that the cat eating the dry food has extremely concentrated urine in comparison to the wet food diet cat. So, in other words, “the cat living on biscuits spends its entire life dehydrated”, with all the associated health implications.
I have “cured” cats who have suffered for years from chronic urinary tract inflammation simply by removing dry food (biscuits) from their diet. So it seems ridiculous that vets are trained to treat cats presenting with these problems by providing them with modified dry food diets. First principles would suggest that rather than modifying the biscuits, we should simply change the diet to one that is more appropriate for the physiology of the patient by removing the dry food all together.
The water content is but one issue. The high carbohydrate content and non animal protein sources have been implicated in our pets (dogs and cats) developing diabetes, obesity, and other diseases.
So where does this leave the pet owner and the veterinarian? It is hard to find unbiased scientific research because the large pet food companies control the research agenda. Vets are scientists and like to have scientific studies to back up their clinical decisions. Yet all the studies are based around the biscuits rather than foods designed to replicate a wild diet.
I am currently gathering data from zoo veterinarians, research that has been done on wild and zoo animals, a range of experts in pet nutrition, and the limited research that does exist in this area. In the meantime I feed my cats a range of commercial wet foods, raw meat (often on the bone), and am designing and trialling the first iteration of a diet that is based on what a wild cat would eat.
Cats must receive particular nutrients in their diet which can easily be missed if you try and make a diet from scratch. If you are even considering making a homemade diet for your cat, make sure you speak to your veterinarian, do your research, and obtain the appropriate supplements to add.
Dogs are not as difficult. If you make a diet that is balanced to you then it is likely to be balanced for your dog. When in doubt add a multivitamin and mineral supplement. There are proponents of various raw diets for dogs, and some of the concepts behind these diets have merit. However, given dogs love to scavenge and eat a range of foods in the wild, I would avoid getting too strict about what your dog eats. A common sense approach with the usual no go foods such as onion, etc. is fine. Don’t forget that domestic dogs have been living on the food we throw away for thousands of years. They are amazingly well adapted to eat a human like diet. As we learn more about the mistakes humans have been making in their own diets (such as ingesting large quantities of carbohydrates since 1980), we must also transfer that to dogs.
There are diets on the market that are supposed to replicate a wild diet. These diets are definitely a big step in the right direction. However, there are a couple of caveats I would mention. Firstly, make sure they have the correct nutritional profile (try and find one that is linked to a veterinarian or someone similarly trained in animal nutrition). Secondly, they generally use a large animal (such as kangaroo) as the primary source of meat. There is mounting evidence that if you want the best for your cat the even this is important. Not many 4kg cats are capable of taking down an Eastern Grey Kangaroo or Cow.
So the answer to the original question is evolving. My current advice is to feed your cat a commercial wet food diet (preferably one that has made an attempt to replicate a wild diet), with the occasional piece of raw meat on the bone to have a nibble at every now and then. With respect to your dog, don’t over complicate it. A range of foods, avoiding those on the dangerous list, and a lamb shank or something similar with the meat on for some fun and a bit of a dental work out. Avoid dry commercial foods (particularly in cats), and watch this space as new foods are produced that truly do represent the ideal diet for our pets.