Natural Approaches to Feeding Dogs and Cats
Good food promotes good health. We all know that diet is an essential part of maintaining good health for us and for our pets. In the 1940’s we began to rely on pet food being manufactured for us by large companies. They would produce conveniently packaged, nutritionally complete and balanced diets.
Human dieticians now recommend five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Similar ideas began in the veterinary world during the last 20 years. There are currently two major schools of thought in veterinary medicine; the majority of practitioners favour manufactured foods. A small, but growing minority advocate home-prepared diets. Both sides are equally convinced that their method is best.
Do dogs and cats have special dietary requirements?
Dogs can eat both meat-based and carbohydrate-based diets. Cats are limited to only tolerating a meat-based diet. Cats have a much higher requirement for protein (meat) and the amino-acids that make up proteins. For example, cats require a relatively high level of the amino-acid taurine compared with dogs. If cats are fed commercial dog food for any length of time, they will become ill.
The ideal diet for a cat would be a fresh whole raw mouse or bird. The ideal diet for the ‘average’ dog would be fresh or even rancid prey supplemented with seasonal grasses, fruits, berries, droppings from cattle and sheep, nuts and anything else they could scavenge. Obviously these nutritional sources are less than practical in the modern home. Our job, therefore, if we decide to feed more naturally, is to provide the next best thing.
Dogs have been bred for different uses in different countries. Arctic breeds, for example have a better ability to digest high fat diets than a ‘lap dog’ breed such are the Cavalier King Charles. Cats are much more uniform in their requirements.
What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of commercial diets?
Convenience is where commercial diets score points. Enough has been learned in nutritional science to avoid obvious deficiency disease. Most good quality foods, and especially the ‘Premium’ brands have shown their worth in maintaining health in long term feeding trials in various ages of dogs and cats.
Pet foods may contain ingredients sourced on price not quality, therefore not necessarily nutritionally the best. Additives are then needed. Processing of the diet with heat and pressure further degrades the foods necessitating additives to bring them up to recognised minimal standards.
All manufactured pet foods must contain some preservatives. Interestingly, canned goods contain the least, then dried foods, then semi-moist foods contain the most.
Some manufacturers reduce the amount of chemical additives by using preservatives such as rosemary, vitamin C and vitamin E. These are very effective preservatives, but do not last as long as their chemical counterparts. A shorter sell-by date, therefore, can suggest less chemical preservatives.
Pet food ingredient inclusion formulas for manufacturers are based on data that assumes complete bioavailability and absorption of the included nutrients. There is no margin for error in these guidelines for breed differences, impaired absorption, reduced digestibility of foodstuffs or metabolic changes during long term medication or disease states. The profiles are for ‘adequate’ nutrition of the ‘average’ pet.
"Pet food ingredient inclusion formulas for manufacturers are based on data that assumes complete bioavailability and absorption of the included nutrients."
The appropriateness of feeding obligate carnivores, such as cats, on cereal-based dried diets is of some concern to some vets. Similarly, dried food feeding to a species prone to kidney and urinary problems is troubling some quarters of the profession. Allowing cats and dogs to ‘graze’ all day on a bowl of dried food can promote obesity and lead to concerns such as diabetes in these species, just as with humans. Obesity is the most common nutritional disorder in pets in Australia affecting approximately one third of all pets.
If you cannot, practically, feed a more natural diet to your pet, then it would be very valuable to discuss with the practice the addition of fruit, vegetables and raw or semi-cooked meats to boost the content of nutrients that have not yet been recognised as essential components of the cat and dog diet.
What do I need to know about pet food labels?
Pet food labels are only required to show a chemical analysis of the food contained. This may not correlate with the nutrient availability. For example, hair, skin, muscle meat and soybeans all contain protein. Obviously, though, they vary massively in the quality of that protein.
Some labels may claim ‘no preservatives added’. This does not account for the fact that the manufacturers supplier may have added preservatives to the product before reaching them.
To avoid preservatives, look for the label that says ‘preservative-free’. A preservative free food will often have a very short shelf life unless it is frozen.
What are some of the benefits of feeding a home-prepared diet?
The primary feature of a homemade diet is the satisfaction in knowing what is going into your animal and being able to manipulate this to your satisfaction on a day by day basis. Ensuring good wholesome fresh food is a joy, especially if it is organic. Non-essential components such as nutraceuticals (extra vitamins or glucosamine, for example) can also be easily added. The benefit to the coat, dental health and stamina of your animal can be remarkable.
If you have a pet with allergies, specifically avoiding troublesome ingredients is easy – you just leave them out of the mix. Also, you are able to add and remove items from the diet individually to investigate what may be causing allergies.
It is important to feed a variety of the meat, veg and fruit parts of the diet to ensure the body is exposed to all necessary nutrients. Variety is, after all, the spice of life.
What should I know about feeding a home-prepared diet to my pet?
Variety is the key. This is the thing that allows your pet access to all the nutrients it needs. A balance to the diet needs to be achieved over a seven to ten day period, not every single day. The easiest way to do this is to follow recipes. Authors to consult are Dr Barbara Fougere Healthy Dogs A Handbook of Natural Therapies and Pet Lovers Guide to Natural healing for Cats and Dogs, Dr. Ian Billinghurst (The BARF Diet) and Dr. Strombeck (Home-Prepared Cat and Dog Diets – The Healthful Alternative).
Calcium is essential for bone growth and muscle function. Meat and many vegetables are very low in it. Ensure to include a good source of calcium (Quinoa, dairy products, green leafy veg, nuts, seeds and dried fruit). Most mineral and vitamin supplements contain adequate calcium.
Supplements added before cooking may be denatured. This is especially true for vitamins.
What are the risks of feeding a home prepared diet to my pet?
Sticking religiously to one recipe is not a good idea. Variety in all aspects of the diet is always a good idea. Complicated and laboursome recipes should also be avoided as you will be more likely to look for shortcuts that may be detrimental.
Just feeding table scraps alone will not supply a balanced diet.
Over or under- or over-supplementation is equally hazardous. The most common imbalances involve Calcium (green, leafy veg), Phosphorus (meat), Zinc (beans and lentils), Magnesium (broccoli and peanuts) and Iron (red meat).
Cats should be fed a supplement containing taurine daily or fed raw meat (heart is best) on a regular basis.
Feeding growing young or pregnant animals, with different requirements for energy and nutrients, should be tackled with care. We advise you to discuss this with the practice.
"Feeding growing young or pregnant animals, with different requirements for energy and nutrients, should be tackled with care."
Some authors, such as Dr. Billinghurst, suggest feeding grain-free, raw meat and veg diets. Most research suggests that healthy animals are more resistant to bacteria and other pathogens found on non-cooked food.
However, animals or humans with compromised health may be more susceptible to these ‘normal’ pathogens. Even healthy animals can shed pathogenic bacteria in the faeces.
Raw bones and raw chicken wings are often advocated by home-prepared diet enthusiasts. They clean teeth and supply minerals very well.
However, bones can cause obstructions in the stomach and gut, but these are very rare with RAW bones. Cooked bones should never be fed as they are brittle and prone to splintering. If you have any doubts, please come in an discuss things with the practice.
How can I minimise these risks?
You are welcome to come in and discuss any thoughts on diet or any aspect of health with us at the practice. We also recommend an annual health check to ensure that everything is fine. We can examine patients with blood tests or x rays if there are any specific worries.
What symptoms or conditions may be treated with home-prepared diets?
Recurrent itching, hair shedding, flaking and lacklustre coat can all improve on a home-prepared diet. Digestive problems and allergies anywhere in the body can also be helped by eliminating manufactured foods.
Please come in to the practice to discuss any aspect of feeding your animal.
© Copyright 2015 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.