Choos­ing pet food is im­por­tant to pet’s health

Wicklow People (West Edition) - - LIFESTYLE - PETE WEDDERBURN

AS a vet in prac­tice, I meet dozens of pet own­ers ev­ery day. I of­ten ask about nu­tri­tion. What are they feed­ing their pet on? Why have they cho­sen a par­tic­u­lar prod­uct? How much are they feed­ing? Do they give treats as well? I also discuss their pet’s gen­eral health: are they in good bod­ily con­di­tion, or are they car­ry­ing ex­tra weight? Stud­ies show that around two thirds of Ir­ish pets are over­weight or obese.

Most peo­ple are happy to be ques­tioned like this, and I’m able to of­fer some help­ful tips to im­prove their pet’s health. Like many vet clin­ics, my prac­tice does sell pet food, and of course we only sell the types of pet food that we be­lieve are best for pets. But I am very aware that there are many dif­fer­ent types of pet food, and there are dozens of good ways to feed pets. So I never try to con­vince peo­ple to change to a dif­fer­ent way of feed­ing their pet un­less there are health is­sues di­rectly connected to the diet.

I am in­ter­ested at the way peo­ple make choices about how to feed their pets: there are two com­mon ra­tio­nales.

The first and most com­mon rea­son peo­ple give me is that the food they’ve cho­sen is eco­nom­i­cal and con­ve­nient. These peo­ple tend to buy their pet food from su­per­mar­kets, pur­chas­ing com­mon gro­cery brand name prod­ucts. This is the “least line of re­sis­tance” type of de­ci­sion mak­ing, and there’s noth­ing wrong with it. Stan­dard com­mer­cial pet food is legally obliged to of­fer so-called “com­plete” nu­tri­tion to pets: if it doesn’t do this, the la­bel must clearly point out that it is “com­ple­men­tary” rather than “com­plete”. This means that own­ers can be re­as­sured that their pet will be given a nutri­tion­ally bal­anced diet, and they will not suf­fer from de­fi­cien­cies or ex­cesses. How­ever, the cheaper types of diet like this are of­ten on the ba­sic spec­trum of pet nu­tri­tion, us­ing a vari­able mix of in­gre­di­ents that de­pend on what’s read­ily avail­able at the time. If you read the la­bel, you’ll find that the in­gre­di­ents are from broad groups, rather than spe­cific items. For ex­am­ple, there may be “meat and an­i­mal de­riv­a­tives”, with­out spec­i­fy­ing which type of meat. Or there could be “veg­eta­bles” with­out say­ing which veg­eta­bles. And there could be a num­ber of dif­fer­ent flavour­ings and colour­ings. This lack of speci­ficity al­lows man­u­fac­tur­ers to vary the in­gre­di­ents from batch to batch, with­out al­ter­ing the la­bel, al­low­ing them to change the com­po­si­tion ac­cord­ing to the best value in­gre­di­ents at the time. This is fine for most pets, but some animals have sensitive diges­tive sys­tems. If they are fed this type of diet, the vari­abil­ity can lead to diges­tive up­sets, like a runny tummy or flat­u­lence. These pets ben­e­fit if given a dif­fer­ent, more con­sis­tent type of diet.

The sec­ond rea­son that peo­ple give me for choos­ing a par­tic­u­lar pet food is that some­body in a sales out­let rec­om­mended it. This could be a vet in a clinic that sells pet food, or it could be a sales­per­son in a pet shop. When I hear this, I ask peo­ple to con­sider the train­ing and mo­ti­va­tion of the per­son selling the food: the ad­vice may – or may not – be gen­uinely sci­ence-based.

Typ­i­cally, the types of food rec­om­mended tend to be a bit pricier, but they tend to have a more spe­cific set of in­gre­di­ents. As an ex­am­ple, a la­bel may state that the food is made from brown rice, chicken meal, oats, peas, chicken oil, sun­flower oil, sea­weed and vi­ta­mins/min­er­als. This type of la­belling is very de­tailed, and it means that the man­u­fac­turer can­not vary the in­gre­di­ents from batch to batch. They are legally obliged to stick to this same recipe. This makes the pet food more ex­pen­sive, but it also makes it more con­sis­tent: pet own­ers can be re­as­sured that their pet is getting the same type of food for their pet over a pe­riod of weeks and months. For pets that are prone to diges­tive up­sets, this is very im­por­tant.

Many pet re­tail out­lets stock a wide range of di­ets, with some be­ing more about hu­man fads than gen­uine ben­e­fits for pets. I can find no sci­en­tific rea­son to choose “grain free” di­ets: dogs evolved the abil­ity to di­gest starch thou­sands of years ago, when they were do­mes­ti­cated. In­deed, grain can form an im­por­tant part of their diet. There’s no need to in­clude sweet pota­toes or al­fafa. Also, some di­ets in­clude rare pro­teins, like wild boar or veni­son. For most pets ,there’s noth­ing wrong with beef, mut­ton, pork or chicken.

Fi­nally, it’s com­mon to see “no ar­ti­fi­cial colours, flavour­ings or preser­va­tives”: again, this is hu­man sen­si­bil­ity. There are many safe ar­ti­fi­cial ad­di­tives that have been used for decades with­out problems: just be­cause some­thing is “nat­u­ral” does not nec­es­sar­ily make it bet­ter. There are other ways of feed­ing – like raw meat, or home cooked – that some peo­ple choose: again, these tend to be based on sub­jec­tive hu­man ra­tio­nales rather than sci­ence. As a vet, I worry about the risk of a de­fi­cient diet if a nu­tri­tion­ist has not been in­volved in for­mu­lat­ing the prod­uct.

My first choice for feed­ing pets is to fol­low the ad­vice of your vet, as they have learned the principles of pet nu­tri­tion.

My bot­tom line is this: if your pet enjoys eat­ing their daily ra­tions, and if they are in good bod­ily con­di­tion, with a glossy coat, bright eyes, and no diges­tive dis­tur­bances, then you have cho­sen your pet food well. Con­grat­u­la­tions!

There are many dif­fer­ent ways of feed­ing pets

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