Most of us want to do the right thing by our pets and feed them the best diet possible. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy knowing what that is. Deepa Gopinath reports
When it comes to what to feed your pet dogs and cats, advice can be conflicting and downright confusing. Three of the most common diets are commercially available pet foods, raw diets and plant-based diets. Here, we speak to some experts to bring you the most digestible information on these three categories of diets, so that you can make the best decision for your pet.
Raw pet food is also referred to as BARF (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food). The philosophy behind BARF is that it is similar to what your pet would seek out and eat in the wild bearing in mind the canine and feline digestive system is designed for the digestion of fresh meat.
Advocates of raw food diets claim significant benefits compared to feeding pets dry food. These benefits include a thick, healthy coat; leaner physique, better kidney health, improved dental hygiene and, potentially, even better behaviour.
A raw food diet can be bought pre-made or be mixed at home. “A balanced diet for dogs consists of meat, bone, offal and some vegetable matter,” explains Dr Matthew Condon, a veterinarian with a special interest in nutrition, and advocate of BARF diets for dogs. Dr Condon recommends feeding two per cent of the dog’s ideal body weight initially, with an animal product to vegetable matter ratio of 9:1.
“Growing pups require a higher energy intake and may need to be fed up to four per cent of body weight, while geriatric dogs may need a reduction in protein,” Dr Condon advises. Guidelines around raw diets for cats are less clear, partly because cats have more specific needs than do dogs, as well as higher likelihood of toxicity and nutrient deficiencies.
One of the main objections to BARF diets is the possible presence of disease-causing microorganisms such as salmonella in fresh meat. However, advocates of raw diets claim that mechanisms such as lysozyme in dogs’ saliva and acidic stomach fluid provides dogs with defences against bacteria in meat. Nonetheless, basic hygiene should be practised during the preparation and feeding of fresh meat.
Pet nutritionist and animal naturopath Ruth Hatten prefers plant-based rather than strictly vegan diets for dogs and explains that plant-based diets can suit some, but not all dogs. “People who follow a vegan or plant-based diet themselves may want to feed their dogs the same sort of diet. I try to support them doing this in a healthy way, ensuring the dog has all the nutrients he or she needs,” Hatten explains.
“I recommend commercial diets as I know they are balanced, complete and easy to feed. I only recommend diets that come from companies that have a history and background of veterinary nutrition.”Dr Angela Phillips, veterinarian, Sydney
According to Hatten, the ideal plant-based diet for dogs incorporates soaked and well-cooked legumes, raw/lightly cooked vegetables (mainly green), herbs, some whole grains, good fats, fruits, probiotic foods, enzyme foods, whole food nutrient boosters such as spirulina, plus some free-range, organic eggs and small oily fish.
“I do also encourage the feeding of raw meaty bones. While not plant-based or vegan, raw meaty bones are the best way to ensure good dental hygiene, and the inclusion of calcium and phosphorus at optimum ratios,” says Hatten “Absence of eggs, fish and meaty bones means that the diet will likely require supplementation with nutrients such as choline, vitamins B12 and D3, methionine, zinc, taurine, l-carnitine and pantothenic acid.”
While there has been some research around feeding plant-based diets to cats, Hatten does not recommend these diets for our feline friends. “Cats are obligate carnivores and they are built to consume animals. This is demonstrated by their digestive system and their high nutrient requirements for animal-based nutrients such as taurine and arachidonic acid, which are mostly found in animal sources. A plant-based diet would necessitate supplementation with significant amounts of synthetic nutrients, which is not ideal for optimum health.”
Commercial diets for dogs and cats consist of dry food and wet or tinned food. There is great variation in the palatability and nutritional value of commercial diets, but veterinarians generally recommend premium and veterinary diets over the majority of supermarket diets. Prescription diets are also available to aid in the management of disease under veterinary guidance, including conditions such as chronic kidney disease, urinary tract disease, diabetes and osteoarthritis to name a few. Most commercial diets also come with clear guidelines around amounts to be fed according to the pet’s bodyweight.
Sydney-based veterinarian Dr Angela Phillips prefers commercial over homemade diets for the majority of her feline and canine patients.
“I recommend commercial diets as I know they are balanced, complete and easy to feed. I only recommend diets that come from companies that have a history and background of veterinary nutrition.”
Indeed, veterinary diets tend to have a wealth of research and clinical trials to support their use, with many of the studies published and publicly available.
Dr Phillips cautions against variations with insufficient scientific evidence to support them, such as ‘grain-free’ diets.
It is generally accepted that growing puppies and kittens require more calorie rich diets than do adults, and that geriatric animals (8+ years) also have some nutritional requirements that differ from adults. Some senior dogs and cats may require low calorie diets to prevent obesity in the face of reduced activity, while others may need modifications of protein content.
“I recommend a balanced diet with a combination of wet and dry foods, which is age and weight appropriate,” advises Dr Phillips.
So which diet should you choose?
Choose the diet which suits your pet’s age and health, is palatable, fits easily into your lifestyle and allows you to stay within your budget. This may be a combination of diets, such as a premium commercial diet supplemented with raw meaty bones.
Any major dietary change should be under veterinary advice and implemented gradually.
Any signs such as vomiting, diarrhoea or constipation on the new diet may be an indication that the diet is not suitable for your pet, or that modifications are required. ′