Feeding the Inner Beast
By Bernadine Cruz, DVM
Though a repast of gourmet nachos—blue corn chips, refried beans, jalapeno peppers, a smattering of green onions, mystery meat, salsa—all smothered in steamy, gooey processed cheese, crowned with a gloop of sour cream, and washed down by a frosty schooner of strawberry margarita pays homage to all the recognized food groups, anyone antipathetic to coronary disease would agree that this is not a balanced meal. No amount of vitamins and minerals will tip the balance toward nutritious.
Pet owners are often culpable of similar dietary blunders stemming from their desire to make their pets happy and not understanding how to interpret what is in their pet’s bowl. Pet food labels can be confusing, misleading, and downright fraudulent. Natural isn’t necessarily healthy. Organic can be rampant with toxins and bacteria. Expensive can be less wholesome than food half its price. Home cooking for a pet may satisfy its taste buds and a pet parent’s desire to provide the “best” but leave a pet’s dietary requirements howling for additional nutrients. Simply adding extra vitamins, minerals, and miscellaneous supplements can wreck havoc with the delicate harmony of dietary requirements. What is a pet owner to do? Who can one believe: the pet store owner, a veterinarian, friend, or the Internet?
Though pets have truly become part of the family, dogs and cats are not little humans. Dogs have dietary needs that are more similar to ours. We are both omnivores; we can eat a little of everything and survive but not necessarily thrive. Cats are obligate carnivores; they must have meat protein. Felines can use some plant material but will never be vegetarians. Determining what to feed a pet needs to be based on a pet’s life stage (age and reproductive status), breed, size, medical issues, body condition score (weight and lean body mass), dietary preferences, unique needs, and the owner’s financial resources.
A three-month-old Golden Retriever and Chihuahua can both benefit from a puppy diet but not the same one. It is best to offer food formulated for the expected adult size. Pups and kittens are like little sports cars. They seem to have two speeds: pedal to the metal or asleep. They have high RPMs (high metabolic and growth rates) and little gas tanks (stomachs). The smaller and younger the pet, the more attention needs to be paid to its caloric intake. It is easier for them to experience low blood sugar, which can have life-threatening consequences. Frequent, small meals are usually best. Avoid calorie supplements in a tube. They are similar to giving a child a candy bar. Youngsters of the large working varieties like retrievers and giant breeds such as Great Danes are poster children for joint and weight concerns as adults. Monitoring their growth rates is imperative. Supplementing them with joint-protective nutrients can reap lifelong benefits.
All puppies and kittens should be kept at a healthy weight. Pudgy puppies and plump pussy cats are cute, but long-term studies have shown that overweight adolescents are more prone to weight issues when they are adults. A pet that maintains a healthy weight throughout its life can expect to live 15% longer than its chunky monkey relatives. That can translate into two to three years of extra quality time.
At the other end of the age spectrum, the mature pet doesn’t necessarily need a senior food. If an older pet is experiencing good overall health and a veterinarian has not recommended altering its diet, don’t change what it is eating. After a pet is neutered and ages, their metabolism slows down. They often start to pack on the pounds. Cutting too far back on rations can result in malnutrition. Diet foods are frequently low in fat and high in fiber. This can lead to dry skin and coat along with an insatiable appetite and subsequent counter surfing.
If a pet is overweight, gradually increasing the exercise and scaling back on snacks can tip the scales toward a healthier body condition score. Treats appeal to the deeply held belief that “giving food equals giving love” but can contribute to unhealthy weight gain by virtue of their empty calories, excessive fats, and carbohydrates. Just because a snack states that it is good for the teeth, contains vitamins and minerals, or is good for the skin and coat, they are often just junk food with a great marketing campaign.
What do dogs and cats need to eat to thrive and not just survive? A combination of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water. Proteins are composed of amino acids, the building blocks of muscle, growth, and repair. Several years ago, unscrupulous suppliers of protein sources for pet food from China were artificially boosting the apparent level of protein in their products by lacing it with a non-nutritive component that proved deadly to many pets. Purchasing pet foods made in the United States does not guarantee wholesomeness but definitely increases the chances. Protein byproducts are often maligned. Reputable companies will often use protein meals or protein of non-muscle meat origin. This can still be very nutritious and allow the preparation to be more budget friendly.
“No grain” or “gluten free” have become buzz words in the boutique pet food industry. Grains are carbohydrates. Pets need appropriate amounts of carbs such as starches, sugars, and fiber in their diets. Carbohydrates are a ready source of energy. Corn and wheat may be responsible for some pet’s skin issues, but determining the causal relationship can be tough. Too many carbohydrates can contribute to obesity.
Fats are essential for life. Similar to carbs and protein, too much of a good thing can result in your pet looking like a snausage. A healthy level of fat in the diet can assist a dog or cat in maintaining a healthy skin and coat and immune system. Essential fatty acids, components of certain fats, cannot be synthesized by the body and must be supplied in their diets. Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids have been shown to possess anti-inflammatory properties and are found in fish oils.
Vitamins and minerals are needed in limited quantities and are required in chemical reactions in the body, metabolism, and are essential for bone health.
When reading a pet food’s label, look for one that is appropriate for a pet’s life stage. Find one that meets AAFCO standards (American Association of Feed Control Officers) and has shown to be nutritious through feeding trials. This is an important consideration, because chemical analysis of an old leather shoe, crank case oil, and other ash could pass AAFCO standards but would be far from nourishing.
Still can’t determine which is the best food for a pet? Ask your veterinarian. They are trained in nutrition. Establishing an ongoing relationship with him or her will allow this pet health care expert to wade through the kibble chaos and recommend a diet that will meet your pet’s unique needs.