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Talk to your veterinarian
Good nutrition is as important for pets as it is for people. With so many different brands available, choosing the right food for your dog or cat can be a challenge. Your veterinarian can help you make informed choices to optimize the health of your pet.
Dry vs canned food
Both dry and wet foods can provide the same level of nutrition. Dry food generally costs less per serving, stays fresh when left in a bowl all day, and requires less space to store. Dry dog food does not necessarily produce healthier teeth and gums.
Table food and bones
Pets eating a balanced commercial diet won't benefit from bones or table food. On the contrary, feeding table scraps can lead to obesity, vomiting, diarrhea, finicky eating habits, poor dental health, and occasionally severe illnesses such as pancreatitis and food poisoning, as well as bone (orthopedic) problems. Feeding bones carries the risk of broken teeth, mouth injuries, severe constipation, and potentially fatal intestinal perforations.
Cooking for your pet can be fun, though it tends to be time-consuming, costly and difficult to maintain a consistent nutrient balance. If you have the time, the budget and the desire to prepare your pet's food, make sure it is a balanced ration that is appropriate for your pet's age and condition. Your veterinarian can provide information on diet formulation, and may be able to supply recipes for homemade dog and cat foods.
Like people, dogs and cats can be allergic to many things - pollen, house dust, even food. Symptoms are usually a severe generalized itching, with hair loss, rash and skin infection caused by self-chewing, licking and scratching. Vomiting and diarrhea may also be present. If you suspect your pet has a food allergy, talk to your veterinarian. He/she can confirm the diagnosis and help you select an appropriate new diet.
Urinary tract health in cats
Inflammation of the lower urinary tract (also known as FUS, FLUTD, or LUTS) is a very common problem in cats. Signs include straining and crying in the litter box, blood in the urine, and urinating around the house. In some cases, male cats may become "blocked" - completely unable to urinate - a life-threatening emergency that requires immediate veterinary attention.
This problem is multi-factorial, although diet plays a significant role. To reduce the chance of urinary tract problems, cat food should yield moderately acidic urine. Very acidic or very alkaline urine can both lead to problems. It is important to note that foods that are simply labeled "low ash" or "low mineral" do not necessarily meet the above criteria. Talk to your veterinarian about recommended diets for urinary tract health. Research shows a decreased incidence of occurrence in cats that are fed moist food, have environmental enrichment, and increased water intake.
Feeding your pet a healthy diet doesn't have to be expensive. To decide if a certain food suits your budget, consider the cost of feeding per day, not just the price of the bag. Better quality foods are more digestible, which means your pet needs less food per day, so a bag of an "expensive" diet can last much longer than the same-sized bag of a lower quality, "cheaper" food. Also, pets on a better quality diet usually produce less feces, since more food is absorbed by the digestive tract.
Pet food and...
Your pet's nutritional needs will change with age. Puppies and kittens should receive a good quality commercial "growth' food which will contain higher levels of protein, calories and minerals than are found in adult diets. The age at which to switch to adult "maintenance" food varies from pet to pet. For example, puppies of heavy-boned breeds (such as Labradors and Rottweilers) may benefit from an early move to adult rations, since overly fast growth may contribute to bone problems such as hip dysplasia. An alternative is to feed heavy-boned pups a growth diet specifically formulated for larger breeds.
For the older pet, your veterinarian may recommend a senior diet. These generally contain fewer calories than regular adult foods, as well as lower protein levels to reduce wear and tear on the kidneys. Other specialty diets include high-energy rations for very active dogs, low-cal formulas for pets that are inactive or overweight and a large selection of therapeutic diets for various medical conditions. Therapeutic diets are available from a veterinarian.
Boredom & variety
Do pets get bored eating the same food every day? The answer isn't known, but there is no nutritional reason to change food if it is a balanced, good quality ration. Although most dogs and cats seem happy on a consistent diet, some may need variety to maintain a normal appetite. If your animal is one of these, make sure you change foods gradually, mixing the new food with the old one for 5 - 7 days. Abrupt changes in diet can cause indigestion, vomiting, diarrhea and gas.
Vitamin & mineral supplements
In general, dogs and cats that are fed a good quality commercial diet don't require any additional vitamins or minerals. In some cases, supplementation can even be harmful. For example, providing too much calcium to fast-growing large-breed puppies can contribute to hip dysplasia and other orthopedic problems. Talk to your veterinarian if you think your pet may have a special need for extra vitamins and minerals.
The "Guaranteed Analysis" of the contents of a bag of food is a poor indicator of the food's nutritional value. Although the analysis lists the basic ingredients and their amounts, the quality of an ingredient is as important as the quantity. Low quality ingredients may lack certain nutrients and be hard to digest. Smaller quantities of better-quality ingredients often provide better overall nutrition. In general, the best foods are those made with consistent, high-grade ingredients, by companies with strong research and development programs to back up the food "recipe".
Pet food certification
Several different organizations in Canada and the United States test and certify pet foods to ensure they meet the basic nutritional requirements of a normal animal. For pets with special needs, talk to your veterinarian about foods that provide optimum health.
Protein is an essential nutrient for dogs and cats. However, once a pet's basic requirements are met, increasing dietary protein provides no benefit. In fact, high levels of dietary protein can contribute to kidney disease, since the kidneys clear the blood of wastes from protein metabolism. Don't assume that a food is better because it advertises itself as "high-protein".
Don't assume a food is better simply because meat appears as the first ingredient on the label. The quality of the protein is more important than the source. For dogs, a high quality plant protein can provide better nutrition than a low quality meat source. Meat is more important for cats, as they are less able to use plant protein - this is why feeding dog food to a cat often results in serious malnutrition. When assessing a pet food, consider all the ingredients and how they complement each other, rather than focusing on meat alone.
High quality corn, properly cooked, is a digestible, nutritious carbohydrate source in dry diets. The use of corn in a food recipe doesn't necessarily mean the food is bad or good. You should consider all the ingredients and the overall nutrition they provide.
Lamb & rice
Lamb and rice diets were originally developed as alternative foods for pets with allergies to conventional ingredients, such as beef and wheat. This does NOT mean that pets cannot be allergic to lamb and rice. Your pet will be healthiest eating a diet with high-quality, consistent ingredients based on sound research by the manufacturer, and with the recommendation of your veterinarian.
Reading the label doesn't always help when you're trying to find the right food for your dog or cat. Your veterinarian knows your pet's nutritional needs and can recommend a diet to optimize your pet's health. Talk to your veterinarian if you have questions about pet nutrition!
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) has a Nutrition Toolkit (http://www.wsava.org/nutrition-toolkit) which contains good recommendations for dog and cat owners titled ‘Selecting the best Pet food’.