The truth about your dog’s food? Or sensationalist entertainment dressed up as “the truth”?

Feeding your pet properly is one of the most important aspects of good pet care: in an online Twitter discussion this week, there was broad agreement with the statement that “Nutrition is the single most important environmental influence on a pet’s health and well-being” . But how should an owner choose the best way to feed their pet?  The much-anticipated programme on Channel Five this week, “The Truth About Your Dog’s Food”  is bound to make people reconsider how they feed their pet pooches.

There are many different types of pet food available, from a variety of sources, and it can be confusing for pet owners. There are many “right” ways to feed a pet, not just “one true way”, but it’s common for people to find a way that works for their pet, and then to believe that this is the best way for every animal. I believe that this is the reason why people sometimes become fanatically passionate about certain ways of feeding pets (such as “raw meat and bones”)

I know that my profession – a veterinary surgeon – has been criticised for selling pet food, and there are conspiracy theorists out there suggesting that vets are influenced by the pet food companies that offer financial support to some educational programmes. If you are a believer in such wild nonsense, then don’t read any further – it’ll just be a waste of your time, because you already know that you are not going to agree with what I say.

But to the rest of you, I can say that as a vet, I have been trained in nutrition, and I have been observing the way that my patients and my own pets have been fed for the past thirty years, and this blog is my genuine effort to try to put some common sense down in writing.
There are broadly three ways to feed a pet animal.

A) ‘Human’ food or home prepared. Some people choose to feed their pet on scraps from the table, on specially prepared ‘human’ type meals or on “raw” meat and bones. This method of feeding may be fine as long as the resulting diet is balanced, with the correct combination of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. It can be difficult to ensure that the best balance is attained, which is why most people choose to feed their pet on commercial pet foods which have been custom-made to provide all of the necessary nutrients. One recent study of home-made dog food recipes (from websites, veterinary text books, and pet care books) found that 95% were deficient in at least one essential nutrient.

B) Commercially prepared food
It’s safer to choose a commercially prepared diet: members of the Pet Food Manufacturers Association follow European nutritional guidelines for pets, reviewed by independent experts such as vets, scientists and animal nutritionists to ensure that they are correct. You may not like the sound of what they put into your pet’s food, but it does provide complete nutrition. Pet food manufacturers are bound by law to produce food that is nutritionally balanced for pets. The type of ingredients used vary, and while the raw ingredients may not look appealing to humans, the final product is carefully designed to appeal to humans as well as to pets.

1.Moist pet food. Tinned pet food is the traditional way to feed dogs and cats: in recent years, packaging has improved so that sachets and cartons are now also available
a) A cat may be fed on tinned food (such as ‘Whiskas’ ) with perhaps a scattering of dry biscuits.
b) A dog may be fed on tinned food (such as ‘Pedigree Chum’) combined in the bowl with dry mixer biscuits.

Whilst this traditional way of feeding animals is perfectly adequate, it is not necessarily the best quality, most convenient or most economical diet.

2. Complete dried pet food.
High quality complete dry biscuits have been increasingly used to feed pets over the past 20 years. These are effectively a combination of meat and biscuit rolled into one. In the past, ‘muesli’ type dry diets were very popular, but technology has enabled the production of so-called ‘extruded’ biscuits, which are meaty looking pellets of various sizes. These modern dry foods are popular for a number of reasons, including convenience and economy. A wide range of products is available, with considerable differences in price and quality. A good quality dry food is often the best way for most owners to feed their pets.
Comparison of the three types of feeding

Home-prepared or “raw meat” diets

Moist Food

  • 80% water
  • Relatively expensive
  • Inconvenient – heavy tins/containers, need to buy every week, and can be unpleasant having open containers in fridge
  • Tends to be tastier/stronger smell than dry food, so pets often prefer it

Complete Dried Food

  • 5 – 12% water
  • Price depends on quality, but generally cheaper than moist food
  • Convenient – buy a big bag once a month. Keeps fresh for a long time if stored in a cool dry place
  • Palatability depends on price – cheaper dry foods less attractive to pets than more expensive, better quality products
  • Dry biscuits can be good for dental health – chewing helps to keep teeth and gums healthy, but replacing a portion of the daily meal with a custom-designed dental chew stick is more effective (and tooth-brushing is even more effective than this)

Controversies and conclusions
The latest fad in pet nutrition is “raw feeding”, using raw meat, raw bones and raw herbage. Proponents claim that is a “natural” diet that allows dogs to achieve optimum health and longevity. These claims are not backed up by data. Last year, a team of Swedish researchers compared the genomes of wolves and dogs and found that a big difference is dogs’ ability to easily digest starch. At the time that dogs became close companions to humans, they adapted to be able to digest wheat, rice, barley, corn and potatoes. There is plenty of evidence that dogs thrive, and live long healthy lives being fed on complete dry or moist food produced by commercial pet food manufacturers. Yes, of course dogs fall ill, but there is no evidence of a link to modern commercial pet foods, despite the loud claims of many proponents of other ways of feeding pets.
Many manufacturers of expensive dried foods also maintain that their products are made of better quality ingredients that are therefore better for dogs. And many vet clinics stock ranges of dried pet foods that are often more expensive than grocery products. Are these foods better for pets?

My conclusion
Every pet is individual and has different nutritional needs. You should choose a diet that is balanced and that your pet enjoys eating. If the diet suits your pet, they will thrive with a shiny coat, bright eyes, and good health.
My experience is that if the cheapest foods, with the lowest quality ingredients, are fed, pets tend to have dry, unkempt coats, with dull eyes and they are obviously not thriving. If such pets are changed to a high quality, more expensive diet, their condition will often improve – not at once, but after around 6 – 8 weeks which is the length of time that it takes for nutrition to have a visible external effect.
Additionally, more expensive dried foods, with high quality ingredients, tend to be more digestible, with less indigestible bulk, so that animals produce less faeces every day (which means you have to pick up less when out on walks).

A new website has been set up to compare the 1200 types of dog food that are currently available on the UK market: some of the science behind the “expert rating” of the various foods may be debatable, but the website does provide an in-depth review of the various ingredients in modern dog food, and it’s a useful way of gaining a better understanding of the subject.

  • I appreciate the fact that you admit that the food suited to every pet dog varies and there are 3 ways to feed them. The key is balance diet. But you seem to suggest that this is more likely achieved in commercially prepared food. I cannot agree that balance diet can be achieved with synthetic food with chemicals included to preserve it. This is toxic to our pet and renders their lives shorter. It is best that we cook our own dog food. In that way, we know what ingredients we put and we are sure that these ingredients are healthy and give them the amount of diet they need.

  • Ingrid says:

    Hi Pete, I am always reading your columns and like the way you put the information in an every day perspective, taking into account how people FEEL about their dogs, next to scientific information and your professional views. Common sense next to a vet’s knowledge, resulting in reliable advice for everyone, and I really like the way you are always ending with a to the point summary. So basically, I am a fan and trust your opinion. But I am a bit surprised about one little aspect of today’s column (about dog food). Again very to the point this column, but I do not think you can put ‘table scraps’ and a raw meat diet together in one category. They are not the same! Table scraps tend to be heavy on ingredients that are NOT good for a dog (salt, spices, gravy), while the raw meat that one can buy as a special dog food will be a lot healthier. Not complete nutrition though, as even the manufacturer of the raw dog meats that I buy points out quite frankly. Don’t worry, I am not a raw food fanatic, I am feeding good quality biscuits as well as the raw dog meat and occasionally a big bone because it is so much fun for my boys. I know all that you wrote today makes a lot of sense, but this one little thing needs a bit more differentiation in my opinion.

  • pete says:

    You make a good point Ingrid, and really, “raw meat diet” ought to have had a separate section of its own, due to its currently popularity. I guess I was trying to simplify things – and the way I see it, the aim is a “complete” diet. You can do that simply by choosing the commercial option (so that a company nutritionist has done the work for you) or you can do it yourself by home cooking OR raw diets. Does that make sense now?

  • pete says:

    Angelika – I know many dogs that have had long and healthy lives fed on commercially prepared food including chemicals. I do agree that it’s best to feed higher quality ingredients, with less additives etc but having said that, many dogs don’t seem to suffer the adverse consequences that you describe. My view would be that if your pet is unwell, yes, explore other diet possibilities, but if your pet is thriving, then do you really need to? I am conscious that one of the unintended effects of this debate about nutrition is that some people who are cash strapped feel horribly guilty that their pets are “paying a price for their poverty”. Some pets thrive on cheap food, even though it might not be ideal.

  • Arlene says:

    I have yet to watch the show, but regarding raw feeding, it’s really not as difficult as one might imagine if you give it a little thought and are happy to do some prep work once a fortnight.
    I have a GSD, Archer, who is almost 2 years old and I’ve been raw feeding him since he was a pup. Anecdotally he is lean, fit, has a good coat, excellent teeth ( snow white, no plaque), poos but once a day and best of all had virtually no body odor- bar whatever muckfest he ran through on his morning outings.
    My local butcher minces down 5/6 kilos of offcuts for me every 10 days, which I then weigh and bag into individual meals and freeze. As well as this he eats chicken on the bone most mornings, usually an ‘oyster’ leg and a thigh or drumstick. I suppliement his diet with mackerel, sardines, herrings, salmon, eggs, tripe, kidneys, hearts (his favourite thing to eat) and the occasional pork hock ( not ham, too salty) or if it is in season, rabbit. And frankly, I think he’s a pretty well-fed creature. It works out about the same price as Royal Canin over the course of a month, a little less in fact.
    He had no allergies and a solid stomach, his energy levels are astounding, last week he covered 100- 120 kilometres with nary a qualm ( he covers about 10- 12k a morning, my husband takes him out in the evening and I take him running with me 3 times a week in harness). There may not be enough studies currently regarding dogs fed exclusively raw, but I will observe my own dog and make note of his health as he ages.
    In my local -and excellent -vets office, there is a campaign to reduce obesity in dogs and this raises an interesting question. While dogs may have adapted to our human-centric diets ( barley, rice and so forth), it doesn’t mean this is automatically best practice. Maise and ‘meat derivatives’ don’t exactly inspire confidence. There’s so much filler in cheaper foods that it is not entirely surprising that dogs gain so much weight, not to mention the sneaky snacks ost pets are fed daily, or get dull coats and allergies.
    Please excuse my rather rambling comment, I agree that people must do and feed what works for their dogs, be it a quality dry or a moist food, but please don’t discount raw or think it’s some kind of ridiculous fad. Many of us who care deeply for our dogs only want to do what is best for them too :)

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