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Pet food: what does the label tell you, and how much does it matter to your pet?

Do you ever wonder what actually goes into pet food? Everyone with a pet has to provide food for them every day, but most of us are unaware of the background to what we are feeding. That's not to say that we don't care about it: pet food manufacturers know that we want to do the best for our pets, so labelling and packaging tends to give a sense of wholesome ingredients and tastiness. But what's going on behind the scenes? There's an anti-corporate trend in the modern online world, with an underlying emotion of distrust in big companies. While this may sometimes be justified, the truth is that most companies are just bigger versions of small businesses, doing their best to provide products and services in an efficient, effective way. Pet food companies are no different: while some pet owners may dislike the idea of mass produced pet food, it's still the method that most pet owners use to feed their pets, and for the most part, it works very well. Pet food production is regulated by law to ensure that it's safe and nutritious. Recent research showed that 70% of owners and 85% of vets agreed that commercially prepared pet food provides optimum nutrition. Almost 60% of owners and 95% vets would go as far as to say pets are living longer as a result of advanced nutrition. Of course there are individual animals that have special nutritional needs, just as some humans do. But for most pets, commercial pet food does a good job. Pet food manufacturers produce products in line guidelines that are regularly reviewed by independent nutrition experts. There is also strict legislation governing what ingredients can be used, laid down by European law, but also applicable to imported commercially prepared pet foods. So what actually goes into commercial pet food? 'Ingredients' is the general term used for raw materials and additives in pet foods. Typical pet food ingredients include protein sources such as poultry, beef and fish plus vegetables, cereals, vitamins and minerals, all combined according to recipes designed by veterinary nutritionists to create a balanced diet. Many supermarket type pet foods seem to have ingredients that are easy to criticise: the classic example is "meat and animal derivatives". This may sound like a vague term, but it's actually precisely and legally defined in the Animal Feed Regulations 2010. Manufacturers are legally obliged to use this term because it accurately describes what goes into the food. In reality, the term refers to by-products of the human food industry that come from animals slaughtered under veterinary supervision e.g. heart, lung, or muscle meat, which may not be traditionally eaten by people in this country. The ingredients have been inspected and passed as suitable for human consumption, so there's nothing "low quality" about them. The term "ash" is also often criticised: after all, who would like a sprinkling of ashes from the fire mixed up in their food? In fact, again, this term is legally defined: it refers to the mineral content of the food and is determined chemically by the burning of the product. It is a legal requirement to include the ash content on a pet food label. What about more expensive pet food, sometimes called "premium" or "super-premium"? How is this different, and are these diets worth paying for? Such terms are not legally defined, and so they are more of a marketing term than a technical description. Factors include type of ingredients used, quality of ingredients and investment in innovation in the product. "Super premium" diets tend to include specific ingredients, such as particular types of meat, antioxidants for immune support and glucosamine for joint care. If you read the ingredients label yourself, you should be able to see what you are paying for. What about home-prepared diets? Many people do cook food for their own pets, but you need to be careful: it can be difficult to be sure that you are providing the right balance of nutrients without having a recipe checked by a qualified nutritionist. A simple rule of thumb is that 90% of a pet's diet should be commercially prepared, with just 10% as extras or treats. This will ensure that your pet does not suffer from any unexpected nutritional deficiencies. So what's the ideal food for pets? The answer, as for humans, is that it depends on the individual. Many pets fed on grocery-supplied standard pet food are in excellent health. Others thrive on premium type pet food, sold through pet shops and vet clinics. And some pets do well on a more "natural" type diet, such as home-prepared or "raw" diets. It takes up to six weeks for the effect of a diet to become visible in an animal: if your pets enjoy their daily meals, and have bright eyes, a shiny coat and a muscular, sleek body, then you can be sure that you are feeding a diet that suits them well.
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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.
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Ask a vet online ‘How old does a pupy have to be before moving them onto adult food?’

Question from Tracie J Thorne How old does a pupy have to be before moving them onto adult food and not the PUPPY variety? Answer from Shanika Winters (Online Vet) Hi Tracie, thank you for your question regarding the age at which it is best to change a dog from puppy food over to adult dog food. I will start by discussing a little about pet food and then tie this in with each stage of a pet’s life and its nutritional requirements. Your pet dog needs a balanced diet to provide its body with all the ingredients (nutrients) to keep it functioning. The basic food components are Protein, Carbohydrate, Fat, Vitamins and Minerals. Your dog also needs to have fresh water to drink.  Pet food that you buy can provide some or in the case of complete diets all the nutrients your pet needs to maintain a healthy body. Dog food is available in many forms including: tinned, pouches, trays, semi moist and dry nuggets.  Which exact form of dog food you choose is a personal choice but may be influenced by how fussy an eater your dog is and the advice of your vet.  Some owners may choose to make a home cooked diet and there are also some people who like to feed a raw diet. If you are unsure as to what is the best diet for your dog then discuss it with your vet or veterinary nurse, they are trained to give nutritional advice and help find the diet that will suit your pet. At each life stage through from being a puppy through to an adult dog and then a mature dog your pet’s nutritional requirements will change. Puppies are still growing and require a higher protein, higher energy and specific vitamin and mineral balanced diet than an adult dog which is simply maintaining its body condition. Pregnant bitches and working dogs will also have a higher energy requirement from their diet than an elderly dog. This is one of the reasons that there are so many different dog foods available and labelled for each life stage. Different breeds of dog will finish growing at slightly different ages, larger breed dogs such as Labradors will finish growing later that smaller breed dogs such as Yorkshire terriers. As an approximate guide small breed dogs will need puppy food for the first 6-12 months, the larger breed dogs will need puppy food for approximately 18 months.  There are some puppy foods that are designed for different breeds/sizes of dog, and most bought pet foods will give you a guide as to which age to switch to adult dog food. As your dog moves from being a young adult dog through to a more mature dog then it may be advisable to change to a senior dog food which takes into account the changing nutritional needs of the older dog.  If your dog has a specific medical condition from being overweight through to joint disease there are specific diets formulated for each condition. I hope that this has helped to answer your question and that if you have any doubt then discuss your dog’s dietary needs with your veterinary surgeon. Shanika Winters MRCVS (Online Vet) If you are worried about your puppy or dog,  please book an appointment with your vet or use our online symptom checker.
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Weigh-in Wednesdays

Help your pet’s health with the Friends for Life campaign and Weigh-in Wednesdays.
Pet owners are often not aware of any problems with their pets, but research has shown a shocking statistic that almost half the pets seen in practice by vets are overweight.
There seems to be plenty of media coverage about human obesity and weight problems, but what effect does excess body fat have our pets? Not surprisingly many of the same health issues as humans. These include heart disease and circulatory problems, the increased risk of diabetes, joint disease and a poor respiratory system. Signs of these problems in an overweight animal could include not wanting to walk very far, pain on movement, breathlessness and coughing. Many pet owners are aware of these common problems, however, there are far more health issues associated with having an overweight animal: There can be poorer immune response, difficulty in giving birth, incontinence, heat intolerance and fatty changes can cause liver problems for cats.
If an overweight pet needs an operation, there is an increased risk of surgical complications, as there is in humans. An increased anaesthetic risk, slow wound healing and a greater risk of wound infection are some of the extra problems the veterinary team might face.
Because of these issues and the high number of overweight pets in the UK, the Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PMFA) launched the ‘Friends for Life’ campaign in May 2013, with a fresh promotion in August. Working with leading experts in the field of pet food the constant focus is on helping the U.K.'s pet owners (and potential pet owners) improve the health and well-being of their animals.
The campaign encourages owners of dogs, cats, rabbits even birds to contact their vet or pet care specialist each Wednesday throughout August, to get advice on weight management and to keep a check on their pets health. These days are called Weigh In Wednesdays!
But the campaign doesn't stop there – it can be ongoing at the vet surgery with regular checks on the pet's progress. By monitoring the pet’s body size and health, research shows they could potentially increase the pet’s life expectancy by up to 2 years.
The Weigh In Wednesday campaign starts on 7th August and both pet owners and pet professionals can download all the tools they need from the PFMA website . The pet owner pack consists of a food diary, the pet pledge and a weight and condition log.
By working with the vets and pet health specialists, owners can make a real difference to their pets lives.
David Kalcher RVN
Help your pet’s health with the Friends for Life campaign and Weigh-in Wednesdays. Pet owners are often not aware of any problems with their pets, but research has shown a shocking statistic that almost half the pets seen in practice by vets are overweight. There seems to be plenty of media coverage about human obesity and weight problems, but what effect does excess body fat have our pets? Not surprisingly many of the same health issues as humans. These include heart disease and circulatory problems, the increased risk of diabetes, joint disease and a poor respiratory system. Signs of these problems in an overweight animal could include not wanting to walk very far, pain on movement, breathlessness and coughing. Many pet owners are aware of these common problems, however, there are far more health issues associated with having an overweight animal: There can be poorer immune response, difficulty in giving birth, incontinence, heat intolerance and fatty changes can cause liver problems for cats. If an overweight pet needs an operation, there is an increased risk of surgical complications, as there is in humans. An increased anaesthetic risk, slow wound healing and a greater risk of wound infection are some of the extra problems the veterinary team might face. Because of these issues and the high number of overweight pets in the UK, the Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PMFA) launched the ‘Friends for Life’ campaign in May 2013, with a fresh promotion in August. Working with leading experts in the field of pet food the constant focus is on helping the U.K.'s pet owners (and potential pet owners) improve the health and well-being of their animals. The campaign encourages owners of dogs, cats, rabbits even birds to contact their vet or pet care specialist each Wednesday throughout August, to get advice on weight management and to keep a check on their pets health. These days are called Weigh In Wednesdays! But the campaign doesn't stop there – it can be ongoing at the vet surgery with regular checks on the pet's progress. By monitoring the pet’s body size and health, research shows they could potentially increase the pet’s life expectancy by up to 2 years. The Weigh In Wednesday campaign starts on 7th August and both pet owners and pet professionals can download all the tools they need from the PFMA website . The pet owner pack consists of a food diary, the pet pledge and a weight and condition log. By working with the vets and pet health specialists, owners can make a real difference to their pets lives. David Kalcher RVN
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What NOT to feed your cat.

Gizmo eatingClients often ask me what they should feed their cats. It sounds like a simple question, but the answer is far from straight forward. The biggest debate amongst veterinarians at the moment is whether or not a cat should be fed dry food or wet food, or both. Personally, I tend to lean towards wet food as it seems to be the more natural option for a lot of different reasons that I won’t go into in this article. But I don’t necessarily recommend that to all of my clients. My own cat, for example, loves almost any dry diet but seems to hate wet food, so this is clearly not a good option for her. Being fussy creatures by nature, in most cases, the best food for your cat is the one that they will eat. But this isn’t always the case. Read on to see some examples of what NOT to feed your cat... “I feed my cat only the finest fillet steak! Costs me a fortune, so it must be good for her, right?” Short and long answer to that one – absolutely not. It’s true that in the world of well-balanced, scientifically formulated complete pet foods, you generally get what you pay for. More expensive foods, on the whole, tend to be of better quality than cheaper ones. But that only applies to complete, well-balanced pet foods. Just because a human food is expensive (ie, humans really like it and therefore are willing to pay a high price for it), doesn’t mean it’s going to do your cat any good at all. Sure, a bit of steak here and there isn’t going to hurt them, but by feeding your cat exclusively the muscle meat of any animal, they will quickly become deficient in a wide range of vitamins and minerals. There is, for example, very little calcium in muscle meat, to name just one. Other expensive human foods can even be dangerous for cats, even in small volumes. So if you ever feel like splashing out on your cat’s diet, put back the caviar and foie gras and ask your vet for their recommendation instead. “But sometimes all she’ll eat are her treats, so I just give her those!” The problem with this one is that unless your cat is extremely ill and you’re happy to get them to eat anything at all, this simply isn’t true. Cats are absolute masters when it comes to training their owners at mealtimes. And they’re not stupid. A normal, healthy cat will not starve itself. But they’ll certainly have you believe that they will. A normal cat (again, we’re not talking about sick cats here) who only eats treats, or some rubbish, unbalanced cat food, does so because their owner keeps providing it. Take it away and offer a balanced cat food, and eventually they will eat it. They may make you feel like you are the most horrible human on the planet for denying them their favourite food, but they will eat it. OK, you may have to try a few different flavours before you find one that they won’t argue about with you, but there is a good cat food out there that they will eat. And they will thank you with their good health, though not necessarily in any other way... Look at it another way, if somebody offered you a salad and a chocolate bar, you’d probably choose the chocolate bar. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t eat the salad tomorrow if that’s all there was! A word of caution though, if you try to change your cat’s diet, always do so gradually by mixing it in for a few days to avoid stomach upset. And if they really do go for more than 24-48 hours without eating their new food, speak with your vet for advice because it can be dangerous for a cat to not eat for too long and there may be an underlying medical problem that you didn’t know about. “My cats deserve a special treat, so I give them tuna for dinner every night” And I’m not talking about a complete and balanced tuna-flavoured cat food here, but tinned tuna for humans. In this case, it’s not the tuna itself that’s the problem (unless of course your cat is unfortunate enough to be allergic to tuna), rather the fact that it is fed as a meal every night. Too much fish can have inappropriate levels of calcium and phosphorus, and could lead to other problems like thiamine deficiency if raw fish is fed too often. There can also be low levels of toxins like mercury in some fish that won’t harm you if eaten occasionally but can build up if eaten in large quantities. It’s also worth noting that it is particularly important not to feed more than just the very occasional small treat of liver, as eating too much liver can cause serious vitamin toxicities. Like most things, moderation is key. Again, you might enjoy eating pizza for dinner every night, but it probably wouldn’t do your body any good. If you’d like to give your cats a treat, try giving them a different treat each time, provided each one is safe and not too high in fat, and give just a small amount of it, not a whole meal’s worth. “I’m sorry, did you say crisps?” Of course, there are some human foods that shouldn’t even be fed in moderation. You’d be amazed what some people will admit to feeding their cats as treats ‘because they really seem to like it’. Sure, your cat may love crisps, but they have absolutely no nutritional value for them (or us, really...), and are simply high in salt, fat, and carbohydrates. They may not necessarily hurt them, but they certainly don’t need them, and it’s not difficult to find them a more appropriate snack. Common human foods that probably shouldn’t be fed to cats in any quantity, no matter how much they seem to like them, include sweet or savoury biscuits, processed sandwich meat, and chips among many other things. You could also add milk and cheese to this list, although I haven’t had much luck convincing clients to give these treats up as they are used so commonly. Cats would not and probably should not naturally drink milk, and can in fact be allergic to it, it is only our domestication of them that has created this ‘need’. And then there are things like onions, chocolate, alcohol, tea, coffee, grapes and raisins that can be toxic in even small quantities so these should never be given to cats. Daisy pinching foodWhether the problem is finding a food that your cat seems to like, your cat constantly crying out for food, or your own overwhelming desire to treat them to something you think is nice, it’s important to remember that as the carer of this domestic animal you are generally in control of your cat’s diet. If your cat is overweight, chances are you’re feeding it too much, no matter how much they tell you they’re starving. If your otherwise normal, healthy cat will only eat the most expensive smoked salmon, it’s because you offered it to them and they decided it was good enough to hold out for. And if you’re unlucky enough to have a cat that hunts you down and cries for a tasty treat even though you know they shouldn’t have it, be strong and walk away, or better yet, try some kind of distraction such as a toy or a good stroke. It’s not always food they’re crying out for, sometimes it’s the attention of being fed. But if it persists, be sure to take them to the vet for a checkup because constantly crying out for food can actually be a sign of hyperthyroidism or other serious illness. Whatever the cause, if you find yourself with a feline feeding issue, speak with your vet because many times the solution is easier than you think. And remember, just because your cat wants it, doesn’t mean it’s in their best interest to have it! If you are worried about any specific symptoms your cat may be showing, talk to your Vet or try our Interactive Cat Symptom Guide to help assess how urgent it may be.
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