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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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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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Keep Your Rabbits Gnashers Gnawing Gnaturally!

Bunnies cropThe most common cause of illness in rabbits is poor dental health, they suffer terribly with their teeth and problems can become so severe, it is not unusual for bunnies to be euthansed because of them. However, the news is not all bad because it is actually very easy to keep a rabbits gnashers gnawing gnaturally! Rabbits have teeth that grow all the time and are kept short by both a natural diet of tough, woody grasses and also by the upper and lower sets grinding on each other. However, since bunnies have been domesticated their diets can be very different from the wild, often consisting of more soft rabbit food and vegetables than hay and grass, and this is what causes the problems. Firstly, because the teeth aren’t worn down by these softer foods and secondly because they can become calcium deficient; leading to the jaw bones softening, the teeth shifting and no longer being in alignment with each other. This problem is particularly prevalent when the rabbit is fed the muesli type diets, which they tend to selectively eat by picking out their favourite bits and so they don’t get a balanced diet. When they over-grow, the molar teeth can develop sharp spikes that dig into the sides of the mouth or tongue and cause a lot of pain. The incisor teeth can become extremely long and curl out of the mouth (which makes them easy to spot) or, worse, into it and dig into the flesh and bone. Again this is very painful and makes it almost impossible for the rabbit to eat. Also, the roots of the teeth can become impacted because of the back pressure and as well as being very sore, can also become infected; causing nasty abscesses which can be extremely difficult to treat. Spotting dental problems is not always easy because rabbits will hide when they are poorly but checking their weight regularly, examining their mouths and carefully monitoring their appetite are all good ways of picking up on issues. To check your bunny’s mouth, hold them on your lap and gently lift their lips up to have a look at the incisor teeth. These should be smooth, even and short. It is more or less impossible to check the molar teeth without a special scope but by feeling along the upper and lower jaw bones you can pick up abscesses and swellings. If you are at all concerned you should take your rabbit to your vet. The treatment of over-grown teeth can be a challenge and once they have developed them, many bunnies need to go in regularly for them to be trimmed, which can require an anaesthetic. Over-long incisors can be removed, which is a good idea because it solves the problem and the rabbit will still be able to eat without problems. However, by far the best thing is prevention rather than cure and this is done very easily by making sure your bunny’s diet is as similar as possible to that of their wild cousins; lots and lots and lots of chewy hay and grass!
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New Years Petolutions!

It is the time of year for New Year’s Resolutions but if our pets were to make them, what would they be…..? Dog Grey-Collie-dogOh! A New Year’s resolution? That sounds fun! I can I do one? Can I, can I, please?! Right, OK, what should I try? How about slobbering less?! Could do but that would be VERY difficult and I think Mum would miss it, she always shouts with delight when I give her a big kiss, especially first thing in the morning when she hasn’t seen me for AGES! I love walks, what about going on more?! With Dad obviously, that time I tried it on my own wasn’t so successful. A lady caught me and I ended up at the VETS, yuk! But Dad soon came to collected me and said it was a good thing I was chips (I think!). I like chips, they let me eat the crunchy ones they don’t like. Anyway, yes, walks, I love them but wish I could go off the lead more (that’s why it was SO much fun when I went on my own!). Dad doesn’t let me much but I love to run. I know he gets a bit cross when I don’t come back straight away but it is so BRILLIANT to run, it’s what we dogs are made for! I suppose I would go back if he made things more interesting, like playing games or having some treats. Also, I am not very good at commands but then again we don’t practice them much and my doggy brain needs to be reminded otherwise I forget stuff. So, more walks where I can run, yes, that would be it! Now, where’s Mum, I feel a good slobber coming on! Cat Amber A New Year’s resolution? That sounds like hard work, can’t I just lie here and sleep? I like sleeping, I am very good at it, maybe I should resolve to do it more, I think I could just about manage another hour or so a day, it is a very busy life you know. I used to run around when I was younger but it is much easier now to lie still now, the staff say that is because I am slightly larger than I used to be but I know that I am perfect. There is always a full bowl of biscuits down, but what is a cat to do, ignore them? I don’t think so! Obviously I don’t always eat everything I am given, sometimes I just lick the gravy or jelly from the meat course but that is mainly to keep the staff on their toes and the menu varied. I did hear mention if I stay this cuddly I could get problems like arthritis or diabetes, which don’t sound very nice, so maybe I should try to slim down a bit. Hmm, I shall sleep on it, zzzz. Rabbit Bunny Well, yes, a New Year’s resolution, I think I could manage that. Let me just clean my paws while I think. It would be nice to nose twitch to a friend about it but I don’t have one. nibble nibble I do get lonely on my own, the people come to see me every day, especially the little one, but it isn’t the same as having somebun here all the time. nibble nibble We bunnies naturally get on together well, think how many friends I would have if I lived in a burrow! One thing I know I should do is eat more hay, it is good for my teeth and tummy, nibble sniff nibble, but when there is a full bowl of yummy pellets around all the time, it is very difficult to resist them and then I don’t have any room for hay! nibble, clean ears, sniff, nibble So, I will try to eat more hay, but what I would really love is a friend! nibble, nibble, nose twitch, big sigh! Our pets have simple needs and wants and it would be so easy in most cases to help them! Maybe that could be your New Year’s Resolution and then everyone’s a winner! Why not take a look at our Pet Care Advice pages? Or if you are worried about your pet, check the problem with our Interactive Symptom Guide.
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What Your Rabbit Really Needs

Bunnies crop

Rabbits are really popular pets in the UK, second only to cats and dogs, and they can make great companions. However, despite peoples best efforts their needs are often misunderstood and rather than being treated as the intelligent, social animal they are, many are condemned to a life of loneliness and boredom in a cage at the bottom of the garden. It is not difficult to look after rabbits in a way that will keep them both healthy and happy, so what do they really need?

The most important thing you can do to keep a rabbit healthy is feed them a balanced diet. The most common problems that vets see in rabbits are over-grown teeth, tummy upsets and obesity related disease, all of which are directly related to them being fed incorrectly. The vast majority of a rabbit’s diet, at least 80%, should be good quality hay. As a rough guide, every day a rabbit should eat a pile of hay as big as it is. Rabbit’s teeth grow continually and without hay to grind them down, they can develop painful spikes, which rip into the tissues of the mouth, and nasty abscesses in the roots. Hay is also required for good digestion (rabbits can easily die from upset tummies) and helps prevent them getting fat. In addition to hay rabbits should have a small amount of fresh vegetables every day, half a handful is enough and a small amount of pelleted rabbit food, no more than a tablespoon twice a day. This is often where people go wrong, leaving the rabbit with an over-flowing bowl of rabbit food, which, because it is high in calories and very tasty, it is all they eat, giving them a very unbalanced diet.

Rabbits are extremely social creatures, in the wild they live in large family groups, and they should never be kept on their own. The best thing to do is to buy sibling rabbits when they are young. You can introduce rabbits when they are adults but it has to be done with care as many will fight at first. However, it is important to persevere and get the right advice as rabbits are miserable when alone. They are also very intelligent, so make sure they have a variety of toys in their cages and runs to keep them entertained. These don’t have to be expensive, there are plenty of commercially available rabbit toys or just a couple of logs they can play on and nibble are fine.

All rabbits should be neutered, even if they are kept with others of the same sex, and this can be done from the age of 4 months for boys and 6 months for girls. Neutered rabbits make much calmer pets and are far easier to handle. They are also much less likely to fight with each other; 2 entire males kept together, even if they are siblings, can become very aggressive once their hormones kick in. Neutering also has huge health benefits, particularly for the females, of whom 80% will get uterine cancer if they are not spayed.

For most people the whole point of owning a rabbit is because they are cute and cuddly creatures but anyone who has tried to pick up a startled or poorly handled rabbit will know that they can do a lot of damage with their strong nails and back legs! So, it is important that they are played with and handled everyday so they are used to human interaction. Rabbits are prey animals in the wild and their only defence mechanism when frightened is to struggle and try to run away. This is why they don’t always make great pets for children, who can be, unintentionally, quite rough or unpredictable in their handling and it is a big reason why rabbits bought as pets for children end up forgotten and neglected at the bottom of the garden; because no child will play with a pet which has hurt it. However, with regular, careful handling from an early age rabbits can become great companions and members of the family.

Rabbits can make great pets but they need just as much care and attention as other animals and shouldn’t be seen as an ‘easy’ option. Although they are often bought for children they are not always the most suitable pet for young people and they should always be kept with at least one other rabbit. However, they can be real characters once you get to know them and really give back what you put in, provided, of course, you give them what they really need!

For details on examining a rabbit, neutering and vaccinations, take a look at our Pet Care Advice pages. If you are worried about any symptoms your rabbit may be showing, talk to your vet or use our Rabbit Symptom Checker to help decide what to do.
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