Companion Animal Nutrition and Food Selection

Fifty years ago, the pet food section of your grocery store offered no more than half a dozen brands of dog or cat food. Thirty years later, there were a lot of new brand names and flavors, and today the selection is mind-boggling. In fact, there are whole stores devoted to pet foods. How can you possibly pick the right food for your cat or dog?

As with just about everything else in life, our companion animals' nutritional needs can be illustrated with a bell-shaped curve. The vast majority of pets are in the center of the curve, and these dogs and cats have "average" nutritional demands. On the far right of the curve are those animals with genetic or medical problems that require specific or limited diets, such as Dalmations with urate metabolism deficiency or cats with food allergies. On the far left lip of the bell curve are those animals that can eat anything and thrive, probably even toxic waste.

By now you probably know whether or not your companion animal is on the right, left or middle of the curve. If you are having what you think might be a diet-related problem with your companion animal right now, the best thing to do is to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to explore the possible causes. If all is well, remember that it's still a good idea to get an annual check-up for your pet and to discuss diet at that time.

I have always believed that Purina products have been the standard of the industry through the years. They are the biggest and have spent the most money on research and development. There are also pet foods that I feel are inferior and many that are probably superior in overall quality. Generics and brand names you've never heard of before may be OK for some dogs, but many dogs will decline in overall health if fed these brands over a period of time. Brands touted as "superior" may be much more than your dog really needs, and you are throwing away a lot of money. They may even be harmful in some cases, such as those with high protein levels that can cause kidney failure. It is probably safe to say that American dogs and cats are better fed than most people on this planet.

Pick a name brand you are familiar with and give it a try. Remember to slowly switch the diet by mixing the new food with the previous food over a period of a week to avoid sudden change loose stools. If all goes well, and they like it, stick with the same brand and flavor. Don't make frequent changes because your animal's body needs to adjust each time you jump from one brand to another.

Avoid giving your companion animal lots of treats and table scraps. Over half of Americans are overweight, and so are our dogs and cats. When you give lots of treats you are upsetting the balanced nutrition of the main diet food and you are adding more calories. I tell my clients that, "Food is not love, and love is not food - you are killing them with kindness or 'loving them to death!'"

Obesity in dogs wears out their hip and knee joints prematurely, sets them up for anterior cruciate ligament rupture and more vet bills down the road. The odds are they will not live a full life expectancy due to the many negative effects of overfeeding. The best rule of thumb is that if you can see the ribs, they are too thin, and if you can't feel the ribs, they are too fat. You should be able to feel individual ribs when you rub your hand over the chest behind the front legs.

Beware of the pet food salesperson who says, "That food is no good because they use wood shavings for fiber." If they are trying to run down another brand to sell their own, realize their motives. Pet store chains may have their own "house brands" to sell, and their profit margin is higher if they push their own food. If it's a name brand they are degrading, they are probably wrong. There is also the sales pitch that, "Chicken is better than corn," or "We use only the finest ingredients." There are thousands of types of corn, soybeans, wheat and other grains and legumes, but some are poorly digested and some can be digested, but are not "bioavailable" to the pet's system. When in doubt, consult your vet.

How much food and when to feed are questions I'm frequently asked. There are several pet food charts available that show a breed's ideal weight (Fit 'N Trim®) and suggest how much food to feed to achieve that weight. There is usually a reducing schedule and a maintenance schedule once that weight is achieved. Basically, you are counting calories, and the entire diet can be fed once in the morning or divided and fed twice during the day. The chart assumes, of course, that you are not cheating by giving your companion animal "extras." Remember that many feeding recommendations are too high in calories for the average dog's needs. After all, pet food companies are trying to sell dog food, and the more your dog eats, the more they sell.

For large breed dogs, it's best not to feed too close to exercise time to prevent bloat and gastric torsion. No strenuous exercise or running for two hours after eating. Exercise is always a part of dieting, and a slow, gradual build-up is advised. Just a walk around the block is a good start. Overweight dogs are in danger of injuring their knees if they overload the joint while running and turning, so take it easy.

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