is a posh dinner better than dry pellets?

As humans, we are often told about the importance of eating fresh whole food, using ingredients from local farms if possible, and avoiding highly processed products. Yet when it comes to our pets, the advice from professional nutritionists and vets seems to be the opposite: dry kibble biscuits are recommended in preference to home cooking. What’s the background to this apparent divergence in opinions?

The answer lies in the science of nutrition. Many studies and trials have been carried out on the specific nutritional requirements of dogs and cats: we have a clear understanding of their specific nutrient needs. And pet food manufacturers have learned how to include these necessary nutrients in their products.

The fierce competition in the pet food market place has driven manufacturers to create cost-effective, palatable, safe products that customers can serve their pets with confidence, knowing that they will be providing their much-loved animals with all that they need to thrive.

Most dogs and cats have been fed on commercial pet food, both wet versions (in tins and sachets) and dry kibble, for decades, and the results have been a resounding success. I know many dogs that have lived into their late teens, and cats that have lived into their twenties, fed on nothing but commercial pet food. If there was a systemic issue, we would know about it by now.

Yes, of course, there are some specific occasions when certain foods do not suit pets: food allergy can cause itchiness in around one-in-five of the itchy dogs that vets see, and those dogs need to be changed to special diets that do not include the ingredients that prompted the allergy. A small number of pets may develop inflammatory bowel disease which again, may mean that they need to be fed on particular types of food.

But in general, the only time that vets see significant issues linked to nutrition are when people veer from the standard path, trying to meet their pets’ nutritional needs in their own kitchen, using home cooking.

Home cooking for pets is far more complicated than you’d think. Multiple studies have shown that nearly all of the pet food recipes available online and in books are unbalanced, with both deficiencies and excesses of significant nutrients.

As an example, many recipes recommend the addition of a human multivitamin to a pet food recipes, but these generally have far higher amounts of vitamin D than needed, exceeding the safety limit for pets and possibly leading to toxicities. If people really want to home cook for their pet, they should do it under professional supervision, with the guidance of a trained veterinary nutritionist, making sure that they use a safe, balanced and nutritious recipe.

It’s easy to do this using the internet. A US-originated website, www.balanceit.com, provides a direct connection with nutritionists, as well as necessary supplements of minerals and vitamins, specifically formulated for pets.

I know that this may sound extreme to some readers: after all, we humans are able to home cook for ourselves, without needing to look for professional advice on the ingredients of our recipes. Why can’t we do the same for our pets?

I asked this exact question at a veterinary nutritional conference recently, and the answer surprised me: the truth is that ideally, humans should be talking to professional nutritionists about what they eat. As an example, the majority of people in Ireland suffer from Vitamin D deficiency, leading to a range of symptoms including fatigue, depression and bone pain. If we all had our diets checked by a professional, this could be avoided. There are many other examples in the human world.

I’ve seen pets fed on obviously imbalanced diets having very serious health issues: puppies reared on nothing but porridge with ulcerated, painful gums and tongues, dogs fed on nothing but pure chicken meat developing significant joint disease, cats eating raw liver suffering from painful bony spurs on their spines. If people are reasonably sensible about how they formulate home-cooking for their immediate pets (eg feeding a balanced diet of the type we might eat ourselves), there may not be any problems.

But as the months and years pass, small deficiencies and excesses begin to lead to health problems such as skin disease, liver disease and other complications. The only way to avoid this is by taking professional nutritional advice.

Another alternative to dry kibble that has become popular is the feeding of raw meat and bones. The commercial versions of these products have been carefully formulated to ensure that they provide properly balanced nutrition. Proponents often have almost evangelical enthusiasm for this feeding method, as if it’s the only right way to feed an animal. And there’s no doubt that some pets thrive on it.

But there’s one big issue: there have been many reports of humans sharing homes with pets fed on raw diets succumbing to illnesses linked to the pathogenic bacteria that are often found in raw meat. Dogs have very acidic stomachs, and they are able to cope with this type of bacterial challenge.

But the bacteria (such as Salmonella and Campylobacter) contaminate the dog’s fur, skin, mouth and food bowls, exposing human owners to the risk of infection. Vulnerable people (young children, elderly people, those on chemotherapy etc) are at significant risk of serious illness. Nobody should consider feeding raw meat to their pets without carefully considering this aspect: this is what the science tells us.

For most pets, a good quality kibble (such as the Petfix range, which I have selected myself) provides optimal nutrition for pets. There’s no need to open the kitchen cupboards to get the pots and pans out.

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