Smart Nutrition for Pet Owners

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Pet owners should know that for cats prone to forming urinary crystals, smart nutrition might entail providing low-ash acidifying foods.
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Puppies can become quite rambunctious at feeding time.

Like their owners, pets depend on a balanced diet for
their general health and well-being. But these days, with
store shelves brimming with dog and cat foods specially
formulated for every size, shape, and age, figuring out
what’s best for your pet can be daunting. To help you sort
out what’s healthful and what’s hype, MOTHER EARTH NEWS sought out small animal veterinarian and emergency-clinic
owner Dr. Andrew Martin to get his advice on smart nutrition for pet owners.

MOTHER:What is the
most common nutrition-related problem that you encounter in
your practice?

Dr. Andrew Martin: Obesity. Most
household pets are, like most Americans, overweight. And the
things that contribute to added weight in people are usually
responsible for the same problem in their pets: snacking and
insufficient activity. Very rarely do we see a pet with a
gland problem causing increased weight.

MOTHER:Is there a good way to judge if
a pet is overweight?

A.M.: In every household
pet, we should be able to easily feel the rib cage — not just
know that there are ribs there. In deep-chested breeds of
dogs, such as greyhounds, German shepherds, and setters, we
should also be able to see the individual ribs. In cats, the
main site of fat accumulation is the underbelly, which should
never get to the point where it sways as the cat walks. In
either case, the flatter the back of the animal gets, the
closer to true obesity the pet is approaching.

MOTHER:What health
risks are associated with pet obesity?

A.M.: The major health risks attributable to
excess weight in pets are the same as those seen in people:
heart disease and arthritis. The leading causes of death in
larger dogs are heart failure and euthanasia due to arthritic
pain. In overweight cats, there is also a very severe liver
disease that is quite common and often fatal.

MOTHER.:What’s the best way to keep a
pet from becoming obese?

A.M.: When
attempting to control or decrease the weight of your pet,
there is a lot to be gained from adjusting not only the type
of food it gets but also the amount. Diets that are marketed
for specific age or activity-level groups are generally
produced with either differences in vitamin and mineral
content designed to meet growth needs of young animals, or
altered caloric content designed to meet activity-level needs
of adult animals. If you cannot feel your dogs ribs, you need
to feed fewer calories — either by changing to a lower calorie
food or by feeding less in volume. And, of course, increased
activity can only help, if you have the resolve to do it.

MOTHER:With so many foods on the
market, how can a per owner choose the tight one?

A.M.: The major pet food companies all have
veterinary nutritional experts on staff, who eliminate the
need for guesswork on the part of pet owners. The recent
explosion in the variety of pet foods unfortunately
complicates the decision-making process. There are now
all-natural foods, foods with higher meat content than soy or
corn meal, lamb and rice varieties, high-protein foods, and
so on. Most of these foods are designed according to what the
marketing department folks think the public will be intrigued
into purchasing rather than any technical reason why they
would be better for your pet. And as for your local ‘Super
Pet Store’ that sells these products, it’s most likely
staffed by part-time teenage help, rather than by anyone with
special training.

I would trust the expertise of the
professionals at Purina or Friskies over the advice of anyone
trying to sell me a product that I have never heard of. The
marketing personnel at some of the newer food manufacturing
companies have not been able to explain to me how a processed
poultry-based food can be more digestible than a processed
soybean or cornmeal product because it’s not!

Let’s face it,
the poultry or beef ‘product’ in a pet food is not any part
that a human would consume; it is simply processed to look
like liver, chicken breast, or chunks of beef to be more
marketable to you.

MOTHER:Ofthe three main types of food — moist, semi-moist, and
dry — which do you recommend?

A.M.: I am
a strong proponent of feeding exclusively dry food to your
pet. The crunchiness is a major factor in warding off
gingivitis. Dry food is also healthier than moist or
semimoist because of the higher fat content of canned foods.

However, animals, like people, find fattier foods tastier and
will generally prefer the canned foods. And as an extension
of this fact, most pets like human food even better.
Unfortunately, in addition to being higher in calories than
any pet food, most human diets are not anywhere near balanced
for your pet. Feeding anything more than the occasional treat
to your pet usually results in poor body condition as well
.as vitamin and mineral imbalances. This can lead to
irreversible growth abnormalities in rapidly growing puppies
(especially in large-breed dogs like rottweilers and Great
Danes) or to severe heart disease in cats.

But as a general
rule, as in human nutrition, just about anything is okay to
feed your pet in small amounts, provided a balanced food
composes the majority of the diet. This is assuming your pet
has no allergies or underlying medical conditions; in these
cases, consult your veterinarian. The professionals know how
to design the best diet, and pet owners should rely on them.

MOTHER:Is there truth to the rumored
connection between certain kinds of food and urinary disease
in cats?

A.M.: Many cats will form
crystals in their urine (similar to bladder stones in people)
if the magnesium content of their food is not limited.
Unfortunately, the production of these crystals is a
multifactorial process and the best advice that the experts
have for us so far is to use low-ash acidifying foods. Most
dry food varieties and all seafood varieties are very high in
ash and are to be avoided at all costs in cats with a
propensity to form crystals. While it might be considered
most cautious to avoid these foods in all cats right from the
start, there is far too much we do not know about the
formation of crystals to make such a general recommendation.

MOTHER:Once we’ve figured out what to
feed our pets. the next question is when should we feed them?
Would you recommend free-feeding or set mealtimes?

A.M.: Many pets will pace themselves and do
quite well if fed free-choice. However, creating distinct
mealtimes helps in housebreaking puppies, and it can be very
difficult to change to free choice with most young dogs, who
instinctively tend to gorge themselves — like many people I
know — at a buffet! Most cats do well, but unfortunately many
owners will refill the bowl whenever it starts to get low,
rather than limiting the pet to a specific volume per day.
Fresh water should always be provided freechoice, the only
reasonable exception being the limiting of consumption near
bedtime while housebreaking puppies.

MOTHER:How can you tell if your dog or cat is not getting proper
nutrition, despite the fact that it may be getting enough
food?

A.M.: Any pet that is losing
weight while eating the same amount of food and maintaining a
steady activity level has a medical condition and should be
examined by a veterinarian as soon as the weight loss is
noticed. Parasitism, diabetes, kidney failure, and a variety
of intestinal maladies are all potential culprits. Likewise,
any dramatic increase in water consumption warrants a visit
to your vet.

MOTHER:Finally, are food
allergies common among pets? What are the telltale
signs to watch for?

A.M.: Food
allergies are almost always manifested by itchiness and are
always acquired rather than inherited. We do not see food
allergies that pets ‘grow out of,’ as may occur in people.
The best way to identify a food allergy is to avoid giving
your pet the potential offending substance to see if the
symptoms go away. This may take six to eight weeks on a
different diet, and many itchy pets will need medication in
the meantime to stay comfortable.

Unfortunately, most pets
with with an allergy to one substance invariably have
allergies to many others, and so these animals are quite
likely to eventually develop allergies to substances in the
new food. There does not appear to be any one pet food
ingredient that contains more potent allergenic substances
than any other.

I should also mention that there are many
more pets with inhalant allergies causing the same itchiness.
The current technology of using blood testing to
differentiate what a pet is allergic to — food or
inhalant — seems to be only about 50% accurate. Flip a coin
until improved testing is available.