An overview of nutrition & nutrients required
All pet foods producers are required to provide the percentages of certain nutrients on the label, but if you need any more details you should get in touch with the manufacturer and they will usually be happy to help.
Choosing and feeding the best diet for your fur kids is such an easy thing to do, yet it is one area of health care often overlooked by both vets and pet parents. To echo Dr Shawn Messonnier, and our own Dr Anuska Viljoen, feeding the best diet is so important for total holistic health for your pet that most holistic vets stress diet first. By getting your fur kids on the best diet, some mild conditions (such as allergies) may respond without your needing to use other therapies. Even when other conventional or complementary therapies are indicated, feeding the most appropriate diet is the first rung on the ladder of holistic health care, often working synergistically with other supplements and therapies to provide the best health possible for your fur kids.
Here are some important questions to keep in mind as you read this article.
- How do you determine which diet is best for your fur kids?
- Should you simply purchase the least expensive diet for your fur kids?
- Should you purchase the well-known, heavily advertised, and promoted brand?
- Should you trust your vet to recommend the best diet for your fur kids?
- Is a processed food best for your fur kids, or would a Biologically Specie Appropriate Raw diet be more suitable?
- If you prepare a diet at home, should you cook the food, or is feeding it “raw” better for your fur kids?
In truth, it is up to you, the pet parent, to work with your holistic (integrated) vet to help determine the most appropriate for your fur kids. This section is designed to give you the basic information you need to do just that.
Most pet parents, unfortunately, don’t really think a lot about what their pets eat. Sure, we all pay attention to ads touting one brand of food over another. Colour full ads, colourful packing … yet most pet parents, and some vets, don’t know what’s really in the food they feed. Even though the answer is only a glance away, listed on the label required on each bag or can food, most of us never think to look.
Getting the proper diet is extremely important for pets. Because we are finally beginning to realise how important proper diet is for ourselves, many of us are trying to eat a more healthful diet. This may mean cutting back on calories, eating more fibre, or adding multivitamins and minerals to our diets. We know that certain diseases, including liver disease, heart disease, obesity, and cancers can be traced to improper diets, such as those too high in saturated fats or too low in fibre.
Before analysing the nutritional adequacy claims of commercial pet foods, a basic understanding of the nutritional needs of cats and dogs is helpful.
Cats first. No need for panic at the thought of a biology lesson, this can be achieved with simple logic. We’ll start with cats. A cat’s mouth represents that of a quintessential carnivore. Large fangs in the front, and a mouth full of shredding little grippers. Notice the lack of flat molars for grinding vegetation, found in cows and horses. Finally, consider the digestion system of a cat. Compared to a horse or cow, the cat’s digestive track is relatively short (consider the length of the body). This means that the cat’s digestive system doesn’t have the “time” to break down grasses and grains into the beneficial vitamins it so desperately needs. Instead, wild cats get their vitamins from the remnants found in the digestive systems of their prey. For example, a cat in the wild would eat mostly rodents. Thus, his mouth is equipped to tear into meats and virtually swallow his bites whole, while his digestive system is designed to digest those meats while absorbing the already digested grasses, grains, and nuts found in the stomach of the prey.
Dogs are a little different. Unlike cats, they prefer a little more variety in their diets. Dogs’ mouths contain a variety of teeth (both canines and molars), so while they are able to enjoy their meats, they also have some teeth designed to crack into bones while chewing grains and veggies. Canine teeth are classified as:
- Incisor teeth, front of the jaw;
- Canine tooth, the long ones second from front;
- Premolar teeth, the 3rd cluster (around 4 teeth), behind the canine tooth;
- Molar teeth, the last cluster at the back, typically consist of a cluster 3 teeth.
There are four premolars and three molars in the lower jaw and four premolars and two molars in the upper jaw. The first lower molar is the lower carnassial tooth. This large tooth is important in carnivores as it provides a shearing or crushing action when it closes against the upper carnassial tooth.
Now use this background knowledge to analyse their current commercial diets. The ideal cat food should contain mostly meats along with some pre-digested grains and vegetables. Dog food should contain meat, but could include a higher percentage of grains and vegetables.
The key is balance. You will hear this message repeated throughout our site. A wild animal instinctively knows when they’re lacking a certain nutrient and will seek out foods containing the deficient nutrient.
Look at the label of a commercial pet food (see our article on Decoding Labels). Labelling rules require that the ingredients be listed in descending order of predominance by weight (not overall % dry matter content) so that the heaviest ingredient, determined before the ingredient is cooked or processed, is listed first. This means that even if a label lists “chicken” first and “corn” second, it is possible that the product contains far more corn than chicken. This is because chicken is high in moisture (75% water) and therefore heavier than corn. Thus, despite all the labelling rules, the average pet parent has no idea how much chicken serves as the main protein source for the product. While some AAFCO officials and even veterinarians would argue that it doesn’t matter if the protein source is true “chicken” as opposed to “meat meal” or “soy” – this issue is hotly debated and far from resolved. For now, it is sufficient to recognize that not all dogs and cats will do well on soy as their main protein source, and that, as stated above, the nutritional adequacy of “meat meal” will vary significantly from batch to batch. Never mind that “soy-fed" animals are prone to diarrhoea and of course "the room-clearing properties of their flatus is legendary", as described by Dr Lonsdale.
The rise in the use of grain and carbohydrate products over the last decade further contributes to the nutritional imbalance in commercial pet foods. “Once considered a filler by the pet food industry, cereal and grain products now replace a considerable proportion of the meat that was used in the first commercial pet foods.” Why the change? Cost. Corn is a much cheaper energy source than meat. But the change in pet food formulas has a real impact on a pet’s health. Dr Lonsdale states that “Dogs have little evolved need for carbohydrates and cats have no need for this source of energy.”
Moreover, although dogs and cats can almost completely absorb the carbohydrates from some grains such as rice, the nutrient availability of wheat, beans, and oats is poor. Other ingredients, such as peanut hulls, have absolutely no significant nutritional value and are used strictly as filler. This news is even more disturbing where two of the top three ingredients in kibble is almost always some form of a grain product. You can do this exercise by yourself when next at the pet shop. You will notice that the labels of several different brands of pet foods reveal that common ingredients such as corn gluten meal, corn meal, brewers rice, oat meal, ground barley, and whole grain corn represent at least two the top three ingredients. Often three of the top four ingredients consist of grains.
The result of ingredients with low nutritional value is a pet that is slowly starving to death and at the same time consuming more and more food. Also, since cats are true carnivores, one must wonder how pet food manufacturers justify feeding them substantial quantities of corn as part of their “balanced” diet.
The buying habits of most pet parents exacerbate the problem. Most pet parents select one pet food and feed it to their pets for a prolonged period of time, if not for the pet’s entire life. This means the pet is eating a diet consisting primarily of carbohydrates (some of which they can’t digest) with little to no variety. As stated by Dr Lonsdale, “[U]ndigested food arriving in the bowel provides nutrients for a teeming population of harmful bacteria.” Thus, “chronic digestive problems, such as chronic diarrhoea, and inflammatory bowel disease” often result from such repetitive and indigestible diets.
Some pet food manufacturers would argue that since grains contain protein, they provide a valuable nutrient to pets. But, as stated by Dr Lonsdale, “the protein [in cooked grains is] low in quality to begin with, then further degraded to a variable degree by cooking...” Feeding low-quality commercial pet foods for a pet’s entire life is comparable to feeding a child McDonald’s three meals a day, every day, for the child’s entire life.
No parent would believe that this is a nutritious diet, or capable of sustaining a child’s health. Yet regulatory choices made by various governing bodies, combined with efforts by the pet food industry to avoid stringent ingredient and processing regulations, result in pet parents unknowingly feeding junk food to their furry friends.
In 2002 in New York, two teenage girls sued McDonald’s for knowingly selling them unhealthy food that ultimately caused their obesity. One of the girls was 14 years old, four feet, ten inches tall (that is 1.473 meters tall) and weighed 170 pounds / 77 kgs. The other girl was 19 years old, five feet, five inches tall (or 1.651 meters), and weighed 264 pounds / 119.74 kgs. Several courts stated that the claimants would have a case if they could prove that eating McDonald’s food everyday is dangerous to the human body. In response to these claims, director and film maker Morgan Spurlock, created a documentary called Super Size Me Video (Morgans' site or iTunes). Using his own body, he conducted an experiment in order to discover just how dangerous eating ONLY fast food such as McDonald’s can be to the average person’s health.
The rules of the experiment was:
- Only eat food sold at McDonald’s for thirty days;
- Must eat 3 meals a day;
- Order every item on the menu at least once by the end of the thirty days;
- If asked to supersize his meal he has to say yes.
McKibble and McCan .. no different an impact on your pets than prolonged abusive dietary habits such as ONLY eating McDonald's, on your kids, or yourselves, for that matter ...
What about my cats?
Cats are predators. They evolved eating a prey based diet, and more importantly, eating that diet raw. Cooking, as we have highlighted, degrades nutrients in meat, causing losses of vitamins, minerals and amino acids.
Cats in the wild eat often eat the entire prey animal if it is small and will eat nearly everything except the intestines of a larger prey animal. This includes the bones of their prey, as raw bone is highly digestible and is their primary source of calcium. Cooking bone not only reduces the nutrients available but also makes the bone brittle and dangerous to ingest.
Providing your cats with a diet that is modelled on what they would eat in the wild has many benefits, for you and your cat.
- Improved digestion
- Greatly reduced stool odour and volume
- Healthy coat, less shedding, fewer hairballs
- Increased energy
- Weight loss, if overweight
- Better dental health
- Better urinary health
- Peace of Mind
Perhaps the best benefit of feeding a raw diet is the peace of mind it can give you. Realizing that cats evolved to eat a diet that is about as unprocessed as it can get, many people have become concerned about the highly processed pet food they feed their pets. Raw diets are different. The ingredients are simple and identifiable, processing is minimal and it's either fresh or fresh frozen. You know what you are feeding your pet.
Did You Know? There is No Independent Research on Pet Nutrition today! You can read the interview between Dr. Karen Becker and Dr. Donna Raditic here [ref]. In summary, both agree that:
- Dr. Raditic learned through her association with the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) that, “There’s a tremendous amount of money being put in by the pet food industry to support the training of diplomates, as well as for research. But it’s going to have some bias. It has to. They’re developing diets. They’re a business.” We all understand the motivation of businesses, but as Dr. Raditic asks, “Who is really invested in our pets?”
- As Dr. Raditic highlighted “Someone asked me recently to write an article on what age dogs and cats live to,” says Dr. Raditic. “I said to him, ‘I don’t want to write about that, because that hasn’t change in several decades. What we need to know is what’s keeping them from living longer’.”
As pet parents make healthful dietary choices for themselves, it’s only natural they would do the same for their fur kids.
All food is not created equal. Turning to the ever-present pet food label we mentioned earlier, stop and take a look at the label on your pet’s food right now. Read the top three ingredients. Are they healthful ingredients such as whole dressed chicken (or another protein source), ground beef, and human grade rice, or are they items such as chicken by-products, corn by-products, animal meal, blood meal, and the like? Exactly what are you feeding your pet? Is it possible that your choice of pet food may actually be hurting your fur kids? Is it possible that his food might be contributing to some of your pet’s health problems?
These questions must be answered so you can have the healthiest fur kids possible, but first you must understand the nutrients essential for your fur kids to determine how to feed them properly.
While it’s not common for vets to see many obvious nutritional diseases in dogs and cats, there is no doubt that diet plays an important role in your fur kids health.
There are seven dietary classifications of nutrients – water, protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and food additives – each of which is important. Additives, though not technically nutrients, are found in many commercially processed foods: therefore, it is important to address them in this discussion.
Why then, a natural raw diet?
In reading this article (and others we published), you will come to the same conclusion as us, dietary carbs are not necessary for most of our fur kids. However, carbs do provide the most calories in commercial grain-based pet foods today, and is the least costly of all nutrients in making any form of pet food. Carb rich foods vary greatly in digestibility and if they are not properly cooked, digestibility can be poor. You will, like us, also surmise that the cost, rather than the quality, of carb sources dictates which ones are used in commercial grain-based pet foods. Low cost pet foods containing poor quality sources of carbs, frequently cause a variety of health problems in the long run for our fur kids - the reason you are here! By now, you will agree, pet parents and guardians have little control over carbohydrate quality unless home made or raw diets are fed to our kids.
Fats are necessary for some essential fatty acids (EFA), further discussed under the article titled "Fats & Oils". Unfortunately, most commercial pet foods provide these in abundance - it's the primary coating for kibble. However, fats can be an important source of calories for our fur kids - but not in the traditional sense of thinking - we are talking about the "good" fats here. Highly active larger breed dogs, or working dogs, often do not receive enough calories on low to moderate fat diets. In these cases it is necessary to feed relatively high fat diets to maintain normal body weight and the stamina needed for their physical activity. Obesity is an important medical problem for a large number of pets due to the constitution of the commercial pet foods, but, feeding high fat diets contributes to the problem. In return, the creative commercial pet food industry prepares low fat diets to feed the obese pets! An endless cycle with no good outcome. Some commercial pet food companies even prepare pet foods with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids that they claim to be effective for treating inflammatory and allergic diseases. Sadly, no one has shown any benefit from feeding these foods to our fur kids.
Proteins are the most costly ingredient in any pet's diet. Most commercial pet foods are inexpensive because they are made with cheap sources of protein, grains being the least expensive of these. However, cereal proteins are also of the lowest quality protein available. Cereals do not provide all the required amino acids and their digestibility is poor in most cases. To solve the problem, most commercial pet food manufacturers add meat proteins to provide amino acids missing in their grain formulas. Most meat sources used, are the cheapest available and often are ones that cannot, or will not, be used for human consumption. When considering the nutritional needs for your fur kids, it is important to select wholesome protein sources to feed, like our biologically specie appropriate raw meal packs.
Science is starting to way in ...
The nutrients in raw foods are generally more bioavailable than in cooked foods. A 2012 study found that the digestibility of raw meat is far greater than the typical digestibility of kibble (Beloshapka et al., 2012) [ref]. The digestibility of a food is critical, since even the most nutritious food can’t send positive messages to the cells if the body can’t efficiently absorb its nutrients.
Additional Articles and Videos
Articles for review and reading available here:
- Fresh Food Diets - The best choice for optimum health for dogs and cats! Requires Adobe (Natural Pet Productions)
- A macronutrient and mineral comparison of raw dog food plans by Steven M. Brown (Natural Pet Productions)
- The real cost of dry pet food (Natural Pet Products)
- Pets, Protein, Dry Food and Disease (Mercola)
- The Chemistry of Kibble, published in Popular Science by Mary Roach (Popular Science)