Pet food reviews

Australians love their pets, so what should we be feeding them to ensure a long and healthy life?
 
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01 .Pet food for cats and dogs

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Many of us love our pets, so what should we be feeding them to ensure a long and healthy life?

For many Australians, our pets are part of the family. At last count, 63% of Aussie households own a pet, with approximately 53% owning either a cat or dog. And a recent report has estimated that over the next five years, revenue of the Household Pet Products and Services industry is expected to increase 2.4% annually to $5.39 billion.

And when it comes to filling our pets’ bellies we are also enthusiastic. A national survey published in 2010 revealed we spend over $1.8 billion annually on feeding our pets, and a quick tour of pet stores and supermarkets reveals a wide selection of options from tinned wet foods to dry kibble, biscuits and fresh pet meat.

Add to that an array of products claiming to be suited especially for kittens and puppies or the senior citizens of the pet world and there are plenty of choices to be had. 

For more information about pets, see our Backyard section. 

Which pet foods are the most popular?

Earlier this year at the Sydney Pet and Animal Expo, Dr Alex Chaves an animal nutritionist at the University of Sydney and Emma Gosper a Masters student, surveyed dog owners to find out what they feed their dogs and why.

Out of the 280 people surveyed, 9% were found to buy commercial dog food, while seven percent make their own pet food. Most people (67%) only give their dogs dry food, just under a third  feed them a mix of dry and wet food, and four percent of people used wet food only. The three most popular factors behind choosing a dog-food brand were cost, brand and the amount of vitamins and minerals in the diet.

We asked our CHOICE Facebook fans what they like to feed their cats and dogs and received 110 responses. The majority prefer commercially prepared pet food, with others using a mix of prepared and fresh meats, and some choosing to make their own food.

What is recommended?

Dr Jade Norris, scientific officer and veterinarian at RSPCA Australia, says that the RSPCA provides detailed feeding guidelines for cats and dogs. However, she says it’s important to keep the message simple. “We recommend that you go for a high-quality commercial diet as a baseline that’s appropriate for their age and health and that’s compliant to Australian standards, then you can add other elements to the diet as your pet likes, including raw, meaty bones occasionally.”

Dr David Neck, a veterinarian and small animals spokesperson for the Australian Veterinarians Association*, says that your vet is the best place to start when it comes to feeding advice for your pet. “Different pets have different nutritional requirements. Ideally, every pet owner needs to have a relationship with their vet and that includes being given advice on nutrition.”

*Both the RSPCA and AVA have commercial arrangements with pet food company Hills. The AVA says that this arrangement is to fund an education program and does not affect the recommendations of individual vets.

The complete package

As a pet owner shopping for pet food, what you should be looking for among all the cute puppies and kittens on the tins, packs and boxes?

Norris and Neck recommend pet owners choose products that are advertised as 'complete and balanced', this means that the pet food is formulated to contain all the nutrients required by a dog or cat, in the appropriate quantities and proportions to maintain good health.

Chaves says that when he conducted his survey of dog owners, he also asked if the labelling provided enough information on nutrition. He found that 71% of people at the pet show either strongly agreed or slightly agreed with the statement: "I want more detailed nutritional values printed on pet feed packaging."

Chaves believes the pet food labelling isn't clear enough for consumers to get the information they require. "It should be the same as the labelling on your human food - why is there a difference?"

Market segmentation

Today, it seems that there is plenty of market segmentation in the pet food area – there are commercial foods available for kittens and puppies as well our more senior furry friends. The CHOICE experts we spoke to say that this is a good thing. Dr David Neck says “It is widely accepted that in nutritional terms, the three basic life stages are puppy and kitten, adult and senior. Each stage has specific nutritional requirements that need to be met. There are many reputable pet food companies that make foods tailored for these three periods in a pet’s life. Lactating dogs and cats have specific requirements that are best met under veterinary advice.” 

Australian pet food standards

Until last year there wasn’t an Australian standard for any type of pet food, however a voluntary standard for processed tinned and dried pet food has now been released AS 5812-2011 – Manufacturing and Marketing of pet food

This standard specifies requirements for the production and supply of manufactured food for dogs and cats. It covers production of pet food from sourcing and receipt of ingredients to storage, processing (including heat treatment), packing, labelling and storage of products in order to assure its safety for pets. It also includes instructions for the uniform application of information provided on labels.

 
 

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The use of sulphites as preservatives in fresh pet meat and pet rolls are not covered in the new standard for pet food. The RSPCA says that there are safety issues relating to sulphur dioxide and sodium and potassium sulphite preservatives – which can cause thiamine deficiency, which can be fatal.

Fresh pet meat is found in the refrigerated section of supermarkets and some pet food stores. It comes in the form of meat, ‘steaks’ and rolls. And while these sound like a wholesome alternative to the tinned and packaged stuff, there are concerns from the experts CHOICE spoke to. 

Neck says “pet meat does not equal pet food”, adding that these products do not provide the adequate nutrition required by cats and dogs. While animals in the wild would eat fresh meat, they would also be eating the whole animal including, bones, hide and internal organs.

What’s of greater concern is that the use of sulphites as preservatives in fresh pet meat and pet rolls are not covered in the new standard for pet food.

The RSPCA says that there are safety issues relating to sulphur dioxide and sodium and potassium sulphite preservatives – which can cause thiamine deficiency, which can be fatal. Norris says “Thiamine (Vitamin B1) deficiency can occur when dogs and cats are fed on a diet containing sulphite preservatives. 

Thiamine deficiency causes severe neurological symptoms and can be fatal. For decades, sulphite preservative-induced thiamine deficiency has been frequently recognised by the Australian Veterinary profession.” 

Norris goes on to say that thiamine deficiency can also occur when sulphur dioxide containing foods are fed in conjunction with foods not containing sulphur dioxide. “This is because the sulphur dioxide in one food can destroy any thiamine present in the other food being fed at the same time.”

CHOICE contacted a number of fresh pet meat manufacturers to ask about this issue. We asked if they use sulphites in their products? If they did, we asked if they test for adequate thiamine as per the AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials) thiamine guidelines to ensure adequate thiamine throughout the shelf-life of their products. We received quite a mixed bag of responses.

VIP pet foods, which also manufacture under the brand names of Paws Fresh, Platinum and Prota, responded saying that some of its fresh pet meat range does include sulphites, but conducts regular testing to ensure the adequate levels of thiamine are met. Country Cuisine Pet food, confirmed that it does not use any preservatives nor does it source meat that has been treated with preservatives. Paringa Pet Foods produces a range of preservative-free and fresh foods, however, it says that it tests to ensure it is exceeding the guidelines.

Woolworths and Coles also produce fresh pet food under their private labels. After contacting Coles several times a spokesperson confirmed that their product was subjected to regular testing for adequate thiamine levels. Woolworths however, despite CHOICE contacting the company several times, did not provide a response.

Last year, Queensland newspaper The Courier-Mail bought a selection of fresh pet meat brands from supermarkets and had them independently tested. Despite claims from manufacturers about the levels in their particular products, the testing revealed many products had far higher levels than what had been claimed. One product was found to have 435 times the sulphur dioxide levels than what was claimed on the packet.

So, if you're not willing to take the risk, but still want to give your pet fresh meat (in conjunction with a complete and balanced diet), our experts suggest buying human-grade meats instead to avoid the problem entirely. 

Vegan pets?

All the experts that CHOICE spoke to expressed their concern about a small but growing trend for some pet owners to put their pets on a vegetarian or vegan diet. None of them say this is a suitable diet for cats and dogs as cats are true carnivores and dogs are largely carnivores that eat some omnivorous foods. Neck says, “It’s not right, you can't put your beliefs onto an animal that is not suited to that diet. If you want a vegan pet, get a rabbit or a guinea pig."

Should cats and dogs eat the same food?

No. Cats are carnivores and dogs are generally thought to be omnivores. Cats need higher levels of protein and fat from meat than dogs do and can't use vegetable sources to make vitamin A, so must get it from meat. They're also sensitive to thiamine, taurine and arginine deficiencies. And cats are less able to process carbohydrates due to the shorter length of their long intestine.

Is milk bad for dogs and cats?

Dogs and cats don't need milk as they get their calcium from bones and pet food, but if your pet likes drinking milk, that's fine. Some pets (like some humans) can't tolerate milk and may suffer from diarrhoea. Special reduced-lactose cat and dog milks are available but they're expensive and usually unnecessary.

Why do dogs and cats eat grass?

Nobody knows for sure, but it's believed that some dogs and cats chew grass when they feel nauseous. Others may do it out of boredom or they may just like it. Eating grass isn't harmful and is no cause for alarm.

Do cats and dogs need a variety of foods?

Animals are mostly concerned about meeting their energy needs rather than variety. But if you do feed your pet the same thing every day you may find them reluctant to eat anything else. So variety could be the best approach to avoid creating problems for yourself.

Do older and younger pets need special foods?

In dietary terms, AAFCO recognises that animals go through three life stages. The first is growth: kittens and puppies have extra nutrient needs and special food is recommended. The second is when a mother is nursing: special foods are recommended for a lactating dog or cat. The third stage is simply adulthood: animals need to maintain their 'complete and balanced' nutrient intake. In most cases, older pets usually don't need special foods.

Should dogs and cats be fed once a day?

  • Once a day is fine for most dogs and cats.
  • Most cats can eat when they like but if you leave food out for dogs and greedy cats, they're likely to overeat.
  • Puppies should be allowed to eat in a short time period until full, two or three times a day. If there's any sign of obesity in a pup, reduce it's food intake.
  • Small breeds and working, pregnant or lactating dogs need to be fed smaller amounts, more often, as do kittens and lactating cats.

Does dry cat food cause urinary tract infection?

It used to, but manufacturers have altered the pH level of their formulations. Cats fed on a well-formulated dry-food diet don't run a higher risk of urinary tract disease if they're drinking enough water. If your cat doesn't, it's a good idea to feed it a canned-food diet, which has a higher water content.

Give 'em a bone

Dog chewing boneHowever, a link has been made between a soft-food diet and gum disease, which is common in dogs and cats. Most gum disease starts with a build-up of plaque on the teeth - the result of eating a soft-food diet. Before commercial pet foods were available though, dogs and cats developed tooth disease due to the low calcium-content of their meat-based diets.

Periodontal disease, the most common form of gum disease, destroys the gums and tissue that supports the teeth and has also been associated with liver, kidney and heart disease. While a study published in the Journal of Nutrition claims daily brushing of your pet's teeth is the most effective prevention, an easier way is to supplement your pet's diet with a regular supply of bones.

Bones require considerable gnawing and chewing, which scrapes their teeth and prevents the build-up of plaque. Giving your cat or small dog raw chicken wings and a bigger dog meaty bones several times a week will benefit their dental hygiene tremendously.

But never give pets cooked bones as they can splinter and get stuck either in the mouth or in the digestive system.

There are also some dry pet foods that make the claims to aid dental health, such as ROYAL CANIN Oral Sensitive range. It's packet says "kibble shape and flexible texture produce a mechanical brushing effect," but these specialised products are more expensive.

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