Pet food buying guide

A guide to dog and cat nutrition.
 
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  • Updated:22 May 2007
 

01 .Give your dog a bone?

Begging dog

There's no denying it - commercial pet food is vastly different to the diets of dogs and cats in the wild. Our furry friends' jaws and teeth are designed to rip through the raw flesh of animal carcasses and crunch bone - not to chew on processed pellets or slurp up cans of soft food.

The ideal would probably be to create your cat or dog's natural diet at home, but few of us have the fridge space for large quantities of meat and bone, or the time to formulate a nutritionally balanced diet. Dogs and cats in the wild eat not only the meat of their prey, but bone, intestines, and organs like the liver as well - all of which contain important nutrients.

Please note: this information was current as of May 2007 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


Are we poisoning our pets?

Very little independent research has been done in Australia about the long-term effects on the health of pets eating commercial pet food - the majority of research is done by manufacturers themselves and focuses on the nutrient requirements of dogs and cats.

Critics of the industry claim commercial pet food, whether it's dry, semi-moist or canned, is 'poison to our pets' and not easily tolerated by animal digestive systems, causing health problems. But there's little evidence to suggest this is true.

Nick Costa, Professor of Sustainable Agriculture and former professor of Biochemistry and Nutrition in the School of Veterinary and Biochemical Sciences at Murdoch University told us: "The average age of dogs has been increasing because we've really developed better ways of treating diseases, better nutrition and better care in general."

'Complete and balanced'

'Complete and balanced' refers to a pet food that is formulated to contain all the nutrients required by a dog or cat, in the appropriate quantities and proportions to maintain good health.

To provide 'complete and balanced' nutrition, Australian manufacturers rely on the US government agency, the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). In order to pass AAFCO requirements, the manufacturer must either conduct a structured feeding trial of its pet food, or meet AAFCO's specified formulation of ingredients.

  • AAFCO trials last six months for adult 'maintenance' products, during which time the animals are given only the test food and water, and their health and progress are monitored for signs of nutrition-related disease. Foods that pass this test can carry a label claim along the lines of: "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that product X provides complete and balanced nutrition."
  • If manufacturers are simply meeting recommended nutrient requirements, they'll carry a claim along the lines of: "This formula meets the nutritional levels established by AAFCO."

All the pet food we looked at, from the premium brands such as HILL'S SCIENCE DIET, through to budget supermarket products, carry AAFCO claims.

Is my pet healthy?

CatA healthy pet should be neither too fat nor too thin. To make sure your pet isn't putting weight on (or losing weight), weigh them regularly, or run your hands over their ribs. If they're an ideal weight, you'll be able to feel their ribs but they won't feel too bony.

According to the RSPCA your dog should be:

  • Alert and responsive with good stamina.
  • Have a clean glossy coat and clear eyes, free of discharge.
  • Have a cold and damp nose when outdoors and dry and warm nose when indoors.

And a healthy cat should be:

  • Alert and responsive, yet calm and contented most of the time.
  • Have a good appetite.
  • Have a clean glossy coat and clear eyes, free of discharge.
 
 

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Do I need to pay more?

Do we need to buy premium pet food? Unless your pet has specific dietary problems, probably not. Any pet food that says it's 'complete and balanced' contains all the required nutrients at appropriate levels for the maintenance of healthy pets.

But if you want what humans think as 'quality' ingredients and nutrient quantities above those recommended by AAFCO, then expect to pay more. "The cheaper ones tend to be less flavoursome, less palatable and probably, on the whole, have less meat products in them," says David Fraser, Professor of Animal Science at Sydney University.

  • Premium brands are more likely to claim they use ' real muscle meat', fish or poultry as their main ingredient.
  • Some supermarket brands use less muscle meat and make up the balance with meat by-products like organs, blood and bones, which are equally good nutritionally.
  • A higher proportion of muscle meat and other expensive ingredients can lead to a reduction in faecal volume as the food is more easily digested. Look for 'real meat'.

The AVA's warning

There's a warning about your pets only on pet mince. The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) says meat preserved in sulphur dioxide (preservative 220) has been linked to thiamine deficiencies, which can cause heart disease and blindness if they're the main diet.

All the brands CHOICE found contain sulphur dioxide, even the gourmet ones, so check the label. If you want to supplement your pet's diet with raw meat, use human-grade meat (but not sausage mince, as it's allowed to contain sulphur dioxide).

What about those claims?

The more expensive brands, although not nutritionally necessary for your average pet, do carry some pretty impressive claims.

For example " A complex synergisation of grape and green tea polypenols" and "chronroitin, glucosamine and Omega 3 for joint health" both featured on premium pet foods we looked at. While studies show these nutrients may be beneficial for pets with particular ailments, they're not recognised by AAFCO as essential for pets' normal maintenance.


Manufacturers have to be very careful how they label their products. The Pet Food Industry Association of Australia (PFIAA) works closely with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), and manufacturers must ensure their claims are justifiable.

"If I was going to address a diseased state or talk about altering the physiology of a dog or cat in a significant way, automatically that product has to be registered as a therapeutic good." says a PFIAA spokesperson. Pet food manufacturers avoid having to register their products by claims to the effect of "helps to maintain..." or "helps avoid..."

No Australian standard for processed foods

There's no national standard for processed tinned or dry pet food.

  • If pet food's imported, it has to comply with Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) import regulations and must be certified to come from disease-free animals that were inspected before and after slaughter.
  • For processed pet food made in Australia, regulations apply at some stages of production, otherwise the industry is largely self-regulated. We hope that with the recent melanine scare in the US, manufacturers will be extra stringent with their own quality control.
  • The major manufacturers are members of PFIAA and have to comply with its code of practice and AAFCO standards. Manufacturers who breach the PFIAA code may be referred to the appropriate regulatory authority, such as the APVMA or the ACCC, and/or suspended/expelled from the association.

Standard for pet meat

There's an Australian standard for frozen and fresh pet meat, which was generated by the Primary Industry Ministerial Council's Meat Standards Committee and is enforced by the state's controlling authorities. The standard covers all stages of the pet meat production process to ensure:

  • It remains separate to human-grade meat.
  • Is hygienically handled.
  • Is free from harmful diseases.

When beef may not be beef

Under the Trade Practices Act, pet foods, like any other product, can't make misleading or untrue claims. You can't call a dog roll 'beef' if it doesn't have any beef in it.

But what if it has beef, but just not much? There are no government regulatory guidelines, but PFIAA says its code of practice is based on the best practice and incorporates standards for labelling, marketing, nutrition design and claims. For example, the code stipulates:

  • That a 'complete and balanced' or 'nutritionally complete' pet food must meet the minimum recommended nutritive requirements for that species.
  • Pet snacks or treats should be labelled as 'complementary pet food' as they're not nutritionally complete.
  • Ingredients must be listed in order of descending weight - so the first ingredient is the most plentiful.

Pet food varieties are determined by the amount of varietal meat in the product. The four levels are:

  • Beef. Beef is the main ingredient.
  • Beef dinner: It contains at least 25% beef.
  • With beef. At least 5% of the meat in the product is beef.
  • Beef flavour. Less than 5% of the meet is beef, or a commercial beef flavour has been used.

See www.pfiaa.com.au for more info.

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.

04.Home made pet diet

 

Below is a home-made diet for your pet, formulated by Professor David Fraser of Sydney University, which provides tasty and balanced nutrition for healthy adult dogs and cats.

You can make it in the amounts shown here and refrigerate or freeze a few day's worth, depending on your pet's requirements. It would also be useful to supplement your pets diet with raw bones for teeth health.

Adult dog

550 g boiled potatoTwo puppies
350 g lean meat (lightly stewed)
80 g cooked human-grade sheep or beef liver*
20 g corn oil
20 g bone meal**
5 g table salt

Mix all the ingredients together and feed it to your pet once a day.

Amount to feed each day according to body weight:

Dog weight Food
5 kg 270 g
10 kg 460 g
15kg 620 g
20 kg 770 g
25 kg 900 g
30 kg 1000 g
 

* A vitamin supplement can be used instead of the liver
**Bone meal can be found in certain healthfood stores and is an excellent source of calcium.

Adult cat

250 g boiled potatoA cat
600 g lean meat (lightly stewed)
100 g cooked human-grade sheep or beef liver*
20 g corn oil
25 g bone meal**
5 g table salt

Mix all the ingredients together and feed it to your pet once a day.

Amount to feed each day according to body weight:

Cat weight Food
2 kg 100 g
2.5 kg 120 g
3 kg 140 g
4 kg 190 g
4.5 kg 210 g
5 kg 240 g
 

* A vitamin supplement can be used instead of the liver
**Bone meal can be found in certain healthfood stores and is an excellent source of calcium.