You love your cat or dog—and in some cases, both! Animal Scene sat down with some of the industry’s leading pet food authorities and asked the questions you’ve always wanted the answers to. (We’ve lined up interviews with other pet nutrition experts for future issues, so that you can be fully informed!)

Pet Food Basics

How important is pet food to pets?

Complete and balanced pet food is one of those miraculous innovations of 20th century that has changed the way people care for their animal companions. Pet food gives pets the energy they need throughout the day. Today’s pet food products support long, healthy lives for pets, because these provide the nutrients they need for proper growth and development.

(How about table scraps?) The nutritional needs of pet cats and dogs greatly differ from human needs, so it is not advisable to give them food that has been left over from the family’s table, especially since many dishes are typically cooked with oil, infused with aromatics like garlic, onions, and pepper, or seasoned with various flavor enhancers. Some human food is even toxic to pets.

(Are cat and dog food interchangeable? My cats like my dog’s food!) Dogs and cats each have special dietary needs and should be fed the appropriate pet food. Pet food is designed to be species-specific. Hence, it is not appropriate to feed dog food to a cat, because dog food does not provide all the essential nutrients a healthy cat needs. Likewise, it is not appropriate to feed cat food to a dog.

Nutritional content also varies between products, so it is important for pet owners to follow the feeding instructions on the product label. The feeding instructions should provide a guide to the amount of a particular food to feed and the frequency of feedings.

What are the ingredients that pet parents should look for in pet food?

When it comes to developing a recipe for pet food, ingredients are selected based on their nutritional content and their functional properties. Every ingredient serves a function and these ingredients, as well as their formulation, will vary between cats and dogs.

Generally, dogs and cats should be supplied with proper amounts of protein, fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins which are found in meat, poultry, seafood, and agricultural products or plant-based sources. Cats are considered carnivores so they should be fed with lots of meat products to sustain their need for protein, taurine, and fatty acid that keep them strong and healthy. They are totally dependent on their food consumption to maintain the right balance of nutrients as compared to dogs, because cats lack the ability to metabolize enzymes and synthesize certain amino acids and vitamins—they need to derive these from meat sources.

Dogs can produce certain nutrients through enzymes. That is why both species have their specific nutritional needs. Dogs are primarily meat-eaters but can survive on plants alone, which makes them omnivores. Plant-based products such as grain can be good sources of nutrition for dogs. Pet owners should look out for undernourishment in case their dog lacks meat intake.

A common argument against using commercial pet food is its cost. Other pet owners insist that raw food is better. What should pet owners know about this?

Pet food has been proven to be a more economical option, as creating one’s own pet food with complete and balanced nutrients is a time-consuming, complex, and costly process. The best advantage of commercial pet food is the extensive research and scientific formulation that goes behind each product, ensuring pet owners that pets receive all the essential nutrients they need to become a well-nourished companion. There are many affordable options for pet food, with a variety of flavors their pets will enjoy.

Raw feeding may be disadvantageous if the sourcing of raw ingredients, food handling and calculation for correct proportions is done incorrectly. Serious health risks may arise from over-feeding of protein or worse, from feeding contaminated meat! (Animal Scene note: This is a real risk given the many instances of the sale of “double dead” meat in local markets.)

The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) cautions pet owners that raw meat may be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria. Two of these bacteria—Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes—are particularly dangerous to both pets and humans. Salmonella bacteria are commonly found in such foods as raw or undercooked meat, poultry, eggs, and egg products. Salmonella can also contaminate raw or unpasteurized milk and other dairy products, as well as raw fruits and vegetables.

According to William J. Burkholder, DVM, PhD, Veterinary Medical Officer in the FDA Division of Animal Feeds, quoted on www.fda.gov, “Raw pet food consists primarily of meat, bones, and organs that haven’t been cooked, and therefore are more likely than cooked food to contain organisms that can make your dog or cat sick…Moreover, raw food can make you sick as well if you don’t handle it properly. FDA does not believe feeding raw pet foods to animals is consistent with the goal of protecting the public from significant health risks. The agency therefore recommends cooking of raw meat and poultry to kill harmful bacteria like Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes before you give the food to your pets. And as always, when working with food, you should follow FDA’s instructions on how to handle it safely. While it is true that feral dogs and cats catch prey and eat it raw, it cannot be determined how many of these animals get sick or die as a result of doing that. Since sick feral animals are rarely taken to a veterinarian when they’re ill, there’s no way to collect that information.”

Key Advice On:

How to choose pet food: Always seek expert care. As part of responsible pet ownership, choosing the right kind of pet food should be guided by a veterinarian. Through timely check-ups, the vet should be able to assess and evaluate the pet’s health to decide what pet food products in the market are best to feed the pet with, the suggested feeding proportions, and the schedule of mealtime.

Of course, when selecting pet food, the package should clearly indicate the nutritional guidelines and should have the AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials) approval seal to certify that the product follows the nutritional regulation standards.

Palatability is also a worthy consideration. Some pets prefer specific taste, texture and consistency for them to eagerly enjoy the pet food. Meal time should be a pleasant experience for the pet, and when pet food is left unconsumed, the pet won’t be able to obtain the nourishment it needs.

How and when to feed your pet: Most experts recommend feeding twice a day—once in the morning and once at night. However, puppies (and kittens) may require more frequency. Best practices in pet feeding will depend largely on the breed of your pet and its age. It is best to seek a vet’s advice to determine the ideal approach to feeding. In general, having regularly scheduled feeding times help establish a routine, and it also allows pet owners to gauge pets’ appetite and health.

Not everyone will be able to stay at home all day with their pet. Pet owners who go to work and leave their pets at home may choose free-feeding and allow pets to eat at their own pace. However, pets who are more problematic eaters may need to be coaxed and monitored more closely.

Cleanliness contributes to the well-being of the pet. Food bowls should be kept clean and dry, and separate bowls should be used for food and water. Pet owners should avoid cross contamination between pet food and human food, just as they should avoid cross contamination between the foods they eat themselves.

How much is too much: Feeding instructions are usually indicated in the packaging. US pet food products are required to list the recommended feeding quantities to prevent a pet dog or cat from consuming too much food. Over-eating, like in people, can make a pet overweight and lead to health problems. The important thing to remember is to follow the feeding instructions on the label.

Generally the recommended feeding amount is in a range based upon the size of the pet. It is important to know the ideal body condition for your pet. If the pet is gaining weight, then the amount fed should be reduced. If the pet is becoming too skinny, then feeding more food generally is appropriate

Bark vs Meow: The Big (Food) Difference

Why are pet food varieties these days divided into for puppies/kittens, for senior pets, for special needs, and so on? What is the reason for this?

The different life stages of pets entail changing diets. Just like humans, their bodies evolve as they grow older and need altered proportions of nutrients to stay in top condition. That is why commercial pet foods are varied according to different life stages as they are intricately produced to meet their nutritional requirements.

Puppy/Kitten

Younger pets tend to be more hyper and have more active metabolisms. As such, puppies and kittens need more energy and protein to develop their organs as well as their bone and muscular structure. To attain their nutritional needs, young pets should be fed with food that contains proteins with adequate amounts of amino acid found in meat, fish, eggs, and poultry as well as legumes, grains, and vegetables. As kittens and puppies go through crucial developmental stages such as teething, it is advised they be fed with soft foods for easy intake.

Adult

When the pet grows into an adult, it will consume a bigger proportion of food. The nutritional profile of adult dogs and cats differ from the younger stages as the nutrient emphasis shifts to growth maintenance. Generally, fat, nutrient and protein intake should be proportionate to the pet’s body size and activity levels. It is important to note that adult dogs need less protein than adult cats. That is because dogs only use approximately 12% of protein for growth metabolism as opposed to cats that use 20% of protein for the same purpose.

Pregnant/Gestational

Nutrition is most critical for pregnant pets to ensure both the mother and her young are getting the complete nourishment they need. In fact, female pets must have proper nutrition before pregnancy to help facilitate normal fertility and conception. For cats, taurine is a vital protein. Unlike dogs, cats cannot internally produce their Taurine. This type of amino acid is usually found in meat and is responsible to the healthy functioning of the heart, retina, bile fluid and certain aspects of reproduction.

Senior/Geriatric

Senior pets are noticeably less active and have lower metabolisms than young and adult pets. They will not be able to utilize nutrients as efficiently as they did when they were younger. Therefore, it is important that they receive more easily-absorbable nutrients. Because they are becoming less active, it is advisable that their food proportions be decreased while the amount of vitamins, minerals and enzymes should be increased.

Why does pet food come in dry and canned varieties?

Just like humans, different pets will have different preferences and will seek variety in their diet. In the US, dry kibble provides the largest portion of calories for America’s pets, and accounts for more than 60% of all cat food and dog food sales. Dry pet food offers convenience as it is easier to store and feed. For those who practice free-feeding (letting the dog or cat feed itself throughout the day with the use of a timed device to release food at intervals), kibble can be simply left in the food bowl to give pets enough food to last an entire day, and pets can eat at their own pace without risk of spoilage.

Meanwhile, wet food may be a better option for those with pets that have certain physiological challenges such as missing teeth, poorly aligned jaws, or smaller mouths, or for senior pets that have lost their sense of smell. Pets that are reluctant to drink adequate amounts of water may also receive some hydration in wet food.

This appeared in Animal Scene’s September 2016 issue.