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Sunday 18 August 2019

How to choose the best diet for your pet dog

The ideal food for your dog is good for their health.
The ideal food for your dog is good for their health.

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

"What's the best diet for my dog?" This is one of the questions that all dog owners need to answer for themselves. You feed your dog every day, and just as humans "are what they eat", so are dogs. A pet's nutrition has a huge impact on their general health.

There are many aspects to choosing the ideal diet, but four key questions should be asked: what is the best diet for health, for enjoyment by your pet, for value for money, and for your own convenience? The right diet has to tick all four boxes. There's no point in feeding a healthy diet that's great value for money and easily available, but your pet doesn't like it. Nor is there any point in giving your dog a diet that they love eating if it's bad for them. And if it's too expensive or too difficult for you to get hold of easily, you're unlikely to carry on using it.

There are broadly three ways to feed a dog.

First, fresh food. Some people choose to feed their pet on scraps from the table, or on home-prepared "human"' type meals. It's surprising how many people admit to actually cooking recipes for their pets, just as parents prepare food for their children. In recent years, there's been a fad for feeding "raw" meat and bones to dogs: this can work well for some animals, but it doesn't suit them all.

Feeding fresh food does not necessarily tick all four of the important boxes. Most people will choose ingredients that their pets enjoy, that are good value and that are easily available. The main concern about this type of feeding is the "health" aspect: if a diet is not carefully formulated, it may not be balanced, with the correct combination of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. Ideally, every home cooked diet should be checked by a veterinary nutritionist. This can be done online, but there is a cost to engaging such professional services, and few people are prepared to go this far. The problem is that if this is not done, a pet can inadvertantly be given an imbalanced diet which causes health issues. Examples that I've seen in practice include growing dogs with crooked legs and bowed bones because of calcium deficiency, and dogs with dry, scurfy coats because of shortage of essential fatty acids. When raw food is fed to pets, there is the additional concern about potential risk to human health: in a recent study, around 8% of raw pet food diets in the USA carried Salmonella bacteria.

The second and third common ways of feeding dogs both involve feeding commercial pet foods, manufactured and marketed by pet food companies. The advantage of these diets is that they have been custom-made to provide all of the necessary nutrients. Pet food manufacturers are legally obliged to ensure that their products are nutritionally balanced, and they employ veterinary nutritionists to ensure that this is the case. You can be sure that commercial pet foods tick the "health" box, but what about your pet's enjoyment of the food, the price of the product and the convenience?

Moist food (available in tins, packets or sachets) tends to be the most enjoyable food for dogs. It has a rich aroma and presumably it tastes good: dogs tend to wolf it down hungrily and rapidly. Moist food is readily available (in most supermarkets) and it's good for your pets' health. The down side of moist food is that it is relatively expensive (80 - 90% of its content is water, so effectively you are paying for water to be transported to the retail outlet where you buy it). Furthermore, moist food isn't always convenient (you need to open the tins or packets, and keep half used containers in the fridge, beside your own food).

Dried complete pet food is the most recent innovation to the pet food spectrum, and over the past twenty years, it has become the most popular way of feeding dogs. These diets are effectively a combination of meat and biscuit rolled into one as "extruded" biscuits, which are meaty looking pellets of various sizes. These modern dry foods are increasingly popular because they tick all four boxes: they're good for pets' health, they're tasty, they tend to be good value, and they are convenient for owners. You can buy a sack of dried food that will last a couple of months if stored carefully. Dried food varies in price and quality - the cost varies from less than €2 to over €5 per kilogram, with the more expensive foods including organic, free-range type ingredients.

So what is the best type of diet for your dog? There is no single answer that is right in every case. Animals - and owners - have individual preferences and needs. Some dogs thrive on home prepared or raw diets, others on moist diets, and some on dry foods. For many pets, a mix of dry with some moist food is ideal. The best answer is to choose a diet that ticks the four key boxes for you and your individual pet.

It takes around three months for the impact of a diet to become visible in a dog: if your pet has bright eyes, a glossy coat and a lean, muscular body after this period of time on a new diet, then the chances are that you've found the right answer.

Pete is hosting a live online question and answer session on dog nutrition on Wednesday 18th March at 7pm. Visit the Facebook page of Pedigree Ireland to join him.

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