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The pet food dilemma.


Americans spend more than $7 billion every year on pet food, but too many dog and cat owners rely more on love than labels.

In spite of good intentions, selecting the proper diet for a pet leaves the ordinary dog and cat lover barking, or climbing, up the wrong tree. Not that the fault is his alone.

Even small markets today carry a variety of dog and cat foods: dry, semi-moist, "burgers," canned, and treats. One of the most frequent questions I hear as a veterinarian is which of these foods is the right one for a client's pet. Despite the wide choice available, I see many cases of diet-related disorders. Pets that are undernourished, overweight, or suffering from specific nutritional deficiencies are common. Most cases result from the pet owner's confusion and misinformation rather than from intentional neglect.

Most pet lovers, of course, want to provide the best nutrition possible at an affordable price. Contradictory as it may sound, I would much rather my clients spend their money on good diets than in my office trying to heal a sick "friend." Anyone who tries to save money by buying poor-quality foods for a dog or cat will pay for it later in veterinarian bills. Poor diets make for poor immune systems, and poor immune systems cannot fend off the parasites and diseases pets are heir to.

But that's not all. Malnourishment also leads to poor growth rates, poor hair coats, greater susceptibility to skin diseases, and shortened life spans. As for food allergies commonly seen in animals, cut-rate diets again are often the source.

Wise pet-food buyers will simply ignore generic and local brands found on most stores' shelves. Although there may be some good foods among these foods, in general they are inferior to well-known national brands developed through research. You get what you pay for, and the main difference between cheap and expensive brands is the quality of the protein, the most expensive ingredient. Higher-quality protein sources are more readily digestible and more complete than poorer sources.

Canned, semi-moist, and dry foods are equal nutritionally, but pets generally prefer the more expensive canned and semi-moist varieties. Often, canned food is best--especially for a pet that requires additional water in its diet or has a lagging appetite. But in general, canned foods should not be used exclusively, because they can increase tartar formation on teeth and because they spoil readily. Dry foods are the best choice for most dogs and cats: they are economical and they will not spoil if kept dry.

Some companies make "premium" pet foods with exceptionally high-quality ingredients. These highly digestible foods contain few if any dyes or additives that can trigger food allergies. Pets fed these foods consume less and have smaller stools, resulting in less cleanup for the pet owner. Although premium foods are more expensive, they can be more economical in the long run because pets eat less and require less veterinary care.

Questions for the Vet

Following are some of the questions I'm most frequently asked about pets' diets:

Does my ten-year-old dog need a special diet?

Dietary needs change throughout life. Growing puppies and kittens need diets higher in protein, energy, vitamins, and minerals than do idle adults. Pregnant and nursing mothers need more energy, more calcium, and slightly more protein than do non-breeding animals. Dogs and cats over eight years of age should have diets lower in protein, but with protein higher in quality and lower in energy (fewer calories) than younger animals' diets. Diets high in protein or those that contain poor-quality protein can put an extra burden on older animals' kidneys.

For adult dogs, protein contents over 22 to 23 percent are probably too much. Cats should have foods that contain 30 to 32 percent protein on a dry-weight basis. Besides rapidly growing puppies or kittens and breeding or nursing females, animals recovering from illness or major surgery may benefit from slightly more protein with a high biological value (very digestible).

Most major pet-food makers manufacture formulations for special needs and various stages of life. There are puppy and kitten diets, senior diets, and "light" diets for overweight or less active pets. Select the proper one for your pet. If in doubt, get your veterinarian's advice. Good diets can increase the lifespan of your pet.

My dog likes to eat cat food. Is this harmful?

Dogs prefer cat food because cat food is high in fat, which makes food taste good. Cat food is not harmful for young, healthy adult dogs. However, due to the high fat content, a dog may gain considerable weight eating cat food. And cat food can be an expensive way to feed a dog. Dogs over eight years of age should never eat cat food, because of the high protein content.

On the other hand (or paw), all dog foods are grossly inadequate for cats, which have special dietary needs. They cannot convert the carotene found in vegetable foods to vitamin A, and they are unable to make their own taurine, a deficiency of which leads to the development of blindness and heart disease. Cat owners should buy only major brands or those that specifically list taurine on the label. Taurine is also found in high levels in shellfish, such as clams and clam juice. A cat's diet can be supplemented with these foods, as well as with taurine supplements, available from a veterinarian.

My dog has dry, flaky skin that itches. What can I do?

Dry, flaky skin can be caused by many things other than diet. Have your veterinarian check your pet for diseases, allergies, or parasites. Bathe your dog no more than once every other week to prevent excessive drying of the skin. Because poor-quality dog foods can cause poor hair coats and poor skin health, switch to a premium food or a major brand. It will take about two months for the results of better nutrition to show. A better diet can also improve your pet's energy level, muscle tone, and temperament. Dietary supplements can help speed this process. Your veterinarian can furnish fatty-acid supplements as well as a good vitamin-mineral tablet to help in the transition period. Never feed pets raw eggs or large amounts of oil. These can do more harm than good.

PHOTO : A proper diet can help your dog or cat fend off the parasites and diseases pets are heir

PHOTO : to.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Hoeppner, Gabrielle
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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