by Dr. Chris Piper
What is a complete and balanced diet? We are constantly reminded in advertisements that a complete and balanced diet is essential to ensure your pet's health. We are informed surreptitiously that the only way you can achieve this is by using the food advertised. No one wants to feel guilty of undernourishing their loved pet, and so the advertising works.
What poor memories we have. As recently as 10 years ago we were still dependent on raw meat and scraps as a portion of the diet and this was endorsed by petfood manufacturers who sold canned food. Today, owners are encouraged to feed commercial foods exclusively, because they are 'complete and balanced' and contain everything a pet needs. This implies that you cannot achieve this without their food. Let's look at what a complete and balanced diet is and then see how you can achieve this at home by preparing your own food. It is important to start with a few definitions.
A diet is a selection of foods regularly consumed. A food is a combination of ingredients fed as a meal. A diet may consist of one or more foods. A complete diet is one which contains adequate amounts of all nutrients essential for health, and a balanced diet is one in which the nutrients are in proper proportions. Remember that commercial foods contain the same nutrients in the same proportions in every packet. The ideal diet has a variety of foods which, overall, provide completeness and balance.
Let's take a quick look at these nutrients so we understand what a diet is made up of. The basic building blocks are protein, carbohydrate, fat, water, vitamins, and minerals. We need all of these to make a complete diet and we need them in balanced proportions. These special proportions are related to the particular needs of the pet and will depend on whether they are growing, lactating, working, sedentary, convalescing, or ill. Ten years ago we had foods for pets, whether they were cats or dogs; young or old. We now know that this is incorrect, as cats have very different needs to dogs, and young growing animals have different needs to older animals. Despite this lack of knowledge animals did remarkably well. This is because animals are adaptable and utilise nutrients in different ways to meet their particular needs. eg. they can convert protein into energy. So why all the fuss about lifestyle foods? It makes good marketing sense and it is also a more efficient use of resources.
The domestication of pets has developed slowly over thousands of years and remarkably so in the last 50 years. We now expect them to eat the same dehydrated food day after day, prepared for our convenience, and packaged, stored, and advertised as the ideal food for your pet. Why not mimic the diet of dogs and cats in the wild? Admittedly in the wild they can choose and thereby balance their diet, whereas in the domestic environment they are entirely dependent on their owners for food. Not every meal or food will be balanced, but overall, food from a variety of sources will ensure a balanced diet. Animals in the wild eat the whole prey, including muscle, organs, bones and partially digested plants from the stomach, and therefore eat a balanced diet.
The essence of providing a diet for our pets is to give them a variety of foods as close to their natural diet as we can, giving regard to the cost and availability of ingredients. New Zealand has a rich source of meat by-products which can form the basis of a diet. Fresh raw and preferably organic foods are the ideal but convenience, availability, and economy need to be considered.
There are three more definitions we need to consider before we talk about formulating a diet for your pet - palatability, digestibility, and appetite.
Palatability is a measure of the acceptance of the food by the animal and is less influenced by the ingredients than by how they are prepared. Palatability of food is influenced by particle size, texture, smell, temperature, mouth feel, moisture, and flavour. Mouth feel is the sensation experienced when food is first taken into the mouth. and food manufacturers go to great lengths to create mouth appeal. Potato chips are a good example of the use of texture, fat, salt and other flavour enhancers to create this. These ideas are used by petfood manufacturers to dress up what would otherwise be unpalatable food. After a while pets become wary of this. Perhaps this is why owners have to keep swapping brands to satisfy their pet's appetite.
Digestibility is a measure of the availability of the food to the animal. It is what is absorbed by the animal and is usually recorded as a percentage. Digestibility of 50% means only half of the food fed has been utilised by the animal. Digestibility is affected by the form and quality of the nutrients, the balance of nutrients, and the processing of ingredients. Foods high in fibre and fat may seem good value for money but have low digestibility. A quick assessment of digestibility can be made by observing what passes out the other end of the animal. If stools are bulky and full of fibre and the animal is always hungry and losing weight, then a closer look at the value of the food is needed. Manufacturers emphasise the quality of ingredients they use to improve digestibility. Cooking, which is part of the processing of food, has advantages and disadvantages. Cooking improves the digestibility of vegetables and grains but reduces the digestibility of proteins. Cooking can, however, improve palatability and reduce spoilage, which will lengthen storage life of the food. Animal protein is more digestible than plant protein. A combination of different proteins will improve the overall quality and digestibility of the food.
Appetite, which is the desire to eat, is also very important. A hungry animal is more likely to eat. Appetite is influenced by environmental factors such as climate, presence of other animals, stress, level of activity (working, pregnancy, lactating), noise, time of day, and the period of time since the last meal.
There are several other factors to consider when talking about food quality. Once processed, commercial foods need to be protected from deterioration, especially from spoilage, rancidity and loss of nutrients. This protection is gained using antioxidants, preservatives, anti-fungals, humectants and plasticisers, along with the addition of extra vitamins to ensure any losses from processing and storage are minimised. Ethoxyquin was one of the most common preservatives used, but as a result of consumer pressure, has been replaced with more 'acceptable' preservatives, such as vitamin C and rosemary oil. Unfortunately some of the ingredients which go into the food may still be preserved with ethoxyquin. The label on the food often fails to fully explain what is in the food.
Before we talk about preparing food for your pet it is important to consider the ethics of feeding a high meat diet. Producing meat is a very inefficient use of land. Intensive methods of farming require the use of insecticides, herbicides, and drugs which affect the quality of the produce. For the sake of the planet and our health we need to be mindful of what we eat and feed our pets.
Here are some general guidelines for feeding:
Now it is time to put everything together. The following provides a guide to preparing food giving the choices for assembling a meal. For those who like recipes, a few are offered.
INGREDIENTS CATS DOGS
meat - beef, chicken, fish, lamb 50-70% 30-50%
other - eggs, cheese, tofu, tempeh
offal - liver, heart, kidney, tripe, gizzard, cheek 10-15% 10-15%
bones - brisket, chicken necks
CARBOHYDRATES 10-15% 15-20%
Grains - brown rice, oatmeal, millet, bulgur, potato, kumara, semolina, macaroni, barley, wholemeal bread, polenta, couscous
Vegetables - pumpkin, broccoli, beans, carrots, peas
Legumes - kidney beans, split peas, lentils - cooked or sprouted raw
FATS 10-15% 15-20%
Animal fat - usually part of the cut of meat
Vegetable oil - cold pressed sunflower/safflower/flax
Calcium carbonate - 1/4 tsp per 100gm meat (not needed for chicken mince).
Bonemeal, dicalcium phosphate, or microcrystalline hydroxyappatite can be substituted.
Yeast - 1 tsp per 20kg body wt.
Kelp - 1/2 tsp per 20kg body wt.
Cold pressed oil - 1 tsp per 5-10kg body wt. (flax, safflower, sunflower)
Vitamins A D E as required - or cod liver oil
Alfalfa and liver powder - sprinkle
Essential Fatty Acids - evening primrose and marine oils (EPA & DHA)
Flavourings - garlic, parsley, wheat-grass, marmite, miso.
These proportions are a guide only and the particular age and needs of your pet must be taken into account. High protein is required for growth, late pregnancy, lactation, convalescence, and cats. High energy is required for working dogs. The following recipes are for the average adult pet who is moderately active.
DOG DELIGHTFELINE FISH
1 cup chicken mince
¼ cup mashed vegetables
2 cups cooked rice/macaroni/oatmeal/bread
1/4 cup cooked liver
1 tsp oil
Sufficient for a large dog.500 gm poached fish (can mackerel)
¼ cup mashed pumpkin
1 cup cooked brown rice
1 tsp oil
Sufficient for 3-4 adult meals
While more effort is required to prepare food for your pet this is offset by improved economy, a healthier pet, and the satisfaction gained from caring for your pet.