Pet Food 101: How to Pick the Best Pet Food for Your Dog or Cat
Food, Exercise, and Love – the 3 pillars of responsible and successful pet parenting. Just like our human kids, our furry babies need unconditional love, safe shelter, and healthy and nutritious food to grow into the superheroes that they are. The proverb “You become what you eat” applies to our pets as much as it does to the rest of our family. Which is what makes it extremely important for us to understand our dogs & cats, and their dietary requirements. Choosing our pet’s food requires utmost care and deliberation. It’s a decision that will impact their whole life, for good or for the worse.
Food can change our pets in more ways than we can imagine. Dogs and cats that eat a balanced and biologically-appropriate diet often live longer, are more active, agile and energetic. They have a shinier coat and skin, and healthier teeth and gums. Such pets are seldom obese and fall sick less often (= lower medical bills!). Pets who feed on the right diet also show less behavioral issues or diseases.
On the other hand, pets who ought to survive on a processed or otherwise unbalanced diet, often run into issues. Lethargy, obesity, digestive disorders, poop issues (stinky, runny or constipated), fussy eating or food-related behavioral issues, bone/joints or skin issues, weakened immunity, diseases or deficiencies are all indications of a poor diet. If your pet has been down with one or more of these lately, it’s time to rethink what you’ve been feeding them.
What should my Pet’s Ideal Diet contain?
All animals (including our dogs, cats, and humans) need a balance of macronutrients such as Proteins, Fats, and Carbohydrates (sugars & fiber), micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and antioxidants for growth and sustenance, and water. The balance of nutrients, however, in our pets’ and our food is not the same. In fact, some common human food items may be extremely toxic for our dogs & cats.
A dog or cat’s diet must be inspired from what their ancestors, the wolves, and wildcats ate in the wild. These animals would mostly prey on smaller animals, scavenge on leftovers from a big hunt or fruits and berries dropped from the trees. This gave them a very specific set of nutrients, and they gradually evolved to make the best of what they fed on. Thus, when we plan a diet for our fur babies today, it must mirror the same biological mix of nutrients. Let’s have a look at the various nutrients that must constitute our pet’s food:
Macronutrients in Pet Food
Proteins: Proteins are the building blocks of life. They are the most abundant organic molecule, constituting about 50% of a cell’s dry weight. The word protein comes from the Greek word Proteios, which means “of primary importance” or “first place”. Thus, protein should be the first ingredient on your pet food label and must also form the bulk of your pet’s diet.
Proteins are made up of Amino Acids. There are 22 amino acids that build up all proteins. Typically, an animal’s body can produce some of these amino acids naturally. However, the rest must be supplied through their food. These are known as the essential amino acids. Dogs need 10 essential amino acids in their diet, cats need 11. Humans need only 9. Arginine, Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan and Valine are the essential amino acids for dogs. Additionally, cats need Taurine apart from these.
Proteins play several important roles in the dog or cat’s body. They include:
- Growth and maintenance of body tissues such as bones, muscles, blood, skin, and hair;
- Providing structure, strength, and elasticity to cells;
- Synthesis of important enzymes, hormones, antibodies, etc., hence, vital for several body functions;
- Maintaining a steady pH and regulate fluids in the body;
- Providing energy to your pet throughout the day.
Fats: Our first natural reaction to fats is… unhealthy! But fats are actually very important for our body, more so for our pets. The ancestral diet of our pets included whole prey animals, with their skin and offals (both rich in fats). Thus, fats constitute a big chunk of their diet – only second to proteins.
Fats are made up of building blocks called Fatty Acids. There are some fatty acids that animals cannot produce in their body, and must be delivered through food. These are called essential fatty acids (EFA). These are divided into two groups – Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Dogs need Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) from the ω-3 group and Linoleic Acid (LA) and Arachidonic Acid (AA) from the ω-6 group. Omega-3 acids are not essential for cats but recommended for their anti-inflammatory effect.
Fats perform several important functions in the pet’s body, including:
- Absorption of fat-soluble vitamins in the body;
- Nourishing the skin and coat, and formation of cell membranes;
- Supporting brain function and nerve activity;
- Providing insulation to the body and internal organs and keeping them warm.
- Their anti-inflammatory effect keeps the risk of cancer at bay;
- Increasing palatability and adding texture to the food.
- Rich source of energy, with twice the amount of calories than protein or carbs.
However, it’s important to remember that fats have a very short shelf life. They start oxidizing as soon as they come in contact with the air and soon turn rancid. Rancid fats, such as those in packaged kibble bags, can cause gastric upset, vomiting, and diarrhea in the short term. And may result in liver diseases or pancreatitis over long use.
Carbohydrates: The common belief is that dogs and cats need zero carbs. However, that’s not entirely true. While they’re still carnivores, dogs and cats need carbohydrates in moderate quantities to maintain a healthy lifecycle. Carbohydrates may exist as sugars (simple carbs), starch (complex carbs) or cellulose (dietary fiber).
Simple carbs or processed complex carbs (such as flour) tend to increase blood sugar levels quickly. These carbohydrates are said to have a high glycemic index. Wholefoods and items rich in insoluble fiber are said to be low on the glycemic scale. Low-GI carbohydrates are acceptable and in fact, healthy for our dogs and cats. While those high on the GI scale must be avoided.
Carbohydrates perform the following functions in our pet’s diet:
- They act as a source of quick energy.
- Dietary fiber keeps the pet feeling full for a longer time, enables better digestion and bowel movements.
Micronutrients in Pet Food
Vitamins: Just like humans, our pets also need a variety of vitamins to keep their body operating smoothly. Vitamins are organic compounds that take part in a wide range of metabolic activities. They may be either Water-Soluble Vitamins or Fat-Soluble Vitamins. Dogs and cats need B-vitamins along with Vitamin A, D, E, K, and Choline in different proportions.
Vitamins A helps with the skin and eyes. Vitamin D helps with absorption of Calcium and Phosphorus in the body. Vit E helps with skin & coat and strengthens the immune system. Vit K allows proper blood coagulation. B-vitamins help in a number of biochemical reactions and are important for healthy skin, coat and digestion. Choline aids healthy brain and liver function.
Pets can synthesize Vitamin C in their liver, and don’t really need it. Supplementing it may be beneficial, but an excess can create toxicity. Hence, caution is advised.
Minerals: All dogs and cats need some essential Macrominerals (in relatively larger quantities) and Trace Minerals (in minute quantities) in their diet. The 7 macrominerals needed by dogs and cats are Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Sodium, Chloride, Potassium and Sulphur. There are about 11 microminerals, but the most important ones are Iron, Zinc, Copper, Chromium, Iodine, Selenium, Manganese and Fluorine.
Calcium and phosphorus are needed for bones and teeth. Calcium is also needed for many other important functions such as blood pressure control, nerve impulse transmission, muscle contraction, hormone secretion, and blood coagulation. Sodium, potassium, and chloride maintain the pH in the body, thereby, regulating the fluid balance in the body. Magnesium is important for bones, enzymes & intracellular fluids, and brain functions. Iron makes up the oxygen-carrying pigments – hemoglobin and myoglobin. Zinc is important for the immune system, growth, and reproduction. Zinc and Selenium are important for healthy skin and coat.
Enzymes, Antioxidants & Probiotics: Enzymes are a specialized class of proteins that help catalyze biochemical reactions in the body. Enzymes support the immune system, help in absorption of vitamins and minerals, promote healthy teeth, gums, bones, and joints, and keep toxins out. Digestive enzymes such as proteases break down proteins into simpler amino acids. Lipases break down fats into fatty acids and glycerol. While most enzymes are secreted in the body itself, adding additional enzymes such as Papain may provide support to the body.
Antioxidants are compounds that prevent oxidation and thus spoilage of nutrients in food. They may also help prevent cell damage due to aging. Antioxidants also help in nerve functions. Some vitamins such as Vit E and A act as a good antioxidant and may reduce the risk of cancer.
Probiotics are healthy bacteria cultures that promote digestion in the body. These are usually found in the gut of the animals, but may need replenishment through food. Especially if the pet has had poor metabolism or diet.
Water in Pets’ Diet
Water is the most important yet most underrated part of your pet’s diet. Water is the main component of every healthy living cell in the body. Our bodies (and those of our pets) are made up of roughly 70% water. A diet is incomplete if it doesn’t provide sufficient moisture to your pet. More so, if your dog or cat doesn’t drink water regularly.
The main function of water is to transport nutrients into and out of the body. Water acts as a solvent for many important nutrients and greatly helps in digestion. It cools down the body and helps maintain normal body temperature. Water lubricates the joints and keeps the organs hydrated and operational. It also helps to remove toxins from the body.
Lack of water in your pet’s diet may result in dehydration and organ malfunction. This could be fatal for your darling. That is why it’s strongly recommended to include fresh fruits, vegetables and other fresh produce in your pet’s diet. Keeping the fluids up is one of the thumb rules of Pet Nutrition.
Important Considerations while Planning Diets for Pets or Picking Pet Foods
Moderation is Key – More is Not Always Merrier
Your pet’s diet must consist of all nutrients in a balanced amount. While we may tempt to supplement our pet’s diet with more of the good stuff, sometimes it may not be necessary. In fact, an excess of certain nutrients may cause toxicity or other issues. For example, too much Vitamin A (liver treats) intake for a prolonged duration may result in poor absorption and deficiency of calcium, resulting in weaker bones and joints. High sodium can lead to blood pressure, heart and kidney diseases. Too much fat could lead to liver and pancreatic issues while excessive calcium can lead to kidney or bladder stones.
Organizations such as the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and the European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF) lay down the metrics for Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for pets. They establish Nutrient Profiles that all pet foods must comply to in order to label their products as “complete and balanced”. These nutrient profiles also specify the maximum dosage of nutrients in pet foods.
Here’s the AAFCO Nutrient Profile for Dogs & Cats, that DawgieBowl complies with:
|Puppies & Pregnant Dogs||Adult Dogs||Maximum (Dogs)||Kittens & Pregnant Cats||Adult Cats||Maximum (Cats)|
|EPA + DHA (ω-3)||g||0.1||ND||0.03||ND|
|ω-6: ω-3 acid Ratio|
|Vitamins & Others|
|Thiamine (Vit B₁)||mg||0.56||0.56||1.4||1.4|
|Riboflavin (Vit B₂)||mg||1.3||1.3||1||1|
|Niacin (Vit B3)||mg||3.4||3.4||15||15|
|Pantothenic acid (Vit B₅)||mg||3||3||1.44||1.44|
|Pyridoxine (Vit B₆)||mg||0.38||0.38||1||1|
|Biotin (Vit B₇)||mg||ND||ND||0.018||0.018|
|Folic acid (Vit B₉)||mg||0.054||0.054||0.2||0.2|
Consequently, stay clear of multivitamins and mineral supplements for your pets, unless prescribed by your vet. Food supplements must only be added when the diet being fed to your pet is nutritionally incorrect or incomplete. Multivitamins or mineral supplements meant for human consumption is a big NO for pets.
Lifestage and Lifestyle-based Diets
Your pet’s diet must match their life-stage and their lifestyle. Puppies/Kittens and senior dogs or cats have a different nutritional requirement than adults. Similarly, pregnant or lactating pets may have different needs too.
Working animals, or pets with an active lifestyle may need a different diet than live-at-home pets or those that don’t work out as often. Athletes don’t eat the same food as desk workers, do they?
Animals may also need slightly different nutrients based on their breeds. Some breeds may have a known genetic predisposition to certain diseases or deficiencies. This is where it gets important to customize their food as per their breed-specific needs.
Go Easy on Calories
While a healthy balance of macronutrients is required, you must watch the calorie intake and consumption of your pet. Proteins and carbs typically give out 4 calories per gram, while fats provide 9 calories per gram. Your pet’s food must be moderately nutrient-dense – enough to provide all nutrients as per their RDI without overloading or starving them of calories.
The energy required by the pet to perform essential body functions like digestion, respiration, heart functions, brain functions, etc. is known as the Resting Energy Requirement (RER). This is the energy required by a living creature to maintain homeostasis while performing no physical exercise without losing weight. The RER of dogs and cats is calculated using the formula RER = 70 x (body weight in kgs) 0.75.
Maintenance Energy Requirement (MER) is the energy requirement for a moderately active pet in a thermoneutral environment. MER is the amount of energy needed to maintain steady body weight even with moderate physical exercise. It’s usually calculated as a multiple of the RER as given in the tables below:
|Baby, 0-4 months||3.0 x RER||3.0 x RER|
|Young, 4 months onward||2.0 x RER||2.0 x RER|
|Adult, Intact||1.8 x RER||1.6 x RER|
|Adult, Sterilized||1.6 x RER||1.4 x RER|
|Senior, 7-10 years||1.4 x RER||1.2 x RER|
|Geriartic, 12-14 years||1.6 x RER||1.4 x RER|
|Sedentary/Obese prone||1.0 - 1.2 x RER||0.8 - 1.0 x RER|
|Light exercise||2.0 x RER||2.0 x RER|
|Moderate exercise||3.0 x RER||3.0 x RER|
|Heavy exercise||5.0 x RER||--|
|Weight loss||1.0 x RER for ideal weight||0.8 x RER for ideal weight|
|Weight gain||1.2 - 1.8 x RER for ideal weight||1.2 - 1.4 x RER for ideal weight|
Food is not just a numbers game. The quality of nutrient makes a huge impact on how much of those nutrients will be absorbed and assimilated by your pet’s body. For example, not all proteins are the same. Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) is a scale used to evaluate the quality of a protein based on the availability of amino acids and their absorbability in the body. Other factors such as Net Protein Utilization (NPU) also affects the digestibility of a protein. Commercial pet foods often get the nutrients right on paper. But they often use low-quality ingredients that rank low on the PDCAAS & NPU scale. This makes only a fraction of the advertised nutrients available for use by your pet’s body.
When selecting a diet for your darling dog or cat, make sure the nutrients are sourced from natural ingredients. While synthetic reconstitutes may fulfill the compliance requirements, they will certainly not fulfill your pet’s dietary needs. Packaged, overprocessed diets often provide little or no nutritional benefits to your pet. Of course, your dog or cat can survive on them. But they need real, natural food from fresh sources to thrive on. Some lifeless pellets out of a bag would just not do!
Results are Slow, But Don’t Miss Them!
The biggest problem with planning diets for pets is that the effects manifest over a long time. And they may be so subtle, that’s we may entirely miss them. When you put your pet on a new diet regime, some of the acute results may show up almost immediately (within a week), but the long term effects are only visible after many months or sometimes, even years.
This stands true for both, the positive and adverse effects. Nutrient deficiencies often take years before they manifest into a symptom that can be diagnosed. And often times, with our pet’s short lifespan – it’s too late for redemption. Sometimes, we accept these adverse effects as age-attributed problems. For example, kidney or heart issues are often attributed to old age – while they may just be a side-effect of poor dietary habits during the early years.
This is what calls for a lot of planning and research while selecting a pet food for your furry baby. Your choice has a direct impact on your dog or cat’s life. Therefore, a lot of due diligence and deliberation is required while planning your pet’s diet. As educated consumers and responsible pet parents, you must not fall for clever advertisements and evaluate every product on its merits – especially when it concerns your pet’s health, safety, and well-being.
Abandon the ‘My Pet Loves It!’ Theory
Kids love fast food – that doesn’t make it appropriate for them. Similarly, just because your pet loves a certain kind of food – doesn’t mean it’s healthy and safe for them. As pet parents, it’s up to you to decide what’s best for your furry baby. Their judgment may not always be in their best interest.
Commercial pet food products are known to use dangerous amounts of added taste enhancers such as Monosodium Glutamate (MSG – often disguised as “Brewer’s Yeast” or “Natural Flavoring Substances” on pet food labels) and even sugar. Of course, this would get the pets hooked on the food, but it’s absolutely detrimental – almost toxic for them.
Read Labels Carefully
When making a choice of pet food products for your dog or cat, make sure you read the labels carefully. Although the regulations for pet food labeling are very vague in India, you’ll be able to tell the good from the bad – if you know where to look. Go over the ingredients list on the pet food label, and see if they sound like something your baby should eat. If you’re not sure, you can always look them up on Google.
Be wary of items that sound like food – but are not. For example, chicken meal is not the same as chicken meat. Beet pulp is not the purple juicy root vegetable you’re thinking of. Cellulose powder is basically, sawdust. Be careful of the prefixes and suffixes on items. “-Meals”, “-solids”, “-extracts” are clever ways of hiding the processed ingredients under an organic-sounding name.
When it’s about your babies’ health, no measure is too drastic – ever! If you’re not sure about something, always ask for help. Consult a vet or pet nutritionist to know what’s best for your pet. Always feed real, nutritious, healthy and balanced food to your pet. Your dog or cat will thank you, we promise! Exercise your darling pet regularly, love them, and spoil them all you want! They deserve all of it!
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