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ConditionsNatural Pet Foods

Natural Pet Foods

Is there a healthy feed for our four-legged friends?

Is there a healthy feed for our four-legged friends?

From small beginnings 50 years ago, the manufactured petfood industry has burgeoned into a multibillion-pound-a-year industry worldwide. Almost all petfood sold anywhere is produced by just a few industrial giants that employ both clever marketing and highly sophisticated food technology-and they certainly need to.
They take raw ingredients that can barely be called food, and turn them into something that manages to look and taste palatable-to animals, at least. The clever marketing is based on misleading labelling that is tantamount to a scam.
Take a look at a typical can of dogfood. The label may declare the contents to be "complete" or "balanced" and to contain: "real meat", "special oils", "natural fibres" and "vitamins and minerals". Typically, you'll see an ingredients list headed by "meat and animal derivatives".
It sounds good. The word 'meat' is first on the list, so we presume that it's a major ingredient in the product. But, in fact, the petfood industry has managed to pers-uade our lawmakers that declaring 'meat' in the contents requires that the can contain only 4 per cent of the stuff.
The major ingredients in canned petfood are water (70 per cent), and what the trade calls 'animal derivatives'. This term covers a multitude of odd bits of biological material you don't even want to think about. At best, they are the nutritious bits such as the liver, kidney, heart and brain. But the term also refers to virtually any other animal parts-bones, tripe, udders, lungs, windpipes, feathers, hair, beaks, claws, and even diseased carcasses and excreta.
The industry turns these into petfood through 'rendering'-high-temperature boiling that reduces a grotesque pile of animal bits and pieces into an innocuous-looking sludge. This is then used as the basis of dried petfood, or fashioned into meat-like chunks for 'wetfood' canning.
The industry claims that rendering re-sults in a bacteriologically sterile product, but a load of potentially dangerous chemicals are also left behind-including anti-biotics, hormones, pesticides, heavy metals and endotoxins from bacteria.
The final product often also contains preservatives such as butylated hydroxy-anisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), both shown to affect the nervous system, particularly of younger animals. There's also ethoxyquin, an anti-oxidant which, like BHA and BHT, can cause liver problems and cancer. Ethoxy-quin is made by Monsanto and used in US petfoods, but is banned in Europe. Another chemical frequently found in petfoods is propylene glycol (PG), added to increase moisture. Similar to car anti-freeze, PG ironically has a drying effect on stools and can increase constipation.
A survey of American petfoods show-ed that most products on the market contain cancer-causing chemicals ( Mutat Res, 2003; 539: 195-201 ).

On the plus side, manufacturers add vitamins and minerals, but no amount of these can compensate for the potentially toxic chemical cocktail. A medium-sized dog fed exclusively on commercial petfood could be ingesting as much as 10 lb of harmful additives each year.
It's now clear that processed petfood is doing to pets what processed food does to humans. Dogs and cats are becoming more and more prone to the food-induced degenerative diseases of modern man, including diabetes, arthritis, kidney and liver failure, cancer, obesity, teeth and gum problems, and disorders of the skin, thyroid, pancreas and adrenals.
It's no accident that all these conditions have coincided with the advent of modern petfoods in the 1960s. Before then, pets were largely fed on kitchen scraps and cheap cuts of meat from the butcher.
There's also been an explosion of conditions that look suspiciously like food allergy or intolerance. Skin problems, bloat, diarrhoea, constant vomiting and irritable bowel have all mushroomed in the last 40 years. A recent British survey found that nearly one in five dogs now suffers from food intolerance ( Vet Rec, 2001; 148: 445-8 ).
Part of the problem is not only the additives in petfood, but also the quality and type of food materials used. The manufacturers' attitude is that, as long as their products contain the right percentage of protein, carbohydrates, fats and essential nutrients, the pet will live, whatever the food source. So, like the recommended daily allowances for people, petfood is mainly formulated to prevent malnutrition, not to promote health and wellbeing.
For example, most of the nutritional content in petfood comes from carbohydrates-much of it from cereals such as maize and wheat. But this is a totally un-natural diet for dogs. In fact, dogs don't digest either wheat or corn very well and, thus, are unable to absorb many nutrients from them. Feeding dogs cereals is also believed to cause food intolerance.
However, we do have something to thank petfood manufacturers for. Their biologists have done basic research into pet nutrition so that we are, at least, now aware of the nutritional needs of our pets in some detail.
One key finding is that, although both dogs and cats are natural predators-and, hence, meat-eaters-dog digestion has evolved to accept all types of food. So a dog doesn't need to kill to sustain life, and can survive on plant materials alone.
In contrast, cats will die if they don't eat meat. Cats are 'obligate carnivores'- they must eat the flesh of other animals. The principal reason is that meat contains two amino acids-arginine and taurine- without which cats may rapidly die. Dogs, however, can make their own.
Cats also need about three times as much protein as dogs as they are designed to get their energy from meat rather than from carbs. Consequently, cats require negligible amounts of carbohydrate in their diet. In fact, they may sometimes find carbohydrates difficult to process, which can lead to problems such as obesity, diabetes and allergies. Nevertheless, most catfood contains high levels of carbohydrate, mainly for cost reasons, but also to reduce the odour of the faeces.

Natural alternatives
Fortunately, a handful of niche companies offer products that they claim to be of a far higher standard than the usual commercial brands of petfoods. For our survey, we chose 12 of the leading brands in the UK-those that were mainly produced according to organic, GM-free or holistic principles. None uses chemical additives, preservatives or pesticides, and all provide a full range of vitamins and minerals.
However, there is one downside. Un-like the mass-produced varieties, most of these upmarket products are only available in dried form.
Dried petfoods can't be made without using carbohydrates as binders-which is unnecessary for cats. They can also cause dehydration, leading to conditions such as cystitis or bladder stones. That is why dried food should be mixed with water, or a bowl of water should always be available.
Naturediet ( and Nature's Menu ( offer 'wet' alternatives, vacuum-packed products that are 60 per cent meat, with rice, seaweed and oils. Nature's Menu also offers a frozen BARF (see box, page 10) range, containing pellet-sized meat and vegetables, to be given raw. However, with only two companies, it was not possible to road test their products.
In this survey, points were awarded for:
* variety and healthy ingredients
* scarcity of unhealthy carbohydrates
* added supplements
* value for money
* palatability.
To assess palatability, five of our panel's pets (two pairs of cats, a single cat and two dogs) served as our 'tasters'. These included: Ollie, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel; Wilbur, a West Highland Terrier; Charlie, a Manx cat; Dali and Isis, a pair of Burmese cats; and Bunny and Face, a tabby and tortoiseshell, respectively.
Contrary to popular perception, the dogs were the fussiest feeders. But it must be said that both dogs are used to eating wetfoods, with Ollie mostly eating table scraps or butcher's offcuts of meat.
Interestingly, all five sets of pets preferred the Fromm products, which suggests that the company has worked hard to achieve a taste appealing to most pets.
There was one side-effect: both Dali and Isis became moody and constipated after eating these products. Their owner interprets this as a reaction to the higher amount of fibre in the diet-the shock of better ingredients to animals used to the rubbish heap that is ordinary petfood.

the catfood

Eagle Pack Adult Cat Formula *****
Distributor: Postal Pet Products Ltd, UK
(tel: 01531 633 985;
Price: lb12.04 for 3 kg
This American catfood's impressive list of ingredients is headed by "certified organically grown chicken". The chicken is in meal form, but it's the main ingredient, making this food closer to a normal cat diet. Although it contains carbohydrates, there are also some good extras such as prebiotics and enzymes to help digestion, prevent allergies and reduce faecal odour, and a correct ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. Eagle Pack recommends ad lib feeding. Assuming this works out to 60 g/day, it will cost 24 p/day. Although it's not 100-per-cent organic, we've given this full marks for both ingredients and price. Dali and Isis gave this product four paws up.

James Wellbeloved Turkey & Rice Cat Food *****

Manufacturer: Crown Pet Foods Ltd
(tel: 01935 410 600)
Price: lb9.99 for 2 kg
This was popular with all of our cats: Face and Bunny gobbled it down, and lots of purring was heard from Charlie-discerning responses, as this is a quality product. With a respectable protein content of 31 per cent, largely from turkey meal-no derivatives here-there's not too much carbohydrate filler either. It has extra omega-3 EFAs, but no omega-6. There are also a few medicinal ingredients: lysine to help prevent feline herpes (a cause of eye problems), and cranberry extract to prevent cystitis-a danger with dried food. This is a well thought-out product, and good value, too. At the recommended amount of 60 g/ day, this costs 30 p/day, or 22 p/day if you buy the 10-kg pack.

Fromm Family Adult Cat Food ****
Distributor: Postal Pet Products Ltd, UK
(as above)
Price: lb13.13 for 3 kg
Another US "premium" product, its main ingredient is chicken, some of which is from muscle meat and liver (in other words, human food), although the rest is "chicken byproducts", which can cover a multitude of sins. There are relatively few carbohydrates, so it approaches a normal cat diet. Like Eagle, this one is laced with vitamins, minerals and essential fats, and is only let down by the dubious chicken content. This costs 26 p/day for a 60-g daily intake. The larger 15-kg pack brings the price down to a spectacular 17 p/day. What it lacked in certain ingredients, this product made up for in taste. It was by far the biggest hit with all our cats-Face and Bunny promptly scoffed it down; it had the most appeal to Charlie, and Isis and Dali also cleaned their bowls.

Pero Organic Cat Food withchicken, rice and vegetables ***
Distributor: Pero Foods, Betws-y-coed,
Wales (tel: 01690 710 457;
Price: lb23.94 for six 750-g packs
Most of the ingredients here (except for the chicken, curiously) are organic. However, even organic rice, oats, barley and peas are not part of a normal cat diet. The contents are said to be GM-free, and "high in omega-3 EFAs", which sounds impressive, but may not be useful. Research suggests that pets need more omega-6 than omega-3 (up to a ratio of 10:1), and omega-3 on its own may be counterproductive. That, coupled with the non-organic chicken, lets the product down. As for cost, assuming a serving of 60 g/day for an average cat, this translates to around 27 p/day. This was Bunny and Face's third-favourite crunchy.

Burns Ocean Fish Cat Food ***
Distributor: Burns Pet Nutrition, Wales
(tel: 0800 018 1890;
Price: lb2.31 for 500 g
This is from a range of dry petfoods developed by holistic vet John Burns, who des-cribes his products as 'holistic', 'dietetic' and quasi-medicinal. His formulations are claimed to prevent some of the more common results of commercial petfoods such as problems with the teeth, gums, skin and digestion. However, this product isn't really the cat's whiskers. Despite its name, it's mainly made of rice, not fish, and is thus mostly carbohydrates. And fish is not an ideal food for cats as it lacks iron, zinc, copper and manganese-although Burns has covered this by adding seaweed and copper. It is also high in EFAs, good for preventing skin problems.
A respectable product, this is let down by its relatively high carbohydrates. With a serving of 60 g/day for an average cat, this costs about 28 p/day (or 19 p/day if you buy two 7.5-kg packs).

Pascoe's Natural Complete for Cats - Zero
Manufacturer: Pascoe's, Driffield, Yorks
(tel: 01377 252 571;
Price: lb1.15 for 375 g
Although all its ingredients are organic, there are two big minuses: the main ingredient is wheat-so carbohydrate-rich and potentially allergenic; and its main protein is fish and not meat, so it lacks taurine and arginine. This is a potentially life-threatening omission. So, this product earns a nil rating, plus a serious health warning. It also fails the taste test paws down. This was the one product that Bunny and Face turned their noses up at. In fact, one of the cats regurgitated it "unchewed, un-digested, unwanted!".

The dogfood

Eagle Pack Holistic Select Lamb Meal & Rice *****
Distributor: Postal Pet Products Ltd, UK
(tel: 01531 633 985;
Price: lb6.59 for 1.8 kg
This is a product for animals that have problems with ordinary dogfood as it's been designed to sort out various health conditions.
Lamb is known to be hypoallergenic and is considered by some to be the best meat for dogs; the relatively low carbohydrate content comes from rice and oats that, again, are unlikely to cause allergy. The product contains glucosamine and dimethionine, both powerful antiarthritis compounds. It also contains a small army of prebiotics to aid digestion, plus a good omega-6-to-omega-3 ratio.
Assuming a daily intake of 250 g, this first-class product works out to 92 p/day (or 69 p/day with the 15-kg pack).
Tastewise, this one didn't go down well with either Ollie or Wilbur-possibly because of a lack of smell.

James Wellbeloved Turkey & RiceKibble *****
Manufacturer: Crown Pet Foods Ltd
(tel: 01935 410 600)
Price: lb5.95 for 2 kg
A lot of care has clearly gone into this product, making this also a five-star winner. It contains no wheat, gluten or dairy, and so is ideal for dogs with aller-gies and digestion problems. It's made from equal amounts (26 per cent each) of hypoallergenic brown and pearl rice, and turkey-meat meal-claimed to be better than chicken, as some dogs can develop a hypersensitivity to chicken. It also scores high for its natural vitamin E content, seaweed, linseed (an omega-3 EFA) and chicory (a prebiotic).
As for taste, the results were mixed: Ollie proved to be a fan, but only when there was no wetfood around. Wilbur, however, was not keen on this at all. At the recommended 250 g/day for a 40-kg dog, this costs 74 p/day (or 60 p/day if you buy the 15-kg pack).

Fromm Family Adult Gold Dog Food *****
Distributor: Postal Pet Products Ltd, UK
(as above)
Price: lb9.97 for 3 kg
And Gold is what this version of Fromm's standard dogfood certainly is, with its meat content guaranteed to be muscle meat (what humans eat), and no rendered 'byproducts'. The chicken and duck, with some fish plus a few low-allergy cereals and cheese, sound tasty-and, indeed, it was certainly the only product promptly devoured by both Ollie and Wilbur, pos-sibly because of the good smell and small meaty-looking chunks. Like Eagle Pack, it also contains EFAs, antiarthritis ingre-dients and a range of prebiotics. It's not quite as hypoallergenic as the more specialised Eagle product, but not all dogs may find that necessary.
However, this is still fairly pricey, with the 3-kg pack costing 83 p/day for a 250-g serving, or 57 p/day with the 15-kg pack. Although Eagle has better ingredients, the excellent taste and lower bulk price here helped it to also tie for first place.

Pascoe's Natural Complete for Dogs ****
Manufacturer: Pascoe's, Driffield, Yorks
(tel: 01377 252 571;
Price: lb2.99 for 1.5 kg
This is totally organic-a major plus-as German researchers have shown that animals fed an organic diet are more fertile and have larger litters. So this may have special appeal for dog breeders. Its protein comes mainly from fish meal and chicken byproducts, although that includes 4 per cent "fresh chicken". It's wheat-free and appears to have adequate vitamins, min-erals and EFAs. It also includes seaweed, and the herbs rosemary (antioxidant) and parsley (to freshen the breath).
At 250 g/day, this costs 50 p/day for 2 kg or 15 kg-good value for an organic product and among the cheapest of our sample.
But our dogs just hated this product-possibly because of the strange shapes.

Pero Organic Dog Food with
chicken, rice and vegetables ***
Distributor: Pero Foods, Betws-y-coed,
Wales (tel: 01690 710 457;
Price: lb34 for 15 kg
The main protein here (chicken) is not organic. However, rice is a useful hypo-allergenic. But, as with the Pero catfood, it's high in omega-3, rather than omega-6, which may be a downside.
This product also flunked the taste test: it didn't appeal to Ollie or to Wilbur, who refused to even try it-possibly due to its lack of smell (at least to humans). Pero recommends 300 g/day, costing 70 p/day, or 57 p/day for a 250-g serving, or as little as 45 p/day if you buy in bulk.

Burns Duck and Brown Rice Dog Food ***
Distributor: Burns Pet Nutrition, Wales
(tel: 0800 018 1890;
Price: lb6.85 for 2 kg
Although duck is the headline ingredient, this is 65 per cent brown rice. Preventing allergies is Dr Burns' primary motive, as the label stresses no wheat. Another feature is that it is "low residue", although high-fibre brown rice might be thought to produce the reverse. In any case, dogs don't need all that carbohydrate, suggesting that the rice is being used as an inexpensive 'filler', an idea reinforced by the low (18 per cent) protein content.
The recommended 150 g/day costs a reasonable 50 p/day (or 86 p/day for a 250-g serving, and 54 p/day with the 15-kg pack, the third cheapest in our survey).
Nevertheless, Wilbur wouldn't go near this-again, it has no smell-and Ollie nibbled at it, but was not impressed.

The BARF alternative

Convinced that canned and dried petfood is both inappropriate and unhealthy, Austra-lian vets Ian Billinghurst and Tom Lonsdale pioneered the so-called BARF diet. BARF is an acronym for both 'Bones and Raw Food' and 'Biologically Appropriate Raw Food'.
The BARF philosophy is that, for maximum health, dogs and cats should consume a diet as close as possible to what their wild ancestors would have eaten. That means essentially eating raw flesh and not just chewing the bones, but crunching them up and swallowing them. For dogs, BARF allows yoghurt, raw eggs, raw fruits and vegetables, nuts and berries, and only small amounts of grains such as oats and barley; wheat and rice are banned. For cats, these 'obligate carnivores' are restricted to only what would come from a whole fresh raw carcass. Supplements such as brewer's yeast, fish oil and kelp tablets are also recommended.
But critics of BARF point out that dogs no longer have super-specialised bone-crunching teeth, and cite instances where dogs and cats on BARF have been injured or even killed by splintered bones. Billingshurst admits that harm may arise from bones, but argues that BARF overall does far less damage than processed dogfood diets. In any case, he says, bones can be ground up before feeding.
Another major criticism is the potential for bacteria and parasites and, already, there is evidence of serious kidney failure in greyhounds fed contaminated raw meat. Also, critics claim that, even if pets can cope, intestinal infections can be passed to humans.

Make your own petfood

If you despair of the ingredients in ordinary petfood and don't like the limited organic options, you could try making your own. But first, decide whether you wish to serve up cooked or raw food. Increasing numbers of pet-owners are turning to raw food-known as BARF (biologically appropriate raw food)-on the premise that dogs and cats should eat as their ancestors would have. Pro-BARF advocates claim their dogs' health has been transformed by a diet consisting mainly of raw meaty bones. The many detractors of BARF, however, claim that dogs can suffer from parasites or internal puncture wounds from incompletely digested or splintered bones.
If you want to do BARF, but are concerned or have reservations, you can always grind the bones down or stick to rounded knuckle bones, which don't splinter.

Petfood for dogs

* 70 per cent meat and meaty bones
* 10 per cent organ meats. Buy your meat from parasite-free organic sources (many save offcuts as petfood), and observe scrupulous cleanliness in its handling and storage
* 20 per cent variety of raw pureed vegetables, nuts, seeds and sprouts.
* 60 per cent lightly steamed, shredded or ground meat-especially lamb, beef, venison, rabbit, ostrich or turkey rather than pork, fish or chicken, which experts claim are inappropriate meats for dogs
* At most, 30 per cent cooked grains (oats, barley, millet or spelt), if at all
* 10 per cent raw ground vegetables or fruit.

Petfood for cats

* For an obligate carnivore like cats, meat must be the mainstay. Any meat will do, but organ meats, which are high in vitamin A and taurine, should be included
* Aim for 300 g/day of meat (just over half a pound). Serve poultry and include the skin, as it's a valuable source of fat
* Offer a calcium source. Allow cats to chew and swallow the bones in raw chicken wings and necks (around 25 g/day of bones). Alternatively, 500 mg of eggshells will provide 180 mg of calcium
* Add probiotics to aid intestinal health
* Buy from a butcher you trust, rather than using supermarket meat
* Cats rarely eat carbohydrates or plant foods.
* For all the above meats, cook the same as for dogs. However, the main problem with cooked food is that cooking destroys taurine-which is necessary for cat health. Heated protein may also be harder for the cat to digest.If you insist on cooking, give your cat a supplement containing taurine.

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