Over the past 50 years or so, we’ve seen a takeover of our pets’ diets by the pet-food industry. Pet-food manufacturers seized the opportunity to offer cheap pet food for supermarkets to sell, much of it containing meat protein unfit for use in the human food chain.
Livestock feed is often bulked out with grain, some of it genetically modified, and grown using pesticides and herbicides for a higher yield. Some canned dog and cat foods contain as little as 2 per cent meat, and are largely composed of animal derivatives and cereal.
Shopping for a complete food for your pet can be confusing, as even the packaging may be misleading. With clever advertising and choice of words, even the most unappetizing foods can be made to look good. Manufacturers spend millions every year on product placement, and complete foods are competing against each other in a market that is now worth billions.
Pet guardians are often led to believe they are buying a quality food when, in fact, most of the product-development budget has been spent on getting the product onto supermarket shelves. The higher quality and more expensive pet foods—those that contain natural ingredients that are clearly and comprehensively displayed on the packaging, as well as having a code of ethics for animal welfare to match—are not even stocked in supermarkets because their profit margins are too low for retailers to bother with.
Economy ranges and supermarket own-brand varieties contain very few natural nutrients because the food is often cooked at a high temperature to preserve it for a longer shelf life, often destroying vital vitamins and minerals in the process. The manufacturers then replace these lost nutrients with synthetic and fortified ones.
There are also hidden, toxic ingredients in some brands of pet food. Gradually, more and more artificial colours, fats and countless additives have been added, as have high levels of salt and sugar to make it palatable. Products are also loaded with preservatives to help extend their shelf life—and all these additives can build up in the bodies of our beloved pets and cause them harm.
Many pet foods are labelled as containing a balanced mix of nutrients, and some cheaper dry food products state they are a ‘complete balanced food’ and a ‘premium’ brand. Unfortunately, when you take the food out of the packaging, it looks like cardboard and tastes like it too. We know this because we have experimented by eating small amounts of it ourselves!
On some food labels, a biochemical breakdown of the food is given, but not the actual biological ingredients. So you can see the basic protein, carbohydrate, fat and fibre contents, but not whether the product contains chicken, wheat, turkey fat or peas. Or sometimes it’s a vague list of ingredients and nothing else. You are none the wiser as to what is actually in that bag of food.
What is particularly worrying is that we don’t know the long-term implications of feeding our pets this kind of cheaper processed food, as there hasn’t been any in-depth research. So if we give it to our pets twice a day, on average, for 365 days a year, how do we know what effect it will have on their health?
As for wet-food packaging, many brands contain a large percentage of moisture to bulk out the food contents. The manufacturers’ rationale is simple: water is cheap and easy to source; so the technique of adding water and additives is applied to a vast array of wet pet foods. Indeed, almost any low-grade, mass-produced, processed meat product will have been treated this way.
Plant proteins are cheaper than good-quality meat proteins, so pet-food companies make higher profits through using grains such as soy, wheat and corn. Many of these low-grade grains are also not fit for human consumption, as they have been sprayed with pesticides to prevent them from going mouldy—they are only used in animal feeds.
Animals that are fed cheap, processed pet foods can develop all sorts of ailments, including skin problems like eczema, pruritus (itching), constipation, diarrhoea, wind, lethargy, and kidney and immune problems, to name but a few.
A better diet for your pet
Any nutritional improvements you can make to your pet’s diet, however small, will enhance their overall health. Even if you’re on a tight budget, you can feed them some highly nutritious, reasonably priced, store-bought foods. Luckily, smaller pet shops and online retailers will happily order specialized and better-quality wholefood pet foods. A few high-quality wet- and dry-food manufacturers offer a high meat content in their products and a precise listing of natural ingredients. In the UK, try Lily’s Kitchen, Applaws, Naturediet, Nature’s Menu and Orijen. In the USA, there’s Taste of the Wild, Blue Buffalo, Orijen, Halo, Honest Kitchen, Canine Caviar and EVO Wild Cravings.
The more spacious outlets have freezers stocked with frozen complete raw foods, and meat like minced (ground) beef (handy if you’re preparing the raw food yourself). It’s in your interest to know that your pet is being fed a wholesome, ethically derived and nutritious diet, and not eating ingredients unfit for human consumption.
Real food for pets
Besides buying better pre-prepared pet food, there are some simple and quick ways to enhance your pet’s diet—and not by making radical changes, but simply by adding healthy, real-food snacks and meals made from store-bought ingredients.
One major addition would be to include in your pet’s weekly diet a can of sardines—full of omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, potassium, and vitamins B12, A, D, E and K6—a couple of times a week. (Buy these in sunflower oil, tomato sauce or spring water, but steer clear of brine, which has salt added). Or cut down on the amount of dry food (especially if it’s being fed 365 days a year) and maybe include one or two free-range eggs a week, plus some lightly cooked peas and carrots to increase the amount of roughage.
When doing this, each food type should be placed in a bowl and offered one at a time. Different foods should not be mixed together, and any likes and dislikes should be noted. (If new foods are mixed up, tastes and smells could mask a particular food a pet doesn’t like or need, and you would never know what was working.)
The best part is, you don’t have to spend a fortune on these new foods or spend hours making pet food. When food shopping for yourself and your family, just purchase a few store-bought ‘superfoods’ to supplement your pets’ diet (see box, page 69). A good idea is to devise a food plan that enables you to prepare and cook for yourself and your pets at the same time.
You can supplement the meat element with chicken broth, making a big pot of it twice a week, and throwing in a range of seasonal vegetables and a handful or two of Basmati rice. All the goodness is sealed into the broth, which will keep in a large glass container with a Tupperware lid in the fridge for up to three days—or freeze it in smaller containers and use it as and when you need it.
In the summer months, you can feed your pets lightly cooked chicken, beef, salmon and trout, and organ meats perhaps once a week; supplement with smaller quantities of canned fish, such as pilchards, sardines and tuna in sunflower oil, which contain omega-3 fatty acids noted for their anti-inflammatory properties. Try also giving a free-range egg or two a few times a week—either raw or, if they have a sensitive tummy, hard-boiled or scrambled.
Nutrition for dogs
Dogs are omnivores but with the balance tipped towards being carnivores; in the wild, dogs eat meat.
If we go back in time and consider the diet of the ancestors of all dogs today—the wolf—we see that they ate deer, wildfowl and rabbit carcasses. These foods provided everything the wolf needed to survive, including the predigested vegetable matter found in the digestive tracts of their prey.
As carnivores, dogs have sharp and jagged teeth designed for tearing and ripping up meat. They also have a short and simple digestive tract that allows them to easily digest animal proteins and fat, and their stomach also contains strong hydrochloric acid, which can break down harmful bacteria and help to fully digest animal proteins, bones and fat.
Forty per cent of a dog’s diet should be free-range or organic meat and fish, while the remaining 60 per cent should be made up of vegetables (both lightly cooked and raw), grains, unsalted ground-up nuts and seeds, and fruit. If you decide to feed your dog raw meat and it suits your pet, you can buy meat from your local butcher.
Or if you don’t like the idea of preparing raw meat yourself or time is a constraint, then buy frozen, pre-prepared BARF (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food) from specialist suppliers. One of the advantages of this way of feeding is that it’s ideal for keeping your pet’s teeth clean: chewing meat, sinew and bone provides a natural ‘floss’ for teeth and gums.
If you decide to prepare a raw-food diet yourself, then including vegetables in the diet replicates the way a wild dog consumes the stomach contents of its prey. Feed dogs twice a day. Many dogs can become overweight if fed once a day as the body’s metabolic rate may slow down to compensate for the lack of food.
Nutrition for cats
Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they must eat meat as part of their overall diet. There are two main nutrients that cats need to survive—taurine and arachidonic acid—and these are found only in animal tissues. Taurine is an essential amino acid, and arachidonic acid is an essential fatty acid; both are found in high quantities in meat and are virtually non-existent in plant-based foods.
Taurine and arachidonic acid provide energy, and are vital for growth and development. They are also essential for healthy eyes and a fully functioning heart, for producing new antibodies, hormones and tissues, and helping to form bile salts to aid the digestion of fats. Taurine is found in animal flesh such as chicken, turkey, wildfowl, rabbit, lamb and beef and, to a lesser degree, in fish and eggs.
Even feral cats that live outdoors are not able to make taurine themselves and need to source it from the prey they catch, which includes mice, rats, other small rodents, rabbits, insects and small reptiles. Another source of taurine are organ meats like heart, liver and kidney. Feed this in small amounts, varying it weekly. Offer it raw or lightly poached in water (retain the liquid broth and offer it separately).
In some cases, cats living on the cheaper processed brands of cat food can exhibit signs of depression, lethargy, shortness of breath, a dull coat and a compromised immune system.
In the wild, cats hunt mice, small birds and rabbits, and also eat the stomach contents of their prey. This means that 60 per cent of a cat’s diet should be free-range or organic meat and fish, while the remaining 40 per cent should be made up of vegetables—lightly steamed or boiled (or puréed raw)—plus seeds and nuts ground to a powder. Some breeds ignore raw vegetables and prefer them cooked, and some do the reverse.
Most cats like to eat canned fish like sardines, mackerel and tuna. As mentioned before, buy these in sunflower oil, tomato sauce or spring water rather than brine, which has salt added. Vary which type you feed, and offer small amounts, starting off with 1 tsp per feed. Decant the contents of the can into a glass container with a close-fitting lid and keep it in the fridge. Use within three days.
Again, when introducing any new foods, slowly decrease the amount of dry food to balance out the diet. Or make a slow switch to a raw-food diet. If feeding prawns as a snack or treat, source wild prawns from the North Atlantic and avoid the large farmed prawns from the Far East, which contain antibiotics and preservatives. Defrost frozen prawns at room temperature and wash them before feeding them to your cats.
Some cats like to eat puréed vegetable matter. Place lightly cooked vegetables along with a little of the cooking water in a blender and liquidize. Puréed vegetables are great for all cats, including seniors that have had teeth removed, fussy eaters or those recovering from surgery. You could also try a probiotic such as a plain live yoghurt to help gut flora.
Adding chicken broth or Nature’s Own Hotpot (see recipe, page 71) to the complete wet or dry food you’re currently feeding your cats may entice them to eat more natural foods. If cats have been brought up from a young age to eat only dry or wet food, they may be more wary of trying the new foods on offer. Often, natural foods may have to be disguised and added to their usual food before they will eat it.
Offer dogs both raw and lightly steamed vegetables to add fibre to their diet and help their bodies absorb raw foods more easily. Some breeds ignore raw vegetables and prefer to eat them cooked, and others are vice versa. Raw vegetables and fruit may sometimes show up as undigested matter in the faeces—this is perfectly normal.
The superfoods shopping checklist
When shopping for yourself and your family, use the following checklist to stock up on healthy food items for making your pet’s meals and treats.
At the supermarket
- Fresh vegetables: carrots, broccoli, green beans, Brussels sprouts, courgettes (zucchini), sweet potatoes, butternut squash, spinach
- Free-range eggs
- Free-range chicken
- Minced (ground) beef, lamb
- Fresh fish: cod, salmon, mackerel
- Canned fish: sardines, mackerel (in sunflower oil, tomato sauce or spring water, but not brine, which has added salt)
- Basmati rice, pulses
- Organic plain live yoghurt
- Natural unsalted nuts, seeds (grind walnuts, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds with a pestle and mortar before adding to food)
- Frozen foods: peas, prawns, fish.
At the local butcher
- Buy free-range meat and also ask for any unwanted fresh chicken carcasses for your broth recipe—you’ll probably get them free of charge.
- Chicken soup for the canine soul
- Making homemade chicken broth is an economical way of using up remnants of meat left on bones, including organs and gristle (the tough, elastic tissue attached to bone), all of which contain vitamin D and calcium, important nutrients for both dogs and cats.
1 Place a cooked chicken carcass in a large, lidded saucepan and add 600 mL (1 pint) of water.
2 Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and leave to cool, preferably overnight, with the lid on.
3 Remove the chicken carcass and strain the liquid (broth) into a glass container with a tight lid.
4 Keep refrigerated and use within three days.
- Extras: Add vegetables like carrots, green beans, courgettes (zucchini), potato and broccoli (florets and stalks) to the broth. When cooked, they will soften nicely and add fibre to your pet’s diet.
- Note: Cold chicken broth should not be used as a substitute for water. It is important to have fresh drinking water available at all times.
- Pour chicken broth into ice-cube trays and place in the freezer. In the summer months, dogs and cats (especially seniors and those in rehabilitation) will enjoy licking this nutritious cool snack.
Nature’s Own Hotpot
This nutritious superfood stew is perfect for either dogs or cats.
225 g (8 oz) free-range minced (ground) turkey or chicken, or chicken breast
1 large carrot, grated
1 handful French green beans
1 handful Basmati rice
1 medium potato, diced
1 handful frozen peas
2 cabbage leaves, shredded
1 Place all ingredients into a large pan and add enough water to cover.
2 Bring to a boil, then gently simmer for 30 minutes or until most of the liquid has been absorbed (top up with water if it starts to dry out) and allow the mixture to cool.
3 Keep in the fridge for up to three days, or freeze for up to
- Add a handful of peas at the cooking stage to bulk out the fibre. Dogs and cats alike love lightly cooked peas.