Pet Nutrition Tips
To provide an expert opinion on the medical dangers of pet obesity, and how best to avoid and/or tackle this problem, we conducted an interview with a UK based professional pet nutritionist David Jackson from All About Dog Food.
Offering tips on healthy diet and training, our expert also demystifies the role of food-based treats in training your pet, by presenting healthy alternatives.
1. Pet obesity goes hand in hand with similar health problems that overweight humans are experiencing. What are the most common medical conditions pet obesity can lead to?
Obesity is a growing problem for our pets. Just like in humans, it can have a massive impact on health, dramatically increasing the likelihood of a whole host of problems like joint pain, high blood pressure and breathing difficulties. Some more serious issues - most notably heart disease, diabetes and hypothyroidism - are also much more common in overweight pets. Numerous studies have shown that being even moderately overweight can reduce a pet’s lifespan by up to two years compared to their leaner counterparts.
2. Does obesity affect the mood and energy levels of a pet?
Overweight pets generally have much lower energy levels than those of a healthy weight. This often leads to far less enthusiasm for exercising and playing, and can leave them feeling quite lethargic. To compound the problem, many of the health issues that often go hand-in-hand with obesity like joint pain and breathing trouble can make even moderate exercise much more of a challenge for overweight animals. Sadly though, since a lack of exercise is one of the leading factors contributing to weight gain in our pets, it can quickly become a downward spiral.
3. What are the factors to look out for when buying pet food? Does price indicate quality?
There are a whole host of good pet foods (and treats) on the market, but unfortunately there are a lot of bad ones - and picking between them isn’t always easy. Price is rarely a good indication of quality - in fact there are plenty of expensive foods that I would classify as nutritionally poor, and also some nutritionally excellent foods with surprisingly small price tags.
Glossy packaging and large-scale advertising campaigns can also give the impression of quality, but whether or not the food lives up to the hype is far from guaranteed.
The only way to be sure that a food is any good is to check the ingredients list. Always check the ingredients list. There, you’ll find all the ingredients (surprise!) listed in order of their percentage; the first ingredient is the largest and most important part of the food, the second is the next largest, and so on.
But what should you be looking for? Well, common sense is usually an excellent guide. Intuition tells us the kind of things our pets should be eating - meat, bones, whole veg in the case of dogs, and so on. These ingredients are categorised as ‘bio-appropriate’, as dogs and cats are biologically adapted to eat them. The higher the proportion of bio-appropriate ingredients the better, so meat should always be the first ingredient. A good bio-appropriate food should contain several vegetables and perhaps some fruits, herbs or other botanicals. For dogs, a small amount of whole grains like brown rice and oats can also be beneficial.
And just as most of us intuitively know what’s good for our pets, we can often spot a bad ingredient when we see it. Excessive salt, sugar and artificial additives, for example, are just as bad for our pets as they are for us, so if they are detailed on the ingredients list, it’s best to put it back on the shelf. As a rule, always look for foods that clearly state they are free from artificial additives.
Some cheap filler ingredients, particularly wheat and corn (often just listed as ‘cereals’), can cause digestive problems and are therefore generally best avoided.
In addition, any ingredients that are difficult to interpret (especially broad umbrella terms like ‘meat and animal derivatives’, ‘derivatives of vegetable origin’, ‘EU permitted additives’ and so on) are never a good sign. If the ingredients list isn’t crystal clear, best leave it be.
As mentioned previously, there are plenty of foods and treats that will tick all of these boxes, but to find them you’ll have to go to a dedicated pet store (my personal favourite) or search online. Whether you choose dry, wet or raw food is really up to you, as there are excellent foods in all three categories for both cats and dogs.
Once you find a good food for your four-legged friend, make sure you change slowly, gradually introducing the new food into the diet over the course of several days.
How much to feed your pet will depend on the individual. Always start by following the feeding guide on the packaging, but be prepared to adjust the amount slightly if your pet is gaining or losing too much weight.
4. Food-based treats are a common tool for training both dogs and cats, but can often lead to ‘snacking’ and over-eating. What other solutions can you recommend for rewarding our four-legged friends?
You’re quite right that treats are usually the best way to train a pet effectively, and there’s really nothing wrong with that. Problems only arise if the treats themselves are unhealthy or if too many are given. So, to make sure your pet’s treats aren’t going to cause any upset, look at the ingredients list and follow the same rules as for foods. Look for good, bio-appropriate ingredients and avoid anything with unclear labelling or added nasties.
To avoid overfeeding, your best approach is to weigh the amount of treats into the daily feeding amount. So, a handful of treats spread across the day would mean a handful less kibble at mealtimes for example. Again, be prepared for some fine-tuning but this is the best place to start.
5. What are the specific types of human food that are dangerous for dogs?
Whilst most human foods are ok in moderation for cats and dogs, there are a few big exceptions. Chocolate, onions, alcohol, grapes and raisins, macadamia nuts and products containing xylitol (a common sugar alternative) can all pose a substantial risk and should be kept well out of the reach of your pets. If you suspect that your pet has eaten any of these foods, please consult your vet immediately.
The majority of other human foods including leftovers from meals are generally fine but remember the following:
If it’s bad for you it’s usually bad for your pets. Anything that is overly sweet, salty or fatty should be fed sparingly. Gravy, for example, is high in both salt and fat and so should be fed with care. Dogs and cats are also much more sensitive to spices than we are, so make sure you keep that left-over vindaloo out of the pet’s bowl.
Small, sharp bones like those in chicken and turkey are best avoided as they can get stuck in the throat. Cooked bones also have a tendency to splinter which can make them dangerous.
Don’t go overboard on any particular food group as it will likely unbalance your pet’s diet, and remember to offset any additions with an equivalent reduction of the amount of regular pet food to avoid unnecessary weight gain.
And lastly, bear in mind that some individual pets are intolerant to certain foods. So while wheat-based foods like bread and pasta might be fine for some dogs, others will be quite ill after eating even a small amount. If you suspect a certain food is causing your pet upset, cut it out of the diet immediately.
6. What should be the regular exercise regime of an average dog and cat?
For both cats and dogs, how much exercise an individual needs will depend on age, breed and overall health.
As a guide, a minimum of 30 minutes of good (ideally off-lead) exercise per day is recommended for dogs. 1-2 hours is much better though, especially for working or high-energy breeds.
For owners of house cats, you should try to engage with your cat for 10-15 minutes at least three times a day, but again more is almost always beneficial. Play is usually the best way to get your kitty up and moving.
7. Do pets living indoors have a disadvantage compared to those living in a garden?
House cats can indeed face more health challenges than those with access to the outside. Naturally, less exercise and central heating mean that house cats burn a lot less calories making over-feeding and weight gain a much bigger risk. A lack of exercise can also see decreased muscle tone, which can lead to joint and back problems. For cats that are reluctant to drink from indoor water sources or don’t like going to the litter tray, there is also an increased risk of urinary problems.
Dogs should, of course, always have regular access to the outside so this is less of a problem for our canine friends.
8. A lot of vet practices across the UK are now running weight-loss clinics too. What do these offer beyond advice on healthy diet and training?
Although the services offered at veterinary weight clinics can vary, most include a clinical evaluation and possibly a range of tests (blood, urine, blood pressure, etc.) to assess whether there might be any weight-related health problems. During the consultation, the vet will typically provide you with a plan to manage any necessary weight loss including advice on diet and exercise.
Interested in helpful hints and tips for training your dog? Take a look at our interview with a professional pet behaviourist here.