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Expert tips: diet advice for cats and dogs

Whether it’s for weight reduction, lifespan extension, or just to improve our complexion, diet is one of the most controversial aspects of human health. Every week a new super-food or miracle weight loss programme hits the headlines. Unfortunately, pet nutrition has its own share of myths, fads and misunderstandings. Vet Jon Bowen shares his tips for making sure your pet stays in good health.

A dog with a bowl full of treats (© Martin Poole, Digital Vision, Getty Images)

Natural diets
Given that domestic dogs and cats are closely related to wolves and wild cats, we might assume it make sense to feed pets on a diet that is based on what their wild relatives eat. Wild cats mostly eat small mammals, birds, and insects where as the wolf diet is more diverse and includes large and small mammals, birds, eggs, insects, fruit, vegetables and scavenged rotting meat.

The problem is that wild animals are only concerned with day-to-day survival, and they hunt and eat whatever happens to be available. There are no nutritionists warning them to watch their weight or eat less salt! Just because a wolf, or cat, eats a particular diet in the wild, this does not make it the best option for ensuring the long and healthy life of a pet.

A kitten eating food (© Daniele Carotenuto Photography, Flickr, Getty Images)

Dietary requirements change during life, especially when animals suffer from chronic illness. Specialist diets and supplements are now available to help manage a range of common illnesses including cystitis, arthritis, gastroenteritis and senile dementia. Your vet can advise you on the best product to choose if your pet has a health problem.

Food hazards
Most of the food we eat is safe for pets to eat too, but there are a few things that we should avoid giving them. The WebMD site has a comprehensive list of foods that can harm dogs and cats, but common foods to avoid include chocolate, onions and grapes or raisins.

Surprisingly, even small amounts of macadamia nuts can cause vomiting, tremors and weakness in dogs. Cats are fussy about what they eat, so they are less at risk of poisoning. However, cats do suffer from lactose intolerance so, if your cat is prone to tummy upsets, milk could be the culprit.

Some owners have concerns about the quality of commercial pet foods, so they have switched to homemade diets using raw meat and vegetables. Unfortunately, there is currently no scientific evidence to show that feeding dogs or cats on raw food produces any health benefits. Raw meat can contain high levels of hazardous microbes such as E.coli and Salmonella that are potentially harmful to human and pet health. As a result, independent organisations such as the BVNA and BVA advise against feeding raw diets to cats and dogs.

Eating for health
According to the Department for Health, one in four adults in the UK is currently obese and the figure will exceed one in two by 2050. The news is even worse for pets. Cassie the 125-pound fish and chip eating dog is not the only obese dog in Britain The PDSA tracks obesity rates in dogs and found an increase from 21% to 35% in just four years from 2005 to 2009. Do you live in a high or low obesity area? Take a look at the PDSA's dog obesity map.

Obesity in cats and dogs increases the risk of serious illnesses including diabetes, arthritis, skin disease and cancer. It is quite easy to check whether your dog or cat is overweight. If you run your fingertips along the sides of your pet's chest you should feel individual ribs just under the skin - if you have to push to feel ribs then your dog is overweight. Pfizer, the manufacturers of an anti-obesity drug for dogs, produce an online test that can give an indication of whether your dog is heading towards obesity.

There are numerous special diets, exercise programmes and medications to aid weight loss in pets, but you should consult your vet before you take any action. Weight gain can be a sign of illness.

It's not all bad news though. Researchers have found that dogs live longer and suffer from fewer age related diseases if they are given a calorie restricted diet. So, with the right balance of exercise and a well-designed diet, our pets can look forward to long and happy lives.

The views and opinions stated in this article are the author's own and are for the information of the public only. They do not imply or constitute the involvement, support or endorsement of MORE TH>N, MORE TH>N Pets Insurance or any other insurer or specific insurance product.