Forget the trends - this is how to make sure your pet is eating a complete and balanced diet

Experts dish up nutritional advice for your pet.

By Mark Brook
Unlike their cousins in the wild, domestic pets rely on their owners to serve their main source of nutrition. But with 
so many pet foods to choose from, all promising the ultimate nourishment, who really knows what’s best?
Vet and animal nutritionist Dr Bruce Syme says without proper nutrition, your animal companion may develop problems with their teeth, skin and 
coat, as well as digestion issues. They’re also more likely to get diabetes or even heart disease.
“While people think dogs and cats are living longer, the fact is that without medication, the average dog or cat’s life would be significantly shorter than it was 50 years ago when they were living on meat and table scraps,” he says.

Nutritionally complete

Vet Dr Leigh Davidson says the term “complete and balanced diet” tends to be overused when it comes to pet food. While it should mean packaged food 
is formulated to contain all the nutrients required by a dog or cat in the appropriate quantities to maintain optimum health, misleading labels could be putting your pet’s health at risk.
“There are very few rules about what can and cannot be put on a pet food label,” Dr Syme says. “It’s one of the trickiest areas to navigate and it’s not well patrolled.”
The problem 
is that the industry is essentially self-regulated, 
so while voluntary industry standards are applied through the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia, 
not all pet foods on the market adhere to the standard.
“Some cat foods in particular 
have been found to have insufficient thiamine, which at low levels can 
result in severe health issues for cats,” Dr Davidson says.
Always read pet food labels carefully and ask your vet for suitable brand recommendations.

Back to basics

Putting your pet on a “paleo” diet might sound a bit trendy but Dr Syme says it’s less of a fad for pets, given dogs and cats traditionally eat meat-based meals.
“It’s really just a fancy term for eating raw food,” he says. “It involves looking 
at your pet’s ancestral eating habits and feeding them what they would’ve eaten tens of thousands of years ago.”
While reports on benefits are mixed, Dr Syme says it makes sense considering dogs and cats have been eating raw food for thousands of years. He says, “A raw food diet may also eliminate some of the dietary problems we’re seeing, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”
Dr Davidson says while it’s OK to 
feed your pet raw meat, it’s important to handle and store it correctly to reduce food-borne disease such as salmonella and toxoplasmosis. Always wash bowls, utensils and your hands afterwards.

Against the grain

Dr Syme says grain-free is probably the biggest movement within the processed pet food industry today.
“It was a reaction to people realising that animals eating highly processed diets aren’t as healthy,” he explains. “The grain-free movement is a way to steer away from using grain as a predominant ingredient 
to be a bulking agent of sorts.”
A good rule is to avoid products where the first ingredients are wheat flour, followed by corn, then meat. 
Dr Syme says while the grain-free movement is on track, there’s some confusion about whether all grains should be avoided or just those containing gluten (wheat, barley, rye and oats).
“The focus should be more on gluten being the problem,” he says. “Like many humans, many animals can’t handle gluten very well, so we’re seeing more cases of irritable bowel disease in dogs and cats.”
If your pet is on a grain-free diet due to weight issues, take a look at food labels. Rather than replacing grains with more meat and fats, many manufacturers bulk up food with carbohydrates, such 
as rice, potato or tapioca.
“That means they’re not reducing carbs, but just replacing them with 
a different source,” Dr Syme says.

And that could be unhelpful if your 
pets require a low-calorie diet for healthy weight loss.