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How to Find the Right Pet Diet

How to Find the Right Pet Diet
Story by Helen McMenamin

Pets, like people, need to eat right to be healthy. And, just like people, their nutritional needs change as they grow and age and with their activity level.

Which of the hundreds of varieties, flavours and brands is for your pet? And will your pet be healthier on a more expensive food? Should you cook for your pet, or maybe pets should eat raw food like their wild ancestors?

The answer from nutritionists and most vets is that unlike people, pets thrive on the same food every day. They advise good quality commercial pet foods that are balanced in terms of the type of protein, fibre and carbohydrates as well as vitamins and minerals each animal needs.

You can easily measure the amount of food your pet needs to maintain a healthy weight and avoid obesity, which affects over half of North American pets. Obesity can lead to diabetes, arthritis and other problems. The National Research Council has simple guides to pet nutrition developed by panels of veterinary and nutrition experts (Google NRC dog or cat nutrition guide).


Dry food is best for dogs, according to most experts. It stays fresh for a long time and has more meat protein than other formulations. It also helps keep the dog's teeth clean.

Look for a recommendation from the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and NRC guidelines. Food for puppies should use high quality ingredients and have high fat, high energy and 30% protein content.

Try not to change your dog's food, or else do it gradually, increasing the proportion of new food each day over a week or more to avoid digestive upsets. It's not the new food, it's the change that causes problems.

Despite the internet hype, raw food can expose you and your animal to parasites and disease organisms. The nutrients in home cooked meals may not be balanced and it's easy to overfeed.


Puppies grow fast so they need extra nutrients to develop healthy bones and joints, muscles and immune system. They need several meals a day of good quality puppy food to get enough nourishment for good health. Puppy food formulation is needed until around one year of age, when they reach adult weight or perhaps, when they reach 80% of their expected adult weight.

Large breed puppies need special dog food to avoid growing too fast. They can develop knee problems or other orthopedic problems that are painful and limit the dog's mobility.

Older dogs tend to slow down, so they need fewer calories, but they need more protein. Special dog foods for seniors also have more fibre, so the animal feels full, and it helps ward off diabetes.

Most dogs prefer meat-based diets but they can thrive on vegetarian diets. At least 10% of calories must be from protein, whether from animal or vegetable sources, but for older dogs that increases to 15%.

Always have clean water available for your pets. It's the most important nutrient in any diet.


Cats evolved in desert environments, and some take a long time to drink enough water to fend off urinary issues. Some vets suggest semi-moist foods but these must be fresh, or else fatty coatings on the pellets can go rancid and become unappetizing. Cats prefer their food slightly warm rather than cold. Many cats thrive on dry food.

Obesity is the biggest threat to pet health today, cutting their lives by about two years, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. You can easily feel a right-weight dog's ribs and see a waist, but not hip bones, from the side or above. Fat you can feel on the ribs or near the tail-head means your pet is overweight.

Your vet can tell you the calories your pet needs each day, and make a weight loss program if needed. Dogs can safely lose 1 to 3% of body weight a month - cats 0.5 to 2% a month - no more. Crash diets can cause serious health issues including rapidly fatal liver failure in cats.


ALCOHOL in any form can cause loss of coordination, trouble breathing, tremors, coma, even death.

CANNABIS: Dogs are very sensitive to weed but will eat it or edibles. Causes wobbling, uncontrolled urination and distress.

CAT FOOD is not for dogs. It contains too much protein and can cause liver and kidney damage.

CHOCOLATE, coffee, coffee beans, caffeine, and cola drinks, all contain methylxanthines, toxic to dogs and cats. Darker chocolate is more toxic. Causes digestive upsets, panting, over-activity, tremors, seizures, even death.

GRAPES and RAISINS can cause kidney failure.

NUTS: Almonds, pecans, walnuts, fresh coconut have high levels of fats, and can cause digestive upsets. Coconut water is high in potassium and toxic to pets. Macadamia nuts contain toxins that cause over-heating, tremors, and digestive upsets.

MILK and DAIRY are indigestible to adult cats and dogs.

ONIONS, GARLIC, and CHIVES irritate the gut and damage red blood cells. Cats are more susceptible but dogs are affected too.

RAW MEAT and EGGS can carry harmful bacteria. Raw eggs limit absorption of biotin (vitamin B) leading to skin and coat problems.

BONES can choke a dog or splinter and pierce the gut.

SALT and salty snacks can be toxic and lead to vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, fever, and seizures.

XYLITOL (sweetener in gum, candy, baked goods and toothpaste) causes insulin release that can lead to liver failure, mainly in dogs. Symptoms: lethargy, vomiting and loss of coordination.

YEAST DOUGH can ferment in the digestive tract, causing painful bloating, and life-threatening twisted gut. Fermenting yeast produces alcohol, making the dog drunk.