People have a food pyramid, so why not dogs and cats? Just like humans, animals need certain nutrients for good health, and just like humans, there are certain nutrients animals can't live without. Our pets' fundamental nutritional requirements can be found in six different classes of nutrients.
Water: The First Requirement
Though we many not think of water as a nutrient, it is one, and it is considered the most important one. A domesticated animal might survive about 60 days without food, but it can only survive a week or less without water. A 10 percent loss of total body water will cause serious illness and a 15 percent loss is fatal.
Pets require more water during hot weather, physical exertion, lactation and bouts of diarrhea. Felines do not generally drink as much as dogs, which makes it more important to feed cats a diet that includes both canned and dry food. This increases their moisture intake and is helpful in maintaining urinary tract health.
When traveling or exercising with your dog, be sure to bring along plenty of water (and something to drink it out of), and offer it to him frequently. Dogs can become quickly dehydrated during exertion in warm weather. A dog is apt to become overheated far sooner than its master because dogs do not have the ability to sweat. The canine cooling mechanism consists of breathing and panting. Since cats do not typically pant, mouth breathing by a feline may be symptomatic of either overheating, or an inability to breathe properly through its nose due to illness or obstruction. No matter what else you do, make sure your cat or dog has access to clean, fresh water at all times.
Protein: Where Quality Really Counts
Protein is an important nutrient that supplies the body with essential amino acids. It is necessary for growth and maintenance of body tissues which are continually in a state of repair. Protein is also needed to produce red and white blood cells, which are replaced on an ongoing basis. Proper functioning of the immune system requires protein as well.
Cats are true carnivores, so they have higher protein requirements than dogs. A typical cat diet contains more than 30 percent protein, which would be very high for a dog.
As dogs reach their senior years, they should receive a higher percentage of their calories from protein, but not from puppy diets, which contain too much fat for an older dog. Make sure to provide your older pets with good sources of quality protein. They will be less likely to use body stores of protein to supply their needs, and will more likely have a better functioning immune system.
There’s no evidence that protein contributes to the progression of renal failure in a dog or cat with well-functioning kidneys. However, pets with kidney failure are usually prescribed a low-protein diet to reduce the workload on the kidneys. If your pet has such a condition, it’s important to consult with your veterinarian regarding the animal’s dietary needs.
Carbohydrates: Not Top on the List
Grains such as rice, corn meal, oats, and barley can provide highly digestible forms of energy, fiber and certain essential fatty acids in your pet’s diet. However, while carbohydrates have a place in your dog’s or cat’s menu, make sure the primary ingredient is an animal source of protein. This is especially important for cats.
Fat: Not Something to Be Avoided
Fat is an energy-supplying nutrient and a source of essential fatty acids, both of which are good for your pet. Fatty acids are vital for cell membrane components, are necessary for other body functions, and cannot be made in the body, which is why they’re called "essential."
Fat consumption is extremely important during the last stages of pregnancy and during lactation; your pet could require a threefold increase in caloric intake during this time. Working and performance dogs also require more calories and do well on a high-fat diet.
Vitamins: A Real Variable
A diet containing proper amounts of vitamins is just as important to an animal as it is to you. Vitamins are either fat-soluble (such as A, D, E and K) or water-soluble (such as B and C). Excess fat-soluble vitamins are stored in fatty tissue and the liver, while excess water-soluble vitamins are excreted in the urine. Vitamin deficiencies, depending on how pronounced they are, can produce a wide spectrum of symptoms ranging from poor coat quality to retarded growth and reproductive failure. Severe deficiencies can even be life- threatening. Conversely, over consumption of fat-soluble vitamins can be toxic because they are stored in the body, so it's important to make sure your pet is getting the right amount of vitamins.
Minerals: A Balancing Act
Although only needed in relatively small quantities, minerals are vital to a variety of bodily functions. Imbalances or excesses of them can be extremely harmful to a dog or cat. Certain minerals, when present in larger-than-needed amounts are not excreted and can bind with other minerals to prevent them from being absorbed. This creates a type of deficiency through excess.
Mineral imbalances can be caused by an all-meat diet that is not properly supplemented. Meat is relatively low in calcium while being high in phosphorus. Both dogs and cats need to receive calcium and phosphorus in balanced proportions. Long-term excessive intake of phosphorus is perceived by the body as a calcium deficiency which causes the body to take calcium from the bones. Bones can become weak, brittle and rubbery, resulting in a condition known as "rubber jaw." Excess phosphorus can also promote kidney damage and is very dangerous to dogs and cats already suffering from renal failure.
Other minerals, such as potassium, sodium, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, manganese, iodine and selenium, are a bit like circus performers engaged in a trapeze act. They work in harmony but must carefully maintain their balance. Zinc and selenium are also valuable anti-oxidants.
‘Guaranteed Analysis’ Analyzed
All pet owners should carefully read ingredient information on pet foods to undertsand precisely what their pet is consuming.
It’s a standard part of every pet-food label, but “guaranteed analysis” does not really guarantee anything. It means the manufacturer claims to have met the minimum amounts of “crude” protein, fat, fiber and moisture listed on the package as measured by a specific type of testing. Protein numbers alone, however, can be very misleading. Selecting a pet food on the basis of the guaranteed analysis gives no clue as to the quality, digestibility or source of protein, or any other ingredient in the package. For example, protein minimums can be met using animal byproducts and grain.
Guaranteed analysis is only one method of analyzing the contents of pet food. There is also “dry matter” analysis, useful if you want to compare protein between canned and dry food, and “approximate” analysis, which is a more complete breakdown of a product’s ingredients, typically only found in detailed product literature from the manufacturer.
If you compare dry and canned food, it usually appears that kibble contains a much higher amount of protein. However, to compare protein values between the two, you must “remove” the moisture content to determine the “dry weight.” This is done by subtracting the product’s percentage of moisture from 100. This is the food’s dry weight. On kibble, the moisture will be around 10 to 12 percent, making the dry weight 88 to 90 percent. On canned food the moisture content is about 75 to 78 percent, making the dry weight 22 to 25 percent. Take the amount of protein on the label and divide it by the dry weight figure. The numbers you get are a comparative protein value between the two.
While this sort of information helps you understand how much of certain things are in your pet's food, knowing the source of a pet food's protein and other ingredients is most important.
More on pet foods from Naturally Savvy:
How to Switch Your Cats to Raw Food
How to Introduce Your Dog to Raw Food
Toxic Treats: Foods That Can Harm Your Pets
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