Malnutrition in pets can have serious consequences
FLICKER the puppy seemed to be pleading with me, as she looked into my eyes. "What has happened to my front legs? Why can't I walk normally?"
When you look at Flicker's photo, it's obvious that something was seriously wrong. Her forelegs are meant to be straight, all the way down to the ground. In Flicker's case, her feet curved inwards at the carpus (the equivalent of the human wrist).
Both legs were affected, so that she was walking on the outer side of her feet, rather than placing her feet squarely on the ground. She was a Collie cross, aged only around 12 weeks, so she had plenty more growing to do. If she continued the way she was going, she might never be able to walk properly again.
The general term for crooked legs in growing dogs is "angular limb deformity". Each case needs to be investigated in detail, with a careful physical examination, taking x-rays to analyse exactly what's happening to the bones. The correct treatment varies depending on the underlying cause; some cases need radical orthopaedic surgery to cut out sections of bone and realign the legs in the correct orientation. In other cases, a simple approach, with rest and a good quality diet, can be enough to allow normal anatomy to return.
The precise reason for this type of problem often remains unknown, but there is one underlying theme that tends to be involved: nutrition.
The old adage "You are what you eat" applies as much to pets as it does to humans. Yet just as we humans seem to forget this as we munch our way through crisps, chips and burgers, so we forget when we feed our pets. Many animals are fed on diets that are chosen more for convenience, low cost or a human whim, rather than for the nutritional benefits to the animal.
There are many different ways of feeding dogs, and no one method is universally acknowledged as the best, despite the claims of proponents (and vendors) of products and methods. You can choose complete dry diets, tinned and sachet moist foods, fresh meat or home cooked meals. There are hundreds of different brands and flavours, and thousands of ingredients. It can be difficult for pet owners to select nutrition for their animal. So where should they start?
There are three important factors that should form the basis of choosing your pet's diet. First, any nutrition should be balanced. You need to ensure that your dog receives protein, carbohydrate, fats, fibre, vitamins and minerals in the correct proportions. If dogs are given nothing but pure meat, whether raw or cooked, with no bones or supplements, they will suffer from calcium deficiency, with weakened bones that are prone to breaking easily. I have also seen puppies that have been fed on nothing but porridge, resulting in severe health problems.
Second, you need to choose a diet that your pet enjoys. There is no point in offering optimal nutrition if your pet refuses to touch it. There is a general rule in life that you get what you pay for: in the pet food world, this tends to mean that the cheapest pet foods are made from the cheapest ingredients. These are often poorer quality than more expensive ingredients (ask your butcher if you want to know what this means in practice). They are likely to be less tasty, so your pet is less likely to eat the food. If you spend a little more on your pet's diet, you are likely to find that they enjoy eating it more. Pricier pet food also tends to be more digestible, so that you need to feed less of it.
Many people comment that when they feed more expensive pet food, there are fewer poops to pick up at the other end: this is because cheaper food tends to be less digestible, passing straight through the digestive system and out at the other end. So you need to feed more cheap food to achieve the same result as a smaller amount of more expensive food. Savings on a cheaper bag of food do not necessarily result in better value when you take this into account.
Third, choose a diet that you can afford and that is readily available. Whether you buy it from your local vet clinic, the supermarket, a pet shop, or online, you need to be sure that you can easily obtain a regular supply. The safest way to ensure that you are feeding a balanced diet to your pet is to choose a high quality commercial diet, formulated to meet the precise needs of your pet. A growing pup has different needs to a geriatric dog, and a stay-at-home mutt needs a different diet compared to a hard working Collie.
If in doubt, ask your vet: we are all trained in pet nutrition, and we can give you independent advice that suits your pet's needs. This doesn't mean that you need to buy food sold at vet clinics, although clearly vets would not stock a food brand if they did not believe that it was a good way of feeding pets.
By the way, Flicker turned out to have an unusual problem called "carpal flexural deformity". We started to feed her a balanced, high quality diet. Within a month, her legs had straightened up, and she grew into a healthy adult dog.