As a vet in practice, I meet dozens of pet owners every day. I often ask about nutrition. What are they feeding their pet on? Why have they chosen a particular product? How much are they feeding? Do they give treats as well? I also discuss their pet's general health: are they in good bodily condition, or are they carrying extra weight? Studies show that around two thirds of Irish pets are overweight or obese.
Most people are happy to be questioned like this, and I'm able to offer some helpful tips to improve their pet's health. Like many vet clinics, my practice does sell pet food, and of course we only sell the types of pet food that we believe are best for pets. But I am very aware that there are many different types of pet food, and there are dozens of good ways to feed pets. So I never try to convince people to change to a different way of feeding their pet unless there are health issues directly connected to the diet.
I am interested at the way people make choices about how to feed their pets: there are two common rationales.
The first and most common reason people give me is that the food they've chosen is economical and convenient. These people tend to buy their pet food from supermarkets, purchasing common grocery brand name products. This is the "least line of resistance" type of decision making, and there's nothing wrong with it. Standard commercial pet food is legally obliged to offer so-called "complete" nutrition to pets: if it doesn't do this, the label must clearly point out that it is "complementary" rather than "complete". This means that owners can be reassured that their pet will be given a nutritionally balanced diet, and they will not suffer from deficiencies or excesses. However, the cheaper types of diet like this are often on the basic spectrum of pet nutrition, using a variable mix of ingredients that depend on what's readily available at the time. If you read the label, you'll find that the ingredients are from broad groups, rather than specific items. For example, there may be "meat and animal derivatives", without specifying which type of meat. Or there could be "vegetables" without saying which vegetables. And there could be a number of different flavourings and colourings. This lack of specificity allows manufacturers to vary the ingredients from batch to batch, without altering the label, allowing them to change the composition according to the best value ingredients at the time. This is fine for most pets, but some animals have sensitive digestive systems. If they are fed this type of diet, the variability can lead to digestive upsets, like a runny tummy or flatulence. These pets benefit if given a different, more consistent type of diet.
The second reason that people give me for choosing a particular pet food is that somebody in a sales outlet recommended it. This could be a vet in a clinic that sells pet food, or it could be a salesperson in a pet shop. When I hear this, I ask people to consider the training and motivation of the person selling the food: the advice may - or may not - be genuinely science-based.
Typically, the types of food recommended tend to be a bit pricier, but they tend to have a more specific set of ingredients. As an example, a label may state that the food is made from brown rice, chicken meal, oats, peas, chicken oil, sunflower oil, seaweed and vitamins/minerals. This type of labelling is very detailed, and it means that the manufacturer cannot vary the ingredients from batch to batch. They are legally obliged to stick to this same recipe. This makes the pet food more expensive, but it also makes it more consistent: pet owners can be reassured that their pet is getting the same type of food for their pet over a period of weeks and months. For pets that are prone to digestive upsets, this is very important.
Many pet retail outlets stock a wide range of diets, with some being more about human fads than genuine benefits for pets. I can find no scientific reason to choose "grain free" diets: dogs evolved the ability to digest starch thousands of years ago, when they were domesticated. Indeed, grain can form an important part of their diet. There's no need to include sweet potatoes or alfafa. Also, some diets include rare proteins, like wild boar or venison. For most pets ,there's nothing wrong with beef, mutton, pork or chicken.
Finally, it's common to see "no artificial colours, flavourings or preservatives": again, this is human sensibility. There are many safe artificial additives that have been used for decades without problems: just because something is "natural" does not necessarily make it better.
There are other ways of feeding - like raw meat, or home cooked - that some people choose: again, these tend to be based on subjective human rationales rather than science. As a vet, I worry about the risk of a deficient diet if a nutritionist has not been involved in formulating the product.
My first choice for feeding pets is to follow the advice of your vet, as they have learned the principles of pet nutrition.
My bottom line is this: if your pet enjoys eating their daily rations, and if they are in good bodily condition, with a glossy coat, bright eyes, and no digestive disturbances, then you have chosen your pet food well. Congratulations!