Whether you’re bringing home a brand new puppy or kitten, or a rescue from a shelter, the furthest thing on most people’s minds when they’re getting to know their new family member is when – or how – that pet might die.
Of course it’s a horrible thing to think about and hopefully, it’s a long way in the distance for your new fur-baby, but multiple studies have discovered that nutrition has one of the biggest impacts on pet longevity, with some studies finding nutrition-related diseases such as obesity can shave at least two years (or 14 dog years!) off your pooch’s life.
Dr Jamie Geddes, hospital superintendent at Sydney Animal Hospitals in Avalon, says that one of the first things he does with new pet-owners, after ensuring their animal is settled in at home, is to look at their nutrition.
“We start to talk about the breed-specific requirements in the diet, and which types of food would best meet these requirements,” the Sydney vet explains.
“When thinking about it with dogs for example, the structure of the jaw is something we consider. For example, they might be a Cavalier, a breed which is very prone to dental disease, in which case we might talk about giving them a dry food diet to look after their teeth. Perhaps they’re a big-bodied breed like a retriever, in which case we’re going to be thinking about a diet that contains the right amount of calcium and other minerals to support a healthy skeleton in a large breed.”
Dr Geddes adds that, while this often results in him recommending a brand of breed or age-specific premium dog food, he doesn’t suggest that it’s the only avenue to raising a healthy, happy pet.
“To an extent feeding a variety of home cooked foods can provide good nutrition for a dog, for example, and however you go about it, if you’re aware of the various nutritional needs your pet has, you can make that happen. I suppose that with many of the premium brands, the benefit is that you have a simple, easy way to provide them with those nutrients.”
When asked about a raw pet food diet, popularised in many online circles with proponents extolling its benefits for pet health and longevity, Dr Geddes is more sceptical.
“It’s not normally something that a vet recommends,” he explains. “It’s popular within the media, but we’re not so aware of the science behind that. We recognise the risks with uncooked meat like chicken to the pet, but also to the family, because while pets may be more tolerant of something like salmonella, as a father of three I don’t want to be feeding my dog raw chicken only for the dog to then go and lick my kid’s face.”
In terms of the risk of some of the lower quality brands of pet food on the shelves, Dr Geddes warns that low nutritional density, as well as inadequate mineral and vitamin balance are two of the common culprits when it comes to compromising your pet’s vitality.
So, once you’ve got your pet established on the right kind of nutritional plan, how do you know it’s working?
“That’s a great question,” says Dr Geddes.
“I get a lot of people asking if we can run blood tests and things like that to check on the balance of the diet and make sure pets are getting the right nutrients, but unfortunately that is not a good way of checking, because in order for a blood test to show up any type or imbalance that is triggered by nutrition, you’d have to have a truly terrible diet.”
Instead, he explains, the best things to look for in order to be sure your pet is getting adequate nutrition are the quality of its coat (shiny and healthy), its teeth (breath not too stinky), its height and weight, and yes, its poo.
“All the common sense factors apply – not too firm, not too soft, not too stinky and not too frequent,” he advises.
“If your dog or cat’s nutritional needs are being met, and importantly, you’re not overfeeding, it’s the best way to prevent the health conditions that can limit their life or harm their quality of life: obesity, arthritis and orthopaedic issues, and other diseases.”