Is your pet well nourished?

Written by Monique Butterworth for Australian Seniors.

Firmly regarded as members of the family – even dubbed ‘fur babies’ – our pets bring so much love and joy to our lives that it’s logical we would want to provide them with the very best care we can. Just as a balanced diet and regular exercise contributes greatly to our wellness, the same goes for our pets’ prolonged good health.                                                                  

There has been a substantial boom in pet ownership in Australia and, according to Animal Medicines Australia’s (AMA) Pets and the Pandemic research, 69% of households now own a pet, up from 61% in just two years. This has been led by a surge in dog ownership, with more than a million additional dogs brought into Australian households since 2019.                                                                     

On average, pet owners are spending $3,200 per dog and $2,100 per cat each year, of which more than half is taken up by pet food. It adds up to more than $13 billion spent in Australia each year on cat and dog food alone. So yes, pet food is big business.

Supplements for pets                                                           

The increased sales of higher-quality products – including pet supplements – indicates how much we value our animals, but with hundreds of brands and types of pet foods to choose from, the options can be overwhelming. So, if good nutrition is the basis of happy, healthy animals – what constitutes a good diet for pets?

Ben Stapley, executive director of AMA, recommends consulting the experts, rather than relying on ‘Dr Google’. “Pet owners should visit their local vet if they need advice about feeding their pet. Obesity, diabetes, and dental decay are increasing problems for many Australian pets, particularly senior cats and dogs, so expert advice is needed,” he says. “When bringing home a new pet, start well and continue as you mean to go on. Practising preventative health is the best thing you can do for your pet’s long-term health.”

According to the AMA research, the most common factors owners consider when making pet food purchases are food and taste preferences (fussy eaters), quality of ingredients, perceptions of price and value for money, and whether the food is nutritionally complete.

Registered animal nutritionist Shiva Greenhalgh from Sydney Animal Nutrition says a good diet for domestic animals is one that meets all their essential needs – amino acids, vitamins and minerals. “There are certain guidelines where an animal can derive certain things from their food, but then there needs to be some kind of supplementation,” says Shiva. “Essentially, they need to have their macro and micro nutrients met.                                                                

“Good nutrition is important, but the environment, enrichment, and love from their owners are all significant factors in happy, healthy animals,” adds Shiva. “It’s all about trying to get a good balance nutritionally because too little of something can lead to certain issues and too much of something can lead to issues as well.”

Specialist advice for your pet’s nutritional needs

Nutritional needs of pets change over their lifetime and can vary by type, breed, and other health factors. “An animal nutritionist can adapt the pet’s diet to account for these factors,” Shiva says. “Each animal, like humans, is unique. Portion control and precision feeding is important because each food has different energy density. Interestingly, obesity in pets is not the most common issue I deal with. Kidney and metabolic issues are more common.”                                                              

Animal nutritionists complement, rather than replace veterinarians by providing preventative healthcare through dietary advice. “Thousands of dollars can be spent on medical interventions for our pets caused by poor diets. A small change in their diets can have a lasting impact on their life expectancy and quality of life,” says Shiva. When tailoring a diet and nutrition plan, she explains she takes into account what the pet owner can realistically achieve. “It’s important to have an honest conversation to formulate a plan that is accessible and affordable.”

Did you know?

Pets' diets vary by their age. Read our Diet guide for older cats and dogs

Raw food debate

One trend in pet food is the ‘raw food’ diet, which favours fresh raw meat, bones, fruit and vegetables over commercial food such as kibble or canned. Supporters believe it is healthier for pets, while detractors point to harmful bacteria and nutritional deficiencies. Shiva says the raw food debate is not an easy one to negotiate.

“In Australia, raw pet food is not regulated and I think there is a lot of hype around it,” she says. “It’s quite a romanticised way of feeding animals. Pet owners who wish to prepare homemade diets may incorrectly balance the feed they prepare, causing an animal to be deficient in key nutrients.                                                    

“Commercial foods have come a long way. It would be better to go with a commercial raw food product than trying to do it yourself. Just as humans enjoy different flavours, smells and textures when it comes to food, our pets also seek these sensations and variety, allowing them access to a range of nutrients, which cannot be replicated in a single product.”                                                  

Amanda Falconer, founder of Bestie Kitchen – an Australian company producing natural, functional supplements for dogs and cats – believes there are significant health benefits of raw feeding for our pets.

“Australia leads the way in terms of embracing raw feeding. I’m a proponent of raw feeding, but I am also not evangelistic about it. I know from being in this space there are kibble, dry food diehards. The bigger the dog, the more expensive it is going to be to raw feed. Sometimes it’s not feasible,” says Amanda.

What are pets' minimal nutritional levels? 

“Most cats and dogs are on a dry or commercially prepared diet which conforms to AAFCO [Association of American Feed Control Officials] Dog and Cat Food Nutrient Profiles. It’s basically the accepted standard in the industry, so there’s good agreement about what the minimum nutritional level should be for cats and dogs – but there isn’t widespread agreement about what the optimal level should be,” explains Amanda. “And that’s where supplements come in.”                                         

She believes a lot of chronic conditions for dogs and cats are largely arising because, like us, they’re overweight, living longer, eating ultra-processed food and are over-humanised. “It is causing a series of inflammation-related and behaviour-related chronic conditions for which supplementation is really effective,” she adds. “There is good research to show the right nutraceutical supplementation can help with things like anxiety, slowing cognitive decline for senior dogs, bad breath, which is a symptom of periodontal disease, and immune system health.” 

But she says diet isn’t always the only solution to improving a pet’s health. “In some areas, supplementation plus mental stimulation and other training interventions can achieve better outcomes for our pets.”

Plan for your pets

Sometimes, even the best pet diet may not be enough to keep your pet from becoming ill, so it could help to have a back-up plan. Seniors Pet Insurance can help cover your pet for specified accidental injuries and illness, so you can give them the treatment they deserve.