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Healthy diets = healthy pets

Pets are members of the family, guard their health

Posted: March 20, 2009 12:24 a.m.
Updated: March 20, 2009 4:30 a.m.

Hoeflich, center, helps customers Marcia and Jerry Harvey, of Valencia, as they decide on a nutritional Science Diet product for their dog Wolfie, who suffers from digestive problems.

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If we are what we eat, what does that say about the health of the average American pet? With increased rates of heart disease, cancer, arthritis, diabetes and many other ailments that similarly affect humans, Fido and Fluffy's diet is becoming of paramount concern to their owners.

"The number one question we get from customers is what food is the healthiest, best, and most natural? Some people will pay for the highest quality product. Some can't afford that much, so they want a really good food at a great value," said Chris Hoeflich, owner of Saugus' Pet Supply.

Protein and fillers and preservatives, oh my!
According to Hoeflich, who's been in the pet supply business for more than a decade, there are three levels of pet food for consumers to choose from - supermarket or bargain brands, basic premium and super premium.

He suggested avoiding supermarket and bargain brands altogether, as they often include a high concentration of pet-unfriendly fillers such as corn and wheat, use animal by-products as their main protein source, and preserve the food with toxic chemicals such as BHA, BHT, or ethoxyquine.

Instead, customers should purchase premium or super premium brands that place meats like chicken or lamb at the top of the ingredients list, contain little to no fillers, and use only natural preservatives such as mixed tocopherols or Vitamin E.

"AAFCO, the FDA of the animal food world, makes food companies list ingredients by weight, so the higher those are listed, the more of it is in the bag. Ground corn as a second ingredient is way too much for your dog, but if it's the 20th ingredient, it's just a carbohydrate and not as big a deal," Hoeflich said.

Most basic premium dog food brands are fortified with functional supplements, while many super premium brands feature human grade ingredients, including vegetables, as well as skin and joint health support from essential fatty acids and glucosamine.

For cats, which are more carnivorous than their canine counterparts, an optimum ingredients list includes a high ratio of meat or protein along with Taurine, an amino acid derived from beef, lamb or chicken and essential oils.

U.S. pet food sales in 2008 were projected to reach $16.9 billion, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, with premium pet foods the primary growth driver in the market. The upper income pet owner, defined as making $70,000 a year or more, is fueling the demand, accounting for 44 percent of the U.S. pet food expenditure, an increase from 15 percent in 1994.

Whatever their income, most pet owners should be able to afford feeding their pets properly. "For a good quality, basic premium diet, you're looking at about $20 to $30 a month, or less than a $1 a day, depending on their size. That's goes for both dogs or cats," Hoeflich said.

The vet's perspective
Consider it an investment in your pet's health. Otherwise, nutrient-deficient pets can end up at the veterinarian's office with preventable ailments. Evelyn Vega, DVM, sees the results of a poor diet all too often at her Happy Pets Veterinary Center in Valencia.

"Commercial food is creating a lot of diabetic cats, since it has so many carbohydrates. We also get a lot of patients with skin issues and diarrhea or irritable bowl syndrome that can be fixed by feeding a better quality diet," Vega said. "Before commercial foods were created, pets didn't usually have these issues."

Manufacturers are now catering to these issues with symptom-targeted blends, including rabbit, duck and venison versions for allergies, as well as special high protein blends for diabetic cats and stomach-soothing IBS varieties.

Like Hoeflich, Vega advises her clients to read pet food labels, looking for high quality meats as the primary ingredients and avoiding byproducts and preservatives. She recommends dry or a mix of dry and wet food for dogs and wet food for cats.

Feeding pets two to three times a day is optimal, according to Vega, for the same reason humans are advised to eat multiple small meals. "If your pet eats once a day, it can often lead to overweight or obesity. The body thinks it's starving and holds on to food. If they eat more than once a day, it helps keep them lean and in shape," she said.

Treats, which can be as delightful for owners to give as for pets to get, should be tailored towards your pets age and weight. Vega said young, thin or hyperactive dogs can be given commercial treats, using the same "quality ingredients" rule of thumb, while seniors and obese dogs can be given carrot or apple slices.

If you want to cook for your pet as a supplement to their diet, just remember to avoid salt, chocolate, raisins, grapes, onions, nuts, and anything with caffeine, yeast, dairy, or alcohol. Keep things simple by boiling meat, brown rice and adding pet-friendly produce.
"If they were in the wild and forging, many pets would eat fruits and vegetables or kill a rat or rabbit, then eat it, so emulating a similar diet is fine," Vega explained. "You just don't want to give them potato chips or macaroni and cheese."

When changing food to a new brand or adding your own home-cooked concoction, wean your pets off slowly by exchanging one-quarter of the new food to three-quarters of the old food for a few days, then a 50-50 blend for a few days, and finally, a one-quarter to three-quarter ratio for the remainder of the week. Doing so will help eliminate stomach upset and diarrhea.

Replace what is missing
For pets with persistent skin, coat, inflammation or arthritis issues that can't be managed with premium pet foods, vets like Vega often recommend essential fatty acids and glucosamine supplements to her clients.

It was veterinarian Dr. Robert Collett who created The Missing Link, an essential fatty acid supplement manufactured by Valencia's Designing Health, in 1994 after realizing that skin, coat and geriatric issues made up close to 80 percent of his business. The culprit? Lack of nutrition.

"Dr. Collett started comparing all the dog foods to see what was missing in the modern pet diet. He saw at the time that many brands actually had damaging ingredients, shelf-life extenders that were detrimental to an animal's health. He began to develop these oil seeds and nutrients that would help to replace what was missing," said Nate Armstrong, vice president of Designing Health.

Now available in canine, feline, equine, and avian formulas, The Missing Link combines more than 20 human-grade ingredients such as flaxseed, rice bran, blackstrap molasses, sunflower seed, dehydrated alfalfa, barley grass, and dried carrot to increase the amount of Omega 3 essential fatty acids in a pet's diet.

"Omega 3s work at the cellular level, controlling inflammation, which is the root of all disease," Armstrong said.

The Missing Link is also available with glucosamine for canines and equines and is carried at 10,000 pet stores nationwide - a professional strength formula is available through participating veterinarians.

At a cost of approximately 11 cents per serving, the product is sprinkled on top of wet or dry food. It's not a replacement for a premium diet, as Armstrong said, but rather an enhancement.

"Pet food is kind of like the meat and potatoes, so we're the salad. You should still buy a good food, because that's the staple.

Missing Link is only about 3 percent of a pet's diet," he said. "We're adding high-quality nutrients, enzymes and fiber to properly balance things out."

Pet Supply is located at 26831 Bouquet Canyon Road, Santa Clarita, (661) 296-2654. Happy Pets Veterinary Center is located at 27550 Newhall Ranch Road, Valencia, (661) 295-9972. For a free sample of The Missing Link by Designing Health, call (800) 774-7387.

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