Biscuits or beef? Choosing the best nutrition for feeding your pet will come down to several factors, writes Katrina Lobley.
When talk at the dog park turns to diet, it can be an uneasy topic. Bouncer over there might be chowing down on raw meat and bones, vegetables, grains and cottage cheese at home while your four-legged friend eats only dog biscuits. Who's right? Is there a definitive answer?
Dr David Neck, a Perth vet who is president of the Australian Small Animal Veterinary Association, takes many factors into consideration when advising owners on canine diets.
"I'll have very different recommendations for diet for old dogs versus young dogs, and dogs with long noses versus short noses," he says. "Collies and poodles, for instance, have long snouts and they tend to be quite lazy at chewing while Staffordshire bull terriers are all jaw muscle and they're very strong chewers - I definitely calculate that in my discussions.
"There's also the physical status of the animal - an overweight dog or cat is going to get a very different nutritional lecture from me than if they were underweight or a lean athlete."
With Australians owning some 3.4 million dogs and 2.3 million cats (according to 2009 figures from the Australian Companion Animal Council), pet food is big business. The same report estimated people spent $1.1 billion a year on packaged dog food and $581 million a year on cat food.
Neck feeds his own dog, a golden retriever, a diet that is 100 per cent dog biscuits. His advice for owners who do the same is to look for biscuits that are labelled both balanced and complete.
"I do review the pet foods that I recommend for clients and I like to pick pet foods where I know they have been tried on dogs and cats and seen to keep them healthy rather than those that have just been put together to meet the formulas," he says.
Biscuit design is also evolving so they clean canine teeth better. "One of the paradoxes of biscuits is that a very hard biscuit contacts the point of the tooth and the biscuit snaps and there's not much to scrape up the tooth [and clean it]," Neck says.
"A lot of the pet food companies are now paradoxically softening the biscuit and often have fibres within the biscuit to hold them together so the biscuit scrapes up the tooth."
Sometimes, though, mysterious factors are at work that not even Neck understands. "Some dogs chew really, really well yet have dirty teeth and other dogs - you watch them inhale their food and their teeth are really, really clean. I guess it's what they're doing with their tongue during the day, differences in saliva, who really knows?"
Owners should keep a close eye on their dog's dental health as well as diet, he says. "Flip the lip and have a look at those teeth," he says. "If it looks diseased, talk to your vet. Some of the periodontal disease that goes on in dogs' mouths is draining the body all day, every day, and bacteria are feeding into the bloodstream."
Naoko Okamoto is passionate about improving pet health through nutrition.
The owner of Chew Chew - a pet restaurant in leafy Wollstonecraft - serves up in-house canine meals such as a $14.50 organic lamb omelette and $9 organic chicken risotto.
She also runs cooking classes so owners learn better pet nutrition.
Okamoto acknowledges her organic meals are expensive. She'd prefer that owners learn to feed their pets well through one of her cooking classes than continuing to buy the fresh meals, she says.