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Pet Food Basics

Understand how best to feed your pets and create good feeding behaviors by learning about animal nature.

Martha Stewart Living, September 1994

The eating habits of dogs and cats reflect their early days in the wild. Cats were solitary hunters, like little lions -- predators that caught small animals whenever needed. They didn't worry about their next meal. Dogs were pack animals, and in the wild, they hunted in groups to bring down big prey. They gorged themselves and then, if necessary, fasted.

Cats take on the world with their eyes and their ears. Dogs, on the other hand, are all nose. They sniff everything and everybody in sight. No surprise, then, that most dogs are obsessed with food. They'll eat dirty tissues as readily as they'll eat a marbled steak. Cats are much pickier about what they consume. They probably won't starve if you don't provide their favorite treat, but they won't binge if you do.

The real issue with feeding animals is not finding the right commercial food; there are many good choices today for every age and health condition. The difficulty is sticking with it. Once pets become aware of the possibilities, it's hard to backtrack. After a dog gets a taste of, say, a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, life may never be the same again. The dog knows what he is missing, and the begging begins. Although cats are less likely to beg than dogs, they too can develop a taste for your meals and pace round and round at dinnertime, demanding to share.

Safe Feeding
You can safely feed your animals the same food you eat if you are aware of their specific nutritional needs and if you don't provide too many calories. A number of vets say that if you do share food with your pets, you shouldn't let that food make up more than 10 percent of their daily intake. That way, you can be sure that the right nutrients are supplied by the commercial food, which will say on the label whether it provides a balanced nutritional diet.

Give your dogs things like carrots and strawberries, the same foods that are good for people. Although a cat might walk away, your dog will probably eat those foods, because, like humans, dogs are naturally drawn to sweet tastes.

Dogs, like people, create relationships between food and feelings. Dogs will eagerly eat food from a person's hand, yet pass up that same food if it's served in a bowl. Dogs like being given things, having a one-to-one relationship. Cats do, too, but to a much lesser extent, because they are not pack animals.

Preventing Begging
There are effective ways to deal with begging: a consistent and firm no, a squirt from a water bottle. Every vet will tell you not to feed your dog from the table because it just encourages begging and may lead to obesity, which is estimated to be a problem with up to 40 percent of dogs and 25 percent of cats.

In order to share food with your pets, but not create begging problems, give animals small amounts of scraps in their bowls at the end of the meal, but never feed them from the table or the plates.

A Healthy Diet
In general, dogs thrive on a diet similar to that recommended for humans: a balance of milk, meats, fish, eggs, fats and oils, cereal, rice, pasta, potatoes, bread, green vegetables, nuts, cheese, beans, and whole grains and legumes. Most dog food is made of nutrients that are in those foods. Dog food is sold dry, canned, or semimoist; dogs usually like canned food the best, but it tends to be more expensive and no better nutritionally than the dry kind. To perk up your dog's interest in dry food, you might mix it with canned or add some water, milk, or broth and heat briefly. (Of course, then your dog will expect that service and will be unhappy to return to dry kibble.

Some veterinarians advise against using generic foods because their protein might be of inferior quality. Some extremely health-conscious owners shy away from semimoist foods, which may contain dyes and chemicals to keep them soft and fresh, as well as foods containing animal by-products. Indeed, some owners go so far as to make their own pet food. If that's the path you choose, consult one of the many books with chapters on dog nutrition, such as "The Well Dog Book" by Terri McGinnis (Random House; 1991).

Cats are pickier eaters than dogs, and you might have to try various foods before you please them. True carnivores, they need much more protein than dogs do and, in particular, a nutrient called taurine; without enough, they can suffer retina damage or blindness. That's why it's important to feed a cat with cat food, not dog food, which would be deficient in taurine.

Your dogs and cats should have fresh food and water every day. If your pet is overweight, follow the same advice you give yourself: less or lower-calorie food and more exercise.

And no matter how much you like to share, never give your pets food with small bones that can splinter, like chicken or fish, or chocolate -- dogs in particular will readily eat chocolate, but theobromine and caffeine are toxic to them, and although it usually just makes them very sick, it can cause death.

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