Proper nutrition for dogs and cats

Dogs and cats are by nature highly specialized food processors. This makes it all the more important that they receive the right nutrients. Why obesity and poor care make you sick – three experts on animal nutrition provide answers.


In the small animal clinic of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich, everything is adjusted to four-paw patients. In the cat treatment room, soothing sounds and scents circulate through the air – imperceptible to human ears and noses. Cat lady Minka, who is taken to the emergency room this Friday afternoon, still cannot be calmed down. She screams in pain. According to her desperate owner, the propere Graugetigerte has been going to the toilet more often for a few days and has blood in her urine – all signs of cystitis. If the suspected diagnosis is confirmed, only painkillers and antibiotic therapy can help.

Minka’s problems are no coincidence. If cats are so fat that they can no longer clean themselves in the area, cystitis is a frequent consequence, says senior physician Petra Kölle, head of the nutrition consultation at LMU’s small animal clinic. “Most patients or their owners are therefore then sent on to us by the treating colleagues.” Whether diabetes, urinary stonesosteoarthritis or even tumor diseases – the list of diseases with which obese dogs and cats come to their consultation hours is long. Many pet owners are often unaware that the supposedly droll bacon rolls of their four-legged friends are directly related to their diseases, says Kölle. And even if it does, it often requires real detective work to track down the causes of obesity: “People often only count as food what goes into the bowl, but everything that goes through the mouth counts.” So also chewing sticks, treats, oil for the coat or liver sausage for taking medication. “It’s easy to get back to almost 100 percent of the kilocalories needed per day.”

Incorrect feeding makes you sick

Often it is precisely the owners who mean it particularly well, for whom feeding errors creep in, observes the Berlin specialist veterinarian for animal nutrition and dietetics, Susan Kröger. “Not only treats, but also supposedly healthy extras such as beef bones or ground eggshells as a feed additive can cause harm,” she explains. Too much calcium and phosphorus, for example, causes the body not to absorb zinc. Especially in young dogs, however, this zinc deficiency can lead to problems with skeletal development.

Kröger has been running her practice for three years as a spin-off of the nutrition consultation hour of the FU Berlin. The vast majority of their patients come on the advice of veterinarians. Often because the animals are sick, but also in dogs when they are bared (fed raw), cooked by their owners, vegetarian or even vegan.

“In these cases, you have to look very closely,” explains the expert, “because with all forms of feeding with self-compiled rations, it can easily lead to incorrect feeding in dogs and cats.” After obesity, the lack of nutrients in dogs is a common cause of diet-related diseases. You need a balanced cocktail of meat, vegetables, fruits, essential fats, oils, vitamins, minerals and possibly starchy components. This requires know-how, says Kröger.

Risky: in-house feed production

Never before has nutrition played such a major role in the keeping of animals as it does today. And it is not uncommon for people to transfer their own ideas of “good” nutrition to their beloved animal.

A growing number of owners now swear by exclusively raw food, as this type of nutrition is considered by many to be natural and species-appropriate. Others are convinced that only a purely vegetarian diet gets their animal, still others rely on grain-free food. At the same time, the shelves in pet shops and supermarkets are overflowing with products of all quality and price ranges – the feed industry is booming. In 2019, German pet owners spent 3.3 billion euros a year on ready-to-eat products, 1.5 billion euros for dogs alone, and “snacks” such as chew sticks and treats recorded an increase of 5.2 percent. No wonder many pet owners feel overwhelmed.

It could be as simple as this: If you stick to the feeding instructions for dry or wet food, you can’t really do much wrong. Actually. Because more and more people distrust the information provided by the animal feed industry. According to a study on feeding habits in English-speaking countries, the number of owners who feed purely conventionally has fallen dramatically in just ten years. More and more feed raw, the vast majority mix ready-made food with home-made feed. This practice significantly increases the risk of malnutrition, the researchers warn.

This is in line with the observations of dietitian Susan Kröger. “I strongly warn against putting together your own meal plan without advice,” she says. For owners who switch to home cooking, she first calculates the individual demand value for each animal with the help of a special computer program. Many factors play a role in dogs: breed, age, weight, agility and mobility, but also the nutritional value of all daily food. And this also includes the often underestimated treats, emphasizes Kröger: “I include 90 percent of them in the daily ration.”

Isn’t that all a bit exaggerated? A resounding no from Susan Kröger: “Our pets depend on us to feed them with all the nutrients they need every day. This has been very well researched. And: “We don’t know how long the animals used to live, which were fed solely on table remains. People’s relationship with their pets was also very different.”

One thing is certain – if you have a dog or a cat today, you usually only want the best for your four-legged friend. “Dog owners who barf often tell me that my dog is almost never doing well, he is agile, the coat shines. Then I answer, this may be true at the moment, but in the long run an unbalanced Barf ration can lead to problems. From time to time, for example, offal and liver are not enough to meet the need for iodine and vitamin D.” Kröger himself relies on homemade and boiled food for a diet, including meat. The quantities are calculated by software. And if a dog owner can’t cope with self-cooking? “Then I sometimes recommend good diet feed or offer to analyze the packaging information.”

Like many veterinarians, Susan Kröger is concerned about the trend of transferring one’s own dietary preferences or fears to the animals. “I clearly disagree with the opinion that complete feed only serves the feed industry,” she says. Good dry and wet food usually contains all vital nutrients (except for water in dry food). However, Kröger advises to read the list of ingredients critically. “In recent years, some products have come onto the market where I doubt it.”

Good finished products recognizable by the list of ingredients

But how does a consumer know whether the product is of good quality? The topic is complex, but as a rule of thumb it helps: the more transparent and detailed the ingredients are indicated, the better. Percentages are not mandatory according to the legislator. If, for example, the “composition” of wet food only reads: “Meat and animal by-products”, the probability is high that so-called K3 slaughter products have also been recycled that are not suitable for human consumption, for example also ground hooves, claws or bristles. A transparent list of ingredients, on the other hand, breaks down more concretely: “65% beef, consisting of beef, beef lung, etc.”

Some manufacturers even guarantee food-grade feed. In the case of dry food, it is important to pay attention to whether it is meat-and-bone meal or meat-and-bone meal. In the latter case, the entire animal is recycled, degreased, dried and processed into flour. The dwindling trust in conventional food has allowed some nutrition myths to flourish.

The Munich expert Petra Kölle takes a critical view of the trend towards grain-free food: “In fact, gluten intolerance is very rare in dogs and only in certain breeds,” she says. Studies in the USA have shown that a permanent grain-free diet in dogs can lead to heart problems (dillative cardiomyopathy, DCM for short). Compared to the wolf, the domestic dog has more than ten altered genes that regulate starch digestion, as a study in the renowned journal “Nature” has shown. “The dog doesn’t necessarily need grains, but in a diet it’s quite important, also because it helps to avoid a hard-to-digest protein surplus.” With this argument, Susan Kröger likes to try to change the minds of owners critical of grain.

Veterinarians have to be very careful when it comes to diet issues, after all, they are dependent on cooperation. “Owners often suspect a feed or grain allergy,” says Neuss veterinarian Charlotte Kolodzey from her practice. “But usually this is not confirmed, or it turns out that too many chewing products burden the intestines and make the feces excessively soft.” Kolodzey has been dealing with the connection between nutrition and inflammation for a long time, gives lectures on this topic and published the book “Healthy feeding – preventing inflammation” in the summer.

If a dog reacts sensitively to dry food, for example, this is not necessarily due to the grain content, but possibly to the higher histamine content, the veterinarian has found. Studies have shown that in particular the subsequent spraying of the croquettes with a protein-fat mixture to increase the nutritional value is associated with a higher amount of histamine. She would like manufacturers to also indicate the histamine content on the packaging in the future. And owners could do a lot by giving up ripened cheese or dried meat as a treat.

When the owners come to Charlotte Kolodzey’s practice in Neuss with their animals, they usually have a long history of suffering behind them. “People are often very desperate, especially when their dogs suffer from bad diarrhea again and again. They don’t sleep through the night anymore, often have to go out eight times a night with their animal, which then eats grass in panic.” Even nocturnal smacking, foul-smelling winds and burps are extremely stressful.

Sick from improper nutrition?
The daily quick check for dog owners

Body check: Obesity is hardly visible to the naked eye, regular palpation is essential. The ribs should be clearly noticeable when standing with light pressure, the waist should be visible and the abdominal line should be pulled back.

Coat sample: The coat should be breed-typical and scale-free. If the dog licks or scratches, it can be a sign of allergies or skin irritation.

Feces code: The feces should be firmly shaped, neither mushy nor too hard. The sales frequency can vary from person to person, but is usually two to three times a day.

It is important to have the right dosage of nutrients

From her own experience with her shelter dog Emma, Kolodzey knows how helpless you feel “when everything you give the animal only makes it sicker”. She is convinced: “Our animals get sick more often, and there are reasons for this.” Many factors, whether air pollution, improper nutrition or stress, would overwhelm the immune system and promote inflammatory reactions: “Everything we observe in humans also applies to the dog.”

The nutrition expert likes to explain these inflammatory processes with the image of a campfire. The more sticks you add as fuel, the brighter it blazes. And sticks, i.e. pro-inflammatory factors, there are many. Whether histamines, rancid fat, sugar, connective tissue in chewing sticks, obesity, disturbed intestinal flora, air pollution, stress or a faulty supply of nutrients: the more factors come together, the more violent the reaction. The body or its immune system is put into a kind of permanent state of alarm. This then manifests itself, for example, in chronic, subliminal inflammations, whether on the ears, skin, joints or intestines, in unpleasant rashes or diarrhea.

According to Kolodzey, extinguishing the fire is often a lengthy process, because it is not enough to pour water on just a single stick “as long as the others continue to burn cheerfully”. An example of this is Girardia, parasites in the intestine. They are usually treated with antibiotics, but in many cases they come back again and again and are accompanied by bad diarrhea. “In the long run, the only thing that helps is to stabilize the animal as a whole,” says Kolodzey.

But no matter which type of feeding owners have chosen, the doctor always tries first and foremost to strengthen her awareness of the correct dosage of nutrients. People would often develop feeding routines, which means, “If something goes wrong, it’s usually for a very long time.” And little things are no longer trifles if they happen every day.

Dogs and cats need to eat what their owners put in their bowl. For Kolodzey, however, this is precisely the great opportunity to make a difference. It is simply fascinating how many diseases can be controlled by diet: diabetes of course, but also bladder stones and even chronic gastrointestinal inflammation or inflammation of the liver and pancreas.

Sometimes it’s easy. As with the young male, who suffered from severe diarrhea and severe skin problems. “He was very well guided by hunting,” says Kolodzey. “But it turned out that his owner regularly fed him four times the amount of what was indicated on the dry food package because of the extreme physical strain.” Although the calorie requirement was covered, but at the same time the excess of starch and minerals had completely confused the nutrient supply: “We changed the dog calorie-technically, and from then on he was completely diarrhea-free.”

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