Is commercial pet food ethical or even healthy?

Jonathan Bray asks the experts - and prepares to throw away his tin opener
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The Independent Online

The old adage that pets resemble their owners has taken on new weight. In a nation that's rapidly following its US cousins down the road to obesity, poor diet and a lack of exercise have also disturbingly resulted in 50 per cent of domestic pets becoming clinically obese. So worrying is the situation that the animal charity PDSA is running a campaign to find the nation's porkiest pets and send them to a fat camp on national television.

Yet, short of enrolling one's animal for the series, what can the responsible pet-owner do? As a dog-owner myself, I was prompted to question the dietary regime of my Tibetan terrier, Tessa. Ever since she was a puppy, like the majority of Europe's 44 million dog-owners I fed her a series of commercial pet foods. Such is the ubiquity of prepared foods that it is difficult to imagine that the UK's £1.5bn market for pet food was largely non-existent before the 1950s. Prior to this, dogs were largely fed on a diet of kitchen scraps and, by all accounts, survived quite happily.

Perhaps more happily than now. The first commercial dog food was invented in 1860 when an American lightning-rod manufacturer named James Spratt travelled to England with a boatload of wares. As he disembarked, he noticed the local dogs scavenging for discarded ship's biscuits along the quayside - and in two shakes of a dog's tail, pellet dog food was born.

Although a staggering amount of research has gone into the composition of prepared feeds since Spratt's time, their basic appearance has not changed. True, modern feeds have dramatically improved the health and life expectancy of our furred populations, yet I always feel a pang of guilt when measuring out Tessa's daily ration of desiccated pellets - which I inevitably alleviate by adding a choice titbit from my own food.

Dr Freda Scott-Park, president of the British Veterinary Association, advises that while kitchen scraps are fine per se, it is important to regulate calorie intake. "It's easy to overfeed if you're giving the dog its standard allowance of diet and then kitchen scraps on top. Sad to say, the nation's dog population is actually going the way of the country's humans, and getting fatter and fatter."

Our shared love of food is perhaps why the dog remains man's best friend. Tessa and I both love bacon sandwiches and lick our lips if a sausage is being barbecued anywhere within a 100-mile radius. Yet, for Tessa, these remain illicit pleasures, fleeting escapes from a diet whose main ingredients are "dried beef pulp" and "chicken digest". The other components of the prepared pet foods in the supermarkets are more "meat by-products" (which covers such delights as viscera and factory floor-scrapings), salt, sugar, starch and "fillers". Surely fresh, natural food would be a better alternative, or a healthy supplement, to these highly preserved, mass-produced commercial brands?

According to the BVA, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with preparing food for pets, so long as owners follow a few basic guidelines. Raw meat should be avoided, due to the risk from pathogens such as the salmonella bacteria occasionally present in chicken. Small or cooked bones should never be given because of the risk of splintering, which can lead to internal damage; whereas a large, raw marrow bone is fine. Bread, too, is unsuitable as it tends to cling to the animal's teeth and cause decay and periodontal disease. The real offender, however, is chocolate.

Milk chocolate is highly poisonous to dogs: just a pound of it is enough to kill a 20lb animal. Worst of all, dogs love it. Tessa has been rushed to the vet after wolfing a whole chocolate orange, and as a child my annual Easter egg hunt gained a frisson of danger from the necessity of finding the eggs before the dog did. But these considerations aside, cooking your own canine cuisine is perfectly possible and increasingly popular. The problem is that many people do not understand the demands of their animal's diet.

According to Sarah Heath, a leading animal behaviourist, the cornerstone of a mutt's meal should be nutrition, not aesthetics. "Dogs are not little people," she stresses. "Our worries about a diet being bland come from a human context. They are not interested in variation." Owners should think twice before abandoning commercial feeds, which are tailor-made to provide the correct nutritional content. "We have to be careful not to put human values and emotions onto what's important for the dog - and that's a balanced diet."

A nagging suspicion remains, however, that Tessa would disagree. While it is true that a dog's tongue only contains about 1,700 taste receptors (compared with a human's 9,000), in some cases her tastes are more particular than mine. I will eat most crisps; she only likes cheese and onion. Also, a dog's sense of smell is roughly 40 times as sensitive as ours - and even I, nasally impaired human that I am, think that Tessa's prepared food smells pretty awful. Even so, to adequately provide a comprehensive diet for one's pet can be challenging. "If home-cooked diets aren't balanced, then you can do real damage," warns Heath. "But if you've got a lot of time on your hands and can research the correct balance of nutrients - fine."

One person who has done exactly that is Elisabeth Matell, the breeder and co-owner of Co-Co (this year's Best in Show at Crufts). She has been personally cooking her dogs' dinners for years. "I feed them an old-fashioned biscuit called Laughing Dog, as well as pasta, rice, cooked beef and chicken," she explains. "But I also cheat; I also use Pedigree Chum."

Her beef-and-vegetable stew is enough to make any dog feel hot under the collar, yet it is the ethical and environmental benefits of home-prepared feed which particularly appeal to her. "I don't believe in feeding packaged rabbit droppings to my dogs. It's not that they have never had a handful of it, but I believe in proper food that's as natural as possible so that I can see what I'm giving them."

Increasingly, it is these environmental and ethical factors that are persuading green-minded consumers to reconsider their choice of dog and cat feed. Even for the majority of pet-owners who will not switch their animal to a home-cooked diet, choosing food which is both nutritionally and ethically responsible is no easy task.

One of the success stories in recent years has been the gradual decline and fall of the tin can, which is extremely inefficient to transport and produce. Cans have been superseded both by the single-meal plastic pouch, and the more environmentally friendly cardboard packaging of dry feed. Yet there has been little positive change in the environmental credentials of the containers' contents.

The problem with commercially prepared foods is twofold, says Yvonne Taylor, campaigns co-ordinator for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). "There's the ingredients, but there's also the fact that some of the products are actually tested on animals, which are subjected to all sorts of invasive practices, such as the insertion of food tubes directly into the stomach."

PETA also stresses that much of the testing is not in the interest of medicine, but of marketing, and encourages consumers to boycott those companies whose ethical record puts them in the doghouse. "It's sad, because these companies' advertising targets people who are actually concerned about their pet's health. We'd encourage people to research a bit deeper."

Vets, too, have been quick to lend their voices to the criticism of unnecessary testing procedures. Audrey Fearn, a partner of Edinburgh-based Dundas Veterinary Group, and a committee member of the charity Advocates for Animals, states that "there is no reason why that kind of invasive testing should be done on animals for dietary research. Obviously diets have to be safe, but there are ethical ways of doing it. People should think about that before they buy a dog food."

Fortunately, there are resources available to concerned consumers. The website www.ethiscore.org offers a comprehensive study of the different pet-food brands in the UK, including an up-to-date indication of testing policies and environmental record. And thanks to companies such as www.veggiepets.com, it is now easier than ever to feed your pet an organic or vegetarian diet.

There is no dietary reason why dogs cannot be vegetarian. While dog food that has not been tested on animals actually has a notionally positive environmental impact (as it uses up meat by-products otherwise destined for landfill sites), producing meat at all is roughly a tenth as efficient a use of land as growing crops. Cats are a little trickier as they are obligate carnivores: they require a particular amino acid that is only found naturally in meat. However, several supplements are now available, so feline vegetarianism is still a viable option.

Although the legislation in the UK governing animal food production is the toughest in the world, testing remains legal. Michael Bellingham, president of the Pet Food Manufacturers' Association, admits that each company has different ethical standards. "It's basically a policy of our members not to conduct invasive research, but the PFMA doesn't actually dictate to them. We encourage our members to have a clear ethical policy so consumers can make an informed choice."

Given the rising sales of ethically produced pet food in the past five years, it seems that consumers are doing exactly that. If more of the nation's pet food manufacturers follow the lead of the human produce industry, the eco-friendly dog's dinner will soon have its day.

www.ethiscore.org; www.veggiepets.com

What you should be feeding your pet

CATS

Cats need more protein in their diet than dogs. However, it is still possible to cook for them at home. John Burns, a vet and nutritionist who linked pet food with various animal ailments, began to recommend 30 years ago that pet owners cook their own food for cats. He recommends a stew composed of 50 per cent chicken or beef, with 25 per cent boiled brown rice, and 25 per cent green vegetables including dried seaweed for essential minerals.

HAMSTERS

Wendy Barry of the British Hamster Association advises owners that hamsters can eat fruit and vegetables, provided strong flavours like onion and citrus fruits are avoided. They can obtain energy and protein from nuts and seeds, but equally will happily eat cooked meat, fish or brown rice.

RABBITS & GUINEA PIGS

Anne Mitchell of the Rabbit Welfare Association emphasises that these grazing animals' diets should mimic that of their wild cousins. " Introduce everything in moderation to begin with," she says. " Rabbits should eat plenty of hay and any raw vegetables you would eat yourself, except lettuce. You wouldn't eat potato, rhubarb or bean leaves, so don't feed them to your rabbit." Guinea pigs need a similar diet but with even more emphasis on vegetables as they can't manufacture their own Vitamin C.

You should always consult your vet before starting a new diet for your pet.

Dog beef stew

1/2 lb beef mince or chopped chicken
1 cup rice
one small potato, chopped
2 carrots, sliced
1/2 cup green beans

Brown the meat in a pan. When completely cooked, drain the fat. Boil the rice until done then mix in. Set aside.

Place the chopped vegetables in a pot with water; bring to the boil. Simmer until tender (about 15-20 minutes). Drain, then add to the meat mixture.

Let the dinner cool thoroughly before serving to prevent burning.

Serves: about 3 dinners, depending on the size of dog.

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