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Is My Pet Getting the Right Nutrients?

by Lauren Samet

More of us than ever before are realising the importance of proper nutrition for our pets, but getting to grips with effective pet nutrition can be challenging. In this guide we’ll take a closer look at the world of commercial pet foods, enabling you to make more informed decisions about the best way to feed your pet.

Complete Foods vs. Complementary Foods

Pet foods can be categorised as either “complete” or “complementary” - but what are the differences, and why do they matter?

What is a Complete Pet Food?

Complete pet foods are defined as being those which provide a complete, balanced diet. In other words, they fully meet all the nutritional needs of your pet - including a wide range of vitamins, minerals and trace elements. In theory, your cat or dog could be fed solely on a single complete pet food and he or she would receive all the nutrition needed for a long and healthy life. 

You might be surprised to hear that pet food manufacturing is a highly regulated industry, and that most UK pet food suppliers subscribe to strict nutritional guidelines. In the UK the Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PFMA), and on a wider scale the European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF), set out nutritional recommendations for cat and dog foods. These guidelines have been carefully chosen by an expert group of highly experienced vets, nutrition scientists and pet food manufacturers then formulate pet foods designed to meet these specific requirements. 

When you feed a complete pet food you can feel confident that any requirements for vitamins and minerals have been carefully met, avoiding the risks of either deficiency or toxicity. 

What is a Complementary Pet Food?

Complementary foods are so-called because they don’t provide complete, balanced nutrition. They are not designed to be fed alone, but instead, require balancing with other dietary components. 

Treats are a great example of a complementary food. They are designed to be fed to our pets, but should not be all that your pet eats. In the same way, we as owners could not have a healthy balanced diet if all we ate was biscuits - however much we’d like to!

Other examples of complementary foods include some homemade and raw food diets. 

Complementary foods like these really require owners to check labels and to consult vets and pet nutritionists, in order to ensure they are providing all the nutrients required. This is in contrast to complete foods, where it is the manufacturer’s job to ensure appropriate nutrition.

How Do I Know If a Pet Food is Complete or Complementary?

Telling the difference between complete and complementary pet foods is generally quite simple; you just need to consult the label. 

Current pet food labelling regulation in the UK states that all cat and dog foods must include information on whether the food is considered “complete” or not. If you see this word then you can feel confident that the food in question meets all the nutritional requirements of your pet.

However dig a little deeper on the label and you can uncover all sorts of other useful information. At the time of writing this should include:

Directions for use: Consult the manufacturer’s advice on the recommended volume of food to provide. Many of us inadvertently overfeed our pets, and obesity in dogs is a growing problem. Meeting the manufacturer’s guidelines can help to prevent your pet gaining unnecessary weight. 

Ingredients: The terminology used can vary from one pet food to another, but the ingredients list can sometimes be useful for helping you avoid any foods that your pet may be allergic to (such as gluten).

Nutritional composition: Shows the basic breakdown of protein, fat, fibre and so on. 

Best before date: Whilst feeding a pet food just past its “best before” date is unlikely to cause harm to your pet, the food may no longer offer the same balance of vitamins and minerals.

Net weight: The weight of your pet food might not sound very exciting, but some foods are far more nutrient-dense than others. By dividing the weight of the bag by the recommended daily intake you can work out how much each meal costs. Sometimes foods that initially appear more expensive can actually work out cheaper when calculated in this way.

Contact details: It is a requirement that an address is provided by the manufacturer, importer or distributor. This can be particularly useful at times when you are seeking more dietary advice, or have a query relating specifically to their product. More manufacturers are now also including the energy content of their feeds (calories), however, if this information is missing then feel free to request it from the manufacturer.

When Are Supplements Needed?

By their very nature, complementary pet foods do not contain all the nutrients that a cat or dog needs. As a result, those of us feeding complementary foods need to research carefully what these diets contain. Supplements can subsequently serve as a useful tool for balancing the diet and ensure your pet is receiving all the nutrients they require.
A great example of this is meat, which is commonly fed in raw food diets. Different types of meat can offer wildly different nutrient profiles. Consider, for example, the differences between chicken liver and breast meat. Feeding your cat on just chicken breast will not provide suitable minerals such as calcium and magnesium – essential for health, bone structure and nervous function. Equally, if your cat only eats chicken liver then you could be providing it with far too much vitamin A, resulting in toxicity. 

It is these types of diets that may benefit from additional supplements, providing extra essential nutrients. A great example is taurine for cats; an essential amino acid which they cannot create themselves. A taurine deficiency can lead to blindness or heart failure. As a result, many cat owners choose to offer taurine supplements to help keep their pet in perfect health.  

Interesting Fact: Even some zoo animals benefit from additional vitamin/mineral supplements in their diets! For example, if they are unable to access their natural diets in captivity, big cats require taurine just as our domestic cats do!

Should I Feed My Pet Supplements With a Complete Diet?

Complete foods may provide all the nutrition that your pet needs, but some people still opt to supplement their pet’s diet. The reason is that there are some additional dietary components that are associated with a beneficial function.  

As an example, some premium dog foods include glucosamine, chondroitin or MSM for joint health. However, they may not contain sufficient amounts to fully benefit your pet. This is where a range like VitaPaws can provide you with the additional supplementation you may require (see for example their Joint Care range). 

Can I “Over Supplement” My Pet’s Diet?

Feeding your pet an unbalanced diet - whether that is too much or not enough of an essential nutrient - can eventually lead to ill health. It’s really important you take the time to look at your pet’s diet as a whole and to decide if it has any factors that may cause imbalance. 

Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines and seek advice from your vet or a nutritional expert to ensure a healthy balanced diet is being supplied. If you’re really keen, the European guidelines for dog and cat nutrition indicate the minimum and maximum tolerance levels of each nutrient.

In Summary

We have more information than ever before on what a healthy diet looks like for cats or dogs. The key is using all this knowledge to promote optimal health in your own pet. So why not take some time to better understand what you’re feeding your pet? Get to grips with the basics of nutrition and feel free to seek advice from your vet, a qualified pet nutritionist or from your pet food manufacturer. 

Lastly, supplementation can serve a very important element in a balanced diet - particularly when complementary pet foods are used. Fortunately, the friendly customer service team at VitaPaws is always happy to take your call!