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The age of the specialised diets

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01 April 2010, at 1:00am

LIBBY SHERIDAN reviews some of the latest trends and developments in small animal nutrition.

NO one could fail to have noticed the focus in recent years on eating for health and the advice of government bodies such as the Food Standards Agency on eating well to keep well. 

Including certain food groups and ingredients and limiting others in your diet is recommended to help keep the body functioning optimally; plenty of fruit and veg and wholegrains are commonly advocated and red or processed meat and other sources of saturated fat discouraged. 

The influence of nutrition in both the management of and prevention of disease is gaining wider acknowledgment and advice on healthy eating practices is now common for those with or at risk of heart disease and high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and obesity. 

Increased segmentation 

As with everything, it’s usually not long before human practices are adopted and adapted for animals and recently there has been a surge in the availability of pet food aimed at meeting specific health needs in both the veterinary and pet specialty market. 

This increasing specialisation can be seen with the classical “life stage” foods (puppy and kitten, adult and senior) being segmented further, with foods aimed at particular groups of pets, e.g. large breeds, and the inclusion of certain nutrients to maximise health, increase longevity or performance. 

Claims to help protect against common ailments such as weight gain and digestive upsets are found in many ranges to appeal to those pet owners who feel that their pet will benefit from a nutritional focus in a specific area of health. 

Dogs and cats with real or perceived food sensitivities are catered for through the avoidance of common allergens such as beef and wheat, alongwith the provision of limited protein sources.  

There are now diets available which cater for age, size, activity level and even lifestyle. Foods for indoor cats, for example, can help promote digestive health and decrease hairballs through the inclusion of vegetable fibres, while at the same time a lowering of calories helps to manage weight. 

The specific changes in metabolism as a result of neutering are addressed in foods for neutered pets, with controlled mineral levels and decreased calories to help prevent bladder stone formation and weight gain. 

Furry friends 

This focus on individual needs isn’t limited to cats and dogs. You can now find rabbit complementary food for baby or dwarf breeds, and adult and mature life stages. Ingredients encourage healthy digestion with the inclusion of prebiotics, and herbs are added to some to reduce stress. 

With obesity now an issue in rabbits as well as cats and dogs, lower calorie “light” versions are available for these pets too.  

Support of the immune system with antioxidants provided through ingredients such as parsnip and beetroot ensure that every health benefit is thought of. Our smaller furry friends haven’t been forgotten either and variations of ingredient sizes in foods are available for both standard and dwarf hamsters, for example.

At risk groups 

Of particular interest is the emergence of foods aimed specifically at “at risk” groups. Education on clinical nutrition and the availability of “functional foods” such as prescription and veterinary diets have helped us to manage particular diseases for some time now, such as diabetes mellitus in cats and even brain ageing in the dog. 

Nutritional formulations focus on the limitation of or inclusion of certain nutrients at precise levels, to help support the pet’s compromised metabolism.  

Many of the dietary claims are supported by strong clinical evidence and dietetic pet foods have become a cornerstone in our management of a range of ailments. Managing the diet to restrict phosphate in renal failure, for example, is crucial and of the utmost importance in slowing progression of the disease.  

Recent dietary developments have seen the inclusion of ingredients which are clinically proven and used to help manage specific diseases, into ranges for healthy pets in “at risk” groups.

Concerns 

For instance, manufacturers have focused on the concerns of pet owners regarding mobility and maintaining joint flexibility, by the inclusion of the omega3 fatty acid ingredient EPA into diets for healthy dogs which are deemed to be at greater risk of developing joint disease. 

It’s not known at this early stage whether these diets will have an effect in preventing or decreasing the severity of any osteoarthritis in a particular pet in the future, but such dietary
interventions are common with people and thought by many to have a positive benefit. 

As well as the inclusion of particular ingredients, specialisation has included even kibble shape. For instance, aligning the dietary fibre into a laminated arrangement has proven benefits in cleaning the teeth and managing gingivitis and dental disease, and an extension of this concept into foods for healthy pets as a preventive measure is seen in some specialised ranges. “Kibble technology” has even gone so far as to make shapes which allow easier prehension of food in brachycephalic pets. 

It’s hard to say how far this specialisation will go, but with pet owners increasingly focused on finding solutions to their individual pet’s needs, it’s likely that the future will see further developments in this nutritional evolution.