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Specialized pet foods

I see all sorts of specialized pet foods available these days. Are they really necessary? Do they work?

Ask a veterinarian
I see all sorts of specialized pet foods available these days. Are they really necessary? Do they work?

By Dr. Alice Crook

There certainly is a vast array of pet foods available in grocery stores, pet shops and veterinary clinics. A basic, nutritionally adequate food will meet the needs of the average healthy cat or dog. You can be assured of the quality of the food you select by looking for the logo of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association Pet Food Certification Program. This is an independent quality assurance program that has been in place since 1976 to test and monitor foods.

Besides these basic foods, there is a range of specialized diets available. There are many reasons your vet might suggest one of these for your pet–to promote weight loss or to reduce tartar and prevent gum disease, for example.

These foods, called special purpose diets, are intended to fulfil your pet’s particular nutritional requirements during periods such as growth, pregnancy, nursing or high stress (for working or show dogs, for example, or for animals recovering after an illness). Consult your vet as to whether your dog or cat needs one of these foods, which are often higher in protein and fat.

Owners of large-breed puppies should note that special foods intended for growth (puppy/kitten formulas, for example) should be used with caution, because rapid growth in these dogs may be one factor in the development of osteo-arthritic conditions such as hip or elbow dysplasia.

Therapeutic diets
These diets, also called prescription or medical diets, play an important role in the treatment of many specific conditions. They may also be used to manage an illness that is still in the early stages.

Urinary problems Dietary control is important in the management of urinary tract problems in both dogs and cats. Bladder stones are not uncommon in dogs, for example. Specialized diets can help dissolve some types of stones by reducing minerals and protein and changing the pH of the urine. Cats who are prone to feline lower urinary tract disease usually benefit from magnesium-restricted/pH-controlling cat foods.

There are also special diets available for the treatment of both early and advanced kidney disease. These foods have increased vitamins to replace those lost due to increased urination, high-quality but reduced levels of protein and reduced levels of sodium (to reduce water retention) and some other minerals.

Allergic conditions Some illnesses are related to food allergies, such as inflammatory bowel disease (which can cause chronic vomiting, diarrhea and frequent bowel movements) and some skin diseases (often those that cause intense itching). Special diets for treating these conditions should be free of additives and preservatives, have an adequate but not excessive amount of a highly digestible protein and have a “novel” source of protein–this means one to which your dog or cat hasn’t already reacted. Lamb, venison or duck are some of the single protein sources found in these diets.

Special diets are also important in the control of medical conditions such as diabetes, liver and heart disease and pancreatitis. These therapeutic diets are generally available at veterinary clinics; they should be used only on the advice of your veterinarian. Pets generally do well with a basic, good quality diet. But when you think about the medical conditions, allergies and food sensitivities in people that require us to modify the foods we eat, it’s not surprising that the same is true for many dogs and cats at some point as well.

Dr. Alice Crook coordinates the Sir James Dunn Animal Welfare Centre at the Atlantic Veterinary College at the University of Prince Edward Island.

First published in Chatelaine’s March 2003 issue.