Understanding Balanced Nutrition in Pet Food
The need for proper nutrition for companion animals begins very early. It actually begins in utero, thus how our pets are fed early in life can have lasting effects on lifetime health and well-being. Nutrition can impact organ development, metabolism, bone and joint integrity and immune competence, among other things.
Beginning with puppies and kittens and continuing into the latter years, having the proper balance of protein, energy, amino acids, vitamins and minerals is critical for the following:
- Maintaining a normal bodyweight
- Ensuring proper musculoskeletal development
- Maintaining epithelial tissues
- Maintaining healthy skin and coat condition
In contrast, an improper mineral balance can predispose dogs and cats to bone and joint challenges such as dyschondroplasia, osteochondrosis and joint deterioration.
Now that we understand why balanced nutrition is important for dogs and cats, let’s look at key components of a balanced nutrition program and how each one contributes to the well-being of our animals.
Components of Balanced Nutrition
Two important components of a well-balanced nutrition program are protein and energy. Protein is key to muscle and organ development, immunity, enzymes and epithelial integrity in an animal’s skin, as well as the circulatory, respiratory, gastrointestinal, reproductive and urogenital tracts. Energy, on the other hand, is key to cellular performance, as well as hormone production and function, immunity and weight management.
A third component of a well-balanced diet is trace minerals, especially zinc. Trace minerals are foundational to the formation and function of all of the aforementioned systems. Zinc itself is involved in over 300 enzyme systems.
Let’s analyze the various consequences of an imbalance of each of these three components:
- Protein: Insufficient protein can lead to poor muscular development, resulting in small, weak animals; as well as immune depression and poor skin and coat integrity. Too much protein can also be a problem, particularly in dogs. Protein has to be cleared through the urine, so if dogs are eating too much protein, it will cause their kidneys to work overtime to clear it from the system.
- Energy: Pets receiving insufficient energy in their diets will struggle to maintain bodyweight. On the flip side, too much energy in the diet will cause an animal to become overweight, which can cause a long list of additional problems. When an animal is overweight, it puts undue stress on organs and can lead to an increased risk for diabetes. It adds extra stress to the bones and joints, which can make it hard for them to maintain bone and joint integrity and can predispose them to arthritis or dysplasia.
- Trace minerals: Zinc is a Type II mineral, meaning it must be consumed every day for proper health. If an animal is not getting enough zinc in their diet, they will have poor growth and immune health. Another sign of insufficient zinc is poor skin and coat, caused by weak epithelial integrity. Zinc insufficiency often causes atopy or skin irritation, leading to itchy skin, broken skin and skin infections. Beyond zinc, a manganese insufficiency can lead to bone and joint problems, while an iron insufficiency will cause animals to suffer from anemia. Note that we mention insufficiency as many times our family companions suffer insufficiency due to an improper balance or bioavailability of mineral sources such as oxides and sulfates vs metal amino acid complexes.
Feed for the Right Life Stage
When selecting a pet food for your dogs or cats, it’s important to check the label to make sure it meets the minimum requirements for each nutrient, set by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), and that your dog or cat actually enjoys eating it. You can explore the AAFCO requirements here.
One of the biggest mistakes that can lead to your pet not receiving a well-balanced diet is simply feeding food that is not formulated for their correct life stage. As pets age, their demand for nutrients changes, so it’s important to seek out pet food specifically formulated for the proper life stage. Generally, protein and energy requirements decrease as cats and dogs mature, although it is more pronounced in dogs since cats are obligate carnivores and function better on a high-protein diet. However, geriatric dogs and cats may have higher protein, mineral and vitamin needs due to poorer nutrient absorption.
Another factor that can lead to an unbalanced diet is feeding lower-cost pet food with lower-quality ingredients. These low-cost foods are often made with filler ingredients and byproducts that are not only difficult to digest, but can also antagonize the absorption of key nutrients, especially trace minerals. These are common problems caused by high-fiber and high-phytase ingredients, like soybean meal.
Visit our pet nutrition page to learn more about how balanced nutrition and performance trace minerals can improve pet health and well-being.