Companion Animal Nutrition Overview

By Nickie Scott

The beginning blogs on this subject will slowly lay a foundation of general scientific knowledge about the physiology, anatomy, pathology and nutritional requirements for animal health so that caretakers can make knowledgeable decisions about maintaining the health of their companion animals. There is a lot of conflicting information on the internet about the health requirement needs of companion animals and many people are looking for specific information that relates to some already existent pathological condition that their animal companion is experiencing. Without a basic understanding of what the animals requirements for maintaining homeostasis are we will not be able to make informed decisions on how to best promote general health and balance for the animals under our stewardship. Our first subject will be nutrition for companion animals. Let’s face it. The reason that animals form a bond with humans is not based on petting alone. Easy access to food and safe shelter are the main reasons that animals form this cross species bond. The first known domestication of animals happened around 13,000 BC and started with the dog (canis lupus familiaris) in east asia. Some 4,500 years later the domestication of cats (felis silvestris lybica) started in the fertile crescent around 8,000 BC. It wasn’t until 3,600 BC that the horse (equs caballus) started to be domesticated in what is now known as Kazakhstan. Domesticated dogs helped humans protect themselves from predators and helped to herd food animal herds. Until the dawn of processed animal food in 1860 by James Spratt of London, England domesticated dogs mainly lived off of table scraps or remnants of the hunt. Cats generally would eat the rodents that feed off of the grain humans stored  but were also feed table scraps. Horses grazed the areas of their confinement and were supplemented with dried grasses when possible. While dogs and cats were enticed by the easy access to food and comfortable shelter, horses were basically enslaved for the benefit of humans. Maybe this is why their domestication started at a much later date then dogs and cats. It is much easier to entice a dog with food then a cat and even harder to entice a horse with food unless they are starving and conditioned to accepting food from humans.

Now that we know a little of the history of our intercession with domesticated animals we can start with the basic science of nutrition. Nutrition is defined as the process of providing or obtaining the food necessary for health and growth. Nutrients are defined as, a substance that provides nourishment essential for the growth and maintenance of life. Nutrients provide the energy that all living beings need to produce the work of the cells and provide the building blocks that the body needs to maintain its structure. The source of all nutrients that the body needs come from one place, the earth. The energy that the nutrients contain to do work comes from one place, the sun. Since we can not eat the sun to get energy to do work we must have an intermediary to gather and store this energy in a form that can be transformed into an energy source that we can use as living animals and that intermediary is plants. Plants gather the energy of the sun and utilize it for their own growth and function and store the remainder as chlorophyll and oils. Plants gather elements of the earth up through their roots along with water and produce oxygen that other living beings need to spark the metabolic processes of the body. Livings beings then consume the plant material and break down the plant into an assimilable size so that we can use the energy and building blocks that were provided by the sun and earth or they eat the animal that has eaten the plant.  Each living being has specific nutritional needs based upon the structural, environmental and work requirement of that particular life form. Since we are looking at only three specific animals we will need to know what the requirements are for each of these animals. Each type of animal is unique and has its own nutritional requirement as a species. Within each species there are also specific nutritional requirements based on size, genetics, environment, age, work habits and pathological imbalances. Each animal is a bio-individual so when we look at the nutritional requirements for the animal we must take all of these factors under consideration if we are to make wise choices in what we feed to our animal companions. Currently most of the information we have about animal nutrition for dogs, cats and horses are provided by the AAFCO. The Association of American Feed Control Officials Inc. reports it’s scientific findings to the FDA which then regulates pet food only when necessary to protect the general public, environment or poses a risk to the health of the animal. The AAFCO is a corporation not a government agency but it sets minimum requirements for pet food. It’s members are not required to follow these guidelines. We also get information from university studies on companion animal nutrient requirements but those studies are funded by the pet food industry or government grants. We would generally need to look at veterinary college studies to get information that is not subverted by the requirements of a desired outcome by the entity that is funding the study. Just as we see dietary fads in human nutrition we also see dietary fads in what people feed their animal companions. Each of these dietary fads probably contains some truth as well as some myth or incomplete information. Were are we to turn to find the knowledge we need to make intelligent choices on what to feed our companions? I think that the first place to start is learn more about what the bodies requirements are is to learn more about what nutrients are, where they come from and how they function in the body. In our next blog we will begin to lay the ground work of nutritional elements and where they come from. Once we know the basic chemical composition of nutrients we can look at how these nutrients enter into the body and get delivered to the cells. We will then look at bio-individual needs that are based on breed, environment, work levels, and pathological conditions. Once we know these basic subjects in nutrition we will look at the nutrients that are available to us, their manufacturing processes, quality and economics of nutrition. By the end of this subject we should have a clearer picture of how we can promote health through correct feeding that stays within the budget that we have available to us to feed our companions.