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A real ‘dog’s dinner’?

DOG FOOD has been put under the media spotlight again, particularly now thatit has bene revealed that the 50% of the UK's pets are clinically obese - along with many of their owners.

Journalist Jonathan Bray considered the matter in Monday's edition of The Independent, building on the latest pet obesity news that the PDSA is currently ruinning a campaign to find the UK's fattest pets and send them to a 'Fat Camp', which will be the latest 'reality TV' series to be secreened as the pets - and their owners - attempt to slim down.

Bray writes: "As a dog-owner myself, I was prompted to question the dietary regime of my Tibetan terrier, Tessa. Ever since she was a puppy, like the majority of Europe's 44 million dog-owners I fed her a series of commercial pet foods. Such is the ubiquity of prepared foods that it is difficult to imagine that the UK's £1.5bn market for pet food was largely non-existent before the 1950s. Prior to this, dogs were largely fed on a diet of kitchen scraps and, by all accounts, survived quite happily."

Although a staggering amount of research has gone into the composition of prepared feeds since James Spratt first introduced commercial dog biscuits in the 1860s, their basic appearance has not changed.

"True, modern feeds have dramatically improved the health and life expectancy of our furred populations, yet I always feel a pang of guilt when measuring out Tessa's daily ration of desiccated pellets - which I inevitably alleviate by adding a choice titbit from my own food," says Bray

Dr Freda Scott-Park, president of the British Veterinary Association, advises that while kitchen scraps are fine per se, it is important to regulate calorie intake. "It's easy to overfeed if you're giving the dog its standard allowance of diet and then kitchen scraps on top. Sad to say, the nation's dog population is actually going the way of the country's humans, and getting fatter and fatter."

Bray continues: "Our shared love of food is perhaps why the dog remains man's best friend. Tessa and I both love bacon sandwiches and lick our lips if a sausage is being barbecued anywhere within a 100-mile radius. Yet, for Tessa, these remain illicit pleasures, fleeting escapes from a diet whose main ingredients are "dried beef pulp" and "chicken digest". The other components of the prepared pet foods in the supermarkets are more "meat by-products" (which covers such delights as viscera and factory floor-scrapings), salt, sugar, starch and "fillers". Surely fresh, natural food would be a better alternative, or a healthy supplement, to these highly preserved, mass-produced commercial brands?

"According to the BVA, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with preparing food for pets, so long as owners follow a few basic guidelines. Raw meat should be avoided, due to the risk from pathogens such as the salmonella bacteria occasionally present in chicken. Small or cooked bones should never be given because of the risk of splintering, which can lead to internal damage; whereas a large, raw marrow bone is fine. Bread, too, is unsuitable as it tends to cling to the animal's teeth and cause decay and periodontal disease. The real offender, however, is chocolate.

"Milk chocolate is highly poisonous to dogs: just a pound of it is enough to kill a 20lb animal. Worst of all, dogs love it. Tessa has been rushed to the vet after wolfing a whole chocolate orange, and as a child my annual Easter egg hunt gained a frisson of danger from the necessity of finding the eggs before the dog did. But these considerations aside, cooking your own canine cuisine is perfectly possible and increasingly popular. The problem is that many people do not understand the demands of their animal's diet.

According to Sarah Heath, a leading animal behaviourist, the cornerstone of a mutt's meal should be nutrition, not aesthetics. "Dogs are not little people," she stresses. "Our worries about a diet being bland come from a human context. They are not interested in variation." Owners should think twice before abandoning commercial feeds, which are tailor-made to provide the correct nutritional content. "We have to be careful not to put human values and emotions onto what's important for the dog - and that's a balanced diet."

Elisabeth Matell, the breeder and co-owner of Co-Co this year's Best in Show at Crufts is typical of the dog owner who succssfully combines a diet of commercial pet food with home prepared food for her dogs and has been personally cooking her dogs' dinners for years. "I feed them an old-fashioned biscuit called Laughing Dog, as well as pasta, rice, cooked beef and chicken," she explains. "But I also cheat; I also use Pedigree Chum."

Bray observes: "Her beef-and-vegetable stew is enough to make any dog feel hot under the collar, yet it is the ethical and environmental benefits of home-prepared feed which particularly appeal to her. "I don't believe in feeding packaged rabbit droppings to my dogs. It's not that they have never had a handful of it, but I believe in proper food that's as natural as possible so that I can see what I'm giving them."

Bray concludes: "Increasingly, it is these environmental and ethical factors that are persuading green-minded consumers to reconsider their choice of dog and cat feed. Even for the majority of pet-owners who will not switch their animal to a home-cooked diet, choosing food which is both nutritionally and ethically responsible is no easy task."