What should I feed my pet?

By Dr Megan Kelly

What should I feed my pet?

There are so many different foods available for pets these days that it can be confusing to know what the “right” food is.

This article is intended to give an overview of all the different foods on the market. The decision as to what to feed is ultimately yours in the end. Remember what’s “right” for your pets is not necessarily right for another.

When looking at pet food, whether pelleted, tinned or sachets, your premium brands are usually available from your vet or vet shop and economy brands available from your supermarket.

Types of foods available

1. Veterinary pelleted and tinned commercial pet foods
i) Containing grains and cereals
ii) Containing no grains or cereals, but fruit and vegetables
iii) Prescription diets

2. Supermarket pelleted and tinned commercial pet foods

3. BARF – biologically appropriate raw food (meat, bones, fruit and vegetables)

4. Home cooked or packaged pet food – meat, vegetables, rice, herbs etc.

Dogs have only been fed commercial foods for the last 40 years. Before this they were fed homemade foods consisting of table or meal scraps. This often resulted in deficiencies in minerals and vitamins e.g. calcium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc.

Veterinary pelleted and tinned commercial pet foods

Veterinary nutritionists developed scientifically tested commercial pet foods now sold worldwide to provide all the essential nutrients, prevent deficiencies and decrease the risk of diseases. These foods provide various diets made for specific breeds, ages and sizes. There are even foods made for specific health conditions which can help in your pets’ chronic treatment. E.g. diets for kidney disease, diabetes or joint disease.

Supermarket pelleted and tinned commercial pet foods

We are now offered more choices within the pelleted range of commercial foods. Below are the first ten ingredients found in a popular pelleted brand of pet food.

Chicken Meal, Cracked Pearled Barley, Whole Grain Wheat, Pork Meal, Whole Grain Corn, Whole Grain Sorghum, Corn Gluten Meal, Animal Fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols and citric acid), Chicken Liver Flavor.

When looking at what is in foods, the ingredients are listed in descending order of weight. For example this food’s main ingredient is chicken meal. There are also grains such as barley, sorghum and corn present in this food.

Some new pet food brands have emerged excluding grains or specific grains. Below are the first ten ingredients of a similar age group in this new pet food brand.

Chicken meal, steel-cut oats, deboned chicken, whole potato, peas, whole egg, deboned flounder, chicken fat, sun-cured alfalfa, chicken liver, herring oil.

We can see this food only contains oats but no other grains. Some believe that dogs and cats were not meant to eat grains and cereals on a daily basis. Wheat, barley, corn and maize are staple base diets for the modern world. But the question is, are high grain diets correct for our pets’ digestive systems? Those not in favour of pets eating grains argue that wild dogs do not eat grains or cereals.

Dogs are non-obligate carnivores. This means they have a preference for meat but can have omnivorous characteristics and are able to digest carbohydrate-based foods in very small quantities. Cats are however obligate or strict carnivores. They are not able to digest carbohydrates. So why do some cat pelleted foods contain carbohydrates?

As with people, pets may also suffer from allergies and food hypersensitivities. With the move to gluten-free diets for people we now have this option for our pets.

These new pelleted food companies claim their foods are designed to be closer to what one would describe as a more natural diet, nourishing dogs and cats according to their evolutionary adaptation to meat and protein-rich foods. They focus on fresh ingredients which are preservative-free, and cooking the ingredients at lower temperatures to preserve vitamins and nutrients.

Tinned foods and sachets often come with rich, fatty gravies. They generally have higher meat content but may contain processed meats and products.


BARF stands for Bones and Raw Food or Biologically appropriate raw food. Dogs and cats in the wild live off whole carcasses which include internal organs, and the stomach contents of partially digested vegetation. BARF advocates believe BARF feeding to be close to how nature intended dogs and cats to eat. The food is fed raw. BARF diets in 1kg or 500g packs are available from a number of suppliers all over South Africa. Foods often used are chicken wings, necks, minced meats, eggs, liver, heart, fish, vegetables, fruit, garlic, herbs. No grains or rice are in these diets.

Home cooked or packaged pet food – meat, vegetables, rice, herbs etc.

The last main group includes foods similar to the BARF but also includes a large percent of rice or oats. The meat can either be raw or cooked.

When choosing a food for your pet one needs to consider your pet as an individual. Research thoroughly into all the options available to you so that you can make an educated decision what is best for your pet. I have made a check list of points I consider important as well as my personal choices of foods in order of preference.

Dr Kelly’s checklist for choosing what to feed your pet:

1. Always feed a balanced complete diet whether it’s homemade or a commercial diet. By balanced I mean food that contains all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients your dog or cat needs. If you don’t know if your food is balanced please ask your vet.
2. Feed fresh foods
3. Feed foods free from preservatives
4. Feed organic where possible
5. Is the main ingredient in the food you’re feeding a good quality protein?
6. Avoid foods with high grain contents choosing preferably no grain options.
7. Feed foods containing human grade meats and vegetables. Not the left overs the butcher or supermarket doesn’t want.

List of foods Dr Kelly recommends from her first to her last choice:

1. Homemade, Raw (barf) food diet BALANCED
2. Commercial Raw (barf) food diet (should be BALANCED)
3. Cooked homemade or commercially prepared food BALANCED
4. Commercial pelleted foods with no grains
5. Premium veterinary canned foods
6. Premium veterinary pelleted foods
7. Supermarket canned foods
8. Supermarket pelleted foods
9. Homemade raw or cooked food which is UNBALANCED.

Always remember to consult your veterinarian when changing your pet’s food. One needs to take into consideration any health issues that your pet may have.

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