We are a nation of dog lovers, the numbers tell us so – a quarter of households have dogs and the UK has a canine population of around eight million.
But could we be slowly poisoning the animals we adore, feeding them poor quality meat laden with chemicals that will inevitably lead to arthritis, weight gain and diabetes?
That’s the question posed by a new Channel 5 series The Truth About Your Dog’s Food which starts tonight and will explore exactly what’s going into Fido’s bowl.
Our dogs are certainly getting sicker and pet company Abbot Animal Health estimates one in 500 dogs in the UK will develop diabetes while a 2011 US study found that diabetes in dogs had increased by 46 per cent since 2005, compared to 28 per cent in humans. Meanwhile, a third of our dogs are overweight.
Is our dogs’ condition a reflection of the poor state of our own health or is the very diet we feed our four-legged friends the culprit?
Dog food manufacturers say indulgent dog owners are to blame, slipping their pets too many fattening treats and not giving them enough exercise. But an increasingly vocal group says the domestic dog should eat an all-raw diet of red meat and bones – just like its wild ancestors.
Choosing healthy, nutritious canine cuisine is clearly something of a minefield.
The idea of giving our dogs raw meat is based on what their ancestors ate before they became domesticated but can we really compare today’s dogs with wolves?
“There is no ‘best’ food for dogs,” she says. “It’s an individual matter and what’s great for my dog might make your dog fat or give him allergies or aggravate pancreatitis.”
Yet a growing minority believes the best food for dogs involves swapping tinned, processed food for an entirely raw diet.
Adherents of the BARF (bones and raw food) diet claim it improves dogs’ wellbeing, stabilises their weight, prevents allergies and arthritis, improves oral health and boosts energy.
“The debate can become so heated that we forget about the dog and it becomes a faith-based discussion instead of looking at the facts,” says Kristina.
“The idea of giving our dogs raw meat is based on the food their ancestors ate before they became domesticated. But can we really compare today’s dogs with wolves?
“Dogs are made through human selection, we don’t have wild prey available plus the nutrient profile of our farmed animals is very different to wild animals.”
She says that just because your dog looks and seems healthy now, it doesn’t mean his diet isn’t causing long-term problems. “Nutritional deficiencies can take years to show up but may be irreversible when they do.”
Bacteria has also become a battleground as some raw pet food manufacturers pasteurise their food to kill bad bugs such as salmonella and E.coli, however this also kills most of the good bacteria.
So what should a confused dog owner do? Kristina says: “Many professionals condemn raw food as dangerous but many passionate raw feeders suggest it’s the safest and most nutritious way to feed your dog – the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
“I’m not against a raw food diet but it’s not the best diet for every dog or every household – such a diet doesn’t exist.”
It’s yet to become clear how popular the BARF diet will become and for now the vast majority of dog owners give their pet tinned meat or dry food. And all would be horrified to imagine they were unwittingly harming their four-legged friend.
“There are dog food companies that take great care in choosing the ingredients for their food,” says Kristina.
But there are some key guidelines to follow when shopping for commercial dog food and studying the ingredients list is crucial.
Choose high quality meat protein and steer clear of ingredients that aren’t specific enough, for instance look out for named animal sources such as beef fat, or lamb meal rather than just “animal fat”.
The food should contain 30 per cent carbohydrate and if grains are mentioned, make sure they’re whole grains such as brown rice.
Avoid anything containing corn or wheat gluten meal and soy protein, meat by-products (although meal is alright), the artificial preservatives BHA, BHT or Ethoxyquin and anything containing artificial colours, sugars and sweeteners.
A well-balanced diet could have a radical affect on a dog’s short and long-term health. “No diet can be guaranteed to prevent all disease,” Kristina says.
“But diets providing a low amount of carbohydrates, moderate amounts of high quality protein and moderately high amounts of fats, especially Omega-3s, could even help prevent cancer.”