This is the second article in VetHelpDirect’s series on the five animal welfare needs. In this article, I will be looking into examples of why a suitable diet is important for the health and welfare of our pets, and what happens when this welfare need isn’t met. 

Table of contents

As a recap, the five welfare needs are to:

  • live in a suitable environment
  • eat a suitable diet
  • exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  • be housed with, or apart from, other animals
  • be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease

What do we mean by ‘the need for a suitable diet’?

This simply means that we are feeding our animals the correct food. This is essential for both their health and welfare. 

I have provided examples of a particular dietary need of three species below to illustrate the importance of a suitable diet. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of each species dietary needs – if you are thinking about getting one of these animals as pets, then I would recommend looking at VetHelpDirect and other sources of information for further information. 

Example – Cats and nutritionally balanced diets

Cats are obligate carnivores, this means they must have a meat-based diet (at least chemically). The main reason for this is because they require some specific nutrients not naturally found in plants, including preformed vitamin A and an amino acid called taurine.

Taurine is important for cats to maintain normal vision, digestion and function of the heart muscle. It also plays a critical role in maintaining the function of the immune system and in pregnancy. 

Amino acids, such as taurine, are the building blocks of protein. When an animal eats protein, it is broken down into individual amino acids before being absorbed by the digestive system. 

Some amino acids can be made from other amino acids, and this means that the animal does not need to eat protein containing these amino acids (as the body can make its own supply). However cats in particular cannot make taurine from other amino acids, so they need a constant supply in their diet.

Can cats be vegan?

This means that cats fed a diet without sufficient animal-based protein could suffer serious health issues. There have been concerns in recent years about owners wishing to feed their cats vegan diets, and the detrimental impacts this could have on the health of their pets. 

Recent research has shown that it might be possible to feed a cat a vegan diet BUT only if it has been supplemented with taurine and other essential nutrients that have been produced synthetically or extracted from plants. 

However, this research only included a small number (1,369) of cats, and it was based on owner observations of health, rather than objective veterinary data. The British Veterinary Association have advised that they will look into this further, but for now, they have urged owners who are contemplating a new diet for their pet to seek veterinary advice first.

What happens when this dietary need isn’t met?

Taurine deficiency in cats can lead to vision loss, poor functioning of the heart, and digestive disturbances. These symptoms usually take several months to appear, but if left untreated could lead to blindness, heart failure and death. 

Example – Dogs and puppies and nutritionally balanced diets

It is critical that dogs are fed a nutritionally balanced diet. There have been numerous case reports of owners attempting to feed their pet dogs ‘home-made’ diets, and this has resulted in serious disease as a result of nutritional imbalance.

This is most often seen in growing puppies who are fed insufficient amounts of calcium in their diet. Calcium is important to support bone growth, it is also critical for many other important functions such as muscle contraction and transmission of nerve signals.

Other abnormalities reported in puppies and dogs on home-made diets include hypovitaminosis D and vitamin A deficiency. These can also cause serious health issues.

What happens when this dietary need isn’t met?

If a puppy or dog is fed insufficient amounts of calcium, the body will start to remove calcium from the bones. 

This results in bone weakness and it increases the susceptibility of the animal to fractures.  Bone loss usually occurs first in the jaw bone, and can lead to tooth loss and periodontal disease. 

Here’s one example of a case study involving a young puppy fed a ‘home-made’ diet. The puppy suffered bone mineralization as well as muscle wastage and seizures. 

Although this is more common in growing puppies, who naturally need more calcium to support their growth, it has also been seen in adult dogs, such as in this case study of a six year old dog who suffered loss of bone mass from the skull. 

Another example of how small changes in the diet of dogs can lead to health issues is the more recently discovered link between ‘grain-free’ diets and heart disease in dogs. The FDA have been investigating this connection for a few years now and last year they stated that they believe the connection is not related to ‘grain-free’ diets exclusively, but diets with legume seed ingredients, also called “pulses” (e.g., peas, lentils, etc.). However, we still don’t know the scientific basis of the link. 

Example – Guinea Pigs and vitamin C

Just like with us humans, guinea pigs cannot synthesise their own vitamin C. This is because they lack a certain enzyme. This means they need a consistent supply of dietary vitamin C. 

Vitamin C is important for healthy skin and mucosal surfaces such as gums, it’s also important for healthy joints and it plays an important role in wound healing. 

To ensure they get enough vitamin C in their diet, guinea pigs’ should be fed a balanced diet of fresh greens and vegetables, pellet (usually only a table-spoon), and quality forage / hay.

The greens and vegetables are the most important source of vitamin C. The PDSA advises feeding one teacup of greens and veg, per guinea pig, per day, which can be split into morning and evening feeds (see PDSA’s guide for more information).  

Pellets for guinea pigs are usually supplemented with vitamin C. But warm conditions or direct sunlight can result in breakdown of the vitamin C. Pellets will also naturally lose vitamin C overtime, so they need to be stored correctly and replaced regularly. 

Whilst quality hay/forage isn’t an important source of vitamin C, it is vital for dental health. A guinea pig’s teeth will grow continuously throughout their lifetime. Chewing and grinding down hay and forage helps to wear the teeth down, and stop them from overgrowing. 

What happens when this dietary need isn’t met?

Guinea pigs that lack vitamin C can develop a condition called scurvy. Guinea pigs with scurvy present with swollen joints, difficulty walking and/or skin infections. If Guinea Pigs lack vitamin C in their diet they will also be present with a poor hair coat, inappetance, diarrhoea and bruising and ulcers on their gums, they are also more prone to developing other diseases and infections. 

Conclusion

Hopefully I’ve managed to illustrate why a suitable diet is a critical welfare need for our pets. An incorrect or inadequate diet can result in health issues, which in turn can lead to poor welfare due to the resultant suffering. A correct diet can also help the animal to exhibit natural behaviour, by mimicking the diet they would eat in the wild. 

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