This week was particularly fun for me. I was helping another zoo with their collection diets. The vast majority of zoos in the U.S don't have nutritionists, let alone a nutrition laboratory. You can hear me blab about this topic on the video on our page:
What I found so entertaining about this week was that this particular zoo had a much smaller collection than ours but many of the same species. Their diets however, were very different than ours...consisting of different ingredients all together. When I analyzed them, the nutrients fell out where they needed to for the majority of the diets. How could their diets be so different yet nutritionally sufficient?
With domestic species we have the luxury of having known nutrient requirements to follow. All we need to do for dogs and cats is match those nutrient requirements with nutrients in ingredients and ta-da...we have a petfood. That luxury is one I don't have at the zoo. We don't know nutrient requirements for the vast majority of species that we manage in zoological institutions. Yet, zoos have been rather successful at managing endangered species for decades (some much better than others). So, how can that be? Luck or is there some magical secret formula that zoos use to feed their animals?
Although it's not magical, there is something that zoo's do very different in their approach to nutrition that we don't see with domestics and it's called VARIETY. It never fails I show up to work one day and our hospital staff tells me we've just received an animal that I've never heard of that needs a diet. Think about that...being challenged with an animal you've never heard of (Hadada ibis comes to mind), no known nutrient requirements to compare to and it needs a diet...NOW. All I can tell you is Thank God for Google. Thankfully, ecologists and biologists have studied most of the animal kingdom in enough detail to at least tell me what these animals eat in the wild. Then there is usually someone that's looked at a dead one to tell me what the animal looks like on the inside. In other words is it put together like a cow, a chicken, a horse, a dog, a cat, etc...? From there the challenge starts. The piece that's lacking is actually in understanding the nutrient profiles of those items the animals are eating in the wild. That's where variety comes in handy. We can't obtain the very same fish that the Fishing Cat is eating in the wild but we can get a variety of fish. Rather than just try one, we'll use several different types in order to better try and match the "unknown". "Fruits" from Madagascar are VERY different than an apple and a banana here in the U.S. so we use a variety of "seasonal fruits" and "seasonal vegetables" to provide a more rounded nutrient profile to our lemur species.
So, why then do we still stick to the "one" diet rule for our pets? I struggle with that concept. If we can feed variety that changes daily to our exotic species, knowing that it helps them behaviorally and nutritionally, why can't we do it for dogs and cats? There is no rule that says you can't, in fact, you should. Let's think about the natural history of our domestic dogs. They were domesticated and evolved alongside humans. They were not domesticated on the diets that exist today, they were domesticated with "leftovers" and "scraps". Dogs are an incredible species truly designed and adapted to deal with variety. Cats also evolved with humans but the difference was that they thrived on the fact that civilization brought with it, pests. Cats evolved to still consume whole prey and raw meat. They continue to be obligate carnivores having a significantly higher protein requirement than dogs (among other unique nutrient requirements). I'm sure the topic of dogs and wolves will be another blog post as it always brings up a lot of controversy.
If you've ever been told that you should only feed your dog or cat one diet, I hope you'll consider throwing that out the window. If you could talk to my dogs and ask them to recall what they ate over the last week, they'd be challenged to think of everything. I feed raw (various meats), produce, grains (oatmeal, some pasta, etc...), whole prey, raw meaty bones, and I do feed a variety of canned and kibble foods and often at the same time. Do I see digestive upsets? RARELY...and I do mean that quite literally. My dogs, and cat are so used to a rotated and varied diet that their guts do extremely well.
I will stick up for vets here simply because you need to recognize that they get to see the sick ones. My vet gets to only see my dogs when I want blood work done or they need a rabies vaccination or teeth cleaned. I guarantee that he'd never recommend how I feed to his typical pet client; however, he's certainly never argued with me that my dogs are just darn healthy. If animals have not been exposed to varied diets, it is difficult for their guts to keep up with the change which then results in digestive upset and unhappy veterinarians. Variety should be added slowly to allow the gut time to compensate for the changes. This means that the microflora in the gut must adapt to this change and that takes some time to develop.
There are animals that just can't handle variety for one reason or another; however, the vast majority of pets would be behaviorally and metabolically healthier on a varied or rotated diet. It can simply mean you rotate kibble diets. Chicken meal used in 1 company's petfood is not exactly the same as the chicken meal from another company and certainly formulations are different. Simply alternating diets between and among petfood companies will help add to the overall nutrition of your pet.