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Why you should avoid feeding wheat and rice to your pet

Dogs and cats are carnivores by nature and are not equipped to digest grain-based food. Fresh meat diet is the way to go.

Daisy Tanwani with one of her cats Gattu, who eats grain-free food.
Daisy Tanwani with one of her cats Gattu, who eats grain-free food. (Daisy Tanwani)

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Daisy Tanwani, the founder and CEO at Pinklay, a homegrown lifestyle brand, brought her first dog home in 2016. She thought her dog, Uno, was doing well enough when suddenly—three-and-a-half years after she arrived—she developed a liver condition. "Despite all our efforts, we could not save her," says the Mumbai-based Tanwani. "She passed away ten months later."

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Tanwani began reading a lot about animal nutrition during those harrowing months, perusing journals and papers about it. "I realised what a huge role nutrition plays in animal well-being," she says, pointing out that adequate, good-quality protein is essential. "In the wild, cats and dogs don't typically eat grains," she says. "They hunt for smaller animals."

Today, all her fur babies—two cats and one puppy—avoid food with grain or fillers altogether. Instead, they get a mixture of grain-free commercial food and home cooked meals of vegetables and meat. The difference is perceptible, she believes, especially in her older cat, Maun. She now has a hearty appetite for her food, there is no smell in the litter box, and she is more active overall, says Tanwani. "I just did not want to repeat the mistakes I made with Uno," she says.

According to a report published in market intelligence and advisory firm Mordor Intelligence, there is a rising humanisation of pets in the country, which in turn, is driving the pet food industry in India. As a result, many companies are now releasing food with high-quality proteins and vitamins, gluten and GMO-free in response to this demand, points out the report. "With growing income, urbanisation and increasing health awareness, pet owners are shifting to premium and natural foods that are free of genetically modified organisms, artificial colours and flavours and aid in promoting good health of pets."

And there are takers, even though these foods are more expensive than regular commercial pet food. "Grain-free pet food is sometimes three times the cost of a regular one," agrees TV Shatru, a Chennai-based IT professional who shares his home with four cats — Bolt, Zuzu, Luna and Harley. "All my cats are grain-free," he says.

The decision stemmed from medical needs: Zuzu has a congenital megacolon condition, while Bolt suddenly developed an allergy to tuna. He cut out grains entirely from all their diets, preferring to feed them with a mixture of premium, grain-free wet and dry food instead. His cats, who once had frequent bouts of nausea, no longer do so since he changed their diets. Also, they don't overeat quite so much. "They are satisfied with a smaller amount of food," says Shatru.

Grain-free is definitely the way to go, agrees Lee Georgina, a Bengaluru-based canine holistic nutritionist and founder of Georgina's Kitchen."I recommend that dogs start a grain-free diet as soon as possible," she says.

She endorses a filler-free, fresh, meat-based diet instead, preferring to avoid kibble altogether. "Fresh is always more bio-available to the body, and dogs thrive on these diets," she says, adding that one should offer a range of meats and meat byproducts—organs, muscle meat, fats, fibre and bone - to their dogs, not just boneless chicken. "Each meat protein type has a set of nutrients that are beneficial," says Georgina, who believes that it is simple to make these healthful meals at homes.

Sohini Sasmal, whose beagle, Maze, is one of Georgina's clients, must agree. She adopted Maze, a rescue, around two years ago. "She was 23 kgs or something, highly overweight when rescued," recalls Sasmal, a Bengaluru-based account management professional and part-time home chef. Her rescuers had already put her on a grain-free diet; Sasmal, too, followed suit. "She is now 16 kgs," says Sasmal, adding that Maze only eats fresh home cooked meals comprising of meat and vegetables. "Kibble has a lot of junk, so I rather avoid it…even if it says grain-free."

However, in a country where politics, religion, identity and culture powerfully shape what we eat, the procurement and cooking of meat can be a struggle in many households. "You won't believe some of the horrendous diets I have seen my patients eat," says Dr Priyadarshini Govind, a Chennai-based veterinary surgeon. Inflicting our own dietary choices on an animal is a strict no-no in Dr Govind's books. "Yes, evolution has changed the domestic cat and dog, to an extent, but they still need to eat their meat," she says.

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Technically, cats and dogs are carnivores: equipped to only digest protein and fat, she says. However, they got their carbohydrates off the flesh of the herbivore when they consume the intestine, which will still contain remnants of partly-digested grass. "You can't put an animal on a zero-carbohydrate diet; they still need carbs in the form of fibre," she says.

She advocates, instead, a low-grain, balanced diet containing plenty of high-quality protein, some vegetables and a minimum quantity of grain for dogs (via commercial wet food or home cooked meals) along with some dry food. "During the growing stage, I prefer to maintain pups exclusively on commercial puppy food with healthy snacks of permitted fruit and vegetables," adds Dr Govind. It helps satisfy their micro and macro nutrient levels perfectly; it is harder to do so with home-cooked food.

Cats, on the other hand, don't need added grains at all. "You can feed them a balanced diet of either meat/ fish or wet food and some dry food," she says. It doesn't have to be premium or grain-free either, unless there is an underlying medical condition. Any good quality, middle-order dry food is fine as long as one monitors their fluid intake since this is a highly-concentrated, pelletised food, adds Dr Govind. However, grain-free should not become yet another food fad. "Different animals have different requirements. Spend some time with your vet and formulate what is best for yours," she says.

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