When you get a kitten or puppy, you soon realise your home (and life) has changed forever, mostly in an amazing, but sometimes not-so-amazing, way -- goodbye house plants, fragile homewares, favourite shoes, pristine carpets and disturbance-free nights.
And when it comes to feeding those cute yet cheeky critters, it's important you're giving them the right foods, and making sure any toxic foods or objects are out of harm's way.
What should I feed my dog?
Domesticated dogs are largely carnivores who eat some plant foods. With so many options in the supermarket and pet shops, it can be confusing to find the right food for your dog. However, there is an easy method to follow.
"The first thing to consider is that every dog (and cat) has different nutritional needs depending on their stage of life, just like humans," Bronwyn Orr, veterinarian and scientific officer at RSPCA Australia, told HuffPost Australia. "When they're a puppy they need very different food from when they're an adult, or when they're a geriatric or older dog.
"The best way to ensure your dog gets the appropriate nutrition is to go with a 'complete' and high-quality commercial food.
"That's what we recommend, because nutrition is a very complex area. We know from humans that there's many facets to nutrition, and the average pet owner is not going to have the time to do all the necessary research and make sure their animal's food is balanced."
To go one step further, Joanne Sillince, managing director at Pets Australia, recommends dog (and cat) owners look for the AAFCO stamp when shopping for feed.
"AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials) has 40 years of research on what cats and dogs should eat for each physiological stage -- junior, growth, adult, senior, lactation and pregnancy," Sillince told HuffPost Australia.
"The AAFCO requirements can be found in any food that has the legal terms 'complete food/feed' or 'meets AAFCO requirements' on the label.
"If you buy pet food products with these legal statements on them, you are guaranteed to meet the minimum requirements for protein, carbohydrate, fats, fibre, vitamins and minerals (the last two being the tricky bit, as they tend to interact with each other and you have sophisticated computer programs working those levels out)."
The complex nature of canine and feline nutrition is why both Sillince and Orr don't recommend homemade feed.
"Surprisingly, so many people in developed countries choose to ignore that and prefer 'Dr Google' diets or their own. Did you know that 90 plus percent of 'home-cooked diets' are unbalanced and not good for the animal in the long-term?" Sillince said.
"This is why, if you go for a really high-quality commercially-prepared food which is balanced, you can make sure that your dog gets the appropriate nutrition," Orr added.
"Ask your vet as they will know many brands and will be able to recommend one based on your and your pet's needs."
Pet owners should also take into account any underlying medical condition the pet may have.
"The other important thing is that, although there are different life stages, if your dog has any underlying disease, there are different diets suited to that."
You can also offer some natural foods to provide some variety, RSPCA explained. Natural foods include fresh human-grade raw meat (e.g. raw lamb), raw meaty bones and finely-cut vegetables. However, you should check with your vet first to see if raw meaty bones are suitable for your particular dog. And avoid feeding too much raw meat off the bone to puppies to avoid certain nutritional deficiencies during growth.
Tips for choosing the best dog or cat food:
- Look for the words 'complete' and 'balanced' on the packaging
- Look for the AAFCO or Australian Standard: Manufacturing and Marketing Pet Food AS5812:2011 label to ensure the food meets minimum dietary requirements
- Avoid home-cooked diets
- Ask your vet for help
- Take into account any underlying diseases or medical condition your pet may have
What foods can't dogs eat?
While chocolate is the first toxic food which comes to mind, there is a huge list of food dogs shouldn't eat. Keep these in mind especially if you feed your dog leftover food or food scraps -- looking at you, spag bol.
Never feed dogs: cooked bones (as they can splinter and cause gastrointestinal damage), onions, onion powder, garlic, chocolate, coffee or caffeine products, mouldy or spoiled foods or compost, avocado, bread dough, yeast dough, grapes, raisins, sultanas (including in desserts), currants, nuts (including macadamia nuts), fruit stones and pits, fruit seeds, corncobs, green unripe tomatoes and potatoes, mushrooms, fish constantly, cooked bones, fatty trimmings/fatty foods, salt, xylitol (found in many sugar-free chewing gum, lollies, baking goods, toothpaste and sugar-free peanut butter).
"The darker the chocolate the more toxic it is. Grapes and raisins also aren't good for dogs and cats," Orr said.
"One thing many people aren't aware of is xylitol, which is an artificial sweetener. The biggest risk for dog owners is that many of the reduced-calorie peanut butter, which is a great training treat, contain xylitol, so you have to be careful and check the packaging.
"Also consider anything that can cause an obstruction, for example small bones, cooked bones and mango seeds."
And don't forget about roughly cut vegetables, cooked or otherwise.
"They are often too big to get through the sphincter at the bottom of the stomach for digestion in the small intestine and tend to get vomited back up. Mince them instead if you are feeding your dogs veg," Sillince said.
What should I feed my cat?
Cats are obligate or 'true' carnivores, meaning they need to eat animal protein to survive.
According to Orr and Sillince, the same approach toward dogs' nutrition also applies to cats -- always get advice from your vet, choose the 'complete' and 'balanced' products, and take into account any underlying conditions they may have.
"The other thing to keep in mind with cats is they are really sensitive to deficiencies of a vitamin called taurine. A cat can get very sick if you feed it dog food long-term as many don't have taurine in sufficient levels," Orr explained.
According to the RSPCA, you can offer raw meat and raw meaty bones to cats 1-2 times per week, but they should always be fresh and human-grade as many pet meat, mince and bones products contain harmful preservatives. Also avoid sausages, sausage meat and cooked manufactured or deli meats as they can contain sulphite preservatives.
"Don't feed your cat tinned tuna all the time because it's not a complete food, and be careful of some pet meats as they use a type of preservative which actually degrades the thiamine in the meat over time. That's why we say it's not worth the risk and to buy a high-quality commercial food."
If you do give your cats raw bones, remember: the raw bone must be large enough so the cat cannot fit the whole bone in its mouth or swallow the bone whole, and always supervise cats when they eat raw bones. RSPCA also suggests avoiding large marrow bones, large knuckle bones or bones sawn lengthwise as cats may crack their teeth.
What foods can't cats eat?
As with dogs, there are many foods cats cannot eat, along with numerous plants and objects.
"You need to be careful of lilies, which a lot of people have as cut flowers in their house, as they are toxic to cats," Orr said.
"The other things to watch out for in cats and kittens are medication, and any long linear body -- string, yarn, dental floss -- as when ingested there's a high risk of causing an obstruction.
"In terms of diet, cats are pretty fussy (they are primarily carnivores) so if you tried to offer them vegetables they probably won't take them.
"In all situations, your vet is your number one source of information on diet and health for your pet, so just have a chat with them."
Never feed cats: cooked bones, onions, onion powder, garlic, chocolate, coffee or caffeine products, mouldy or spoiled foods or compost, bread dough, yeast dough, avocado, grapes, raisins, sultanas (including in Christmas cakes etc.), currants, nuts, fruit stones and pits, fruit seeds, corncobs, tomatoes, mushrooms, fish constantly, small pieces of raw bone or fatty trimmings/fatty foods, salt, string wrappings around rolled roasts, or absorbent pads found under meat when wrapped on trays.
Dog and cat diet myth busting
1. Cats can't eat dog food, but dogs can eat cat food -- true. "Cats need an additional protein, taurine, in their feed. Dogs manufacture their own," Sillince said.
2. Grain-free food is good -- false. "Dogs are actually only semi-carnivores, and balancing diets with grains (particularly for fibre) is a good thing. High-protein 'all meat' diets can result in smelly poo, constipation and pressure on kidneys if fine balancing isn't undertaken. A cat's tolerance to grain is a lot lower than dogs ... but remember that prey (rabbits, rats, mice birds and small mammals) almost universally have grains and seeds in their guts. It's all about balance."
3. Homemade diets are good -- false. "Almost all are unbalanced in calcium to phosphorus ratio and vitamin to mineral ratios, and many are low-fibre as well."
4. Dogs can eat vegetarian diets -- partially true. "These are often unbalanced unless all the ratios are carefully managed -- you need the computer program to get it right."
5. Cats can eat vegetarian diets -- false. "Cats are obligate carnivores and need high-quality protein from meat sources, including taurine (and often B2 as well) for optimal health. Vets get sick vegetarian or vegan animals presented every year. It's cruelty if the animal is not fed proper food. I respect the right of humans to choose diets based on philosophy, but pets don't have choices."
6. Treats can be given in moderation -- partially false. "The vast majority of treats contain excess salt or sugar. A small piece of cheese or an egg is a better treat."
7. Chicken wings are okay as treats -- false. "The bones in chicken wings are prone to splintering and piercing internal organs."
8. Table scraps are okay for dogs -- often true. "Oddly enough, different table scraps over time can result in a relatively balanced diet, but not bones, no onions and no large veg."