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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

What are you feeding your best friend? A look into raw, organic pet food

In much the same way that producers of food for human consumption are in the business of making vast profits, so too are pet food producers

Particular care needs to be taken when it comes to the diets of animals in the UAE. Courtesy Furchild
Particular care needs to be taken when it comes to the diets of animals in the UAE. Courtesy Furchild

It is bad enough working out what we should be putting into our own mouths sometimes. Every day we are bombarded with conflicting reports from scientists and nutritionists, extolling or condemning particular dietary habits. Who can we trust for accurate, informed and impartial advice? Often, it’s all too much and we end up just doing what we have always done.

What, though, of our so-called best friends? The animals we provide sanctuary to – our pets. Have you stopped to consider just what it is you are serving up in their bowls every day? Most owners tend to find a brand their pets devour with gusto and stick with it. After all, they cannot communicate with us via normal methods, so if they eat it all up, it is best to not complicate matters by changing their diets, right?

I carried out a quick survey in a Dubai supermarket, in which I asked people in the pet food section whether they paid any attention to the ingredients contained within those cheerful bags and boxes of dried and processed foods. Eighteen customers quizzed, one answer between the lot – a resounding no. It turns out that brand loyalty is king, because surely a company that has been producing this stuff for decades will know what it is doing.

Yet in much the same way that producers of food for human consumption are in the business of making vast profits, so too are pet food producers. If you are feeling a bit queasy, you might want to skip a couple of paragraphs. Otherwise, read on and consider some of the common ingredients that go into the grinders that begin the pet food manufacturing process. These include slaughterhouse waste (animal organs, heads, hooves, beaks, feet), cereal mill sweepings, dying, diseased and disabled farm animals, road kill, spoiled and rotten supermarket food, euthanised cats and dogs (often including their collars and identity tags), restaurant waste food and oils, plastics and dead zoo animals. Yummy, right?

Toxic waste and pesticides frequently end up entering the manufacturing process, too, and when we consider what we are basically forcing our pets to eat, it is little surprise that so many of them suffer from cancer and other chronic diseases. After reading that list, it might seem that the pet food industry is nothing more than a brightly packaged method of waste disposal.

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Read more:

Healthy pet food delivery service Furchild comes to the UAE

UAE residents share stories of their rescue cats

Cat welfare can boost tourism, say volunteers for successful Abu Dhabi programme

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“It is important to note that not all brands are so inclined,” says Amanda, a British veterinary surgeon in Dubai who asked that her full name not be revealed (the reason for this request soon becomes obvious). “But some of the biggest, most established and trusted names in pet food are complicit in the illnesses we end up treating in our surgeries. It is often a vicious circle because many vets, even here, act as sales agents for certain big brands, while knowing full well that pet owners are buying on misplaced trust. The practice I work in is as guilty of this as any other – we are paid to push products many of us do not personally believe in.”

So is this a similar situation to that which exists in so-called “big pharma” and the food industry for humans, which has recently been rocked by revelations that nutrition report authors and even doctors are in the pockets of junk food manufacturers?

“Definitely,” she says. “It is so prevalent in the pet food world that it is practically impossible for owners to know what is in those packets, even when it is labelled as organic.”

However, one company in Dubai is determined to do what it can to change this situation. Furchild Pet Nutrition recently began trading in the city’s Al Quoz area, and was founded by Rob Kelly and Katherine Cebrowski, who in 2013 discovered that their newly acquired English bulldog, Maximus, was in poor health.

“Soon after we took him in,” says Cebrowski, “he became ill. He was lethargic, his coat started falling out and he appeared to be allergic to different environments. No matter how often we took him to the vet, his health never improved to any great degree.”

Furchild food is made from halal meats ethically sourced from around the world. Courtesy Furchild
Furchild food is made from halal meats ethically sourced from around the world. Courtesy Furchild

Understandably distressed, they took matters into their own hands and conducted their own research, eventually realising that Max’s diet was to blame. “We thought we were feeding him the best food on the market – a mix of dry ‘kibble’ and wet pet food. We were completely unaware of the harmful additives and preservatives in the food we were giving him, and the way the industry misinforms on a vast scale. So we replaced this food with raw ingredients, the kind of food that dogs are, if we think about it, supposed to be eating.”

Cebrowski says Max’s health showed almost immediate signs of improvement, with his appearance, breath, digestion and general demeanour all transformed for the better. They did more digging and more research, reaching out to experts all over the world, and becoming experts themselves in how pets should be fed. Two years after Max’s arrival, they adopted another bulldog from a UAE animal shelter, called Syema. He was four years old and, says Cebrowski, showed the same signs of malnutrition. A change of diet to raw food was all it took for his ailments to turn around.

Cebrowski and Kelly began to spread the word. Buoyed by similar success stories from their pet-owning friends, they set up Furchild. The clue to their mission is in the name, she says. “These animals really are part of the family. They are furry children in so many respects and they deserve to be treated well.”

The couple teamed up with a number of esteemed international pet nutrition experts, including a renowned raw pet food formulator and two board certified veterinary nutritionists, to create their own range of raw pet food and meal plans for dogs and cats (each featuring what Cebrowski describes as “biologically appropriate” ingredients, using halal meats that are ethically sourced from around the world).

“The meat we use is premium ‘human grade’, sourced from farms where the livestock has been grass-fed and is free to roam. There are no hormones, no antibiotics or other nasty chemicals, and the food only contains organic vegetables; our pet food is better quality than what many humans eat.”

The UAE’s climate, she says, presents unique problems for our pets. “The heat and humidity cause dehydration and this is made worse when we feed our pets dry kibble foods. They are often full of additives that compound the problem, so a species appropriate and high-moisture diet is always going to be best here.”

She refers to owners as “pet parents” and agrees that the majority are blissfully ignorant about what they are feeding their animals. “You would not want to eat the exact same processed meal every day of your life, yet that is what most of us put our pets through, and we are far too eager to practice brand loyalty.”

This is backed up by British expat Mike Jones, who could be considered a cat obsessive, often helping to rehome abandoned felines or taking them in to care for them himself. When I ask him about feeding, he says time constraints are the main factor when choosing what to give them at mealtimes – something that Furchild has taken into consideration, offering home deliveries across the UAE and full, easy-to-follow dietary plans. “I know that the best thing for me to do,” says Jones, “would be to prepare fresh meat for them, but I just do not have the time or inclination to turn my kitchen into a prep area for the cats. I give them what I know they like and they seem happy enough.”

Rob Kelly and Katherine Cebrowski, founders of Furchild, with their dog Maximus. Courtesy Furchild
Rob Kelly and Katherine Cebrowski, founders of Furchild, with their dog Maximus. Courtesy Furchild

He does admit, however, that having spoken with similarly minded people on animal welfare forums, that everyone should probably be paying more attention to the ingredients in their pet’s food. “If I saw some real evidence that a particular food was beneficial to their health – and I did not have to cook it – sure, I would change over.”

Admittedly, it can take a bit of time for pets to adapt to a healthier diet. The folks at Furchild recommend mixing 25 per cent of Furchild food in to your animal’s regular diet, and then gradually increasing the amount over a ten-day period.

It’ll be worth the effort because, ultimately, feeding your dog or cat with some of the processed foods manufactured by big brands can be likened to serving your family burgers and chips every day. “It is similar,” says Cebrowski. “While the food we produce does cost more than the average bag of dried kibble, it’s comparable price wise to other wet foods and even cheaper than some of the healthier options available in the UAE. Basically, it’s a practical and preventative approach to pet care – feeding our pets with rubbish is always going to be a false economy.”