Charlotte Wood

Cat sitting at dinner table with napkin tied around neck
"Cats are far more discriminating" … says Professor Paul McGreevy, an animal-behaviour specialist. Photo: Getty Images

See if you can pick the difference between these two dishes: "Grilled cuttlefish with squid ink sauce" and "Seabream, surimi, sole and snapper in a decadent silky broth".

If you answered correctly that the latter is cat food (the first is a recipe by star chef Frank Camorra of the hot MoVida restaurant group), you are likely contributing to the $1.8 billion-plus that Australians spend annually to feed their pets.

The fishy feast may sound deluxe, and at $1.07 for a 40g sachet - that's $26.75 per kilo - for what on opening resembles little more than seafood extender mashed with other unidentifiable fish shreds in a saliva-like goo, it surely boasts a profit margin many high-end restaurant chefs would envy. Yet this packet - just one in the Purina Fancy Feast Royale Broths range - can be found in any supermarket pet food aisle, along with shelves of others with similarly elaborate titles.

No caption
"Assuming that animals always know what's best for them can be a problem" … believes McGreevy.

Those apocryphal old-age pensioners so poor they must eat dog food might find the family butcher more affordable than, say, Wellness's Duck or Venison & Sweet Potato "recipes" for dogs, at $12.70 per kilo. Or the Bow Wow Gourmet Dog Treats dried pig's ear, which, at $2.69 an ear ($67.25 per kilo), makes the pasture-raised, free-range pork fillet I buy for my own consumption a steal at just $36 a kilo.

These product titles are so entertaining it's tempting to publicise them all, starting with "Tender Duck with Barramundi" or "Chicken Florentine with a Delicate Sauce" for cats, and "Baked Dinner Beef" or "Lamb Topped with Garden Vegetables" for dogs - but the list seems endless. It's a rare pet owner who has the candour of a friend of mine, admitting with refreshing honesty that she "really couldn't give a shit what our dog eats". Her family's vigorously healthy Jack Russell terrier, Lucky, lives outside on their rural property, happily nourished on a diet of mid-priced dog biscuits, "plus lots of meat, bones, apple cores and vegie scraps. These are usually chucked on the lawn. We do not have a nice silver bowl with a picture of a dog bone on it."

Certainly, her attitude is not shared by the marketing departments of pet-food companies, which maintain that a dog is no longer man's best friend - these days we're supposed to be blood relations.

No caption
"Using food is a ridiculous way to buy anyone's affection – including our pets" … says nutritionist Kathryn Elliott.

Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world - there are an estimated 33 million pets - and the pet-care industry is huge business. In 2009, Australians spent more than $6 billion on pets, pet-care products and services. Even with half of all dog food thought to be made at home from scratch, packaged dog food accounted for $1.1 billion and cat food $581 million in spending, while $2.2 billion went on vet services. That year, pet food sales rose by $38.9 million on 2008 figures to $1.826 billion.

Bodies like the RSPCA, the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia, the Australian Companion Animal Council and the Petcare Information and Advisory Service (the last funded by giant manufacturer Mars Petcare) insistently repeat the message that "pets are part of the family". The logical conclusion then for any loving pet owner - sorry, mummy or daddy - is that what you feed this family member should be every bit as varied and delicious as what you feed yourself. Right?

Wrong, says Professor Paul McGreevy, an award-winning animal behaviour specialist at the University of Sydney's vet science faculty, and author of A Modern Dog's Life, a guide to understanding and caring for dogs. For a start, says McGreevy, the belief that animals appreciate food as humans do - that they experience the same gustatory pleasures and dislikes and boredom - is mistaken. "The speed with which dogs eat strongly suggests they are not taking too much time over the taste sensations they're being offered," he says.

That's not to say they don't develop preferences - "Cats are far more discriminating, and some of the toy dogs are notoriously fussy," McGreevy says - and both dogs and cats are highly adept at training their owners to provide the foods they like. But what they prefer and what they need are two different things.

"Assuming that animals always know what's best for them can be a problem, because dogs would say, 'Yes, I definitely need that chocolate', and yet it could kill them," says McGreevy. "So the nutritional wisdom we attribute to animals can sometimes be their undoing."

Of course, dogs and cats do have basic nutritional and food safety needs - and they're different from each other's, so dog food (for omnivores) should never be fed to purely carnivorous cats. Australian pet food manufacture was self-regulated in the past, but in 2011 the Australian Standard 5812 was introduced to regulate ingredients, safety, packaging and labelling of all local and imported manufactured pet food. Any food labelled "complete and balanced" - even the cheapest versions - must provide the right levels of all the required nutrients to maintain an animal's general health. Consumers can be confident that even the most basic prepared pet foods are safe.

So why, given that a dog will happily gobble up another's turd, and cats routinely eat their own vomit, are we so susceptible to pet-food marketing, with its emphasis on quality and variety?

McGreevy believes the evocative, "Nigella-type language" that increasingly fills pet-food labels and advertising reflects human, not animal, desires.

"We may be anthropomorphising when we see the need for variety in dogs' diets, especially given that a sudden change in diet is counterproductive from a gastrointestinal health perspective."

His book uses "Feral Cheryl", an imaginary wild dog, to explain natural behaviours. As he tells me: "If Feral Cheryl was surrounded by rabbits, she wouldn't say, 'Oh God, I can't face another rabbit', she would just keep eating the food that met her nutritional needs. And because she ate so quickly, I don't think she would dwell on the absence of quail in her diet."

McGreevy peppers his conversation with riveting evolutionary facts: did you know dogs may have been drawn to domestication partly by the allure of delicious human faeces? Or that when your dog "kisses" your face, she may be mimicking the infant canine ritual of licking mama dog's face, prompting her to vomit up an easily digestible recycled snack? Yummy!

The evolutionary blueprint approach is not exactly in evidence at Chew Chew dog cafe in Wollstonecraft, on Sydney's lower north shore, when I visit with my sister-in-law and her dog, Molly. While there are other "doggy cafes" around the country, offering "puppacinos" and other treats alongside human food, this may be the only restaurant catering solely for pets (cats are allowed, too, but only by reservation).

Chew Chew is a tiny cafe with tiny tables and chairs (not for humans, who must go next door to a real cafe for refreshment), at which dogs can dine from a comprehensive menu including heart-shaped tuna-pressed sushi, lamb omelette, chicken risotto and a series of three-course organic meals ($16.50-$25.50), as well as jellies, cupcakes, drinks and waffles.

The brainchild of Naoko Okamoto, a Japanese "pet nutritionist and pet care advisor", the cafe is open five days a week. Chew Chew staff clearly adore dogs, cooing over Molly, asking about her age and breed. Later the waitress emerges with a camera, securing my sister-in-law's email address so photos of Molly dining can be sent to her later.

However, despite all the attention and special doggy decor, Molly seems rather confused. Her Signature Organic Lamb Meal - which looks like chopped sausage topping a substantial bowl of pasta with some carrots and green vegetable - arrives in a big white china bowl and is set on the table at snout height.

Molly, well-trained not to eat from the table at home, shows impressive self-control as she stares longingly. I'm anthropomorphising here myself, but when she's urged to eat it I'm sure she shoots me a "WTF?" look before lunging in, hurling a bit of sausage to the ground and scoffing it guiltily.

The bowl is then put on the ground, and $9 worth of organic dinner vanishes in 30 seconds. Molly flops down and yawns, oblivious of the doggy cappuccino - goat's milk with liver sprinkles - to come.

Much of Chew Chew's website focuses on nutrition, and it's difficult to sneer at the sincere tone of advice on feeding sick and old dogs. But the hosting of doggy Christmas and birthday parties with creamy heart-shaped cakes ("Happy Birthday, Floopy!") and "treat bags" for doggy party guests is rather more nauseating. Later that day, I recite the menu and prices to a dog-loving friend, who whistles in disbelief. "It's obscene," she declares, echoing my thoughts. "People are starving, and here we are making sushi for dogs."

While McGreevy hasn't visited Chew Chew, he's less judgmental about dog cafes - as long as they're good for pets.

"The wonderful thing about these enterprises is that they can coalesce dog owners; they work as a grassroots hub for people to meet." But, he cautions, "It would be a great shame if people were meeting there and not walking their dogs, or claiming that it's part of the dog's time when in fact it's not. It might be great for your dog if it's able to race around and go crazy with all of its dog chums. But if you've got a dog that has to stay on the leash, then what's the point?"

While we met no fellow dog owners at Chew Chew - we were the only ones there - it's true that our round trip gave Molly an hour's walk she might not have otherwise have had that day. There are limits, though, even for dog lovers. McGreevy draws the line at the "furry baby" language so prevalent in talk about pets. "I resist the 'fur-kid' tag," he says. "It makes my skin crawl a bit. I just think, they're dogs. 'Fur kid' implies that almost everyone who has a dog as a companion is looking for a child surrogate. It denies that they are dogs."

I'm guessing that Neville and Tinker, the professor's two kelpie crosses, won't be having a birthday party at Chew Chew anytime soon. What they will be having is bones, and lots of them. It's the blueprint again. Dogs tell us how much they love bones, says McGreevy, by the time and energy they devote to finding, hiding, defending and fighting over them.

Not that you'll see many pet food companies - or pet dentists - extolling the virtue of bones for dogs, with some even claiming that bones are dangerous, risking shattering dogs' teeth. Is this true?

"Cooked bones are a nightmare," says the professor. "But large, raw bones that can't be crunched or swallowed in pieces are incredibly enriching. Dogs who chew bones have great teeth."

What, then, is his view of the Yip Yap Breath Mints for Dogs ("Low-Fat" and "All Natural") that I have just bought at the pet store?

He sighs. "Breath fresheners for dogs? Bones."

However amusing all this may be, there is a serious angle, for people's boundless love for their pets can be easily manipulated for profit. It's also easy to guiltily compensate for lack of time with pets, especially dogs, by overfeeding. The cliché about animals resembling their owners may be true when it comes to obesity - Australian humans and pets are among the fattest in the world. ("We are world-beaters in pet obesity," says McGreevy.) Giving a cat or dog too much of a food it loves, probably because it's higher in fat, is not love but mistreatment.

Experts encourage the use of treats for dog obedience (though it's hard to imagine most trainers offering a Happy Yappers 23-carat edible gold "bone", $35), but cat treats are harder to justify.

Sydney (human) nutritionist Kathryn Elliott has been irked when friends have called her "mean" for not allowing her cat, Trilby, snacks between meals. "We don't feed her treats. She gets light biscuits, because she's inclined to put on weight, and roo meat and chicken wings. All cat food! She isn't human, she's a cat, and therefore has different nutritional needs from me. Over-feeding your animal, or giving them food that harms, is cruel."

Elliott often sees emotions driving poor human food decisions, and thinks they are also at work with pets. "The times our cat has been given 'treats' seem to have only unsettled her. It also fills her up and makes her less likely to eat her dinner. Trilby is happiest when she has certainty and structure in her day, our attention and affection, a warm lap in the winter and a sunny spot in summer, and when we talk to her in a gentle voice. Her needs are very simple and uncomplicated, which is one of the things I love about pets. And, of course, using food is a ridiculous way to buy anyone's affection - including our pets'. "

McGreevy would like dog owners to "take a big deep breath and recognise these animals are incredibly social, and that's why it's very affirming to have them around. But we shouldn't assume they suddenly become honorary humans. They're first and foremost dogs, and we should meet their behavioural and nutritional needs first, before indulging our need to have an amusement in our lives."

That said, he's keen to add this point: when we spend time with our pets - gently scratching their ears, say - enjoyable natural hormones rise in both species. "So an owner looking into the eyes of their own dog will get an oxytocin surge, and we believe a dog gets a similar response."

It seems even scientists can accept that the bond between animals and their owners - even without snacks - can bear a remarkable resemblance to love.

Like Good Weekend on Facebook to get regular updates on upcoming stories and events – www.facebook.com/GoodWeekendMagazine