By Dr. Becker
Recently I ran across several articles in a veterinary industry publication citing the opinions of veterinary nutritionists on gluten and grains in pet food.
It occurred to me as I read one of the articles that major pet food manufacturers, concerned about their increasingly knowledgeable customer base, might be encouraging veterinary nutritionists to speak out in defense of mass-marketed commercial pet food formulas - the kind that typically include a number of ingredients that are biologically inappropriate for dogs and cats.
Now, it could be that suddenly industry publications are simply interested in talking with veterinary nutritionists about gluten and grains in pet food, but whatever the motivation, I think it's important pet owners understand how one gets to be a board-certified veterinary nutritionist.
I'll get to veterinary nutritionists and their ties to the pet food industry shortly, but first I want to briefly discuss the article I read.
Myth: "The Ingredients Themselves are Not Important."
The article, titled "What's The Truth About Gluten," features veterinary nutritionist Dr. Lisa Weeth, who asserts:
"As long as the animal does not have a documented food allergy, owners shouldn't worry about whether the food contains corn, wheat or rice-the ingredients themselves are not important-and more about the quality of food overall."
This statement makes absolutely no sense. How does one measure the quality of a pet food - or any prepared food -- if not by its ingredients and the manner in which those ingredients are processed?
Myth: Dogs Require Grain-Based Fiber
Weeth also maintains grain-free, gluten-free pet diets don't contain enough fiber compared to formulas containing oats, barley and rice. Again, this makes little sense. It is common knowledge dogs and cats have no biological requirement for grains, so grains can't possibly provide the fiber Dr. Weeth feels is missing.
She goes on to say she sees dogs in her practice with poor stool quality and gassiness caused by their gluten- or grain-free diet - problems that resolve when additional complex carbs are added.
My guess is the dogs she's referring to have digestive issues entirely unrelated to lack of grain-based fiber. That's a little like linking a human's digestive issues to a need for more donuts in the diet.
Chances are the dogs with gassiness and poor stool quality have chronic GI inflammation and allergies or sensitivities to one or more ingredients in their commercial grain-free pet food.
And I highly doubt the dogs' GI problems were resolved by adding grains to their diet. Have you ever known a human to solve his or her digestive issues by adding, say, Wonder white bread to their daily food intake? I didn't think so ...
Note that the dogs' problems supposedly resolved when additional "complex carbs" were added. It could be these pets benefitted from some extra veggies, fruit fiber or psyllium husks, all of which are complex carbohydrates.
Myth: Dogs are Omnivores
Dr. Weeth relies on the erroneous belief that canines are omnivores, not carnivores, to promote the notion that unlike cats, which she admits are carnivores, "Dogs have evolved and adapted to human food patterns for a longer period of time."
I couldn't disagree more. Canines are scavenging carnivores, and you need look no further than your dog's teeth to see nature's carnivorous design. The teeth of animals are specifically devised for the food they are born to eat. Omnivores have both sharp, meat-tearing teeth and wide, flat molars built to grind plant matter. Your dog has no flat molars because nature didn't intend for him to eat plants. Ninety-nine percent of your dog's DNA is shared with wolf DNA - neither dogs nor wolves have evolved into herbivores in the last 100 years.
Dogs are incredibly resilient and can withstand more nutritional abuse that most species. As Weeth points out, dogs can survive eating grain-based foods. But they do not thrive on diets that contain biologically inappropriate ingredients and/or less than optimal amounts of animal protein.
The dog owners I've met aren't interested in pet food that merely assures their pet's survival. They're looking for the best, most biologically appropriate nutrition they can afford for their canine companions.
Dr. Weeth also discusses cats and the fact that their natural prey, for example, mice, provides about 66 percent water and 10 percent carbohydrates. She uses this example "...to illustrate the point that the diets we typically feed may be very different than what nature intended."
I believe our goal should be to mimic pets' natural diets as closely as possible, and that feeding food very different from what nature intended is a root cause of many of the diet-related diseases we see in dogs and cats today.
Weeth goes on to say, "A typical dry cat food, even one marketed as 'grain-free,' is still 10 percent water and 25 percent to 50 percent of the calories as carbohydrates."
What Dr. Weeth fails to mention is that current research clearly points to the benefits of moisture-rich diets to the health of pet cats. So the commercial "convenience" diets we've been feeding pets for several decades are indeed very different than what nature intended ... and not in a good way.
Veterinary Nutritionists Have Financial Ties to Major Pet Food Manufacturers
Veterinary nutritionists receive a diploma from the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN). They are DVMs who go on to become board certified in veterinary nutrition. The additional training they receive runs at least two years and they must pass a written exam at the end of their coursework in order to obtain board certification.
ACVN is the smallest of the veterinary colleges and there are fewer than 100 veterinary nutritionists in the world. They work in veterinary schools, government agencies, pet drug companies, private animal hospitals, for themselves, and very frequently, for pet food companies. Major pet food manufacturers also frequently pay the tuition for DVMs studying to become veterinary nutritionists.
So when you hear or read that a veterinary nutritionist recommends X or Y or Z pet food - or discourages the feeding of raw or homemade diets, for example -- keep in mind that many practicing veterinary nutritionists are obligated in some way to a pet food manufacturer. This association creates a rather obvious conflict of interest when it comes to the advice they offer, not to mention the training they have received.
Fortunately, the AHVM Foundation wants to assist in the development of integrative veterinary nutrition departments which can further study and delineate the applicability of species-appropriate diets. That will provide the veterinary community with unbiased pet nutrition experts with no ties to the pet food industry.