By Dr. Becker
Recently I wrote about a veterinary nutritionist who was promoting gluten and grains in dog food in an interview with an industry publication. I was frankly stunned that an expert in animal nutrition would encourage pet owners to offer food containing ingredients dogs and cats have no biological requirement for. I was in no way trying to offend this nutritionist or any others in the field, however, taking a pro-gluten stance regarding food for carnivorous pets is shocking to me.
Around the same time, I ran across another, similar article titled "Nutritionists Offer Up Pet Food Talking Points for Vets."
This is a curious headline.
Why does your veterinarian need pet food "talking points?" So he or she has a ready argument for pet owners concerned with the quality of nutrition provided by commercial pet food? The article title seems to support my suspicion that major pet food companies could be behind this sudden rush of information coming down the pike from board-certified veterinary nutritionists.
There's much in the article to disagree with – too much, in fact, to cover here – so I'll focus on just a few areas.
Diet-Related Health Problems Often Take Years to Develop
The first paragraph of the article can't really be argued with:
"When it comes to pet food, sometimes the patient is the best evidence of nutritional quality, experts say. Beyond the animal's response to the food, it's also a smart bet to go beyond the advertising and find out something about the company that makes it."
I couldn't agree more with this statement, but I must add something very important to the discussion. It's not enough to look just at an animal's immediate response to a particular diet. We must look at his response over a period of years … even a lifetime.
Obviously, a pet that begins vomiting or develops explosive diarrhea upon starting a new food could be responding poorly to the food. But for most dogs and cats, there is no sudden, extreme negative reaction to the commercial diet they are fed. It often takes years of low quality, highly processed food, or an unbalanced homemade diet before a pet's organs start to fail.
And then there's the problem of not connecting the dots when an animal develops health problems seemingly unrelated to digestion, for example, skin allergies. Poor coat condition and itchy, dry, flaky skin is often related to a diet deficient in omega-3 essential fatty acids and micronutrients, but most pet parents and vets don't make the connection.
So there are a lot of nutrition-related health problems that aren't treated as such when they crop up. In addition, it can take several years for more serious symptoms of low-grade, species-inappropriate or unbalanced nutrition to appear.
Your pet's body is resilient. Her organs will attempt to compensate when her body isn't receiving the type of nutrition nature designed her to eat. So for a number of years, it can appear as though all is well on the outside, while things are slowly deteriorating on the inside. Those overworked organs can't be counted on indefinitely – they will eventually wear out.
It's no coincidence that the number of cats with feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD) and renal failure has skyrocketed since the introduction of dry pet food. This is the worst possible diet for kitties, but since it can take several years for FLUTD or full-blown kidney disease to develop, poor nutrition is rarely considered a contributing factor.
Another veterinary nutritionist interviewed for the article recommends pet owners look for foods that have been through AAFCO feeding trials. While I'm grateful that AAFCO standards exist, using the agency's feeding trials as a stamp of approval for the quality of a particular type of pet food is shortsighted.
The protocol for these tests is a six-month feeding trial involving as few as eight test subjects, and the goal is only to determine whether a formula can sustain life in test participants. Only six of the eight animals need to finish the trial, and if weight and certain blood tests are normal, the food is deemed complete and balanced.
Needless to say, six pets still alive at the end of six months is hardly proof that a pet food formula is biologically appropriate for a lifetime. These trials are not a good measure of a food's ability to cause nutritional deficiencies or overdoses over a longer period, nor can they demonstrate the food's impact on longevity, reproduction or multi-generational health.
"Go beyond the advertising."
"… and find out something about the company that makes it."
This is another piece of advice from the article I can agree with. Some of the ads developed by marketers for the major pet food companies are truly inspired. It's disturbing -- once you know the difference between excellent and poor quality pet nutrition -- to realize many of these absolutely gorgeous advertisements are selling some of the poorest quality commercial pet food on the market.
Unfortunately, the veterinary nutritionists interviewed for the article seem to think pet owners should instead focus on the size of the pet food company as assurance of the quality of food they produce. According to Dr. Lisa Weeth, a clinical nutritionist:
"The larger pet food manufacturing companies like Royal Canin, Hill's Pet Nutrition, Nestlé Purina and Iams PetCare will control all aspects of development, manufacturing and sales, so there is more company oversight of the pet food process."
There may be better oversight of the manufacturing process at these companies than others, but I have yet to come across one of their pet food formulas I consider to be made with acceptable quality ingredients or that contains biologically appropriate nutrition for dogs or cats. I don't feed or sell this food at Natural Pet (my clinic), I don't feed it to my own pets, and I don't recommend it to clients or any pet owner.
Dr. Weeth continues:
"These are also the companies that are investing in research that promotes veterinary medicine and veterinary nutrition. They are pushing the bounds of what we know about improving health and treating disease through diets."
It's certainly true these mammoth organizations have the money to fund pet nutrition research. But what about the potential for conflict of interest? How can a company that sells pet food be depended on to publish research that might not support the growth of its products?
As for "treating disease through diets" … the goal should be preventing disease through biologically appropriate nutrition that replicates the animal's natural diet. In my opinion, most commercial pet foods on the market today create or contribute to the diseases so many pets suffer from.
Promoting Companies That Make Therapeutic and Grain-Based Pet Foods
The article goes on to promote the "fantastic" quality control used in the production of therapeutic pet diets, and suggests pet owners should buy over-the-counter pet foods made by the same companies that produce therapeutic pet diets.
In my experience, most therapeutic or "prescription" diets for pets contain biologically inappropriate, substandard (not human grade) ingredients I would never recommend for a healthy pet, much less a sick one. I think it's safe to assume the over-the-counter formulas made by these same companies are of the same quality (but lack the additives that set them apart as being "prescription"), and I certainly wouldn't recommend them, either.
If your pet suffers from a medical condition requiring a specialized diet, I recommend you take complete control over the ingredient quality by making your own, human grade, nutritionally balanced pet food, custom formulated especially for your pet.
Another veterinary nutritionist interviewed for the article has a problem with the marketing-related claims smaller pet food companies make against the bigger brands. Dr. Cailin Heinze believes these claims "… are usually a mixture of truth and made up 'facts'." She goes on to say:
"If it says a grain-free diet will help a dog with allergies, that would be a company I would be suspicious of, as only a dog that has an allergy to a specific grain would improve on a grain-free diet, and grain allergies are quite rare."
I always caution pet owners not to blindly trust pet food marketing claims no matter who makes them. But contrary to what Dr. Heinze seems to be saying here, I find the vast majority of dogs do indeed improve on grain-free diets. That's because dogs have no biological requirement for grain. The only grain wild canines get in their natural diet comes predigested in the stomach contents of prey animals.
Dogs living in the wild hunt, kill and eat prey animals. They don't graze on an abundance of grasses or other sources of grain like cows or horses do. Dogs aren't herbivores. They aren't omnivores. They are carnivores, of the Order Carnivora – meat eaters.
And most pet foods containing grain contain loads of it. In fact, various forms of grain are usually the primary ingredients in those diets, because grain is plentiful and cheap. Grain-based pet foods are detrimental to the health of dogs and are even worse for cats – again, because as carnivores, dogs and cats aren't designed by nature to process food containing grain.
"Stay with large, popular brands."
This advice comes from yet another veterinary nutritionist interviewed for the article. According to Dr. Jennifer Larsen, "If pet owners can stay with large, popular brands that have a lot of turnover, and many, many dogs have been eating the food for years and years, they should be OK."
Again, I must point out that the length of time a food has been on the market or the fact that it sells well is not proof of ingredient quality or biological appropriateness. It's only proof that compared to contaminated or spoiled pet food, it's safe to feed.
And by the time a middle-aged or older pet shows up at a veterinarian's office with organ failure or other long-standing health problems, unfortunately, no connection will be made to her history of surviving on low-quality processed pet food.
Dr. Larsen adds:
"You shouldn't make people feel guilty about buying a national brand of very popular food, because not only have a lot of those companies done a lot of research and development, but the food is also market-tested successfully on thousands and thousands of animals."
"Market-tested successfully" in this case means the food doesn't cause immediate illness or death in pets who eat it. It does not mean it is optimally healthy nutrition for dogs or cats.
Aside from the fact that I passionately disagree with much of what the board-certified veterinary nutritionists interviewed for the Veterinary Practice News article have to say, I can't help but notice there seems to be an obvious objective here to endorse the reputations and products of some of the world's largest pet food manufacturers.
My advice, as always… learn all you can about appropriate dog and cat nutrition so you can just say no to poor quality pet food no matter who is promoting it.