The solid science pet food makers want you to ignore

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

humanization of pet food

Story at-a-glance -

  • The pet food industry is worried that the “sound science” behind their products is being overridden by marketing that promotes “humanization” in pet food
  • The problem from the consumer’s viewpoint is not “humanization” of pets, but deceptive marketing of pet food, as well as distrust of the so-called science behind the products
  • The pet food industry may think it needs to educate consumers about the “science” of pet nutrition, but how will it explain its use of biologically inappropriate ingredients (just for starters)?
  • The science the industry refuses to acknowledge or explain to pet parents is the carnivorous nature of cats and dogs and the ancestral diets they evolved to eat

Lately I've noticed processed pet food industry insiders having lots of discussions around what they term humanization in pet food. On the one hand, they admit it's been a boon to their industry. After all, when people start viewing their pets as family members — calling them fur kids, fur babies and so forth — it becomes a whole lot easier to manipulate the full range of human emotions through marketing and advertising campaigns to sell products.

But the industry is also concerned there's a downside to the humanization movement they've so eagerly co-opted. In a nutshell, they seem worried their marketing has so completely jumped the shark that consumers no longer trust the so-called science behind their products.

The reality, in my view, is that countless pet parents have learned the hard way that no matter what's depicted on a pet food package, written on the label, advertised on TV or backed up by so-called science, somehow, euthanasia drugs still end up in premium dog food. And somehow, toxic levels of vitamin D still end up in "prescription" pet diets. And so on.

In my opinion, the processed pet food industry is rife with problems that have nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not people view their pets as little humans.

The 'sound science' behind processed pet food is mostly about finding dogs' and cats' maximum tolerance for biologically inappropriate ingredients

Recently, I ran across a blog entry in a pet food industry journal titled "When humanization in pet food goes too far."1 In it, the author discusses "science versus marketing in pet food product development and the danger in letting the latter drive development at the expense of sound science on pets' nutritional requirements."

The author is clearly identifying the industry's marketing techniques as a problem, but I also have to argue with the "sound science" on pet nutrition she's touting.

It seems to me that pet food companies truly interested in promoting sound science on the nutritional requirements of pets wouldn't be primarily funding scientific research designed to see how much of biologically inappropriate ingredient X, Y or Z dogs or cats can tolerate before becoming ill.

Here's an example of typical "sound science" pet food research from a published report titled "Cats and Carbohydrates: The Carnivore Fantasy?" In it, the veterinary researchers suggest cats aren't really carnivores. It's worth noting that one of the researchers is the Royal Canin Veterinary Diets Endowed Chair in Canine and Feline Clinical Nutrition at the Ontario Veterinary College. From a pet food industry journal article that discusses the report:

"Once cats do manage to digest carbohydrates, they can't use the end products, such as glucose, as well as dogs do. Scientists found that uptake of the simple sugar, or monosaccharide, glucose took twice as long in cats as in dogs. Cats also seem to lack the ability to alter their uptake of digested carbs based on the quantity in their diet, which dogs are able to do.

However, the authors of the literature review noted that research is inconclusive on what concentration of sugars is needed to reach maximum uptake in cats' intestines. That means scientists don't know if the carb concentration in cat food is beyond or below what cats' digestive systems can use.

One early study, from 1977, did find that cats could digest 40[%] to 100[%] of the starch in cat foods, depending on the carbohydrate source."2

This is a perfect example of just how focused processed pet food producers are on learning how much dogs and cats can tolerate of the biologically inappropriate ingredients in their formulas.

Anyone interested in the long-term health, longevity and vitality of dogs and cats should be focused on the overall metabolic effects of food and offering the full range of dietary nutrients their bodies are designed to make the best use of — not how many inappropriate ingredients they can tolerate, and in what quantities.

Shouldn't legitimate, unbiased research into pets' nutritional requirements look at the sound science of the ancestral diets of canines and felines?

Dogs and cats are not little people

The blog author also feels the pet food industry needs to "better educate consumers about pet food and nutrition." Actually, the industry may want to take a pass on this. Because it would seem this education, if done by processed pet food companies, would at some point force them to explain why they ignore ancestral diets in favor of biologically inappropriate ingredients that are endlessly manipulated for obvious reasons, including:

  • To create formulas that don't cause immediate ill health to cats and dogs, but that very well may cause health problems long-term
  • To enhance their bottom line
  • To deceptively market those diets to tug at the emotions of pet parents who tend to "humanize" their animal companions

The fact is, to sell their products, processed pet food companies actively use and abuse the tendency of pet owners to view furry family members as human. Pet parents very often just don't get it when it comes to their dog's or cat's diet, or they get it all wrong.

Big pet food has capitalized on this lack of knowledge by searching endlessly for inexpensive, biologically inappropriate ingredients that can be manipulated to make them edible by pets and marketed to consumers who mistakenly believe the latest trend in human diets is translatable to dog and cat food.

"Dogs and cats are not little people," writes the blog author. No, they're not, and if the pet food industry was actually creating diets for them based on their biological requirements, it would be a whole lot easier to convince pet parents that dogs and cats are a different species, requiring species-appropriate nutrition.

But because big pet food, like the human fast food industry, is in the business of creating and marketing biologically inappropriate formulas, there's no way for them to wade into the pet nutrition consumer education arena without getting trapped in their own web of deceit.

Comparing apples and oranges

In an effort to frame the problem as one of misguided pet owners versus misleading marketing campaigns for biologically inappropriate pet diets, the rest of the article attempts to compare the "humanization" of pet food with anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is "an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics."3 In other words, again, pet parents have a tendency to "humanize" their animal companions. The blog author writes:

"This concept of human nutrition trends and needs possibly being misapplied to pets reminds me of decades-long efforts by animal behaviorists, veterinarians and other pet experts trying to help pet owners deal with pet behavioral issues by getting them to understand that — again — dogs and cats are not small people. We cannot expect them to think or act the same way we would or expect other people to."

The problem with this comparison will become obvious in a minute, but in terms of behavior, let's first establish that in order to help people view their pet as a different species with different needs, it's necessary to explain the evolution of canine and feline behavior in the wild and how it translates to the sometimes bewildering behavior we see in domesticated dogs and cats.

There are dozens of examples, but here's a quick one: Many cats hate or are uncomfortable being held. This is likely because in the wild, cats are natural predators, but they're also prey. The first thing a predator does upon catching a prey animal is restrain it, which is why cats feel the need to maintain their ability to move freely and escape. It's why many kitties feel stressed when they're held, even though their humans are just being affectionate.

Any feline behavior expert worth his or her salt knows this and can easily explain it to a confused pet parent whose cat refuses to be held. Armed with this knowledge, a caring pet parent can then put herself in her kitty's place and understand how very differently she and her pet feel about being held. Since her cat views it as threatening, she adjusts her own behavior to meet the species-specific needs of her feline family member.

Now let's try to imagine the processed pet food industry playing a similar expert role in educating consumers about pet nutrition. The obvious and only place to start is with the physiology of cats and dogs as carnivores and their natural diets in the wild. These diets consist of foods they're compelled to seek out and eat to meet their species-specific nutritional requirements.

There are clear examples (supported by sound research) highlighting domestic dog and cat macronutrient preferences, when given a chance to choose where their calories come from. Dogs choose a macronutrient profile of 30% protein, 63% fat and 7% carbs.4 Wolves choose 52% protein, 47% fat and 1% carbs.5 These statistics highlight two important things: Dogs are not wolves, and a biologically appropriate amount of carbs is less than 10% for dogs.

Indoor cats,6 feral cats7 and cheetahs8 all select similar macronutrient profiles, indicating the instinctual dietary preferences of domestic cats closely resemble the nutrient composition of the diets of cats in the wild.

Most notably, all domesticated dogs and cats in all macronutrient self-selection studies (to date) select a carbohydrate content of less than 15%, which tells us pet food companies are actually the ones inappropriately humanizing pets by formulating diets for them as though they're carb-loading human omnivores.

Just as consuming highly processed foods can shorten humans' lives,9 feeding our pets "fast food" (i.e., kibble) can negatively impact their health. I strongly recommend all guardians calculate how many carbs are in the food they're feeding their dog or cat to find out just how badly they've been duped by the pet food industry.

A snapshot of the sound science big pet food continues to ignore (and wants you to ignore)

There is no better "sound science on pets' nutritional requirements" than simple observation of how healthy canines and felines in the wild nourish themselves in optimal situations when there are ample food and hydration sources to choose from.

The genetic makeup and internal workings of domesticated cats and dogs remain essentially the same as their wild carnivorous ancestors. They can't move their jaws from side-to-side, only up and down, because carnivores grab their prey, tear it into chunks with their sharp, interlocking teeth and gulp it down without chewing.

Omnivorous mammals (for example, humans) have sharp teeth plus wide flat molars designed for chewing. Vegetarian animals have mouths full of wide, flat molars designed for lots and lots of chewing. In fact, ruminants like cows actually chew their food twice.

All carnivores have very short digestive tracts compared to omnivores and herbivores. This is because nature designed carnivores to survive eating foods heavily contaminated with pathogens. Wild dogs and cats don't remove the colon or other bacteria-laden body parts from prey animals before they eat them.

Their digestive tracts are designed to get food in and out very quickly to limit exposure to pathogens. A carnivore's digestive system isn't designed to ferment foods like the gastrointestinal (GI) tracts of vegetarian animals.

The ancestral diet of a carnivore includes lots of variety and seasonal variability because certain prey is more available at certain times of the year. Wild dogs and cats thrive by consuming fresh, living whole foods. The foods are moisture-dense (prey animals are about 70% water), high in protein and minerals, and moderate in fat.

Of course, macronutrients must be balanced with microminerals to create a nutritionally adequate diet, but the foundation of a biologically appropriate diet is fresh, lean meat, healthy fats and organic roughage (vegetables).

There are no obese small prey animals in the wild, which is why dogs and cats do best with a diet containing moderate amounts of high-quality animal fat and a very low percentage of carbohydrates. The only carbs wild cats consume are what is naturally found in the GI tracts of their prey, plus the occasional nibble of grass which provides added fiber and enzymes. You can compare the differences between dog and cat GI physiology in the graph found in this article.

Bottom line, to this blogger and the pet food industry: Domesticated dogs and cats choose diets with less than 12% carbs. Have you calculated how much unnecessary carbohydrates are in the average processed pet food being sold? Most pet food contains 30% to 60% carbs, aka starch, aka sugar. Unnecessary carbs (fillers) are metabolically stressful and displace critical amino acids leading to obesity, dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and diabetes.

Dogs and cats thrive on fresh foods (i.e., foods with a very short shelf life — eight hours). Old-school veterinarians behave like medical dinosaurs by continuing to try to convince pet parents that feeding dogs and cats a lifetime of highly processed foods is a smart idea.

It simply isn't possible to explain how the ingredients (including sourcing) and manufacturing methods used in the vast majority of commercially available processed pet food, or the finished product, in any way correlate to the biology of cats and dogs or the nutrition they evolved to eat.

I don't know where the processed pet food industry thinks it's heading with the "we need to educate the consumer" thrust, but I'm guessing it's going nowhere. Big pet food companies have shown they can't be trusted, and as a result, increasing numbers of pet parents have completely tuned them out.