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Why Where You Get Your Pet Nutrition Information Matters

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet nutrition information

Story at-a-glance -

  • Instead of taking on the role of small animal nutrition educators themselves, many veterinarians seem to want pet food companies to continue do that job for them
  • Veterinarians, like human doctors, do not receive adequate nutrition education during medical training so many are not taught how to use food as medicine or as a disease-prevention strategy
  • Veterinarians who do want to assume a nutrition expert role with their clients will need to educate themselves first on the full range of pet diets available today; recommending highly processed “fast food” will not achieve long-term wellbeing
  • Until processed pet food manufacturers can effectively explain the disparity between their products and the food dogs and cats evolved to eat, pet owners should not rely on most pet food manufacturers for their nutrition advice

The processed pet food industry continues to struggle mightily with issues surrounding humanization in pet food, as this recent headline in one of their publications illustrates:

"Should consumer demands always dictate pet food's path? Can humanization in pet food and a focus on consumer demands go too far?"1

Since consumer demand typically dictates consumer markets, I'm not sure why this marketplace fundamental is considered an anomaly when it comes to pet food. Consumers, after all, buy the food their pets eat and one of the fastest growing segments of the pet food industry is fresh food. As for consumer demand for more human-grade, real pet food, I say bravo!

What processed pet food producers never admit when bemoaning the humanization trend, is just how far their products truly are from fit-for-human-consumption aka human-grade standards.

Should Big Pet Food Be in the Pet Nutrition Education Business?

A trend I've noticed lately is the pet food industry's frequently stated desire to help poor misguided pet owners understand that "dogs and cats are not little people … they are animals."2 The industry wants to enlist veterinarians to help "educate consumers about pet food and nutrition," and there are plenty of vets ready to lend their support to help increase big pet food's bottom line.

Veterinarian Katy Nelson, host and executive producer of "The Pet Show with Dr. Katy" is fully onboard according to PetfoodIndustry.com:

"She [Nelson] challenged the industry to stop catering to pet food trends and consumer demands. 'We need to stop giving people what they think they want; start educating them and telling them what their pets need,' she said. 'Do the research, please, and release it! Help vets, too; they crave real, solid information, and so do pet owners. If they don't get it from vets or pet food companies, they go to Dr. Google. Vets can be pet food companies' biggest ally, but they need the research'."3

Actually, veterinarians are already a major ally of pet food companies, second only in effectiveness to their big-money marketing and advertising campaigns. Nelson, as an example, seems so thoroughly convinced of the benefits of processed feed-grade diets for dogs and cats that she's pleading with manufacturers to "do the research and release it" so pet parents and veterinarians can have access to "real, solid information."

I don't think she's stopped to consider that the research she's demanding is already done, and there's a reason it isn't released. It serves primarily to enable processed pet food companies to discover an unending supply of inexpensive, biologically inappropriate ingredients that meet certain criteria, including:

  • Has the ability to withstand rendering and high-heat cooking processes
  • Can be tolerated by dogs and/or cats up to certain levels
  • Has marketing potential
  • Doesn't take a bite out of the bottom line

Veterinarians Need to Learn Before They Can Educate

The fact that a veterinarian is demanding that big pet food become an even louder voice in "educating" vets and the general public about pet food and nutrition is deeply troubling, because the inherent conflict of interest (aka bias) in this scenario is plainly obvious.

If Nelson was demanding independent, unbiased research into the best diets for pets, it would make sense. If she was demanding independent, unbiased, comprehensive small animal nutrition courses in veterinary schools, it would make sense. If she was encouraging her fellow veterinarians to educate themselves about small animal nutrition on their own time, it would make sense.

But to demand that profit-driven pet food manufacturers step up their game to better "educate" the rest of us on their products so that pet owners won't look to other sources (aka the dreaded "Dr. Google") for pet nutrition information is, in my opinion, incredibly naïve and misguided. Unbiased doctors and nutritionists are the best source of information for pet parents, not the manufacturers selling products.

I also wonder if Nelson and other veterinarians who agree with her have taken the time to try to understand why so many people are asking questions about their pets' diets these days, or why fresh pet food is the fastest growing segment of the pet food market?

If there are veterinarians out there who truly believe that when it comes to pet food, "We need to stop giving people what they think they want [and] start educating them and telling them what their pets need," they must be far better prepared to answer questions than they currently are.

The good news about my clients and readers is that they are educated about what they want, and they know why they want it. Millions of pet lovers have discovered the pet industry's dirty secret of using human food industry waste and diseased animals in their pet food and they're taking a stand.

Why would we try to talk them out of improving the quality of their pet's food or making it more species-appropriate? Educated owners are demanding human-grade, real, nutritionally balanced fresh food. They don't want highly processed, feed-grade (aka failed human-grade raw materials) "pet food."

Veterinarians should be the go-to source for educating owners about the variety of pet foods on the market, but that means veterinarians must be prepared to inform and advise their clients on all the different, human-grade pet diets currently available — including raw, fresh, dehydrated, freeze-dried, and nutritionally-complete homemade — and which are likely to be most beneficial for a particular pet.

Pet parents today have little tolerance for being "told what they need" by those they suspect are simply nutritionally unevolved and/or primarily interested in selling whatever pet food is featured on the display stand in their lobby. Owners are growing frustrated with veterinarians who remain ignorant and uneducated about the myriad of fresh food styles making a big dent in the marketplace.

"Just don't feed raw food" is not an acceptable response for a growing number of 2.0 pet parents; they will seek out a more educated vet on the subject instead.

Why Processed Pet Food Companies Make Lousy Nutrition Experts

There's no better place to start to understand your pet's 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.

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 (but don't worry, the Food Safety and Modernization Act dictates all commercially prepared raw food diets have zero pathogens, so there are no potential pathogen risks when you purchase fresh pet food these days!).

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 percent 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). The good news is there are dozens of fresh pet food companies creating nutritionally complete, real food diets using these nutritional principles.

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.

Domesticated dogs and cats choose diets with less than 12% carbs. Have you calculated how many 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 — 8 hours).

Veterinarians whose only education in small animal nutrition in vet school came from processed pet food manufacturers, 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.

One of the biggest reasons big pet food can't effectively "educate" consumers who question their products is because 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.

Big pet food companies producing biologically inappropriate diets from feed-grade leftovers have shown they can't be trusted, and as a result, pet parents are tuning them out. If veterinarians continue to show they can't be trusted in matters relating to small animal nutrition, their clients will tune them out as well.

Thankfully, in this case, the educated consumer is demanding better quality pet food, which we hope will continue to shift the market. Better quality pet food means healthier pets.