Considerations to help you find the perfect (for you) pet food…

It can be challenging for caregivers to know whether they are making the right food choice for their canine and feline companions, which is why I’ve made a list of what I consider the top 4 questions you should have for any food or treat you even consider feeding. Some of these questions can be answered by perusing the pet food label, while others require a call or email to the company. Either way, it is important for dog and cat caregivers to become familiar with whatever food they decide to feed.

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Edu(cat)e yourself on pet food companies.

 

#1: Is the food completed and balanced for the given life-stage?

  • Growing animals should be fed diets that support growth and adult animals should be fed diets intended for maintenance. This doesn’t mean that the diet must be a commercial kibble or canned, just that their diet should provides all of the essential building blocks to help them grow normally and have a long happy life.
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Not an adult, so don’t feed like an adult.

 

#2: Who developed the diet?

  • Ideally the diet formula would be developed by someone with both an understanding of the basic nutritional needs of dogs and cats as well as food science. For example, the high temperature and pressure required of canned food production will degrade the water-soluble vitamins irrespective of whether those ingredient are considered “natural” or not. This vitamin loss must be accounted for pre-production and monitored for post-production otherwise dogs and cats will get very sick. Most veterinarians have received some training in the nutrient requirements for health and disease, but have had no formal training in diet formulation or how to manufacture pet foods. The exception would be a veterinarian that has undergone additional food science or nutrition science training at a graduate level (Master’s or PhD). I think it is safe to assume that breeders, trainers, celebrity personalities, and savvy marketers have less nutrition training than Veterinarian Nutritionists.
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Shameless plug for ACVN.

 

#3: Who makes the diet?

  • Do they make their own food or just provide the label? Is it a subsidiary of a large corporation or an independent company? Companies that own the manufacturing equipment or are part of a larger organization (or both) are more likely to have internal checks and balances in place to help prevent production errors and ensure food safety and quality. Smaller companies and those that outsource manufacturing may be doing this as well, but many of them do not have the resources to monitor production lines or raw materials. But these generalities don’t always hold true. I’ve come across large manufacturing companies that don’t conduct any post production testing and smaller companies that outsource manufacturing, but conduct their own independent quality and safety checks. The only way to know what a particular company does may be to call and ask.
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If the food sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

 

#4: Is it safe for you and your pet?

  • Feeding raw meat diets, whether prepared at home or purchased from a veterinarian or a pet supply store, will increase your household’s risk of exposure to pathogenic bacteria, such as Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter, and Listeria. Yes, there have been recalls for Salmonella contamination in dry pet foods, but this is still a lower percentage than the bacterial counts on raw meat products.
Caitlin and Maggie hugs

Dr. Weeth, working to keep everyone happy and healthy.

 

I want pet owners to be informed guardians and make the best decisions for their furry companions.

Happy Feeding!

Lisa P. Weeth, DVM, MRCVS, DACVN

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Location! Location! Location: What’s the REAL difference between grocery and “premium”?

There are some key differences between the pet foods you find at the grocery store and those sold through specialty pet supply stores, but it’s probably not what you’re thinking. You can find high quality foods at the grocery stores just as you can find poor quality (terrible really) foods sold at specialty pet supply stores.  As I’ve said before price doesn’t always equate to quality when it comes to pet food. “Premium” refers to the price pet owners are willing to pay, and not necessarily the quality of the food.

Different distribution channels (the industry term for the way products get to the marketplace) exist because people attach an emotional value to where they shop. Those who buy their pet food from a specialty boutique wouldn’t dream of grabbing a quick bag at the grocery store, and those who buy whatever pet food is on sale during their weekly grocery run think that spending the extra time and money at the pet super store is a waste. Companies will target different distribution channels for different types of pet food shoppers. This same marketing phenomenon holds true for clothing, coffee, and even our own foods, so pet food is not unique in this.

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Who really decides what food you buy?

 

The best way to select a food is not by where it is sold but by considering the needs of your dog or cat, as well as your family life style and budget constraints. Paying more for pet food doesn’t mean you love your dog or cat any more, just as spending less doesn’t mean you treat them like any less of family member. The reality in my household is that my cats don’t really care where their food comes from as long as it is in the bowl on a regular basis. And for our dogs, any food was cause for a celebratory butt waggle.

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Raider’s best “feed me” face.

 

Other than the market trappings, what are the real differences between brands sold through grocery stores and pet supply stores? It largely comes down to cost of raw materials and how they impact the formulas, ratio of plant to animal proteins, and digestibility of the overall diet.

Formulas: Does the food have a specific ingredient list, or has the company built-in ingredient flexibility? Most grocery or discount retail store brands will use what I consider “open” formulas. Meaning that they list things like “meat”, “poultry”, and “by-products” instead of “beef”, “chicken” or “pork liver”. Check out my post on ingredients if you’d like to learn more about these differences, but in general using broad ingredient definitions allows manufacturers to substitute nutritionally similar ingredients (like chicken for turkey) without having to change the label, get approval from the FDA-Center for Veterinary Medicine first, or having to pay more money for an ingredient that is in limited supply. The nutrient profile of the finished product will be the same no matter the specific ingredients used, but having an “open” formula will lower manufacturing costs, which in turn lowers the cost of the finished diet to the consumer. This is not good or bad for the general population, it just is. Some dogs and cats do very well on varied diets, but for those with food intolerances or allergies this inherent variety can be problematic. Though even with over-the-counter pet foods and treats using specific named ingredients, undeclared ingredients can still show up. Technically, pet food companies that name specific ingredients are required by law to follow the same formula and ingredient list with every batch, which will drive manufacturing costs up when ingredients are in short supply since substitutions are not legally allowed.

Ratio of Plant to Animal Proteins: The reality is that animal proteins are expensive, as anyone who shops for the family groceries will tell you. Just compare the cost of a pound of beef to that of a pound of rice. A pet food that uses a combination of plant and animal proteins to balance the essential amino acid profile will be less expensive to produce than a food that uses primarily animal proteins. Again, less cost to manufacture typically means less cost to the pet owner. Dogs are omnivores and can thrive on a variety of different balanced foods from all meat to all vegetarian and every combination thereof. Cats on the other hand are carnivores and while they can do well on balanced diets that include small amounts of carbohydrates and plant proteins, they tend to do best on higher amounts of animal protein.

Digestibility: Digestibility just means how much of what you feed actually gets incorporated into the dog or cat vs. coming out as poop. For commercially-prepared dry and canned foods, digestibility tends to be lowest for grocery store brands (around 75-80% digestible), moderate for “premium” priced brands (consistently 80%), and highest for foods sold through veterinary offices (closer to 85% digestible). Fresh food ingredients are even more digestible still (over 90%), but this can vary depending on ingredients and cooking technique. There are exceptions to every rule, but these can be used as general guidelines. Digestibility is affected by the quality and processing of the raw materials (animal- and plant-based), the presence of other ingredients (especially fiber), and the processing and cooking of the combined diet (heat and pressure cooking). Unfortunately there is no way of knowing the quality of the ingredients and digestibility of the diet just by reading the label. This comes from knowing the manufacturers and having experience with the diet. Even a diet labeled as having undergone “AAFCO feeding trials” may be less digestible than one that bares a “formulated to meet the needs” label since “increased volume of stool” and “excess gas production” are not grounds for failing a feeding trial.  Sometimes lower digestibility can be a good thing, like a dog that need to eat a higher fiber diet to maintain intestinal health, but can also be an issue if you live in a fifth floor walk-up. And it’s the middle of winter.

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Too many choices! And that is just a small fraction of the whole store.

 

So what do you need to know?

If your otherwise healthy dog or cat has a sensitive gastrointestinal track and is a frequent vomiter/breaks with diarrhea if they sniff the wrong food (and has been seen by your vet to ensure that nothing else is wrong), then buying a brand that has a proven higher digestibility or even a veterinary therapeutic brand may be a necessary. On the other hand, if your dog or cat is an easy keeper and can eat any type or brand of food without incident, then you have more shopping flexibility. You and your pup may enjoy taking a trip to the pet supply store together to buy food, or maybe you are pressed for time (or money) on a regular basis and in that case buying dog or cat food at the grocery store is perfectly acceptable.  I pass no judgment about where caregivers buy their food. My loyalty is to my patients, not the store owners.

You know your companion dog or cat better than the clerk at the store or even your friends at the dog park. My criteria for finding the right brand are simple. If your dog or cat is eating a balanced diet; is looking good and feeling good; the food in question is safe for the whole family (no unpasteurized raw meat, please); and the manufacturer is invested in ensuring the health and wellness of companion dogs and cats (as opposed to making a quick profit) then feed away!

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Annabelle willing you to get up and fill the bowl.

 

Happy Feeding!

Lisa P. Weeth, DVM, MRCVS, DACVN

 

Kibble Chaos: What to do when the fear mongers come out

Important Notes: The following post contains my personal views and is not an endorsement or detraction for any particular products. I do not have detailed knowledge of any pending legal cases, nor am I associated with the defendant pet food company.

 

I am sure most of you have already read about the lawsuit filed in California last week against Nestle Purina by a concerned and grieving pet owner. This lawsuit claims that all three of the owner’s unrelated dogs became ill after consuming Beneful dog food, with one of them, an eight-year-old English Bulldog, dying from this mystery illness. The lawsuit further alleges that an ingredient used in the food (propylene glycol) is toxic to dogs and that the grains were contaminated with mycotoxins. The lawsuit seeks to prove that both factors caused the dogs’ illness, or at the very least they seem to be trying to hammer Nestle Purina with enough bad PR through emotionally charge, but poorly detailed media reports that they will settle out of court.

I have had a number of friends and family contact me over the last week asking what I thought about the lawsuit or if they should stop feeding Beneful to their dogs. My good friend over at Pawcurious recently addressed this question in her blog, but I wanted to chime in officially, too (mostly because I had already started writing this post). The short answer is no, if your dog is doing well (eating, drinking, acting normal) then don’t change their diet. But…as I’ve said before, there is no one perfect diet-feeds-all when it comes to dog and cat foods and if you have any specific concerns then Beneful (or whatever brand you are feeding) may not be the best diet match for your pet.  My heart goes out to anyone who has lost a beloved companion. The death of a dog or cat is always hard and bereaved caregivers are often left looking for someone or somewhere to place the blame, but it is important to look at the merits of a media claim before jumping to conclusions for your own furry family member.

 

Lawsuit Problem Point #1: Propylene glycol is a compound used as a humectant (meaning it retains water) in pet foods and treat, and also has the added bonus of being anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. This is what keeps the chewy bit chewy, but prevents them from becoming green and fuzzy. Propylene glycol has been used in dog foods and treats for decades and is “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS) for dogs by the FDA even at high dosages. On the other hand, propylene glycol is definitely toxic to cats (causes damage to red blood cells resulting in anemia) and has been banned in and around cat foods since 1996. Since the diet in question is clearly a dog food, I am not worried its use here. Propylene glycol and ethylene glycol are NOT the same thing. Ethylene glycol is antifreeze and is toxic to everyone. There is no antifreeze in Beneful.

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Propylene Glycol is not…

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Ethylene Glycol.

Lawsuit Problem Point #2: Beneful is the most popular diet Nestle Purina sells, with a reported 1.5 billion “meals” served in 2014. Which means just based on the numbers, even if 0.0001% of those meals caused a problem you would be able to find “thousands” of unhappy customers (1,500 each year to be exact) on an internet fishing expedition. If the same food only sold 1.5 million “meals” on any given year, that same percentage would only cause 1.5 adverse events each year and no one would have even noticed. I am making up these percentages and numbers, but you get the idea. With enough sales, even normal variations are magnified. Yes, there will be dogs that have not and will not do well on Beneful, just as there are dogs that will not do well on every other brand of food out there. In practice I have seen and treated dogs for adverse reactions to every single brand of food you can think of (and some you’ve probably never heard of).  No one food is perfect for every dog.

Lawsuit Problem Point #3: The clinical signs reported through the media and named in the lawsuit do not fit with any pattern to establish food toxicity. The signs listed range from vomiting and diarrhea, to seizures and bloat, to internal bleeding, liver failure and kidney failure. If this was something like ethylene glycol (actual antifreeze) or even melamine and cyanuric acid contamination, every dog would develop kidney damage. If this was a mycotoxin I would expect vomiting, diarrhea and liver damage. I find it very hard to believe that a particular food would have not just one of these food-borne issues, but all of them. The signs listed are too varied and inconsistent to have a pattern, which is what happens when dogs get sick from random chance and just happen to be fed the most popular diet sold in the United States.

Lawsuit Problem Point #4: It is being promoted through the media, not the FDA or other knowledge based sources. Conspiracy theorists may start to scream and shout that Big Pet Food is in bed with the Government, but the reality is that every pet food company and animal feed raw material provider screens for mycotoxins and while it is nearly impossible to have a zero mycotoxin level, this is regulated by the FDA and high levels are an actionable offense.  Additionally, real or potential product contaminations are a serious health and public safety concern and are why the FDA established the Reportable Food Registry in 2009. Any pet food or treat at any time (no matter where it is sold or how much it costs) can have a production issue and the FDA relies on diligent pet owners and primary care veterinarians to report any suspected problems as soon as possible so they (the FDA) can investigate and force a recall if and when needed. The FDA would not take a “wait and see” approach with human or animal health and Nestle Purina did not become a multi-billion meal provider by harming dogs. That is a terrible business strategy.

So what do I think may be the real story behind this lawsuit? If I was to guess I would say older pets without regular heath screening fed a low cost diet that does not fit their particular needs. We don’t know the health status of the dogs in question before the diet change, or why the diet was changed in the first place. Also having a lower price point does not mean that a food is “bad” or “junk food” it just means that the combination of ingredients and larger amounts of plant-based ingredients are less expensive from a manufacturing standpoint. Less cost to manufacturer means less cost to the pet owner, but these combinations can also make the diet less digestible. A less digestible diet result in more poop being produced; a fact that will not agree with every dog, but no food is perfect. At the risk of talking in clichés, correlation is not the same as causation and cost does not always equal quality. So in the immortal words of Douglas Adams…

 

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Generally a good approach to life.

 

Happy Feeding!

Lisa P. Weeth, DVM, MRCVS, DACVN