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The Real Truth about Pet Food

There are more than 3000 dog food brands in this country.  Whose head wouldn’t be spinning while considering all these choices?    It is also a multi-billion dollar industry, so corporate America knows there is a lot of money to be made.  New companies are constantly arising, all trying to grab a piece of the pie. All of these companies know that as the human-animal bond grows, consumers are more likely to treat their furry friends like people; and those who market pet food know that this means we want to feed our beloved pets more and more like humans.  But here is a VERY important fact: Nutritionally speaking, dogs are not humans with fur.

There are so many misunderstandings about pet foods that this article would have to be the length of a novel in order to correct them all.  I’m hoping that if I touch upon a few misconceptions, you will be able to make better decisions.  As a veterinary doctor I insist that facts govern decision making.  When they are used, they are to be scientifically proven.  For instance, double blind studies with controls, placeboes, and statistics are important components when testing any product.  Scientific facts do not come from people who are trying to sell you something, like the pet store clerk, who knows they make a greater margin on certain brands or may have an excess of one brand in the stock room.  Facts do not come from a manufacture’s sales representative who has been secretly planted in the aisles of Petsmart, armed with rehearsed speeches, while you are shopping for a competitor’s product.  Facts rarely come from the website of the dog food company’s own web site.  Facts do not come from an on line blog that is really controlled by a dog food company.  Lastly, facts do not come from a breeder who once got lucky and hit the genetic lottery which won them an award at Westminster.  That is unless the breeder also happens to be a veterinarian with a dual PhD degree in pet nutrition.  I do not have such a dual degree, but I know enough to listen to someone that does.

Let me show you how easy it is to mislead.  “Pardon me, Mrs. Smith did you notice that bag of dog food you just put into your cart does not have any vitamin C in the ingredients list.  We also know that Vitamin C comes from fruit and I do not see any fruit on your pet food bag’s ingredients list.  Look at our brand, it says right here, 20mg of vitamin C in every cup!  We all know how important Vitamin C is for our immune system.  You do not want your dog to get sick, do you?  That label also has words like chicken meal, and chicken-by-products, that is disgusting!  Our label just says chicken.  Worst of all, do you see that it has CORN?   Do you know some dogs are allergic to corn?  Our product does not have any corn what so ever.”

Actually, Vitamin C does not need to be ingested by cats and dogs at all.  Their liver can manufacture this important vitamin entirely on its own from other raw materials in their food, a virtual necessity for animals that are primarily carnivores.

Pet food labels are governed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), not the FDA (unless it is a prescription pet food, then it is regulated by the FDA and the rules become much stricter because it is seen as a drug).  Prescription pet food has to have a proven therapeutic effect, which is a big reason why it is so much more expensive.

AAFCO defines “chicken” on a label as the clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts or whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet and entrails.  It defines “chicken meal” as the dry rendered product from a combination of clean flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts of whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet, and entrails. So the only difference between the two is that chicken meal has the water content and fat removed prior to making the recipe and the other essentially does it afterwards.  This is a key concept when organic materials will travel long-distances safely.  A truck full of wet flesh only welcomes bad things.  Can you say salmonella?  When it comes to “by-products,” I cannot recall, while watching the nature channel, a lion or a coyote avoiding those.  There is a lot of nutrition in what is defined by AAFCO as “by-products,” and the good pet food companies are not embarrassed to have it on their label.

The truth is that corn is a fabulous source of nutrition for animals.  Animals digest it differently than humans, and benefit from its’ slow and steady energy release.  Statistically speaking, your dog is much more likely to be attacked by a deer than it is to be allergic to corn. So yes, “some dogs” are allergic to corn but “some dogs” have also been proven to be allergic to cucumbers and even cantaloupe.  Also, corn-free diets started appearing simultaneously as the cost of corn sky rocketed due to its wide use in ethanol.  Coincidence?  Not really.

When playing by AAFCO’s rules, it is easy to mislead consumers with how the word “organic” is used on a label.  There are no requirements to adhere to for the word “holistic”, so it means nothing on a label.

So what brands can you trust?  Well, start by picking companies that don't try to earn your business by deceiving you using the tactics above.  The company should own and operate their manufacturing plants, for the purpose of quality control.  They should have a research center of substantial proportion where they are performing ongoing nutritional studies. Claiming to consult with veterinary nutritionists is not the equivalent.  The company’s website should have a visible tab or link for veterinary professionals to engage in education and conversation.  Finally, for your own education, go to trust worthy web sites such as ones developed by veterinary teaching universities like http://vet.osu.edu/vmc/nutrition-support-service.

What you feed your pet does mater.   I am a big believer in the phrase “You can win the heart through the stomach,” as it applies to both humans and pets.  I wish you well in negotiating the deceptive world of the pet food industry.

Dr Carmichael practices at Pleasant Valley Veterinary Clinic, located at 211 East McMurray Rd.  PVVC has been providing full service veterinary care to the Peter Township area since 1973.  To make an appointment, call 724-941-5484.