This is a question I am asked very often. Over the 36 years I have been in practice, it seems to get more and more difficult with each passing year. Not only do I have to deal with what are often misleading television and print advertisements, but "Dr. Google" has added to the confusion many pet owners face as well. As veterinarians, we are faced with fads that far too often have little basis in proper nutrition.
One of the major problems pet owning consumers face, is learning who exactly it is that is manufacturing the food they purchase for their dog or cat? High quality manufacturers make the pet foods in their own facilities, so they can strictly control the manufacturing process. They employ board-certified veterinary nutritionists. They conduct and publish research on animal nutrition. Does the bag read "manufactured by", as opposed to "distributed by" or "manufactured for". Far too many pet foods are co-packed, or made by multiple different manufacturers, and then labeled by the end-of-the-line company that sells it.
For example: Who makes Rachael Ray Nutrish pet foods? Nice name, and Nutrish must be nutritious correct? But who makes it? Rachael Ray? Of course not. A few years back it was manufactured in Meadville, PA by Dad's Pet foods, a low end manufacturer to be certain. Now the Web site lists Ainsworth Pet Nutrition. Have you ever heard of them? Do you know where they are located? Do you know what their manufacturing process is? Are their pet foods fixed formula? These questions and more need to be answered before I would every purchase such a food for my pet. And by the way, Dad's is now also manufactured by Ainsworth Pet Nutrition.
Speaking of Dad's, whose motto is: "We've always prided ourselves on using only the finest ingredients" All one need to do is go on their Web site and look up their foods, and search for those ingredients. Corn seems to be the number one ingredient in all of their dog foods. Many also contain soybean meal, beef and chicken byproducts, and even worse, multiple food colorings and high fructose corn syrup. Of little nutritional benefit, and possibly even harmful to the pets eating it. It is low price, and a look at the ingredients let's one know why! And their are many poor quality dog foods sold that are as poor quality as Dad's, and even worse. Moist and Meaty, Mainstay, Beneful dry, and Pedigree are popular foods that immediately come to mind. Read the label ingredients and the rest of the article below to understand why I make that statement.
One pet food made very popular by clever advertising recently is "Blue Buffalo". In the recent pet food manufacturer list published by the Whole Dog Journal, it is revealed that Blue Buffalo is made by five different manufacturers. (American Nutrition, C.J. Foods, ProPet, Triple T Foods, and Tuffy's Pet Foods). Odd, but you likely never heard of any of them did you? And did you know that Nestle-Purina sued them in 2014 over false advertising, and won? Seems like Blue Buffalo was in denial that there were poultry byproducts and grains in their fancy bags of dog food, despite their advertising to the contrary. Purina analyzed their dog foods, and proved the presence of such things in Blue Buffalo. Again, it is hard to control the ingredients going into a pet food if the company on the label is not doing the actual manufacturing of it.
Then there are the "mass manufacturers". My shining example is Diamond Pet Foods. Located in Gaston, South Carolina, and with plants located nationwide, they manufacture at least 30 different brands of pet foods including Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul, Canidae, Kirkland, Solid Gold, Wolf King, Taste of the Wild, 4 Health, and Professional and Premium Edge, just to name a few. I know of no other company who has had so many foods recalled than Diamond. They were home to a national Salmonella enterica outbreak a couple years back, which led to the largest pet food recall in history. More than 30,000 tons of food were recalled after a New Jersey infant became severely ill from Costco's Kirkland brand pet food. A 2012 recall involved a lamb-based food from its' Meta, Missouri plant, again for Salmonella contamination. Why all the problems with Diamond foods and Salmonella? Unfortunately, since the government does not require manufacturers to test their final products for Salmonella, and it costs money to do such testing, companies like Diamond just don't bother doing it. There are pet food manufacturer's who do implement this testing as part of their quality control standards, but more about those companies later.
Another word of caution is for consumers not to trust what they read on the pet food label. A recent journal article reported that 20 of the 52 foods PCR-tested for ingredients showed a discrepancy between labeled ingredients, and what was in the actual diet. Chicken was the most common ingredient, and the 20 mislabeled foods either contained none, or contained undeclared proteins like pork. Two foods that claimed to contain beef as one of the primary ingredients, actually contained none at all!!
I have a special interest in Veterinary Dermatology. I very often see dogs and cats whom I suspect have a "food allergy", better known as an "adverse reaction to food". When conducting a properly planned dietary trial test, with a limited ingredient pet food, it is best to choose a food that contains only one protein source and one carbohydrate source to which the specific pet has never been exposed.
Far too many of my clients believe that eliminating wheat or grains from a diet is all that is necessary to rule out a food allergy. The truth is that there are many other proteins that are much more frequently a cause of the allergy, including corn, egg, beef, chicken, soy, dairy, and any other previously fed protein. A well constructed food trial is difficult to do. It can be done, but requires much diligence on the part of the pet owner, their family, and of course, their veterinarian.
In recent years, a host of foods have hit the over-the-counter market, claiming to be limited ingredient foods. Natural Balance, Nature's Variety Instinct, Wellness, Innova, California Natural, Natura, Zignature, our friend Blue Basics, and the list goes on and on. A recent study published by Tufts University found that four of these over-the-counter venison diets also contained beef, corn, and soy. Ingredients that were not listed on the label. HINT: Royal Canin's venison and potato by the way, was found to contain only venison and potato in the same study.
When I am trying to rule out food allergies/adverse reactions to food, prescription limited-ingredient diets or supervised home-cooked diets are a much better choice than these over-the-counter diets claiming to be limited-ingredient, as many such foods don't live up to their promises. Companies selling prescription foods like Hills, Iams, and Royal Canin have production lines dedicated to only one particular variety of limited ingredient food. That assures there can be no protein/carbohydrate cross-contamination. It costs more to manufacture that pure diet, but it is vital when conducting a food trial that the protein/carbohydrate one is feeding is the only one in the food!
We occasionally see the term "veterinarian approved" used when advertising a pet food. Did you know that is not a term allowed on pet food labels? "Veterinarian recommended, veterinarian developed, veterinarian formulated" may be used, but only if the company making the claim meets very strict AAFCO criteria.
And yes, I've saved my favorite topic for last. These are what I call "fad diets". Being in practice for over 36 years, I have seen many of these come and go of course. It seems however, that since the advent of the Internet and Social Media, and yes, even the famous "Dr. Google", it has gotten worse, sadly much worse.
The latest buzzword of course is "Grain Free". Do you realize however, that grain free does not mean hypoallergenic? And ever worse, there is no set AAFCO definition of what "grain free" even is. Yes, it is true, that grain free can mean different things to different pet food manufacturers. Many people do not realize that while dogs are a carnivore species, they are actually omnivores in their eating habits. Complex carbohydrates such as those found in grains are actually necessary for normal stool formation. Some people mistake obesity in dogs and cats with feeding high carbohydrate foods. While carbohydrates can contribute to added calories of course, a greater concern with dogs and cats are high fat diets. In summary then, "grain free" is popular, not because of any nutritional benefit to the vast majority of pets, but because slick advertising has convinced many consumers it is so.
Ah, and then there are the "raw diets". Some pet owners are gravitating toward raw food diets because: "that's what dogs and cats eat in the wild......it is natural". Of the 36 regions of genomes that differ between wolves and dogs for example, 10 play a role in digestion and metabolism, indicating legitimate nutritional differences between the two species. Wild animals have a very short lifespan, and these raw diets may not provide proper and complete nutrition for the long lives our domestic dogs and cats enjoy.
Most reports extolling the benefits of feeding raw diets are just anecdotal, with a glaring lack of long-term high-quality research associated with them. In a recent peer-reviewed scientific article, it was reported that 60% of recipes used to make homemade raw diets had concerning nutritional imbalances. In an earlier study, all five raw diets tested (three home-cooked and two commercial) had an incorrect calcium/phosphorous ratio, vitamin A and E deficiencies, and twice the AAFCO recommended level of vitamin D.
Were you aware of the fact the American Veterinary Medical Association, The American Animal Hospital Association, and the American Association of Feline Practitioners ALL recommend against feeding pets raw diets? Safety, for not only the pets consuming, but also the humans handling the raw diets, is a large concern. Frozen and freeze-dried diets are not safe, as freezing does not destroy all bacterial pathogens. An estimated 20 to 48% of commercial raw diets have been found to be contaminated with Salmonella. Were you aware that chicken purchased for human consumption carries 21 to 44% Salmonella contamination, depending upon the study involved? Another study found that one-third of the raw dog or cat foods ordered online were contaminated with Listeria. The fact is, these foods present a danger not only to the pet consuming them, but to the humans handling such foods. It is for good reason we at Aurora Pet Hospital recommend our clients never feed their dog or cat raw foods......never!
Lastly, "enzymes" are another often touted benefit of feeding a dog or cat a raw diet. Unless they are afflicted with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency however, dogs and cats do not require an external source of enzymes to facilitate normal digestion. It has been demonstrated however, that some pets eating raw diets do have improved digestion, as heat used in manufacturing commercial pet foods can affect protein digestibility. Heat does however, actually improve plant digestibility!
It always is a bit controversial, as to what pet food company a particular veterinarian recommends. I prefer three companies, as they manufacture all their foods under strict quality control in plants that they own, they use high quality ingredients in every food they make, they all perform valuable research and publish the results in well-recognized journals, and they provide many educational opportunities for those of us practicing veterinary medicine.
These companies are Hills, Iams, and Royal Canin.
Hill’s uses what is called a fixed formula in every dog and cat food they make. This means that the ingredients do not vary from batch to batch, even though the price of the ingredients may vary. Some pets are very sensitive to ingredient changes and older pets in particular may not like changes to their food. Hill’s only changes a formula to improve it or because a certain ingredient is no longer available or fails to meet the high quality that Hill’s demands. This is one of the things I like most about Hills. I do not honestly know if that is true of Iams and Royal Canin?
What do I feed my own dog? Fair question. Her breeder in Connecticut raised her on Iams Healthy Naturals dry puppy formula. At 12 weeks of age, I switched her to Science Diet Ideal Balance. Human grade chicken is the #1 ingredient, and it contains no artificial colors, sugars, or preservatives. There are of course other high quality dog and cat foods out there. Just do your homework before choosing one, and do not depend upon fancy names and fancy advertising in doing so.
And yes, I will admit I am a bit opinionated. I have always had an interest in what I and my clients feed our pets. We are after all what we eat, and the same is true for them!!