By Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
The mood at the neighborhood holiday party was festive, at least at first. I had yet to meet the new family who had just moved in, but I often saw them walking their Malamute down the street. The man walked over to where I stood with another neighbor, Carlie, who was regaling me with stories about what her Golden had managed to eat earlier in the week.
“What are you feeding your dog?” he asked. She responded with the name of a well-known brand.
“Well that’s your problem?” he said. “You should feed raw.”
Carlie looked at me. The air seemed to have been sucked out of the room. My palms got sweaty. Oblivious to my discomfort, he continued for a few minutes, discussing dog’s relation to the wolf genome, veterinarians in bed with Big Pet Food, and, as I was slinking away to find more wine, the compact nature of his dog’s stool.
My problem with the topic of dog food is not based on the notion that I possess some secret knowledge a layperson cannot possibly understand, nor a world-weary condescension that people should accept what I say without asking questions. I’m happy to sit down with anyone and have a relaxed, casual give-and-take conversation on the topic, but it never seems to go that way. Like politics and religion, dog food has seemed to fall into that polarizing category known as “you’re with me or against me,” the type of conversation certain people will never be able to enter into without getting really angry and confrontational, and I’ve found it’s easier just to let it go. Especially at holiday parties.
When people ask me what I feed my dog, I tell the names of the commercial foods I use. When they ask me for a recommendation, I suggest several brands based on what I think will work best for them. I do this not because I earn money from it (I don’t), and not because I think those are the only choices that are valid (they aren’t), but because by and large most people want to feed their pet a commercial food.
Dogs have been around for about 15-30,000 years, according to the fossil record. Commercial pet food has only been around since 1860, when Ohio electrician James Spratt launched “Spratt’s Dog Cakes” in London. Before that, dogs survived for many years on whatever we ended up tossing to them from the firepit, stove, or table.
Over the years, pet food has evolved from canned horsemeat in the 1920s to the first extruded kibble in the 1950s, made with a machine adapted from a cereal extruder. Once the technical aspects of kibble production were perfected, companies began to focus on perfecting the nutrient profiles of their food, based on research from the National Research Council. With time these foods have evolved from a one-size-fits-all chow to specially designed foods for different breeds, sizes, and life stages, based on research that advances not only food sales but the veterinary knowledge base that helps us provide nutrition-based health management for a variety of diseases, such as diabetes, neoplasia, and renal failure.
As a massive industry that controls 95% of the U.S. pet caloric intake, it is not without faults. The melamine scandal in 2007 that resulted in a reported 100 deaths and many more illnesses blew open the issue of imported ingredients and lack of governmental oversight, as did the ongoing problems with imported jerkies from China. While the FDA and pet food companies have responded with tightened oversight, it’s created an erosion of trust that has yet to be repaired.
At the same time, we’ve seen a renewed interest in locally sourced foods and home cooking from the human side of things. Documentaries such as "Food Inc" have opened people’s eyes to the realities of industrialized food production in the last few decades, and as food trends such as local, organic, gluten-free, raw, and grain-free have taken hold for us, it’s only natural that people would look to similar options for their pets.
I can’t state it enough: If someone tells me they want to prepare their pet’s food, I don’t attempt to talk them out of it. There’s nothing wrong with that, and done well, it’s a truly marvelous thing to do for a dog or cat. What matters to me, and this is where the breakdown seems to happen most often, is that it’s done correctly. And really, that’s not as easy at it looks.
Take vegetarian diets, for example. A dog can maintain on a properly balanced vegetarian diet, though, just like as in people, special care needs to be given that the dog gets enough protein. I’ve used commercial diets like this in senior dogs with specific food allergies and concurrent renal disease with lowered protein requirements, for example.
Cats, on the other hand, are obligate carnivores; they cannot synthesize the taurine they need from vegetable protein sources, and cannot survive on a vegetarian diet. That doesn’t stop people from trying, and not for health reasons, usually, but because the owner wants their pet’s diet to reflect their own beliefs. Most every vet I know has seen clients who have tried this. Those people should have rabbits, not cats.
On the flip side, raw diets have also come into vogue in the pet community. The veterinary community views these with a great deal of trepidation. The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Animal Hospital Association, as well as the FDA, have all come out with official position statements cautioning against raw food diets.
Why? Truth be told, it has nothing to do with the pet at all. While many veterinarians have seen complications from clinical Salmonellosis to GI obstructions from various bones and raw food diets, the main concern across the board is not the health of the animal but the health of the owner. Various studies have shown up to 30-50% of raw diets contain pathogens such as Salmonella, Clostridium, E.Coli, Listeria, and Staphylococcus.
These pathogens, which are shed in the feces even when pets are not clinically ill, are particularly problematic to the elderly, the immunocompromised, and children. With antibiotic resistance at an all-time high, the risk to public health can be great. Pet food bowls are the fourth germiest place in the house, and this certainly doesn’t make it any better.
If someone wishes to prepare their pet’s food, I say “All power to you,” but I also recommend cooking it. All the benefits of home preparation with a greatly reduced risk of illness.
Which brings up the last snag: how do you ensure you’re preparing a balanced diet for your pet? According to a 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, only 5 recipes of the 200 evaluated provided adequate levels all essential nutrients as established by National Research Council guidelines.
5 out of 200. 129 of them written by well-meaning veterinarians. While the vets did a better job of getting closer to the standards than those written by non-vets, it’s still a pretty big problem. Critics maintain that rotating diets can overcome these individual deficiencies, but according to this study, even that did not provide a complete diet. Pets can certainly live long and appear externally to be doing just fine on a diet with imbalances in micronutrients (so can people, for that matter), but over time, the cumulative effects add up. By that time, it’s too late.
There are two proven ways to provide a balanced diet for your pet: feed a commercial diet that is formulated to provide complete and balanced nutrition, or use a recipe written by a board certified veterinary nutritionist — not me, and not the good looking guy in a lab coat with a book in his hand, but a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutritionists. One method is convenient and cost-efficient, the other allows complete control over the sourcing and quality of the pet food ingredients.
Both are great options for different reasons, which I’m happy to discuss at length with interested pet owners. Just not at parties.
Image: Sophie Louise Davis / Shutterstock