The melamine contamination of pet food in 2007 was a real shock to pet food owners. Concern about the quality of commercial pet food sparked greater interest in alternatives and greater numbers of pet owners turned to raw, homemade, or niche "natural" and "organic" grain-free pet food manufacturers.
Many of the major manufacturers of popular affordable pet foods faced major criticism and the organization that oversees commercial pet food formulations, the Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO, was chastised for the lack of quality concerns in their formula mandates.
Much of this criticism was, and is, probably warranted. However, it is important to remember the contribution standardized nutrient requirements has had on the quality and length of our pets’ lives.
The Beginning of the Commercial Pet Food Revolution
Prior to the start of World War II in 1941, most dogs were fed leftovers from the kitchen table and cats earned their keep (and most meals) by hunting rats and mice. Although a commercial canned dog food existed, few pet owners purchased the food. The war changed all of that when American men went overseas to war and American women headed to the factories to produce the vehicles, equipment, and weapons needed to fight. Cooking dinner was less frequent and food rationing reduced potential table scraps. Poor Fido was the odd man out. Households turned to commercial canned food to fill the void.
After the war, pet owners continued to purchase canned commercial food. Canned cat formulations also became available. In the late 50s the process for making dry kibbled food was invented. That really sealed the deal and pets no longer relied on leftovers for their nutrition. As the popularity of this method increased, so did nutritional oversight. The National Research Council (NRC) and AAFCO established nutrient requirements for dog and cat foods that have been continually updated as nutritional research has evolved.
The NRC and AAFCO have established minimum daily requirements for protein and fat. They also specify daily amounts of 12 amino acids (13 for cats), 2 fatty acids (3 for cats), 12 minerals, and 11 vitamins that are essential for optimum health in dogs and cats. Varying quantities of these required nutrients have been established for various life stages and lifestyles (growth, maintenance, pregnancy, lactation, and performance and working). All commercial pet food is required to meet these quantitative standards.
This is very different than the table scrap leftovers offered to pets prior to WW II. The economy had yet to recover from the Great Depression. The majority of households had barely enough food for the large families that were typical of that period. Family meals were far from adequately balanced for humans, let alone pets. And as a member of that generation I can personally verify that the concept of second helpings at meals did not exist.
The leftovers offered to pets were not nearly adequate or complete as the balanced nutrition found in today’s commercial pet foods, no matter what the brand. Generally, pets were unkempt and had shorter lifespans. In fact, the misguided concept of one dog year equaling seven human years, with animals over ten years of age being "ancient," was born in this period.
Change in Pet Lifespans
Lifespan studies in pets verify a trend that the lifespan of pets has increased during the decades following WW II. Without a doubt, effective vaccines, early sexual neutering, and advances in veterinary medicine have influenced these trends, but the role of nutrition cannot be overlooked. Geographical, cultural, and economic differences yield significant variability of pet lifespan, but the trend in all categories is toward longer lives.
This means that even pets without access to preventive care or veterinary advances are still enjoying longer lives. Although not conclusive, this suggests that nutrition has played a significant role in this trend. Broad access to affordable, standardized pet food formulas has allowed for more pets to benefit from a more complete nutrition. It is easy to forget this when incidents like melamine poisonings occur and blanket indictments of pet food manufacturers is fashionable. Like contamination incidents in human food, it is easy to condemn while forgetting the billions of healthy meals that were consumed prior.
Not a Defense
This blog is not intended as a defense of commercial pet foods. In fact, I formulate homemade diets for dogs. Rather than a one-size-fits-all, these diets can be easily manipulated to meet the individual needs or problems of each dog. Human food ingredients also offer a greater quality of bioavailability (digestion and absorption) than many of the ingredients in commercial pet food. However, each diet is formulated to meet or exceed the NRC and AAFCO requirements for the 39 essential nutrients that are required for all commercial pet foods that display the AAFCO certification. Millions of pets have benefited from these standards.
Dr. Ken Tudor