“Grain free”, “All Natural”, “Organic”, “Raw”, and “Wild” are all very successful pet food marketing tools. It is easy for pet owners to grasp these words because they sound “healthy”. It is even easier for pet food sales people to use them to pitch the latest and greatest all natural pet food that will ensure your pet lives a long healthy life. But are these foods actually better for your pet?
The people that you come across in the pet store (regardless how upscale, all natural or holistic it is) do not have a degree in animal nutrition. In fact, the majority of these sales people have little or no training in nutrition. When looking for expert advice we want an expert. The information in this article is from veterinary journal articles written by Veterinary Internal Medicine Specialists or Veterinary Nutritionists.
No scientific evidence has yet demonstrated that feeding Grain Free, All Natural, Organic, or Raw diets to healthy pets, compared to conventional diets, are better for your pets. There are no Veterinary Medical Journal articles that have been written that support the benefits of any of these diets for your pet. The real reason these diets became popular is marketing. These diets are a way for smaller, newer food companies to distinguish themselves from larger more established food companies. Pet stores and food companies can use these diets to prey upon human nature and popular belief that “all natural” must be better. Most people strive to eat all natural organic diets, so we want the same for our pets. Common misconceptions about large companies, fillers, by-products, grains, carbohydrates and recalls help make this easy sell regardless of the price.
Ingredients in Commercial Foods (aka byproducts and fillers those “other” food companies use)
Pet foods often contain byproducts (other organ meats and components from animals that people generally do not consume) from human food processing. These included parts actually are nutritious and have benefits to your pets. They may be unappealing to some humans, but are consumed in other cultures. Ironically, all natural salespeople love to compare domestic pets to wild animals when they want to sell their food. However, they then tell you how “unnatural” it is for pets to eat byproducts that they would consume in the wild. (more on this later). Commercial diets may also contain antioxidant preservatives to prevent nutrient degradation. Some diets MAY also contain food coloring to make the food more visually appealing to consumers. This coloring, if used, is the same coloring added to human food and is considered safe. There is a misconception that fillers, such as sawdust or other indigestible or no nutritional value ingredients are in commercial pet foods. Pet foods do contain technically indigestible ingredients, such as fiber, that function as probiotics and promote health of your pet’s colon.
Recalls (another reason to buy our all natural food)
In 2007, several pet foods were found to contain melamine, a toxin that caused kidney failure. This previously unknown toxin was impossible to predict. The industry took action during the recall, and the FDA has improved reporting of suspected toxic or contaminated food ingredients in response. All natural diets are not immune to recalls. One only has to do thorough searches online to see several “all natural” food companies have had recalls of their own. (type: company name in search http://www.fda.gov/default.htm)
How Closely Related to a Wild Animal is Your Pet?
A lot of companies use the marketing philosophy that their diet is similar to what your pet would eat in the wild. This has been a stepping stone for the idea that your pet’s diet should be low in grains or carbohydrates, or even raw. The reality is your pet has been domesticated over the past 10,000 years, during which their diet involved greater consumption of grains. According to a recent study published in Nature dogs are genetically dissimilar to wolves. This study found TEN genes in which domestic dogs digestion has evolved from wolves. Furthermore, it found that modern dogs thrive on diets rich in starch, compared to carnivorous diets of its ancestor the wolf.
One fact that has been proven about raw diets is that they are dangerous not to pets, but to their owners. Look at warnings on the packaging of raw meats that advise strict precautions when preparing them while cooking. All of the labels emphasize scrupulous hygiene like washing your hands, cooking surfaces and utensils. The reason is to avoid exposure to lethal bacteria like salmonella, E. coli and Yersinia. Not only can these bacteria cause your pet to become ill, they can also be passed to you. Furthermore some pets may show no signs of being ill and still pass the bacteria to you. For elderly people, immunocompromised people (such as with Chemotherapy) or young children the consequences could be life threatening. A recent study in the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association; found 20-35 percent of raw poultry and 80 percent of raw food diets tested positive for Salmonella. In addition 30 percent of the stool samples from dogs fed these diets tested positive Salmonella. It is for these reasons that our practice is adamantly opposed to raw diets. (see links below for more info on AVMA’s stance on raw diets)
Another point that all natural food gurus like to address is allergies. They are very quick to tell you (sell you) that your pets diet is solely responsible for your pets skin or digestive problems. They will tell you once you go to all natural diet your pets medical problems will magically disappear. As a veterinarian I will tell you that your pet’s diet is crucial part of its health. Diet is an important part of treating a magnitude of medical conditions. However, here are some medical facts to consider; true food allergy occurs in about 10 percent of the animal population. True corn allergies are even less frequent. Food allergies in pets can be very complicated. For this reason, they are best discussed with a Veterinarian, not someone trying to sell you food.
What is the Best Diet?
There is no “best” diet or best pet food company. However there are companies that are better than others. In addition the more expensive a diet is doesn’t always equate to quality. A lot of the bigger, more traditional commercial food companies employ expert food nutritionists, scientists and Veterinarians to help them develop their food. They also go to great lengths to insure the quality of their food with strict protocols. A lot of these protocols are not used by smaller “all natural” food companies. One thing to look for is that your pet’s food follows The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines. AAFCO is an advisory body that publishes guidelines for each state to adopt with their own feed control laws. AAFCO does not approve or endorse foods. If a number of animals get sick, then the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gets involved. What your pet diet label should say: Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that “pet food” provides complete and balanced nutrition for____. A lot of all natural food companies will claim that AAFCO trials are “not enough”, yet they offer no additional research of their own and sell the product as “formulated to meet” AAFCO standards. On the other hand a lot of the bigger commercial food companies are doing even more trials than AAFCO requires. So when selecting a food for your pet;
- Look at AAFCO statement. “Formulated foods” are manufactured so the ingredients meet specified levels, without testing via feeding trials; interpret with caution. However, the use of feeding trials does not guarantee the food.
- Do a search on the food and on the company on the FDA site, for recalls.
- Talk to your Veterinarian.
- Be careful what you read on the internet, use sites like the AVMA, AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) or Veterinary schools to get information. Avoid sites that claim to be knowledgeable or well researched but aren’t affiliated with any true experts (actual Veterinarian, Veterinary Internist, or Veterinary Nutritionist). I would NOT qualify a site run by a Dentist that reviews pet food as expert information. (There is a website run by human dentist. A dental degree and online research is not the equivalent to a Veterinarian.)
- What is the manufacturer’s reputation as a food maker? Have you had positive experiences with their products? What objective (not testimonial) information do they provide about their foods to assist evaluation?
- Any diet change you do with your pet’s diet, do it gradually to avoid an “upset stomach”.
Useful Links (Further reading)
Tufts Veterinary School FAQS about pet nutrition: http://archive.today/hEYBk
American Veterinary Medical Association recall watch: http://www.avma.org/news/issues/recalls-alerts/pages/default.aspx
Veterinary Nutritional Consult (or to cook for your pet): www.petdiets.com/Consultation
AVMA policies and FAQs on Raw Diets: http://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/FAQs/Pages/Raw-Pet-Foods-and-the-AVMA-Policy-FAQ.aspx