Christie Keith

Christie Keith has covered canine health and welfare issues since 1991, is the lead science reporter for Pet Connection and writes the "Your Whole Pet" column.

Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Should You Put Your Dog on a Raw Food Diet?
Raw food: Yes or no? Strong opinions line up on both sides.

Linguist George Lakoff rose to national prominence during the 2004 presidential campaign for pointing out that conservatives have done a much better job than progressives at framing political debate, and for encouraging the left to stop shooting itself in the foot with the words it uses. While no doubt the good professor would be surprised to hear it, his ideas also shed some light on a very canine subject: the war of words being waged over raw diets for dogs.

Pro-raw feeding extremists tend to be bombastic and refuse to admit any variation among individual animals, nor the needs, wants or desires of the owners of these animals as regards diet. Any problem can be solved by diet, and if problems persist after switching to a raw diet, then the diet needs to be further refined and tweaked. They tend to be anti-veterinarian, anti-commercial foods, anti-cooked food, anti-grain and often anti-supplement.

If your dog fell down the stairs and sprained his shoulder, diet caused it and a diet change will fix it. Raw meaty bones are the universal prescription.

Anti-raw feeding extremists tend to be bombastic and refuse to admit any possible benefits of a raw or homemade diet. They lump all homemade diets together as unbalanced and dangerous. All raw meat, from contaminated ground meats labeled unfit for human consumption to a $19-a-pound grass-fed steak, are considered equally dangerous. Commercial diets are above reproach, formulated by scientists who are completely removed from any marketing, pricing or competitive realities. Health comes in a sack labeled “Complete and Balanced,” and dogs fed raw meat and bones are doomed to have their skeletons dissolve and their intestines turn to bloody jelly, shortly after which they will all die long, painful deaths from parasite infestations.

If your dog is hit by a car, and needs surgery, the accident was caused by diet and putting the dog on kibble will fix it. Commercial diets are the universal prescription.

Forgotten on the sidelines is everyone else—those who feed a little “people food” to their pets but feel bad about it; those who wouldn’t dream of supplementing their dog’s “complete and balanced” commercial diet with anything beyond the occasional complete and balanced Milk Bone; those who regularly feed pizza, Big Macs and French fries to their dogs and can’t remember the last time they bought dog food for the dog or ate a salad themselves; those who use a wide variety of fresh foods with premium kibble; and those who feed an entirely homemade diet but aren’t “pure” enough to satisfy the raw-food extremists. And most importantly, there are the seekers—the legions of dog owners flooding the email lists and message boards trying to figure out how to feed their pets better; wanting to understand what “the raw diet” is, exactly; looking for hints on switching their pets; or trying to find out if changing to a better commercial diet or completely to homemade will help a pet with a health problem.

These folks are met with a hailstorm of advice, most peppered with acronyms that make no sense to them. Some people suggest books they can read, while others warn them to forget the books and listen to their common sense and/or Mother Nature and/or evolution. Feed bones, don’t feed bones, don’t feed raw, you are killing your dog by feeding him kibble, keep feeding kibble until you’re ready to feed raw responsibly, and above all, don’t commit heresy. (“Heresy” would be advocating Billinghurst to a crowd of Lonsdaleians—and if you don’t know what I mean, be thankful and move on.)

I have fed raw diets to my dogs for 20 years, and spent much of that time in the crossfire of this debate, criticized as “not holistic enough” by the raw-feeding extremists, and as a “wild-eyed fanatic” by the commercial foods camp. Although I’m always happy to share my experiences and ideas about canine nutrition, I don’t shove my way down anyone’s throat. I usually recommend several books representing a number of approaches to canine nutrition, and suggest that people experiment and see what they like best and what works well for their pets. To me it makes sense, but there’s a problem with that seemingly reasonable approach.

David Brock, in The Republican Noise Machine, points out that television news shows often bring on a conservative guest to represent one side of an issue, and then “balance” that with a supposedly “liberal” guest from the world of journalism or academia. The journalist or professor takes each issue separately, looks at it from all sides, and expresses her viewpoint in a way she perceives as objective. The conservative guest will relentlessly and often powerfully deliver the message d’jour of the conservative movement, while the supposedly liberal guest appears weak and uncommitted, exemplifying the famous quote by Robert Frost, “A liberal man is too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.”

At some point in the raw diet debates, what I see as my broad-mindedness and objectivity come across as an unwillingness to take a stand, a loathsome form of wishy-washiness. It’s frustrating, because I’m allergic to gurus and would rather people make their own decisions than adopt mine, even if their decision is, in my view, the wrong one. So, what to do?

Those on both sides could learn a thing or two about framing the debate from Lakoff. We need to use terms that will be helpful to the seekers, those swing voters of the dog food wars, and stop using language that triggers fear. Extremists arguing either way, sometimes deliberately and sometimes unconsciously, use fear to get people to do what they think they should do, and the only ethical course is to stop. Stop telling them they are killing their dogs.

Millions of dogs live long, relatively healthy lives eating kibble. It’s just a fact. Their health may not be as good as it could have been, and many of them would have been healthier on a better diet, but a blunt statement that “kibble kills dogs” is going to ring false to nearly everyone who hears it. Just the same, anti-raw fanatics can’t tell me that “raw meat kills pets” when I’ve had so many cats and dogs live long, healthy lives—longer in the case of my Deerhounds then their kibble-fed littermates raised by other people—on raw diets.

Those of us who advocate home-prepared diets need to stop implying that diets based on bones are the only alternative to kibble. Lead people by the hand through easy stages. You can jump from generic grocery store kibble to whole prey carcass in one step, but hardly anyone does, or will. Many of us started out slowly, adding fresh foods to commercial foods, improving the commercial foods we used or switching to cooked homemade diets, before we started really experimenting with diets based on carcasses and bones and hunks of meat.

The process does matter, because it’s by going through their own process at their own pace that people become invested in preparing their dog’s food themselves. It’s a way for them to build confidence in their ability to feed their pet, and to find ways to make it work with their lifestyle and financial constraints. If they are by nature someone who goes whole hog with new ideas, there is nothing wrong with making the big leap—but there is also nothing wrong with crawling before you walk and walking before you run. Be gentle.

We also need to take a long, hard look at the words we use. We can use terms like “nutritious home-prepared diets” instead of “the raw diet.” (Since there is no monolithic “raw diet,” such a phrase is meaningless anyway.) We can use terms like “fresh,” “variety” and “wholesome” to talk about the kind of diets we advocate. We can defuse 90 percent of the criticism of raw and/or homemade diets by simply changing our terms. Specifying the diet be nutritious and wholesome somewhat inoculates the seeker from being told they are feeding an unbalanced or contaminated diet.

Of course, in the end, the pro-raw and anti-raw dog owners will not agree, any more than conservatives and progressives do. Still, before you enlist in the “Red Dog/Blue Dog” wars, consider the power of a few well-chosen words, and at least raise the level of the debate—good advice in politics as well as dog food.


Wellness: Healthy Living
The Big Fat Truth About Canine Obesity
Changing our own habits can help our dogs live longer

Obesity in dogs could be considered a perception problem—a human perception problem. While a whopping 34 percent of dogs are overweight, only around 30 to 40 percent of the folks who put the food in the bowl for them know it. Canine obesity can cause or worsen musculoskeletal problems, exercise intolerance, cardiovascular problems and glucose tolerance imbalances. It also weakens the immune system and increases the risks of anesthesia; during certain surgical procedures, it can increase heat sensitivity.


Need more? The worst thing about dogs is that they don’t live long enough. Canine lifespan has been extended by as much as two years when the dogs are kept lean, and that’s the kind of life insurance we can all buy.


Why Are Dogs Fat?

What makes dogs fat? There’s the obvious answer—too many calories, not enough exercise—but that’s an oversimplification. Canine and human lifestyle issues, as well as human psychology, carry most of the blame, although hormone imbalances (see Balancing Act below), reproductive status and genetics play minor roles.


For most overweight dogs, the real culprit is a combination of free-feeding, boredom and not enough playtime. And then there’s the psychological component. No, don’t call the doggie shrink, because it’s not the dog’s psyche; it’s the psyche of the person who’s responsible for leaving a big bowl of dog food available all day and cutting the half-hour walk down to a five-minute backyard potty break.


Furthermore, although dogs of any breed (or mix) can be overweight, research shows that dogs of certain breeds are more prone to being overweight than others, which suggests a genetic component. These breeds include Cocker Spaniels, Labrador and Golden Retrievers, Basset Hounds, Shetland Sheepdogs, and Dachshunds.


Does spaying and neutering make your dog fat? Of course not. But there is a connection between how many calories a dog requires and reproductive status. This doesn’t mean that being altered “makes” your dog fat; it means that spayed and neutered dogs, as well as older dogs, generally require fewer calories and/or more exercise to maintain a healthy weight. As your dog ages, and after altering, you need to be especially aware of weight gain, and act immediately to reduce caloric intake and increase activity levels if necessary.


Healthy Weight Loss

While healthy, permanent weight loss in humans is hard to achieve, it’s much easier with dogs. They don’t eat a container of Ben and Jerry’s after a stressful day, and they rarely hit the drive-through instead of making a healthy dinner. As long as the human in the relationship manages not to overfeed and under-exercise the dog, weight-loss programs for canines are surprisingly successful.


Before getting started, head to the vet and make sure your dog doesn’t have medical issues that might be affected by a weight-loss and exercise program. Than ask your vet to help you calculate a reasonable caloric intake for your dog. Aim for a loss of no more than 1 to 2 percent of body weight per week.


There are a number of ways to determine a starting caloric level for healthy weight loss. Your veterinarian can use formulas known as Maintenance Energy Requirement (MER) or Resting Energy Requirement (RER) to give you a basic caloric level for your dog’s diet. Other practitioners simply restrict food below current levels by a specific percentage. While different methods may result in different figures, these differences aren’t important. Trial and error is required to determine your actual dog’s metabolic requirements, but any of these methods give you a place to start. If your dog doesn’t lose weight, or loses weight too rapidly, that particular caloric level is not right for that dog and should be adjusted up or down as necessary.


Knowing how many calories a given commercial food contains in a serving can be confusing. Sometimes the calories are given per cup, and other times per gram, and sometimes both. A cup of one food might weigh more or less than a cup of another food, so buy a food scale and measure the food by weight, not by volume. Don’t just follow the feeding guidelines on a bag of food, as they are almost always too generous to support weight loss. If feeding a home-prepared diet, simply calculate the calories in the ingredients as you would for your own diet.


In addition, restricting calories too severely—especially for very obese dogs—can backfire, and can also result in nutritional deficiencies that can impair wound-healing and immune function. When it comes to healthy weight loss, patience is a virtue. Loss of more than 2 percent of body weight in a week can lead to the loss of lean muscle instead of fat. Don’t rush things; if your dog has a lot of weight to lose, decrease his or her caloric intake in stages, and realize that most dogs will lose ounces, not pounds, at a time. As long as the scale keeps moving downward, slow is better than fast.


One of the biggest culprits in canine obesity is lack of exercise, and not just because exercise cranks up the metabolism and burns calories. It’s also because our sedentary pets are bored, and eating is one of the things they do to alleviate boredom. If we leave food available to them throughout the day, as is extremely common, they will eat more than if we feed them on a schedule and then pick up any uneaten food after a fixed amount of time. So let go of the convenience of free-feeding, feed your dog two or more small meals a day at regular intervals and make your dog’s life more active and interesting with longer walks and increased playtime.


It’s Up to Us

A study at Ohio State University found that weight-loss programs for dogs were extremely successful as long as the people involved stuck with them. Being lean can add years to your dog’s life, and being obese can cause a myriad of health problems and significant joint pain. Our dogs can’t join a gym or eat better on their own; it’s up to us to make healthy choices on their behalf.


Dog's Life: Humane
No Kill Nation
How close are we to achieving this "impossible dream"?

For decades, the dream of a no-kill nation was considered exactly that: a dream. Yet today, communities across the country are closing in on the promise of saving all their healthy and treatable dogs and cats. Almost all organizations in - volved in tracking shelter data, including the Humane Society of the United States and Maddie’s Fund, estimate that the number of animals killed annually in shelters has plummeted from more than 25 million in the 1970s to around four million today.The United States has never been closer to becoming a no-kill nation than it is at this moment. But will we ever get there?

At the Best Friends’ October 2009 No More Homeless Pets conference in Las Vegas, Gregory Castle spoke about “this phenomenal moment” in history. Castle is one of the co-founders of Best Friends Animal Society, a national advocacy group for ending pet homelessness, which also operates an animal sanctuary and adoption center on roughly 33,000 acres in Kanab, Utah. Castle has been involved in the animal welfare movement for more than three decades.

“In my years working in this field, I’ve seen a building momentum behind the no-kill movement,” Castle says. “Of course, we’re consumed by the tragedy of the four million animals that are still being killed each year, and that’s taking all our attention. But the reality is, progress has been very fast.”

That progress was hard to imagine 15 years ago, when Richard Avanzino, thenpresident of the San Francisco SPCA, announced that the city and county would no longer kill healthy animals in either its private or animal control shelters. Not only was it the first time a community had attempted such a thing, it was the first time anyone had suggested it was even possible.

In the years that followed, it didn’t seem that it was. The story of how Avanzino took San Francisco to the brink of becoming the world’s first no-kill community is as much a cautionary tale as a cause to rejoice. Because, while Avanzino’s “experiment in compassion” certainly saved the lives of tens of thousands of animals, it ultimately fell short of its goal. Worse, it marked the beginning of the most divisive period in the history of the animal welfare movement.

The differences were both logistical and philosophical. Defenders of traditional sheltering and animal control believed there were no alternatives to killing a certain number of the dogs and cats who came through their doors; there were too many to re-home. “We can’t adopt our way out of pet overpopulation” was their cry. If Avanzino and others in what had come to be called the “no-kill movement” claimed they could do that, it was either some kind of smoke-and-mirrors deception or San Francisco was unique, with resources and a demographic that no other community could reproduce.

No-kill advocates believed that the combination of programs developed or championed in San Francisco could be exported to all kinds of communities and would result in shelter intakes going down and adoptions going up. From their point of view, shelter directors who failed to espouse programs like trap/neuter /return of feral cats, lowcost or free spay/neuter services, and comprehensive foster home and rescue group networks were guilty of senselessly killing the very animals they were supposed to be helping.

In short, what might have been nothing more than two different sheltering models competing for market share turned into a contentious debate. Not only did ending the killing of the nation’s homeless pets seem like an impossible goal, so, too, did getting its animal welfare leaders to stop fighting about it.

In 2004, representatives of a number of animal welfare organizations, animal control agencies and shelters—including HSUS, Maddie’s Fund, the American Humane Association and the ASPCA— got together in Pacific Grove, Calif., and drafted a series of guiding principles called the Asilomar Accords. It was an attempt to find enough common ground for everyone to stand on. One of the first tasks tackled was to define the group of animals the no-kill movement wanted to see saved, those who were “healthy and treatable.”

The Asilomar Accords define “healthy animals” as those dogs and cats eight weeks or older with no medical or behavioral problems that would cause a health or safety risk or make them unsuitable for placement as a pet. “Treatable” dogs and cats were simply those who could fit the definition of a healthy animal given “medical, foster, behavioral or other care equivalent to the care typically provided to pets by reasonable and caring pet owners/guardians in the community.”

Unfortunately, the accords, drafted by committee and full of compromise on all sides, failed to heal the great divide. Nokill proponents continued to maintain that the more traditional animal control and shelter groups killed animals because they couldn’t (some said wouldn’t) do what it took to save them. In response, these groups—who felt no-kill was an admirable but unrealistic goal—said that the no-kill movement “cherry picked” adoptable animals for its own shelters, leaving the rest to be euthanized by other organizations and agencies.

A Movement Defines Itself
If “no-kill,” by those definitions, meant saving all healthy and treatable animals, what about animals less than eight weeks who were being saved in several communities by dedicated foster programs?What about animals who were healthy or treatable when they entered a shelter, but due to bad management practices, became untreatable while they were there? 

The gap created by these questions was filled by a new, more empirical definition that gained rapid acceptance in no-kill circles: A community needed to be saving more than 90 percent of its homeless animals to be considered no-kill.

The word “community” also became a central part of how the movement defined itself. No-kill was not about the policies and programs of an organization in isolation, but about region-wide animal control policies involving municipal facilities and animal control agencies along with private shelters and rescue groups. After all, nothing particularly earthshaking happened when the SF/SPCA gave up its animal control contract and became a no-kill shelter. There had always been no-kill shelters and rescue groups, and adding one more to the roster wasn’t game-changing.

Something entirely new happened, however, on the day the SF/SPCA reached across the street to the city’s newly constructed Animal Care and Control shelter and promised to take all the healthy animals it was currently killing, and as many of the treatable as possible. Even more revolutionary was that the SPCA then went to the county government to make it official. Known as the “Adoption Pact,” San Francisco’s community-wide collaboration between private shelters, rescue groups, animal control and local government became the model for a movement to radically reform how every city and county in the United States manages its homeless pets.

Getting It Done
While the war of words raged on, a quiet revolution was taking place across the country. A handful of towns and counties tried the programs advocated by the no-kill movement, bringing animal control, private shelters and rescue groups together to save the lives of the community’s homeless animals.

Tompkins County, N.Y., was the first community in the nation to reach the goal of killing zero healthy or treatable dogs and cats in 2001, an achievement it’s sustained to the present day. In California, Berkeley Animal Care Services, the Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society and Home at Last Animal Rescue joined together in the Berkeley Alliance for Homeless Animals Coalition and reached the goal of saving more than 90 percent of all healthy and treatable animals in the city of Berkeley in 2002; they, too, have been able to maintain this achievement. In 2006, the City of Charlottesville and County of Albemarle, Va., also saved more than 90 percent of their community’s homeless animals. The Nevada Humane Society and Washoe County Regional Animal Services are saving 90.5 percent of dogs and 88 percent of cats as of late 2009, in a region spectacularly hard-hit by the economic downturn and foreclosure crisis.

All of these communities accomplished their goals in the same way—by working the hell out of the programs that grew out of the laboratory of the SF/SPCA all those years ago.

“A growing number of cities are saving record numbers of animals,” says Nevada Humane Society director and former Best Friends COO Bonney Brown. “And there is no mystery to how you do it, either. Any organization that puts their very best effort into increasing pet adoptions, trap/neuter/return [TNR] for feral cats and other lifesaving programs is going to see a dramatic increase in the number of animals they are saving.”

Those “lifesaving programs” include accessible, low-cost or free spay/neuter services; TNR for feral cats; comprehensive foster networks to increase the community’s carrying capacity for homeless animals; and good relationships with the animal lovers in the community who might volunteer for and donate to animal shelters and rescue groups—and ultimately adopt animals.

Other lifesaving actions might incorporate strategies from the business world such as excellent customer service, convenient hours and locations, and aggressive marketing of available pets through advertising, media outreach and anything else that works to get dogs and cats out of shelters and into good homes.

Kate Hurley, DVM, MPVM, and director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at UC Davis, would like to see the shelter world, including its veterinarians, use more of the language and strategies of the business world. After all, she says, “If we keep animals from getting ill in a shelter, but then they die because there’s no home for them, we really haven’t succeeded.”

Hurley has taken heat for that view. “I’ve been criticized for using the language of merchandising in describing strategies for homeless animal management,” she says. “I want to be clear that I place a far higher value on homeless animals than I do on groceries, and I want us to use all the tools we have to serve them to the very best of our ability. We’ve spent a lot of energy in this society studying how to move merchandise effectively. We need to pay that kind of attention to finding options for homeless animals. Applying that intelligence and that analysis and that discipline to managing animal populations is really more compassionate than refusing to bring some rationality to it.”

Hurley’s prescription for no-kill success is a now-familiar list of programs used in San Francisco, Washoe County and elsewhere. But moving animals safely and rapidly through the shelter system isn’t her only goal. Hurley wants to see communities work toward options that keep homeless pets out of the shelter system entirely, like home-based rescue groups and foster homes. “No one could believe in no-kill more than I do,” she says. “But a very expensive and relatively unsuccessful part of this equation is putting animals in shelters and then trying to get them out healthy, sane and alive. When you’re talking about no-kill, by the time you’re deciding whether or not to kill the animal who is in your shelter, you’ve already lost nine-tenths of the battle—and it was the nine-tenths that was easiest to win.”

It’s a lesson not lost on successful nokill communities. The Nevada Humane Society operates a pet help desk that gives training and behavior advice as well as support to people struggling with foreclosure and job loss to help them keep their family pets. They even have programs that help with pet food and veterinary costs. It could be considered one of the secrets to their success, except, of course, it’s no secret; Bonney Brown brought it with her from her days at Best Friends, which still maintains a national pet help desk of its own.

Impossible or Inevitable?
Nathan Winograd is a former prosecuting attorney who served as director of operations for the SF/SPCA under Avanzino. He went on to serve as director of the Tompkins County SPCA, the region’s open-admission animal control facility, during its transition to nokill. He’s also the author of Redemption: The Myth of Pet Over-Population and the No-Kill Revolution in America, a book that galvanized the no-kill movement when it was released in 2007, and the recently published Irreconcilable Differences.

“The path to no-kill is the same everywhere,” he says. “It is the programs and services born out of the vision Rich Avanzino had in San Francisco. That model has achieved no-kill in Tompkins County, in Charlottesville, in Reno, and in all parts of the country. If every community comprehensively implemented all those programs and services, we would be a no-kill nation today.”

We’re not a no-kill nation today, but there has been a shift in the conventional wisdom on the subject that’s impossible to ignore. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the nation’s largest and wealthiest animal welfare organization, the Humane Society of the United States, is adamant that the country will soon end the killing of healthy and treatable dogs and cats. In fact, he says, not only has his organization gotten on board the no-kill train, it brought friends.

“There’s been a real sea change in attitude,” he says. “It used to be very polarized, but in addition to HSUS embracing the goal of no-kill with great enthusiasm, so has the National Federation of Humane Societies, which has established a no-kill goal in their ‘2020 Vision’ program, even though they’re made up of shelters and animal control agencies that are considered more traditional. So I think that the divide is really illusory. It doesn’t exist.” During a recent San Francisco town hall meeting, Pacelle told the audience he expects the United States to reach a no-kill goal by 2015.

Kate Hurley has said, “Saving all the healthy and treatable animals in this country is absolutely inevitable,” and Pacelle, Avanzino, Winograd, Brown and Castle agree. It’s a group of people not always, or even often, in accord, and this marks a singular “kumbaya” moment for the animal welfare movement.

It’s one Avanzino welcomes. “We should all be trying to work together,” he says. “We should overcome our past differences and talk about what we can do together, not spend our resources on needless fighting. We’re here to start a new path, to accomplish what has never been achieved before.”

Wellness: Healthy Living
Pet Food Politics: Know Where Your Dog's Food Comes From
Interview with Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim on the state of canine nutrition

Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, is one of America’s best-known critics of food safety and nutrition. The author of Food Politics and What to Eat as well as a popular columnist and blogger, she is the Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. In 2007, she and her partner, Malden Nesheim, PhD, professor and provost emeritus of Cornell University—both of whom are Bark contributing editors—turned their attention to the pet food industry. The result is Nestle’s book, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, the story of the melamine pet food recalls, and the book they wrote together, Feed Your Pet Right, due out next year. Christie Keith recently spoke with Nestle and Nesheim to find out what they’ve learned about pet food during the last two years, as well as what they see as the relationship between pet and human food safety and nutrition.

BARK: Marion, you’ve frequently said that everyone, whether they have pets or not, should care about pet food because “there is only one food supply.” I think that’s counterintuitive for some people. Could you elaborate?

Marion Nestle: Pets eat the same foods we do—they may eat different parts, but the sources are the same. The pet food recalls were a perfect example of what’s gone wrong with our food system. They made it obvious that food for pets and food for people are inseparable. Taking it a step further, the pet food recalls made the discovery of melamine in Chinese infant formula completely predictable.

BARK: At the time of the recalls, we talked about how few manufacturers (of both pet and human foods) realized that many of their ingredients were coming from a single source, and that many consumers were surprised to find out so many foods were made by the same company (Menu). Did that surprise you, too?

Nestle: We were stunned. We had no idea that a company we had never heard of made 95 brands of pet foods for most of the major companies. And the fact that all those brands—from Ol’ Roy to Iams—were made at one plant? What a revelation. But look how it prepared us for this year’s peanut butter recall, which is the same situation all over again: One company makes an ingredient that goes into thousands of products. The companies making these products have no clue where their peanut butter comes from because they get it from a broker. That’s our food system.

BARK: I was surprised to hear that you’ve come to believe commercial foods are not as bad as you thought they were going to be—that most animals “do fine” on commercial diets. And yet, the American Veterinary Dental Society says 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats show signs of oral disease by the age of three. It’s estimated that something like one in five adult dogs (double that for senior dogs) has arthritis, and there’s a high rate of obesity in dogs and cats. So I wonder if it’s really defensible to say that most dogs in America “do fine.”

Malden Nesheim: One problem is that we don’t have anything to compare to what’s happening now. We found data on the average age of dogs coming to veterinary practices; generally speaking, they are getting older. But what does that mean? Does that mean the dogs are living longer, or that more people are taking animals to veterinarians? We just don’t know.

Nestle: And it’s not for lack of trying. We tried really, really hard to find the kind of statistical information we needed to make a good judgment about trends in pet health, but we couldn’t. We have no idea whether oral disease is getting better or worse and couldn’t even find out whether dogs are living shorter or longer lives now. The data simply don’t exist. And we are dismayed by this.

BARK: So if that’s the case, and we can’t really say with authority that most animals “do fine” on their commercial diet, what advice would you give people trying to decide if the food they’re feeding their dogs is one on which they are thriving?

Nestle: When we say “thrive,” we mean “happy and healthy.” If the animal isn’t thriving on one food or recipe, people should switch to another. If a dog doesn’t like a food, try another one. If a dog develops minor skin or digestive problems, try another food (major problems need veterinary advice along with dietary changes).

BARK: Are the high-end commercial foods—many of which didn’t exist until relatively recently—genuinely superior to lower priced, more mass-marketed products, in objective terms?

Nesheim: We looked for the evidence of such superiority, and of course, couldn’t find much. We were only able to find one published study in which veterinarians compared one commercial diet to another. We’d like to see comparative studies, but who’d fund them? Pet food companies only publish studies that put their products in a good light. All complete-and-balanced products have to meet the same nutritional standards. Only the ingredients vary. Do these make a difference? Maybe, but again, we can’t find the science.

We know dog owners who swear their animals flourish on every kind of diet you can think of, from the cheapest kibble to home-cooked. We think values are at stake here. People have lots of options for feeding their dogs and can choose diets that fit their value systems, lifestyles and pocketbooks. They can do what feels right for them. As long as they are meeting the dog’s nutritional needs—and not underfeeding or overfeeding—the dogs should be okay.

One other thing. We’d like pet food labels to say that the foods were tested in animal feeding studies, as opposed to just meeting the AAFCO profiles. We hear lots of criticisms about feeding studies, that they’re not long enough or don’t use enough animals. But I still feel more comfortable when a food I’m using has been fed to an animal that did okay on it.

Nestle: The testing issue bothered us a lot. Most pet foods aren’t tested on animals to see if they really do meet nutritional needs.

BARK: So, though you say all the foods meet nutritional needs, isn’t it more accurate to say the ones that were tested in feeding trials met the needs of the animals in the feeding trials, according to the parameters of the trials?

Nestle: Yes. The untested pet foods are supposed to have the same nutritional value as the ones actually fed to pets, but we think this is an inferior way of evaluation. We think all complete-and-balanced foods should be tested—we want more testing, not less, and we think the tests should be done under the highest possible standards. In reviewing the literature—how can we put this politely—we were concerned about the quality of a lot of pet food research. We think the scientific standards should be as high as possible. But no government agency funds pet food research; it’s mostly done by pet food companies with a vested interest in the outcome. And pet food companies won’t risk funding studies that might show no difference between one brand and another.

BARK: Do you have ethical concerns about using animals in feeding trials?

Nestle: We worried a lot about this question and consulted several animal ethicists. We were reassured when they all agreed that research is okay to do when it respects the animals. Whenever possible, they’d like feeding studies to be conducted in the dogs’ homes. But the dogs should always be treated well, allowed to move around and played with regularly. They want the studies to be relatively noninvasive and cause no harm. The dogs should be adopted into good homes. Beyond that, the experiments need to be top-quality science, carefully designed and closely monitored. Mal visited one pet food research facility that met these conditions. We assume that was why the company let him see it. Most others wouldn’t let us get near their facilities.

In Feed Your Pet Right, we go into the research issues, we hope entertainingly. We also discuss the nutrition training of veterinarians, which we view as a problem because so much of it is funded by pet-food companies. We think dogs, cats and their owners deserve better.

BARK: Both of you have recommended that pet owners contact pet food manufacturers to get information about how their product is made and what it contains. But as so many of us learned during the recalls, manufacturers don’t always know where each ingredient comes from. People who did call were put on hold, hung up on or given incorrect information—innocently or not—as well as given partial information or “official corporate statements” that didn’t answer their questions. Add to that the fact pet food labels aren’t comprehensible to most people. So how do we make a decision about commercial foods?

Nestle: It’s not easy. But we saw plenty of companies—Castor & Pollux and Natural Balance, for example—going to a lot of trouble to make what they were doing transparent, have their products tested, source their ingredients and post this information on their websites. All pet food companies need to be hearing from pet owners who care about these issues.

BARK: It sounds like you consider consumer contacts as a form of training for the pet food companies rather than something that will result in useful information for the pet owner.

Nestle: Yes. The question is whether you believe what the companies say. What else can you do? No government agency is checking. The FDA is up to its ears in contaminated peanut butter and pistachios, and pet food is way down on its priority list. We need some public uproar. The FDA only does what Congress tells it to. Pet owners need to be in close touch with their congressional representatives.

BARK: Given the high percentage of people who have pets—including, presumably, congressional representatives—it’s interesting that so many people don’t seem to understand what an enormous consumer issue this is.

Nestle: That’s because it’s “just pets.” We hear that all the time when we talk about what we’re writing. Even my friends say, “I haven’t read Pet Food Politics. Why would I read a book about pet food?” or “Why are you wasting your time writing about dogs and cats?” I didn’t think it was a waste of time at all. What affects the pet food supply affects the human food supply, and vice versa. And people are very emotionally involved with their pets. We see this as a big plus.

BARK: And it’s a multibillion-dollar industry.

Nestle: Forty-three billion dollars a year, and pet food itself is $17 billion.

BARK: Can you give our readers a taste of what to expect when Feed Your Pet Right comes out next year?

Nestle: Mostly we tried to satisfy our curiosity. We wanted to know what ancestral wolves and cats ate and how they differed from modern dogs and cats. We wondered what pets ate before commercial pet food existed, so we went back to the earliest written records we could find. When did the pet food industry start? What did it look like in the past and what does it look like now? How is it regulated? What kinds of foods are on the market? How do you read their labels? What are different kinds of diets—commercial, home-cooked, raw, kosher, vegetarian—and how do they work? We also wanted to find out about related issues, like how veterinarians learn about nutrition and how ethicists view feeding experiments on dogs and cats. Our concluding chapter has recommendations for the FDA, manufacturers, veterinarians and pet owners about what they all need to be doing to improve the situation.

BARK: You’re typically very even-handed in your discussion of these issues. How do you think the different stakeholders—pet owners, veterinarians, pet food companies—are going to react to the book?

Nestle: We suspect that what you call our even-handedness will catch us in the middle on lots of issues. Although we ended up believing that dogs can be fed successfully in many different ways, we have plenty of critical things to say about the industry and veterinary nutrition training.

BARK: How so?

Nestle: We think veterinarians need to be taught more about nutrition, and by experts who don’t work for pet food companies. Mal surveyed veterinary schools to find out whether they were worried about the conflicts of interest caused by pet food company involvement. Most weren’t. They should be. The veterinary school at Cornell is covered with posters from pet food companies.

Nesheim: Right. And our students get free pet food from pet food companies.

Nestle: The entire system works just like drug company involvement in medical schools. Pet food companies provide free food and swag to students, write the major nutrition textbooks, and sponsor students and professors. And veterinary practices sell pet food. We think all this creates conflicts of interest that deserve some critical attention.

Plenty of evidence supports the idea that drug companies influence prescription practices. Why would pet food be any different? Veterinarians don’t have to know anything about nutrition because pet foods are “complete and balanced.” All they have to say is “Buy this brand.” That’s why Feed Your Pet Right isn’t so much about what to feed dogs or cats as it is about how to think about how to feed them. It’s a mixture of What to Eat and Food Politics for pets.

Nesheim: We also talk about how the veterinary profession thinks cooking for your pet is the worst thing in the world to do. After the melamine recalls, a veterinary group put out a statement saying that people should be careful about cooking for their own pets, because after all, pet food companies hire PhD nutritionists to do this. [Laughter]

Nestle: We laughed when we read Hills’ book about clinical nutrition for pets. It’s a really good book, but the chapter on pet feeding goes on and on about how it’s too dangerous to cook for pets. But then it gives completely simple, generic recipes for complete-and-balanced diets for dogs and cats. The recipes are so easy that anyone could follow them.

BARK: Would you make food for your pets?

Nestle: Oh, probably not. I hardly ever make food for myself.

Nesheim: I grew up on a farm and we fed our pets from the table. We didn’t buy pet food—we fed our pets pretty much what we ate.

BARK: How’d they do on that kind of diet?

Nesheim: They did just fine. We had very healthy, well-adjusted animals. We talk about this quite a bit in our book. How you decide to feed your pet depends a lot on your own value system. You can accommodate the nutritional needs of your pet in a variety of ways—commercial foods, home cooking, raw foods, or some combination. What you do depends on the amount of time you’re willing to spend, your value system and the kind of a life you want your pets to have. Fortunately, there are lots of good choices.