food & nutrition
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
What Difference Does a Few Pounds Make?
People often smile when they see a chubby dog ambling through a park. There’s something endearing, even comical, about rotund pets. But look more closely and you’ll notice a stiffened gait, labored breathing and a lack of energy—nothing to smile about.
Sadly, this is not a rare sight: An estimated 17 million dogs in United States are overweight or obese—and, like canine waistlines, the numbers keep expanding.
“The reasons for the pet obesity epidemic are the same as the human obesity explosion: We’re eating too much and exercising too little,” says Dr. Ernest Ward Jr., a North Carolina veterinarian and president of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP). “In addition, what we’re feeding dogs has changed.”
By doling out diets high in carbohydrates, sugar and fat, we’re making our dogs fat. Dr. Ward explains. They stay leaner and healthier with a higher protein diet.
On top of poor nutrition, we’re giving our dogs too much. Most of us rely on a combination of guesswork and feeding instructions to determine how to feed our dogs rather than working out a diet tailored to our specific pets. We don’t know how many calories they need (far fewer than you think) or how many calories are in the food (often more than you think). Calorie counts aren’t on most food labels, and when calorie counts are included, some can be confusing and inconsistent.
And then there are the add-ons—biscuits, cookies, jerky, table scraps and on and on. APOP estimates that 90 percent of pet owners give their dogs treats, many of which are high in calories, carbohydrates and sugar. They’re called treats for a reason.
“If I could only point to one factor causing the modern-day pet obesity epidemic, it would have to be treats,” Dr. Ward says. “It’s that seemingly innocent extra 50 calories a day in the form of a chew or cookie that adds up to a pound or two each year. By the time a dog or cat reaches mid-life, it’s overweight and health risks begin to skyrocket.”
There’s the rub. Weight control is not about winning beauty contests, at least not for most of dogs. It’s about the quality and duration of their lives.
“While those extra five pounds around your waist might not mean much to you and your health, that extra five pounds around your average dog and cat can pose a lot of health risks,” says Dr. Maria Manrique, a Chicago veterinarian speaking for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). The AVMA links pet obesity directly with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension, as well as an increased risk for cancer and orthopedic problems, including painful and debilitating knee injuries and arthritis. In addition, overweight dogs are more prone to heat exhaustion and exercise intolerance.
A key to our dogs’ health is getting a jump on the problem. Maintaining a healthy weight for your dog is lot easier and less expensive than treating any of the disease conditions that result from being overweight. Smart diet and consistent exercise not only saves your health care dollars and spares your dogs discomfort and suffering, it will probably extend their lives.
A 14-year benchmark study of Labrador Retrievers demonstrated that dogs kept at a healthy weight from puppyhood lived 15 percent longer than their overweight peers. That’s two additional happy, healthy years with your best friend. That’s the best treat of all.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Reading the label on a package of pet food can be an exasperating exercise. Although all labels must include certain elements, finding out where these items appear and what they mean can be difficult. Even skilled nutritional experts like Marion Nestle admit that reading a pet-food label “is no simple task…and hardly anyone can make sense of them.”
Another issue is how these elements are identified. Nutritional standards for the production of pet food are set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This nongovernmental group is made up of state and federal representatives as well as people directly involved in the pet-food industry. This means that people who manufacture pet food have a voice in establishing not only pet-food standards but also most of the label requirements and feed-trial protocols. Though the FDA, a federal regulatory agency, sets rules for three of the label items, its oversight of pet-food production is still very limited. As we learned during the 2007 recall, the FDA could not order companies to recall products containing melamine-tainted ingredients. (Sadly, it still doesn’t have recall power.)
AAFCO’s Nutrient Profiles list the minimum amounts (and minimum is the operative word here) of nutrients required by pets. The group recognizes only two canine feeding stages: adult dog maintenance and “growth and reproduction.” So, unless they’re puppies or lactating females, all dogs fall into the “adult maintenance” category regardless of their age, health status or level of physical activity.
• Who it is intended to feed (i.e., dog or cat).
• Package weight (net).
• Name and address of the manufacturer.(Phone numbers and/or URLs are not required, but are good things to look for.)
• Statement of Nutritional Adequacy (guidelines that must be adhered to in order to label the food as “complete and balanced”). This is also where you’ll find out how the food meets these standards for nutritional adequacy: by calculation or by live feeding trials.
• Statement of Guaranteed Analysis (listing the minimum percentage of crude protein and crude fat in the food and maximum percentage of fiber and moisture; some companies also specify other nutrients). By the way, “crude” is not a quality statement; it refers to a specific method of measuring the nutrient. Carbohydrates are not included because they are not required in the diet of pets.
• Feeding directions, which are based only on the weight of the animal, so you might run the risk of over-or underfeeding if you follow them. Always monitor your dog’s weight and energy level.
• List of ingredients, identified in the order of “predominance by weight,” or weight before processing. This is important to note when you are comparing products with different moisture contents (see Dry Matter p. 67). Also, as explained by Linda Bren in an FDA Consumer newsletter, “Similar materials listed as separate ingredients may outweigh other ingredients that precede them on the list of ingredients. For example, chicken may be listed as the first ingredient, then wheat flour, ground wheat and wheat middlings. The consumer may believe that chicken is the predominant ingredient, but the three wheat products—when added together—may weigh more than the chicken.”
• The Animal Protection Institute points out that “a good rule of thumb to distinguish the major components of a food is to look for the first named source of fat in the ingredient list. Anything listed before that (and including it) makes up the main portion of the food. Other items, which may add flavor, function as preservatives or [have] dietary benefits (e.g. probiotics, vitamins and minerals),” are present in much smaller amounts.
• Calorie Statements (optional). AAFCO regulations say the listing for calories “shall be distinct from Guaranteed Analysis and shall appear under the heading Calorie Content.” If a calorie statement is on the label, it must be expressed on a “kilocalories per kilogram” basis. Kilocalories are the same as the calories. A kilogram is a unit of metric measurement equal to 2.2 pounds.
If yours is a one-dog household and your budget can tolerate the price differential, shop for smaller-sized bags, which make it easier to keep the food fresh. Also, look for bags lined with untreated aluminum foil. Do not remove the food from the bag, but rather, store the bag inside an airtight, metal container.
If you feed your dog canned food and don’t use an entire can in one meal, store the leftovers in the refrigerator in a covered container. Food left in an opened can (even one with a plastic lid) loses flavor.
Dogs thrive on variety. As Bren points out, “Some animal nutritionists recommend switching among two or three different pet-food products every few months. Doing so helps ensure that a deficiency doesn’t develop for some as-yet-unknown nutrient required for good health. When changing pet foods, add the new food to the old gradually for a few days to avoid upsetting the pet’s digestive system.”
If you are adding fresh or cooked ingredients to the meal (which many recommend), make sure you adjust the amount of commercial food to avoid overfeeding and weight gain.
When in doubt, shop at small boutique or holistic pet stores. The owners and staff are usually more familiar with their products and can help you with your buying decisions.
Make sure you contact the food manufacturer if you have any questions about their products, either before or after buying it. Do not simply rely on the information from their websites.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Rewards with quality and goodness
Although treats are usually given in small portions (or ought to be!), make sure that you pay the same high level of attention to what’s in them as you do for all of your dog’s food. Look for organic, whole-food ingredients, including named meats, whole grains, lots of good fruit and/or vegetables and natural, food-based sweeteners (if they are used at all)—applesauce, honey or molasses, for example. Avoid by-products, artificial coloring, artificial flavoring and artificial preservatives. Look for individual portions that are easy to break into smaller bits.
Treats are often high in calories, so factor them in when thinking about your dog’s overall food intake. It is recommended that “treat substitutes” make up no more than 5 to 10 percent of a dog’s diet. If the calorie count isn’t listed on the label, find out what it is before giving them to your dog. Contact the manufacturer for calorie information if need be.
To keep bagged treats fresh—and make it a little more difficult for the diligent treat-hound to score—keep the bags sealed. If the seal doesn’t work (often they don’t), use heavy-duty zip lock–type bags or store them in glass or ceramic containers with tight-fitting lids.
Dogs love variety, and with the wide array of treats on the market, it’s easy to find a selection that will satisfy most co-pilots.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
A better way to compare dog foods
When you compare different types of foods—canned, kibble, etc. or simply different brands—you need to keep in mind the moisture content so you can compare like to like. Use the dry-matter basis.
First, establish the amount of dry matter by subtracting the percentage given for moisture from 100 percent. If the moisture is given as 10 percent, the food’s dry-matter content is 90 percent.
Next, convert the protein found in the Guaranteed Analysis statement to a dry-matter basis by dividing its percentage by the amount of dry matter (calculated in the previous step). For example, if the protein is given as 26 percent, it converts to 28 percent on a dry-matter basis (26 divided by 90). If the moisture level had been, say, 30 percent, the dry matter content would have been 70 percent and protein would have been 37 percent (26 divided by 70).
You can do similar calculations for fat and fiber after converting their percentages to a dry-matter basis.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
An interview with Barbara Laino
Like many people who’ve turned to natural pet food, Barbara Laino initially experimented with a homemade diet out of frustration. Her first dog, Aurora, developed a type of irritable bowel syndrome that didn’t respond to traditional medicine. After Laino switched her from kibble, the Alaskan Malamute’s symptoms completely disappeared, and Laino was a convert. Now, 15 years later, she is a certified holistic health counselor and teaches classes on making nutritious food (for people and pets alike) at her organic farm in Warwick, N.Y. Laino shared her experiences with us between sessions of her popular workshop, “Making Homemade Dog and Cat Food.”
JoAnna Lou: Were you criticized when you started making your own dog food?
Barbara Laino: There’s a lot of pressure from veterinarians. They pretend that feeding a dog is a complex thing to do. When I first started making my own food, I felt cornered. I felt like I had to have all these numbers — milligrams of calcium, percentage of protein … Since then, I’ve realized that it’s really common sense. Feeding a dog is no more difficult than feeding a child.
JL: How do you ensure that you’re feeding a balanced diet?
BL: I’ve sent recipes to be tested for how well they meet AAFCO [Association of American Feed Control Officials] standards, but I don’t give it that much credence. Pet-food guidelines are the minimum of what a dog needs in order to stay alive. But I want my dog to thrive and be happy and healthy for a long time!
Think about the Great Dane and the Chihuahua. There’s such variation in dogs. These feeding guidelines don’t take size difference into consideration, not to mention place of origin. With northern breeds, for instance, I focus a lot on zinc because they’re coming from a thousand years of eating fish and seaweed. It all comes down to the individual.
JL: Across individuals, what do you consider to be the foundation of a good diet?
BL: Variety. I believe much of the recent food allergy problem has developed from feeding the same thing every day. Yet, this is probably one of the most controversial parts of the homemade diet. Somehow it has reached the point that people are scared they can’t balance their dog’s food properly.
JL: In addition to this fear, many people avoid homemade pet food because they are concerned about handling raw meat. Do you recommend cooked diets in these cases?
BL: Yes, I do. I think people get hooked on the raw concept, but it’s not all about raw. Whatever you feel comfortable with, whether it’s boiling chicken breasts or grinding raw chicken necks … any time you’re preparing food using fresh ingredients, it’s going to be a thousand times better than what you’re getting from kibble.
JL: The popularity of organic food has exploded in recent years, but it doesn’t fit everyone’s budget. How important is it to use organic ingredients? BL: Organic is a great thing, along with grass-fed meat, which is even better than organic. Most premium dog food is not certified organic and, considering how expensive [those foods] are, it’s actually cheaper to buy organic ingredients and make your own dog food. With chicken, it’s even more important to buy organic to avoid the genetically modified soy that makes up the bulk of non-organic chicken feed. However, if you can only afford to buy non-organic ingredients, it’s still much better to make your own food.
JL: Are there ways that people can incorporate aspects of a homemade diet without completely converting to it?
BL: Definitely. In my workshop, I have a list of foods that people can add to their dog’s meal. I tell them to stick it on the fridge as a reminder. You can take a scoop of good kibble and combine it with carrots, honey or a whole egg. Another one is canned salmon, which is super-easy and convenient. If you do nothing else, add a little canned salmon to your dog’s kibble every day. It’s one of the healthiest things you can do.
[Not all dogs tolerate all foods. Be sure to introduce new foods slowly and adjust based on what works for your dog. When in doubt, consult a holistic veterinarian.]
JL: You teach workshops on preparing healthy food for both humans and canines. Do you find a connection between the two?
BL: Dogs are pack animals; there’s a social process to food with wild dogs. When you’re sitting at the table and not sharing with your dog, there’s a disconnect. Our dogs want to be part of a pack and have the social connection of eating together. I just think it makes a lot of sense.
JL: Dog food has gone from table scraps to commercial kibble to feeding natural food and becoming more involved in the process. How have you experienced this in your work?
BL: Nowadays, people want the experience of making their own food, including meals for their pets. In my workshops, people are coming in who are less concerned with the nutrition specifics and just want to make their dog a really nice meal. I got into this because my dog was sick, so it’s cool to see people with healthy dogs who just want to do this differently now. And they’re finding that it’s enjoyable, ethical and feels good.
Click for some of Barbara Laino's homemade recipes.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Surprises from the grocery shelf
In part one of this article, we asked the rhetorical question: “If you’re going to feed your dogs ‘people’ food, shouldn’t you feed them something that’s actually good for them?” and answered it with a list of 10 healthy, easily obtainable options straight from the shelves of your local market. As promised, here are 10 more “easy pieces” for your consideration. (Part One can be found here.)
8. Wheat Grass
9. Turnip Greens
10. Nutritional Yeast
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Tainted kibble affects both people and pets
In early April, Diamond Pet Foods initiated a recall in response to 14 cases of human salmonella poisoning linked to handling their kibble. At first only a few brands were included, but the list has been steadily growing in the last month. Now the recall has spread to other companies who manufacture products in the same plant, like WellPet.
I feed my pups Taste of the Wild, which was only recently added to the recall. It’s frustrating because Diamond Pet Foods initially claimed the food was safe, but then later included it in the recall.
Diamond Pet Foods and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are only reporting the 14-person salmonella outbreak, but stories of sick pets have been emerging online.
One woman in California reported that her dog is suffering from acute liver failure that she believes is related to the Taste of the Wild recall. So far she has spent over $3,000 on veterinary care and she’s not alone. Others are in a similar predicament and are having a hard time getting information from Taste of the Wild.
Sadly recalls seem to be a regular occurrence these days. Feeding a good kibble is no longer about just finding a food with quality ingredients. Now you have to be worried about the track record of a company and the manufacturing plants that they use. I’m starting to think that making my own pet food is the only way that I can be truly confident in the meals I put in my dogs’ bowls. In talking to my friends, I know I’m not the only one contemplating a switch to fresh foods or homemade diets.
Are you planning on changing your dog’s food as a result of the recall?
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
A Guest Editorial
March was a rough month for us vets. Monday morning, the 19th, dawned to a deluge of frantic calls demanding answers. Um…what was the question? Most of us didn’t even know…yet.
I was asked questions like, “How do I know if my dog’s food is on the list?”, “What kind of tests does he need?” and the worst: “Is she going to die?”
It’s hard enough to say “I don’t know” under normal circumstances. This version went more like, “I have absolutely no clue.”
As one of my colleagues said, “I felt so stupid coming into work on Monday after a blissful weekend of … family time knowing absolutely zero about the recall. My clients probably thought I was a horrible vet.”
But how was this off-duty vet to know? So you understand, vets received no special notice before the announcement—made, by the way, on a Friday. As all news people know, the last day of the week is when you release an item you’d prefer to bury, not one you need to broadcast.
At this point, we know more about the now-infamous pet food recall that spawned the frenzy. Yet most vets on the ground continue to have more questions than answers regarding the toxins found in the affected pet foods, the pattern of exposure to our patient population, the practical considerations of treating this intoxication (poisoning by a toxic substance) and the reporting mechanisms required to aid in their investigation.
Where are the emails and bulletins from the pet food companies? Why has no helpful clinical information been provided to the distributors? Why were so many vets (busy reading their journals instead of watching the weekend news) blasted that Monday morning without so much as a warning?
Vets are hard-working people. We toil long in our lives, laboring to keep our animals comfortable and healthy—and yet things like this still happen. It comes as a blow, then, when all of our expertise and our acumen, channeled purposefully in the task of helping pets, yields the potential for their death and disease instead.
Sure, the pet food recall has shown us all how little we know about our food supply. Whether it goes into our pets’ food bowls or onto our own plates, we’re far less informed than we ever thought possible. But vets? We’re supposed to know about these things. People depend on us. Pets rely on our insider’s knowledge.
But, after the recall, we vets now understand how tenuous a grasp we’ve had on the information we get from pet food companies. We’ve trusted, just as you’ve trusted, in the veracity of their statements, in the wholesomeness of their foods, in their commitment to quality.
So, as a vet, I’ve got to confess that I’ve never felt more frustrated…and betrayed…and outraged.
My patients? In at least one obvious case, they’ve suffered. One chronically ill patient seemed to start feeling funny the Thursday before the recall. We prescribed her usual medications instead of requiring hospitalization. By Sunday, she was in acute renal failure after eating recalled pet foods for the previous month. Would a day have made a difference? Perhaps.
Any way you look at it, the time lapse in reporting the contamination was deplorable.
I can understand that some pet foods outsource their production. I can even understand purchasing contaminated grain unknowingly, but I cannot forgive the failure to report immediately the possibility of toxicity—to the public at large and to the vets they enlist to help sell their products.
How about one simple fax to every vet in the country? That’s not as hard to do as it sounds. They certainly know how to get to us when it comes to selling their food.
It’s bad enough that the manufacturer bought contaminated grain from a supplier. It’s bad enough everyone in the know sat on their hands for a month. Did they also have to display their disregard for pets so flagrantly as to fail to provide proper support for the vets who recommend their foods and to the people who feed those foods to animals they care for?
As a vet, I feel terrible. But however you see it, the pet food companies are directly to blame for the widespread mishandling of this crisis. These companies need to get serious about our pets. Better yet, if they don’t care enough to understand their importance, they should get out of the pet business altogether.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Mealtime surprises from the grocery shelf
If you’re going to feed your dogs “people” food, shouldn’t you feed them something that’s actually good for them? Here are some healthy, easily obtainable options straight from market shelves that can be added to spice up your pup’s regular fare. There are, of course, a few cautions to keep in mind. First, none of these items by themselves constitutes a “complete and balanced” meal, and if your dog has health or weight issues, check with your vet before introducing them. Next, considering that many dogs are willing to eat almost anything they find, they can be surprisingly fussy about new things in their food bowls; start with a small portion to see if it’s a go … or no. And finally, always introduce new foods gradually. Look for 10 more “easy pieces” in the next issue.
3. Sweet Potato
10. Swiss Chard
*The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors the levels of mercury and industrial chemicals that end up in fish, both fresh- and saltwater; updates regarding contamination are readily available.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Industry gadfly continues the quest for safe pet food
Ten years ago, Canadian Ann Martin raised the consciousness of pet lovers worldwide with the publication of her first book, Food Pets Die For. That was followed by Protect Your Pet. In these books, she examines what goes into pet food, how it is manufactured and who is responsible for regulating the processing industry. She began as a “citizen” investigator, who, in her words, just wanted answers to her questions, but today she is a recognized authority on the subject.
Bark: You, of all people, probably aren’t surprised by the Menu Foods recall.
Ann Martin: There are recalls every year—this isn’t unique—but what is unique is the size of this recall.
B: With processed food, isn’t it difficult to track these things?
AM: But they are supposed to! The companies themselves are supposed to test the raw ingredients. According to one plant employee (at Menu), you could actually see the crystals, the melamine in the wheat gluten. And yet they went ahead and used it?
B: At what stage did they test the food on the facilities’ “test” animals?
AM: Not until after they received complaints that animals were sick and dying of the food, and then they did their testing. You get varying reports; they tested it on 40 to 50 animals and I think that 10 to 14 test animals died.
B: It isn’t necessary to test the food on animals, is it?
AM: Definitely not, and I said that from day one! They could have run analytical testing. This has bothered me for a long time. A lot of pet food companies do it in order to ascertain if a cheap ingredient will affect the animal.
B: Since writing your first book, have you seen any positive changes in the industry, especially with the growth of the smaller companies?
AM: There are definitely some that contain human-grade ingredients, and they are good foods. “Human-grade” means that meats and everything, including the grains, are USDA inspected. That is the difference, everything is inspected for human consumption.
B: The other ones aren’t inspected at all?
AM: No, not at all. They can use anything they want for proteins, grains, fats, anything they want. If it says meat meal, it can be from road kill to zoo animals or diseased material from slaughterhouses—anything is fair game.
There are no regulations as far as the ingredients in the pet food. If it says it contains 21 percent protein, it has to contain that amount, but the source can be anything. I know people who have called the companies and asked them where they are obtaining their meat and their grain, and they won’t say. And it is the same worldwide. These are huge multinational companies.
B: You advocate changes in the labeling of pet foods—why?
AM: Let’s have them put the ingredients on the labels. There is no truth in pet food labeling. Who would buy a food that says it contains road kill? You see the commercials and they show fresh chickens and whole grains, but that isn’t the case. I have gone to the Federal Trade Commission on that one because as far as I am concerned, it is false advertising. But they won’t touch it.
B: Let’s hope that this causes people to provide more nutritious food for both themselves and their pets. But it seems that there is a lot of confusion out there among dog lovers about the right way to feed their pets. Could it be that the various opinions within the “how to feed your dog” community add confusion? From raw food, prey model, vegetarian, home cooking—all this can just confuse people, don’t you think?
AM: They get carried away with stuff; it scares people, there is no doubt about it. If you are concerned, give the dog a vitamin and mineral tablet. I talk to old-time vets, like Strombeck, and they say that years and years before this industry grew, our pets ate table scraps; the vets will tell you that back then, pets either died of old age or were hit by a car. We didn’t see so many cancers like we are seeing now. Pets ate what we eat.
B: But people need to understand that what is meant by “table scraps” isn’t the leftovers from processed, packaged or fast foods that so many people in this country eat today. Rather, it means good home cooking.
AM: I have a 160-pound Newfie—the only thing he won’t eat is shrimp and blackberries. But everything else. And I don’t eat junk food either.
AM: When I hear from people who are so uptight about the diet for their dogs—“Shouldn’t I add this supplement, this vitamin?”—I wonder if they do this for their children? Or for themselves?
B: What made you start to cook for your animals?
AM: When my two dogs got sick around 1990, they were on a commercial diet. Our vet, who was from England, said to take them off that food and feed them ground beef, brown rice and vegetables. I thought, If I do that, I am going to kill them! Because we have been brainwashed by the vets to feed them this garbage food. And I was amazed—the dogs did great on that diet.
Many of the nutrition courses taught at vet schools are sponsored by the pet food industry, as too are conferences and symposiums. It is a shame. I would like to see some of the old vets teach the younger ones, because they know how well the animals do on table scraps.
The life span of a Newfie is eight years, but my last guy lived to be 14. I had a cat die last year, he was 27; I have one now who is 20. So apparently, with home cooking, you can’t screw it up that much.
B: Do you think that even with the heightened public awareness and the recent senate hearings that we can expect more pet food recalls?
AM: Without a doubt recalls will continue until there is some kind of reliable, independent regulation of the pet food industry. It may even be too late to rein in the pet food industry and its questionable products. The good news is that this most recent recall is a wake-up call for pet owners to take matters into their own hands and to educate themselves about how to best meet their animal companions’ nutritional needs. Some people may make the extra effort to cook for their animal companions so they will know exactly what goes into their dog’s food. And for those who cannot cook for their dogs, they can learn to read labels and purchase pet food from small, responsible pet food companies that can assure them that their foods only contain human grade ingredients.
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