food & nutrition
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
Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, is the Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. Her latest book, What to Eat, inspired her work in progress, What Pets Eat. She and her partner, Malden Nesheim, PhD, professor and provost emeritus of Cornell University, are currently conducting research for this book. We’re pleased to announce that both have agreed to serve as Bark’s nutrition editors, and we begin with an introductory Q&A.
Nestle & Nesheim: Happy to. What to Eat evolved in response to complaints that people were totally confused about how to make food choices. We see the pet food marketplace as just as daunting—so many products, so many health promises and so much contradictory information. We think we can bring some common sense and clarity to the discussion and base what we say on real research. Plenty of studies provide useful information about what pets need to eat. Just as with human diets, there are many different ways to meet nutritional needs. Every one of them—commercial food, home-made food, table food, dry food, wet food, raw food—can work well if done properly, and “properly” isn’t all that hard to do.
B: What are the similarities between dog and human nutrition? While it is said that dogs have metabolisms similar to ours, there are those who believe that dogs are carnivores, while humans are omnivores—doesn’t this affect food requirements for our two species?
N&N: It’s no surprise that dogs and humans have quite similar food needs. We both need the same nutrients to support growth and health, and our digestive systems work to process food in much the same way. This similarity is undoubtedly one of the reasons dogs and humans have gotten along so well for thousands of years. Modern dogs have evolved to be more omnivorous and do well on the foods we typically consume—the healthier foods, of course. Just because dogs can eat junk foods doesn’t mean they should.
B: How closely aligned are the human food and pet food industries? Is the level of control and oversight the same?
N&N: The best-known pet food brands pretty much all belong to big-time companies that make foods or other products for humans. Nestlé (no relation, by the way), Mars, Colgate, Procter & Gamble, Del Monte and Wal-Mart dominate pet food sales in the United States. But the systems for regulating human and pet food differ in some ways. The FDA regulates human foods through its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, but it regulates pet foods through its Center for Veterinary Medicine. This means that pet foods are covered by the rules that govern food for farm animals, not people. States have their own regulations for feed control and these also apply to pet foods. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act applies to both human and pet foods, but not in the same way. Labels are one obvious place where the rules for human and pet foods differ.
Historically, the states have been more involved in the enforcement of animal feed regulations than has the FDA, except in the area of feed additives. But Congress has just tucked legislation about pet foods into the Prescription Drug User Fee Act, signed into law in September. This requires AAFCO—the Association of American Feed Control Officials—and the pet food industry to set processing and ingredient standards for pet food labels and to develop a system for identifying and monitoring illnesses associated with the foods. Let’s hope they do this, and soon.
B: How are the two industries linked? It is said that pet food is actually made from the “scraps” left over from the production of human food; do you see it this way?
N&N: That is certainly one way to look at it. The National Renderers Association estimates that 25 percent of rendered products left over from processing cattle, pigs and chickens for human food goes into pet foods in the form of meat- and bone meal or poultry by-product meal. Brewers rice is composed of broken and cracked rice grains that are not sold on the human market. Soybean meal is what is left after soy (“vegetable”) oil is extracted from soybeans. The animal feed industry—including the pet food industry—uses the materials that remain after production of many human foods, among them sugar, alcohol, beer, and flour as well as cattle, pigs and chickens. Many of these materials contribute nutrients—vitamins, minerals, protein—or energy that dogs can use.
B: In your writing, you warn against a “nutrient-by-nutrient approach to food” because it “takes the nutrient out of the context of the food.” What do you mean by that?
N&N: Whenever we see advertisements for specific vitamins, we know that marketing departments must be hard at work. Dogs, like humans, require more than 40 separate nutrients to grow, reproduce and stay healthy. They, like us, need every one of them. No pill can provide them all, so it’s best to get them from food. Most foods contain a great many nutrients, but in different proportions. So the best way to get all the nutrients is to mix and match food intake—eat a variety of foods from different groups (as we were taught in the third grade). Commercial dog food takes care of having to worry about the mixing and matching by putting a bunch of different ingredients in one can or pellet. But the nutrition principles are the same.
B: What do you see as the biggest trend in nutrition and eating?
N&N: We see two trends: one good, one not so good. The good one is heading toward better quality products—natural, organic, whole, unprocessed and locally grown. The not-so-good one is heading toward eating more food, more often, in more places, and taking in far more calories than are used up in activity. It’s pretty obvious that both trends apply to dogs as well as people.
B: The “Slow Food” movement and other eating-local movements seem, to some, to apply only to the upper echelon of consumers—do you think it is possible to feed all consumers and their pets good, fresh, nutritious foods without using industrial food products? Does food have to be mass-produced and/or processed to be affordable? Convenience and affordability—what other factors dictate food choices?
N&N: You’ve asked lots of questions here. Let’s start with the one about elitism. We view what’s happening with food these days as coming close to being a social movement based on classic democratic principles—of the people, by the people, for the people. Social movements have to start somewhere and some of the most important ones—women’s suffrage, civil rights and environmentalism leap to mind—started with the elite. Today, organics are the fastest-growing segment of the food industry. The laws of supply and demand suggest that as the supply of organics increases, prices will fall. This is already happening.
The issues of mass production and affordability are complicated and depend on federal farm policies, among other arcane matters. Those who grow corn get billions in federal subsidies, and corn was really cheap until we started growing it for fuel. That’s why corn appears as an ingredient in so many pet foods. That’s also why so many people want farm policy changed. The Farm Bill [known in Congress as the Farm, Nutrition, and Bioenergy Act of 2007] was up for renewal in 2007. At the time of this writing, it did not look as though Congress would be brave enough to make significant changes in it, so advocates are already gearing up for the next round in 2012.
As for what dictates food choice: Price and convenience matter a lot, but so does perception. That’s where advertising comes in. We will have a lot to say in our book about the way pet foods are marketed. For human foods, environmental factors—portion size, proximity and peer pressure, for example—strongly influence caloric intake. But as a pet owner, you have complete control over your dog’s food environment.
B: When you take into consideration the number of companion animals in this country, do you think that commercial diets are the most pragmatic way to meet their feeding needs? Is a pet food revolution underway?
N&N: We think pets can be fed very well on diets prepared at home if owners provide a variety of healthful foods that include the needed nutrients (a multivitamin supplement is also a good idea). The “if” in that statement requires some knowledge and thought. Commercial pet foods are popular for precisely the same reason convenience foods and fast foods are popular: You don’t need to spend much time, effort or thought to open a can or a bag of dog food. We see a growing movement of pet owners who want to be more involved with their dog’s diet, just as there is a growing movement of consumers who want to know more about what’s in their food and where it comes from. We think both trends are great.
B: In many of your books, you take on the food industry—a huge business in this country. What impact do you think industry lobbyists have in setting U.S. nutrition policy? Are you seeing a similar impact on the pet food industry and the way its “standards” are set? As for regulatory standards, how similar are they in the two food sectors?
N&N: As Food Politics describes, every food company has its own lobbyist or trade association to protect its interests and make sure no government agency imposes regulations that might encourage people to eat less of its products. But the human food industry is a trillion dollar a year business (half spent on food prepared or served outside the home). Pet food’s $15 billion or so is dog biscuits in comparison to revenues from human foods sold by companies like Nestlé or Wal-Mart. As we learned from the Menu Foods recall, the regulatory standards in the two sectors are similar in some ways. One of them is crucial: The FDA can’t order recalls. It can only politely request voluntary recalls. We suspect food lobbyists like it that way.
B: What have you learned about AAFCO and how nutrition standards are established for companion animals?
N&N: AAFCO describes itself as a nonprofit group of officials or employees of state or federal agencies charged with regulating animal feed. It operates through committees that work on such matters as labeling, ingredient definitions, model feed laws and enforcement. A committee recommends standards for pet foods, usually by appointing an expert group made up of government, academic and industry representatives. Currently, AAFCO is reexamining its standards in light of the recent National Research Council report, “Nutritional Requirements of Dogs and Cats.” AAFCO committees also work closely with advisory groups that consist of representatives from industry groups. The industry participates in AAFCO deliberations but does not have a vote.
B: You have remarked that the pet food and human food sectors are remarkably similar in the way the foods are marketed (claims for health, disease prevention and aging), but there is much less transparency in composition and ingredients in the pet food industry. Have you been able to actually understand and deconstruct the ingredients by simply reading a pet food label?
N&N: Yes, with a little help from some great books on food ingredients. Pet food labels are supposed to display the name of the food, the manufacturer, what the product is for, how its nutritional adequacy has been determined, feeding directions and the list of ingredients in descending order of amount in the food. The ingredient present in the greatest amount comes first. The labels also are supposed to give the guaranteed analysis for moisture, crude protein, fat and fiber. The ingredient list is usually very long, but only the first few ingredients—maybe just the first five or six—really matter. The rest are unpronounceable flavor and texture additives, vitamins, and minerals that go on and on and make the list seem daunting.
Some of these additives do not contribute nutrients but are there to make the products taste better (flavor additives, “digest”), stick together (montmorillonite, bentonite), keep the fat from running (beet pulp, tomato pomace) and appear more acceptable to owners (caramel color). The infamous recalled “wheat gluten” (which was really melamine-laced wheat flour) was supposed to be there to thicken gravy but also to contribute protein. Additives all have a purpose in commercial dog food formulas. They are all approved by the FDA or are considered “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS). Whether they constitute “junk” depends on point of view. Our preference is to reserve the term “junk” for pet treats that provide calories but are not required to meet nutritional standards.
B: As has been evidenced by the public response to the latest food recall, pet lovers are increasingly aware that they must know more about the food they feed their companion animals. Are you interested in hearing from our readers with questions they might have as you investigate the pet food industry?
N&N: Yes! We would love to hear from readers about what they want to know. We will make certain we get those questions answered in our book, if not sooner.
B: Many of us would also like to better understand the link between the industry and the role that veterinarians play in directing our pets’ dietary regimes. What kind of information can our readers provide you to help in that phase of your work?
N&N: We know enough about medical education to know that doctors know hardly anything about nutrition. The same is true of veterinarians. Most veterinary colleges teach nutrition only minimally, meaning that veterinarians get their nutrition information from pet food companies. We would love to hear from veterinarians about the nutrition problems they encounter in their practices and the ways in which pet food companies transmit information about how to treat these problems. We would love to hear from pet owners about what veterinarians tell them about dog feeding, which commercial products they recommend, whether they sell foods in their offices and what kind of nutrition education they provide. We are delighted to have this forum and would like to make it as useful as possible for Bark readers.
Marion Nestle can be contacted at email@example.com and Malden Nesheim, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Their most recent book, Pet Food Politics, is now available from the University of California Press.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Update on calorie labeling standards
In the wake of the 2007 recalls, Congress ordered the FDA to work with state regulators and the industry to develop national standards for pet food processing and labeling. We’d like to go on record right away as seconding the need for better regulation of pet foods.
We were pleased when the FDA announced a hearing on pet food labeling standards for May 13, 2008. We asked to attend the hearings, but when we didn’t get a reply from the FDA, we decided not to bother. We were surprised that we didn’t hear anything much about the hearings afterwards, but Christie Keith of PetConnection.com explained why. Hardly anyone came, she said, and the FDA shut down the hearings after 90 minutes.
We did see a handful of short press accounts, but these covered only one item of testimony: the American Veterinary Medical Association called for calorie counts to be listed on pet food labels. This proposal hardly seems groundbreaking, but the Pet Food Institute, the trade association for pet food manufacturers, vigorously opposes it. So calorie labeling for pet foods, just as it does for human foods, makes news.
Because obesity is now as much of a health issue for pets as it is for humans, we can hardly believe that calories are not required to be listed on pet food labels. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the group that oversees what is printed on the labels, says that listing calories is voluntary unless the product claims to be “lite.” If companies do list calories, these “shall be separate and distinct from the Guaranteed Analysis and shall appear under the heading Calorie Content.” In our experience, some pet food companies reveal calorie counts on their labels or websites, but most do not.
In the United States, roughly 60 percent of the human population is overweight, and obesity is a worldwide problem. In developing as well as industrialized countries, as many people are overweight as suffer from extreme malnutrition. Pets have joined this trend. Perhaps up to 60 percent of dogs in America also weigh more than is healthy for them. Just as with people, being overweight raises the chance that pets will develop diabetes, heart disease, joint problems, urinary tract disorders and cancers. Most important, thinner dogs live longer. But owners may not even be aware that their dogs are overweight. Surveys have found that veterinarians consider 44 percent of the dogs they see in their practices to be overweight, but only 17 percent of owners view their pets as anything but normal.
The basic explanation for obesity trends in humans and dogs is the same: eating more calories than are expended in physical activity. For dogs, the fattening trend is explained not only by reduced activity, but also by the increasing use of high-calorie dry pet foods as well as treats. Premium dog foods, for example, are deliberately made to be highly concentrated in calories so the animals won’t have to eat as much to satisfy their appetites and will produce less poop. Treats may not look calorific, but they have calories, and sometimes lots of calories. If owners don’t take treats into account in feeding regimens, dogs can quickly pack on the pounds.
Calorie labels would seem to be an obvious way to address this problem. Other veterinary groups also have called on AAFCO to require calorie labeling. In January of this year, the AAFCO pet food committee agreed to look into the matter. Like most such committees, this one will be doing a thorough study that is likely to take years. In the meantime, the Pet Food Institute opposes calorie labels on the grounds that they are unnecessary and will not prevent obesity in pets.
We are baffled by this stance, since it seems so consumer unfriendly. Owners are totally responsible for the food intake of their pets, but figuring out how much food a dog needs is a real challenge. Dogs vary in their calorie needs. Some dogs regulate their body weight well and will not become overweight even when given continuous access to food; others are gluttons and will overeat in such situations. The feeding directions on pet foods offer general guidelines but cannot account for a particular animal’s activity pattern or disposition. And then there are the mysteries of calories in treats; you have no way of knowing how many each has.
The only way to know for sure that your dog is gaining weight is to weigh him regularly. If he is, you need to feed him less and exercise him more. Feeding less is also not so easy to do, because the number of calories your dog needs is tricky to figure out. Veterinarians determine calorie needs using a formula based on weight and expected activity, but these needs are not in direct proportion to body weight (the formula involves a fractional exponent). Smaller dogs need more calories to maintain the right weight for their size than do larger dogs. Without a clear idea of calorie requirements, you have to adjust food intake by trial and error. Our conclusion: More information about calories could help.
Will calorie labeling eliminate obesity in pets? Of course not, but it could be useful, especially if accompanied by information about the calorie needs of dogs based on size, age, condition and activity levels. We think that the time has come for calorie labeling of pet foods and treats. And we cannot think of a single good reason not to do it.
This exactly parallels the situation in New York City, where the Health Department wants fast food outlets to post calorie information on menu boards. Surprise! The New York Restaurant Association (NYRA) strongly opposes this measure for now-familiar reasons: unnecessary and useless. Although the NYRA still is fighting the measure, restaurant chains must post calorie information. For many customers, including us, the information is a revelation. Our favorite example so far: a blueberry-pomegranate smoothie that sounded wonderfully healthy until we saw its 1,100 calorie count. No wonder the NYRA doesn’t want customers to know such things.
So let’s get those calories onto the labels of commercial pet foods as well as onto treat packaging. Let your veterinarian, AAFCO and the FDA know that you want calories revealed. Use those customer call numbers and website addresses on package labels to ask pet food and treat companies to give you the calorie counts. We think calorie labeling will be required eventually, but we’d like to see it come sooner rather than later.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Talks to Bark about vet education, nutrition and the Menu Foods recall
When he wrote Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets: The Healthful Alternative, leading gastroenterologist Dr. Donald Strombeck created one of the first-of-its-kind nutrition and dietetics books. It went on to become one of the standards for both veterinarians and those looking for an alternative to commercial pet food.
Bark: When did you start your career in pet nutrition?
Donald Strombeck: I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1954 and, after leaving the service, went into a small animal practice outside of Chicago—they got me started on an interest in pet nutrition. Back then, we saw the usual variety of cats and dogs. In our standard operating procedure with diarrhea cases, we put the animals on a controlled diet, and we instructed people how to prepare it. Most of our treatments were based primarily on diet. This was at a time when most people, at least in that area, prepared meals for their pets. People didn’t feed commercially prepared diets—the industry hadn’t developed to where it is now. There were some commercial foods available then, and one made by Hills, I/D for dogs with intestinal problems, is still available. But the reason we didn’t use it was that a lot of our patients didn’t respond to it.
B: When did you start teaching at the University of California Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at Davis?
DS: After the practice in Chicago, I went back to the University of Illinois and got a PhD in physiology. My major professor started out with an interest in the GI tract, so I developed an interest in gastroenterology, and I’m glad I did. After three years of teaching physiology to medical students, I wanted to get back into veterinary medicine. So I went to Davis in 1973 and taught and did research there for over 20 years.
B: How have you seen the pet food industry change during that time? What kinds of impacts has it had on the teaching of nutrition at vet schools?
DS: It has become a gigantic, multibillion dollar industry. The industry learned to advertise and describe their products as being the “best,” at least according to them. But they have tried to control the education of veterinarians on pet nutrition. They send a lot of literature and books to veterinarians who teach. One of the dogmas they have promoted, and that many veterinarians have bought into, is that you should only feed commercial pet foods because they are a balanced and provide everything an animal needs. And that you shouldn’t feed any human food or add any table scraps to it. So, if you go to most veterinarians, that is what they are going to tell you.
DS: Pet nutrition, up until the ’80s or maybe ’90s, was really sadly neglected as far as teaching at veterinary schools. The quality of the teaching was lacking, the courses were never popular, the students didn’t realize the importance of the courses, and consequently, when they graduated, they didn’t walk away with a lot of useful information on pet nutrition. I do think things have changed now, which is good thing. But most of the people who are trained in nutrition programs get their degrees and are hired by the pet food industry. Most of the money available for research on small-animal nutrition comes from the industry as well. It is a conflict of interest.
B: Does Davis teach pet nutrition now?
DS: They have developed nutrition support services [and a nutrition clinic]. The interesting thing is that they have computer programs (actually, the same programs I used to design the diets in my book) that enable practicing veterinarians to submit information—the kind of animal, the problem, weight and age—and get a specially formulated diet. In fact, Sean Delaney, who graduated from that program, has an online service that also does this for individuals.
B: Were you surprised by the latest recall?
DS: Well, it’s not the first one! It’s a long list. The reason people know about it is because of all the publicity it has received.
DS: If you look at some of the foods at the big-box stores, you know they are producing them at bottom price. There is no way you can ever know where the ingredients come from; all you know is you are paying less for it.
B: In the latest recall, Eukanuba, Iams, Hills and Nutro are among the brands affected, brands many consumers think of as high-quality food—they too used wheat gluten.
DS: AAFCO is a mutual admiration society representing the pet food industry. They are from the industry. They say that they can police themselves and don’t need any government interference. And that’s the way it operates. There haven’t been any changes there, and so the only thing that will cause them to change the way they do things is if they lose a lot of money, like from a scare like this.
B: Or perhaps if the public becomes more aware of their power; its members all seem to come from state agriculture departments.
B: What is your position on the “cooked” versus “raw” diet?
DS: Did you read the information in my book about kibble being contaminated with bacteria? Veterinarians know this. I got money to research this, and gave it to Jim Cullor, a good researcher; I asked him to do a study to determine the numbers and kinds of bacteria that could be cultured from kibble. And he did it, but I don’t know if it was ever published. [Editor’s note: We are checking on this.] The guy who was in charge of public programs at Davis was adamantly opposed to having this published, because he wanted to protect the industry. Also, I remember when the pet food industry would say on the bag of puppy food, “moisten this food” and put it down for them. But bacteria multiply rapidly on moistened dry food. You know that puppies, a lot of times, eat a little bite and wander off, then come back to it, so the food could be there all day long. It is a good way for them to get diarrhea.
DS: It is more a matter of, do they want to spend the time doing it. If you look at human eating habits today, people more and more eat out, they buy processed foods, they don’t spend any time preparing food for themselves or their children. Whenever you process anything, especially a food, there may be eight or 10 steps—from harvesting to shipping, storing and on to the end. All you have to do is have one little error come in at any one of those steps and you have a food that can cause problems. If you go to a grocery store and get the ingredients yourself, and prepare it, you have more control over everything. But you don’t have control over anything when you buy a processed food. Every once in a while, you see a processed human food cause a problem, and that is going to happen the more people eat processed foods.
B: What about a balanced diet? How can we ensure that our dogs have a fully balanced diet?
Wellness: Health Care
For the last year or so, we have been working on a book about pet food, What Pets Eat, to be published by Harcourt late in 2009. One of the pleasures of a long-term project like this is the time to follow digressions wherever they lead. Last year’s (2007) massive pet food recall was so much of a diversion that it resulted in a spin-off publication—Pet Food Politics:Chihuahua in the Coal Mine —scheduled for release this September by University of California Press.
The recall made us especially curious about the role of melamine, the substance responsible for kidney failure in pets eating food that supposedly contained wheat gluten. Just a glance at the chemical structure of melamine shows that it is high in nitrogen, a nutrient usually obtained from protein. This made us suspect that melamine must have been added deliberately to boost the apparent amount of protein in wheat gluten, because methods that measure the amount of protein in animal feed count nitrogen, not protein itself. Our suspicions were confirmed. The toxic “wheat gluten” turned out to be wheat flour laced with melamine.
But why would melamine harm cats and dogs? A quick search for studies of melamine toxicity turned up several performed on rats and mice, but just one on dogs (which dated from 1945).These studies gave the impression that melamine was not very toxic except at extremely high doses. Furthermore, the kidneys of animals who had eaten the contaminated food contained odd crystals that did not look like crystals of melamine.These turned out to be formed from complexes of melamine and one of its by-products, cyanuric acid. Even so, researchers and federal officials were puzzled. They had not heard of associations of melamine or cyanuric acid with kidney failure.
Really? Our Internet search turned up a brief and not particularly informative abstract of a 1960s study on melamine toxicity in sheep.We thought we needed to look at the entire paper, and found it and others in old bound journals in the Cornell library. These decades-old studies demonstrated that melamine is quite toxic, and causes kidney-related symptoms in animals at doses nearly identical to those reported in contaminated pet food. The studies were designed to test the idea that, because melamine nitrogen is far less expensive than protein nitrogen, melamine might have two useful purposes: (1) as an honest feed additive for ruminant animals, whose microorganisms can convert nonprotein nitrogen to amino acids, and (2) as a dishonest adulterant that makes feed test as though it contains more protein than it really does.
By following other leads,we also found references to relevant studies from the early 1980s in Italian journals that we had to request through interlibrary loan. These showed that melamine was so frequently used for fraudulent purposes in the 1980s that Italian scientists developed a test for it. They used the test to show that melaminna had been used to adulterate more than half the samples of fish meal they examined.
Most of the early information about melamine toxicity came from attempts to use it as a drug or nutrient. In the 1940s, investigators explored its potential as a canine diuretic. To follow what comes next, pay attention to the size of the melamine dose in milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) of body weight, and recall that a kilogram is 2.2 pounds. The 1945 study showed that at a dose of about 120 mg/kg, dogs excreted crystals in their urine but otherwise did fine. In the 1960s, investigators used cyanuric acid (which is 32 percent nitrogen) to feed ruminant animals, and observed no problems even at high doses.Wouldn’t melamine (66.6 percent nitrogen) work even better?
A South African scientist fed daily doses of about 250 mg/kg to sheep, but most animals refused food and lost weight, and some of them died. Another South African investigator gave melamine doses to a single sheep, starting with 2,600 mg/kg. At such high doses, the sheep died within a few days from kidney damage, and the investigators could see crystals of melamine hanging from the animal’s prepuce. Lower doses of melamine caused sheep to stop eating, especially if their water intake was restricted. These studies suggested that a dose of about 250 mg/kg kills some— but not all—sheep over time.So, by 1968, melamine was known to induce kidney damage when fed to sheep over prolonged periods. Ten years later, American investigators tested melamine in cattle and found that a dose of about 100 mg/kg caused four out of six steers to refuse feed.
We think these studies are highly relevant to the pet food situation. The FDA reported that melamine could have accounted for 10 percent of the weight of the false wheat gluten, and the false wheat gluten could have accounted for as much as 10 percent of the weight of the pet food. If so, 100 grams—about 3 ounces—of pet food could have contained as much as a gram (1,000 milligrams) of melamine, and an average cat or small dog could have eaten an amount close to the 250 mg/kg level that proved toxic to sheep in the 1960s.
Recently, investigators from Georgia and the University of California, Davis, have shown that much smaller amounts of melamine can form crystals if cyanuric acid is also present. In cats, doses as low as 32 mg/kg each of melamine and cyanuric acid caused crystallization and kidney blockage.
We were surprised that neither the university or FDA veterinarians involved in the melamine investigations knew about this earlier work, but we think we can guess why. Papers in international journals are not readily accessible on the Internet, and the old animal feed literature is not likely to be studied these days.We had to discover the papers the old-fashioned way, by going to the library in person, sifting through reference lists, following up leads that sometimes required interlibrary loans and pursuing the reference trail back to its origins.We had the interest and time to pursue these questions. For the veterinarians and FDA officials caught up in the heat of the recall, a trip to the library might have seemed like a luxury they could ill afford.
We can’t say whether earlier suspicion of melamine would have hastened the recall or improved veterinary care of the sick dogs and cats.But we can say that the old experiments on animal feeding are well worth reading, that it’s best to read entire papers and not just their abstracts, and that libraries still have much to offer that the Internet cannot.
This article is based on Nestle M., Nesheim M.C. Additional information on melamine in pet food [letter]. JAMVA 231(2007):1647.
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