law & politics
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
A vet speaks out on genetically modified pet food.
Most dogs now dine on some type of genetically modified (GM) food, often in the form of corn and soy in their kibble. As these ingredients increasingly enter the food supply, we have one more reason to wonder if our shopping choices might be harming our pets.
More animal feeding studies are needed, experts say, and a recent long-term, peer-reviewed report points out why. It found that a diet of GM corn and soy led to higher rates of severe stomach inflammation in pigs, which are physiologically similar to dogs.
Robert Silver, DVM, a Boulder, Colo., holistic vet, tackled the issue earlier this year when he presented his paper, “Genetically Modified Food and Its Impact on Pet Health” at the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association conference in Kansas City, Mo. Why did he choose this controversial topic, one that few vets even acknowledge?
Silver—a pioneer in the field of holistic veterinary medical practice—says he was inspired by a seminar he attended in Boulder on GM foods and human health. The speakers included Don Huber, a Purdue University professor, and activist Jeffrey Smith, who discussed problems, including reproductive difficulties, that have occurred in livestock fed GM crops.
“I found this seminar mind-opening,” says Silver, the lone vet in attendance. “I had always believed the PR about GM foods—that they are going to feed the world and are a good outcome of our genetic technology.”
The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the safety of GM crops consumed by humans and animals, considers most GM plants “substantially equivalent” to traditional plants and “generally recognized as safe.” Their regulation involves a voluntary consultation process with the developer before products are brought to market.
Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, disagrees. On its website (responsibletechnology.org), he warns that “nearly all GM crops are described as ‘pesticide plants.’ They either tolerate doses of weed killer, such as Roundup, or produce an insecticide called Bt-toxin. In both cases, the added toxin—weed killer or bug killer—is found inside the corn or soybeans we consume.”
Silver says that while “allergies, GI problems, increased risk of cancer, neurodegenerative conditions” and other ills could all be, in part, related to GM foods, “there is no objective evidence of this yet” in dogs. “However, all vets will agree that there has been an uptick in [these diseases] in the past 10 to 20 years.” The advent of GM foods in the 1990s “fits into this timing of disease increases,” he says.
His presentation referred to studies that raise doubt about the safety of biotech crops, such as one reported in 1996 in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that genes inserted into crops can carry with them allergenic properties.
Silver says that genetic modification introduces foreign proteins that may encourage allergies, and the widely planted Bt corn, which makes its own insecticide, “could possibly cause leaky gut, the gateway to chronic disease.” Corn is a major component of most commercial pet foods. “The big problem with commercial foods is that they are manufactured at high temperatures and pressures,” which alters them and makes them “potentially more allergenic.” And commercial foods contain industrial ingredients that are “more likely to contain GM and herbicide contaminants.”
A study published last year found that GM crops engineered to withstand the toxic herbicide Roundup must now be doused with even more herbicide, since weeds have also developed resistance to it. Residues of these chemicals on crops can find their way into pet food.
A 2013 study published in the science journal Entropy reports that the heavy use of Roundup could be linked to Parkinson’s, autism, infertility and cancers. It goes on to report that residues of Roundup in food can interact with, and enhance, the damaging effects of other environmental toxins. “Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body,” the study’s researchers say.
According to Silver, heightened sensitivity to dietary ingredients “is probably what we are seeing with GM foods. It is of concern that this may be driving the increase in GI problems in pets.” Although gluten probably does account for some problems with grain consumption, “I think that grain-free diets, if they are also soy free and contain protein from animals not fed GM crops, can help many dogs, due to being GM free—and not due to some allergy or gluten issue.”
To a holistic doctor, food is medicine, and Silver strongly recommends home meal preparation from individually sourced ingredients to avoid feeding GM ingredients, especially to pets who have other health problems. “I am truly a holistic practitioner in that I believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Benbrook, C.M. 2012. Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S.—the first 16 years. Environmental Sciences Europe 24: 24.
Ordlee, J., et al. 1996. Identification of a Brazil-nut allergen in transgenic soybeans. The New England Journal of Medicine 334: 688–692.
Samsel, A., and S. Seneff. 2013. Glyphosate’s suppression of cytochrome P450 enzymes and amino acid biosynthesis by the gut microbiome: Pathways to modern diseases. Entropy 15 (4): 1416–1463.
Dog's Life: Humane
The labels are often wrong.
In most shelters, each dog’s kennel run or cage has a card on which the dog’s likely breed (or breeds) is indicated. Sometimes, they’re generic: Shepherd mix or Terrier mix. Sometimes they’re more specific—Husky/Dalmatian cross, say. And sometimes, they indicate a specific single breed. These labels can also be found on shelter websites and search sites like Petfinder.com.
The fact is, nearly all of these labels are guesses. Yes, there are DNA tests, but shelters can’t afford to DNA test every dog. Instead, they rely on staff members’ judgment; they look at a dog, pull out a breed book or consult an array of mental images, and choose a breed or two off the list required by their software.
Some shelters have changed their labels to try to make this clear: “Looks like …” or “We guess that …” However, others go further and eliminate breed labels entirely. As a result, they say, the adoption process has been improved; in some places, adoption rates have improved as well.
What’s the argument for eliminating breed labels? For many, the issue started with Pit Bulls.
Looks vs. Genes
Most shelters are full of the mediumsized, short-coated, blocky-headed dogs who tend to get labeled as Pit Bulls—a type for which there is no legal or kennel club definition. But a number of studies have shown that people’s guesstimates often don’t match a dog’s true genetic heritage. In one study, staff members at four shelters were asked to guess the breed of 120 dogs. Fiftyfive of the dogs were identified as some kind of Pit Bull, but when they were DNA tested, only 36 percent had ancestry from one of the recognized bully breeds (generally, American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier). Five of the dogs who did have one of these in their DNA hadn’t been labeled as such; the guesstimates missed 20 percent of the 25 actual Pit Bulls.
In this context, making a mistake about breed type is a big deal. There are places where it’s against the law to own a Pit Bull, or where you can’t get home or pet insurance if you have one. Even where that’s not the case, the name still carries a stigma.
A recent study—“What’s in a Name: Effect of Breed Perceptions and Labeling on Attractiveness, Adoptions and Length of Stay for Pit Bull-type Dogs” —showed that in a shelter where breed labels were eliminated, the adoption rate for Pit Bulls went up, their euthanasia rate went down 12 percent and their length of stay at the shelter was reduced. Another interesting finding was that while adoption rates increased the most for Pit Bulls, they went up for other dogs as well. “All the dogs benefited,” says Lisa Gunter of Arizona State University, Tempe, one of that study’s authors. “That was something that we weren’t anticipating.”
Others who’ve seen the effect labels can have might not be surprised by those results. “We would notice that people would walk through the kennel and they weren’t looking at the animals inside, they were looking at the kennel cards,” says Kristen Auerbach of Austin Animal Services. “And then, depending on the breed, they literally never even looked inside the cage. It quickly became clear that this wasn’t a Pit Bull issue, it was a bigger issue.”
It’s frustrating for many reasons to watch shelter dogs being rejected purely on the basis of breed stereotypes, particularly since most breeding now selects for appearance rather than function. “The more that we breed purebred dogs for looks, the less likely those things we started the breed for are going to hold true,” says Barbara Hutcherson of Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Herndon, Va. “So you might have a dog in front of you that’s a lovely quiet dog that you’ve had in foster and you know [the dog’s] not noisy—but try convincing someone, when you say ‘Beagle’ and they think ‘noise.’”
Relying on traditional breed characteristics is even more absurd when you’re looking at a mix. “We don’t understand how individual breeds play out in the behavior of the dog,” says Gunter. “A first-generation cross of Labrador and Border Collie doesn’t mean [the dog is] going to swim well and herd sheep. That’s not how genetics works.”
Too, we all seem to share an unspoken assumption that a mixed-breed dog is a dog with two purebred parents, when usually nothing could be further from the truth. Gunter is involved in a study that DNA tested more than 900 shelter dogs. Results for nearly 80 percent of the dogs showed two-plus breeds (the plus indicates that no specific purebred could be distinguished for at least one great-grandparent) and ranged up to five-plus breeds. On average, a single breed contributed around 30 percent of a dog’s heritage. Gunter feels strongly that the usual cage cards are a huge oversimplification. “It does a disservice to the complexity of shelter dogs, and to who these dogs are,” she says.
Changing the Conversation
Given that most of the labels are complete guesses, it begins to make sense that some shelters have decided to remove breed from the conversation. “I think the real benefit of not talking about breed is that it allows you to talk about the dog as an individual—that this is what we’ve observed about this dog,” says Hutcherson. Shelters that have eliminated breed labels report having better conversations with potential adopters, conversations that in some cases might not have otherwise happened.
“What this does is … force people to go through the kennels and come back and ask us, ‘What breed is that dog?’” says Lauren Lipsey of the Washington Humane Society (WHS) in Washington, D.C. “Previously, they … wouldn’t have had to engage us in conversation and could just walk out because they didn’t like the answer.” Now, Lipsey says, when people ask about a breed, staff can dig down into what they are really looking for. “What is it about that breed? You want a dog you can run with? Great, we have a ton of those. A dog that is good with children? Let me steer you toward these dogs that have lived with children. Just because that animal looks like a Lab doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good with children.”
Still, some of us really do want a particular breed. Auerbach doesn’t consider that a problem for those people, or those dogs. “In the shelter, people can walk through and they’re going to make their own identification anyway: ‘That looks like a Poodle and I want a Poodle.’”
Gunter suggests that without labels, potential adopters might actually be more likely to find their desired breed. In considering the reasons why adoption rates went up across the board in her study, she says that it’s important to remember that people disagree on visual breed identification. So breed labels may actually steer people away from dogs they’d otherwise consider.
Leave it open, and they may see that dog in the shelter after all. “If they view a dog as a Cocker Spaniel, then the dog’s a Cocker Spaniel, and if someone else views [the dog] as a Springer, and that’s what they would like, then that dog is there,” she says. “By removing the breed labels, the dog can be whatever that person wants that dog to be.”
New Code Needed
One apparent contradiction is that nearly all shelters still display breed labels for the dogs on their websites. This is because most software programs used by shelters require a breed label to create a record, and automatically display the label online. WHS is one of the few to have figured out how to get around that programming demand, which required writing their own code. Still, their dogs still show up with breed labels on search sites.
Auerbach, who has participated in eliminating breed labels at two shelters and gives presentations on the topic at industry conferences, finds shelter software companies’ reluctance to make changes frustrating. Greg Lucas of Shelterluv.com says that while his company’s software is one of the few to allow a shelter to designate a dog as purely a mix and choose not to display breed labels on their own websites, that’s not the end of the problem. They still have to find something in the search site’s breed list to match up to, or the posting will be rejected. A representative for Petfinder.com points out that the site does allow more generic breed group designations like “Terrier” or “Hound,” and says that the company is “looking into” the idea of being able to eliminate breed designation entirely.
It’s possible that people who are looking for a dog via these sites are a different population from those who come into the shelter to browse. “I do think that the audiences are different,” says Lipsey. It’s also true that these search sites aren’t the only way to find a dog online anymore. For many shelters, promoting individual animals via social media has become a big part of their outreach. The Fairfax County Animal Shelter found that 50 percent of adopters came in after seeing a pet on their social media, where they don’t talk about breed. And Lipsey says that while the majority of their adopters come in to adopt a particular animal they’ve seen online, they’ve typically accessed the information on the shelter’s own website, which does not have the breed labels.
Eliminating all breed labels may seem radical, but there’s no reason a shelter has to go all the way. “What we’re arguing is that shelters should have an option,” Auerbach says. Label an obvious Pug as a Pug, but why be forced to make a wild guess about a dog who is probably a mix of many breeds? And it seems that shelters are enthusiastic about the possibility; Auerbach says that the conference presentations she gives on this topic are packed.
In a sense, there’s nothing new about the idea. In fact, it’s the practice of pigeonholing all dogs into a mix of two breeds that’s new. Auerbach thinks that the reason so many medium-sized, short-coated dogs are called Pit Bulls is that we’ve lost much of the vocabulary we used to use to talk about dogs. “We all remember that for our grandparents, the dogs were mutts, they were mongrels. We had more language to describe mixed-breed dogs,” she says. “Pit Bull has kind of replaced mutt, and that’s a problem.”
Our grandparents didn’t need DNA tests to recognize the complexity of mixed-breed dogs. “When they talked about ‘Heinz 57,’ that’s what they meant,” says Auerbach. “Not two breeds mixed with each other, but many.”
A ruling in an animal abuse case in Oregon should have far-reaching ramifications because the Supreme Court of that state ruled recently that pets are not just “mere” property. The case involved the conviction of a dog owner who was starving her pet. In this instance the owner had appealed her conviction for second-degree neglect because a veterinarian had drawn the dog’s blood (without her permission).
According to the Court’s summary of the case:
The case at issue began in 2010, when an informant told the Oregon Humane Society that Amanda L. Newcomb was beating her dog, failing to properly feed it and keeping it in a kennel for many hours a day. An animal-cruelty investigator went to Newcomb's apartment in December 2010 and, once invited in, saw "Juno" in the yard with "no fat on his body." The dog, the investigator reported, "was kind of eating at random things in the yard, and trying to vomit."
The investigator asked why, and Newcomb said she was out of dog food but that she was going to get more that night, according to the summary of the case.
The investigator believed that defendant had neglected Juno. He asked her for permission to take the dog in for medical care, but defendant, who thought her dog looked healthy, refused and became irate. The officer therefore took protective custody of Juno without defendant’s consent, both as evidence of the neglect and because of the “strong possibility” that Juno needed medical treatment. He transported Juno to the Humane Society, where Juno would be housed and medically treated as appropriate. From medical tests, the officer expected also to be able to determine whether neglect charges were warranted or whether Juno should be returned to defendant.
The vet gave Juno food, charted his weight and measured his rapid weight gain over several days. The vet also drew Juno's blood and ruled out any disease. The investigator concluded nothing was wrong with the dog other than it was very hungry.
Newcomb was then convicted of second-degree animal neglect, a misdemeanor. Among other problems with the conviction, Newcomb argued, authorities violated her constitutional rights to be protected from unreasonable searches of property by drawing blood from her dog. Under Oregon law, animals are defined as property.
The prosecutor Adam Gibbs had argued that taking the dog to the veterinarian office was similar to care in suspected child-abuse cases. And further argued that a dog is not a container—like an inanimate piece of property—that requires a warrant. Rather, Gibbs argued that a dog "doesn't contain anything"—and that what's inside a dog is just "more dog."
The Supreme Court’s ruling agreed with his, stating that the chemical composition of Juno's blood was not "information" that Newcomb "placed in Juno for safekeeping or to conceal from view."
And concluded that the “defendant had no protected privacy interest in Juno’s blood that was invaded by the medical procedures performed.” And while dogs are considered personal property in Oregon, the ownership rights aren’t the same as with inanimate property, imposing other limits. “Those limitations, too, are reflections of legal and social norms. Live animals under Oregon law are subject to statutory welfare protections that ensure their basic minimum care, including veterinary treatment. The obligation to provide that minimum care falls on any person who has custody and control of a dog or other animal.”
Also interestingly the court added,
“As we continue to learn more about the interrelated nature of all life, the day may come when humans perceive less separation between themselves and other living beings than the law now reflects. However, we do not need a mirror to the past or a telescope to the future to recognize that the legal status of animals has changed and is changing still[.]”
See the full opinion here.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It’s now legal to break into cars to rescue pets and people
The governor of Florida just signed a law making it legal to break into a car to rescue a person or a pet who is “in imminent danger of suffering harm.” It applies to vulnerable people and pets (including cats and dogs), but does not apply to farm animals. Many people and pets die each year because they have been left in overheating cars, so this law could save many lives. It is especially important in a hot southern state like Florida with the summer months approaching.
The law specifies procedures that must be followed in order for a person breaking into a car to be protected from civil liability for damage to the vehicle. If you are trying to help someone in danger, here’s what you should know about the law. It is required that you check that the car is locked before breaking in. If you do break in, the law requires that you do so with the minimum force necessary. You are required to call 911 or law enforcement before or immediately after rescuing the person or pet from the car, and you must stay with the rescued pet or the person until first responders arrive.
I’m delighted to know that Floridians are now protected by this law if they see an individual in danger in a car and choose to act. Many people would rescue the pet or person regardless of the risk to themselves, but it’s far better to give legal protection to such potential heroes.
News: Guest Posts
A little girl and her service dog vs a school board
The US Justice Department filed suit yesterday against a public school district in upstate New York for refusing to permit a student with disabilities to attend school with her service dog unless the family pays for a dog handler to accompany the pair.
The lawsuit alleges that the Gates-Chili Central School District in Monroe County, NY, violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which states that a public entity must permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability, except under specific exceptions.
The child at the center of this debate, Devyn Pereira, 8, was born with Angelman Syndrome, a rare disorder that results in developmental delays, seizures and autism. Her mother, Heather Pereira, a single mother of two, spent more than a year raising the $16,000 for Hannah, a 109-pound white Bouvier trained to perform numerous tasks for Devyn, including alerting school staff to oncoming seizures, preventing Devyn from wandering or running away, and providing support so she can walk independently.
Pereira, has spent three years trying to convince school officials to allow her daughter’s one-on-one school aide to provide periodic assistance in handling Hannah—primarily, tethering the service dog and issuing limited verbal commands. The dog is trained to last the school day without food, water or bathroom walks.
The lawsuit requests the school district permit Devyn to act as the handler of her service dog, with assistance from school staff. It also seeks compensatory damages of about $25,000 for Pereira for the ongoing cost of the dog handler.
Announcing the suit this week, Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said: “Honoring an individual’s choice to be accompanied by her service animal in all aspects of community life, including at school, promotes the ADA’s overarching goals of ensuring equal opportunity for, and full participation by, persons with disabilities.” In hearing the news of the department’s decision, Pereira responded, “knowing the United States of America is not only sympathizing with our situation, but willing to take this all way to the top to fix it is an amazing feeling.” And she added, “I have so many dreams for my little girl and with the DOJ’s help, they are all within our reach. It is so exciting to think we are blazing a trail for all those that follow with service dogs.”
For more information about this lawsuit, or the ADA, call the Justice Department’s toll-free ADA Information Line at 800.514.0301 or800.514.0383 (TDD) or access its ADA website at www.ada.gov. Complaints of disability discrimination may be filed online at http://www.ada.gov/complaint/.
Dog's Life: Humane
The first week of September saw a heartwarming example of positive political action when California lawmakers of all persuasions voted to make shelter animals the new official state pet. In both the Assembly and the Senate, the votes were all ayes, no nays.
ACR-56, introduced by Assemblymember Eric Linder (R-Corona), is numbers-driven bill. As it points out, there are currently around 8,000,000 abandoned pets living in animal shelters in the United States, and of these, 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 are euthanized every year.
Like shelters everywhere, those in California stretch to help the animals who come into their care, and it's a big, big job. It's hoped that greater public awareness will get more dogs and cats (and the occasional rabbit, guinea pig or chicken) out of shelter care and into forever homes.
Though the numbers are daunting, keep this in mind: every single adoption makes a difference. The dogs and cats who find new homes also find new lives. For them, it's a 100 percent win.
The Majority Project needs your photos
Talk about a great idea that can help combat negative stereotyping of Pit Bulls—presenting a photo collection of the people who love their Pitties, dogs who are just like every other dog after all. “The Majority Project” is taking action against Breed Specific Legislation by asking Pit Bull people to join in with snapshots of yourselves with your dog and a simple sign “signifying” that you are not the exception but are proudly part of the “majority” of Pit lovers. Watch this PSA video featuring actor Jon Bernthal with his young son, Billy and their dogs, Boss and Venice for more information. The PSA also features: Eric, a cancer biologist and his dog, Red, of Cambridge, Mass.; Nonny, a great grandmother and Ginger, of Washington D.C.; Father Humble, a priest and Aura, of Flowery Branch, Ga.; Rebecca, a teacher and Carmela, of Tucson, Ariz.; and many others. Add a photo of yourself and your Pittie—see how on The Majority Project.
This project is being spearheaded by the Animal Farm Foundation, a non-profit that advocates against breed specific legislation and whose director of operations, Caitlin Quinn, adds, “Discriminating against dog owners because of what their dog looks like will never make for a safer community. Holding reckless owners accountable will.”
The Majority Project PSA from Animal Farm Foundation on Vimeo.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Some tax laws benefit guardians
It can be psychologically damaging to keep track of how much we spend on our dogs. There’s something to be said for just acknowledging that the dogs create a problem area in the budget and moving on. I realize this goes against what every financial planner says, but it’s hard to put a price on our mental well-being.
On the other hand, with possible tax deductions available from the IRS for dogs, it may be worthwhile to face the music and log those expenses. It can take a lot of money to care for dogs, so it makes sense to try to figure out if some of those expenses are deductible.
The bad news is that even though most guardians consider their dogs to be family members, they are NOT deductible as dependents. The good news is that there are still ways that you may be able to write off some canine expenses. If your dog qualifies as a medical, business or hobby expense, there may be tax benefits for you. The costs associated with moving your dog when you relocate for a new job may be written off. Fostering pets from qualified organizations also allows you to deduct certain expenses.
It’s worth checking with a tax professional, and saving the receipts, just in case. For heaven’s sake, though, don’t add them up unless it’s necessary in order to file your taxes!
AB 1810 signed into law by California Gov. Brown
California—An important new bill has passed protecting abandoned animals has been signed into law in the state of California. AB 1810 removes a state mandate to euthanize any animal abandoned at an animal care facility, including veterinary offices, spay/neuter clinics, animal hospitals, and grooming facilities, if a new home is not found within 24 days. Additionally, AB 1810 provides more flexibility to achieve positive outcomes for these animals by permitting animal care facilities to turn the animals over to a local shelter—an option that is strictly prohibited under current law. Sponsored by Assemblyman Brian Maienschein (R-San Diego), AB 1810 was passed unanimously by both houses of the California Legislature and was recently signed by Gov. Brown. “Abandonment should not be a death sentence for animals,” Kevin O'Neill, senior state director of ASPCA Government Relations for the Western region, said. “Dogs and cats at spay/neuter clinics, veterinary offices, or any of California's many other care facilities should not face certain death simply because their owner fails to pick them up. It is imperative that we do all we can to ensure positive outcomes for these animals, and AB 1810 will do just that.”
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
Become a label sleuth and improve your skill at making wise dog-food choices.
When selecting a new dog food, take a few moments to read and compare the label claims on a variety of different brands. You may notice two things. First, many of the claims are identical, making it impossible to differentiate one brand of food from another in a meaningful way. Popular and frequently used claims promote a food’s natural properties (labels are overrun with these), as well as inclusion and exclusion of various components. Many of these claims are either not helpful at all or of limited aid in the pet food selection process.
Second, you will also notice a proliferation of health-related claims (just as you see more of these on many human foods). Commercially available dog foods not only make the hefty assertion of providing complete and balanced nutrition for your dog’s stage of life (or even for all of his stages of life), they also may purport to do the following: boost your dog’s immune system, keep his joints healthy and mobile, slow the signs of aging, support his cognitive function, keep his waistline trim, make him smarter (if he is a puppy), and promote efficient digestion.
Here is some information about certain types of label claims that can help you differentiate among brands as you review labels and evaluate foods, as well as additional information that, at least in my humble opinion, should be included on pet food labels but rarely is (a girl can dream, can’t she?).
Inclusion claims that can be helpful to consumers are those that identify specific types of protein or carbohydrate sources, the type of fat and fatty acids in the food (e.g., inclusion of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil), the inclusion of organically grown plant ingredients or humanely produced animal-source ingredients, and the inclusion of locally or regionally sourced ingredients.
Inclusion claims that are less helpful in differentiating among products are those that make claims about the food containing antioxidants (all processed dry foods must include antioxidants to prevent rancidity), essential vitamins and minerals (again, they’ve all got ’em), or “Contains fiber for gastrointestinal health” (a balanced and complete diet should contain fiber, usually about 3 to 6 percent, so this doesn’t help you differentiate between good and not-so-good foods).
As a rule of thumb, new feeding trends, most of which have little or no scientific evidence, arrive on the scene in the pet food market a few years after they show up in the human marketplace. Recent examples include the Atkins Diet (high protein, low carbohydrate dog foods); gluten-free diets (gluten- and grain-free pet foods); probiotics in yogurt (as supplements and incorporated into dog foods); and one unique to pet foods, the “no fillers” claim, an essentially nonsensical term.
Exclusion claims that may be helpful to some owners when selecting a food include those of no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), no animal products that were treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, and no artificial antioxidants (BHA, BHT or ethoxyquin). Selection of products that purposely exclude these things generally comes from a life philosophy of reducing the consumption of highly processed or treated foods. These can be legitimate choices, provided that the purported health benefit claims are limited to those that have actual evidence.
Although there is no published evidence of health benefits associated with consuming less-processed foods, there is legitimate evidence (beyond the scope of this consideration) for environmental benefits and animal welfare benefits associated with these choices. However, this differs fundamentally from making statements that feeding these items causes dietary insufficiencies or disease in dogs. There is simply no evidence for such claims, and they should not be made in good conscience.
The bottom line with inclusion/exclusion claims is that they can provide a way for dog owners to choose a food that contains something they are looking for or that excludes something that they wish to avoid feeding their dog. Nothing wrong with that. There are many ways to feed a healthy diet and, just as with humans, many different ingredients and foods that can be fed to our dogs to keep them healthy and happy. Problems arise, however, when dog owners, not the pet food companies (notice that labels make no health claims about exclusion/inclusion items) take this a step further and make unsubstantiated claims about why the ingredients they seek are preventing disease or the ingredients they are avoiding cause disease. Just as label claims may be misleading—though they have AAFCO and the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine to reprimand them if they get out of line—so too can the claims of dog owners, many of whom are quite vocal and have blogs, and don’t have to worry about satisfying a regulatory agency.
Digestibility Claims (Allowed, but Rarely Provided)
Since this is clearly a lot to ask of a single processed food, I think we are justified as dog owners to demand that the food’s ingredients are sufficiently available (i.e., are digested and absorbed) to nourish the dog. As a food property, digestibility is more important for dogs than for humans because humans generally consume a wide variety of foods, all of which vary in degree of digestibility and nutrient availability. This mix of foods and the nutrients that they provide can be expected, in most cases, to nourish us and provide the essential nutrients that our bodies need. Conversely, most dog owners feed their dogs a single food over a period of months or years. In this situation, measures of that food’s ingredient quality and digestibility become vitally important. And pet food companies correctly teach us that one of the best measures of ingredient and diet quality is a food’s digestibility.
The reason for this is that a food’s overall digestibility (called “dry matter digestibility”) is increased by the inclusion of high-quality ingredients and decreased when poor-quality ingredients are used. In addition to dry matter digestibility, which gives you a sense of the entire food’s quality, we can also measure the digestibility of the protein in the diet, since this too varies dramatically among different protein sources, with high-quality proteins being much more digestible than low-quality proteins.
In addition to the quality of ingredients, other factors that influence a food’s digestibility include processing care and handling, cooking temperatures, and storage procedures. When a finished product’s digestibility is measured, all of these factors will influence the results. Obviously, this is a very important measure, and one that could provide valuable information to pet owners, if they were privy to it.
This is where things get weird. The vast majority of pet food companies do not report digestibility values either on their food labels or in supporting materials. Some pet food industry folks will argue that these values are not reported because AAFCO has not yet established a standard protocol for digestibility studies to produce these values. This is a convenient but untenable excuse, seeing that apparent digestibility is measured using standard protocols both in academic and industry studies and is regularly reported in published research papers. Moreover, many companies (not all, unfortunately) regularly conduct digestibility trials to compare the quality of their products to that of their competitors, although these data rarely make it into the public realm. There is simply no defensible reason that this information is not made readily available to dog owners, especially given the propensity of pet food manufacturers to make claims such as “highly digestible,” “easily digested,” and “high-quality ingredients” on their labels and websites.
Here is the science: a food’s digestibility—technically, “apparent dry matter digestibility”—is most effectively measured by a feeding trial. The selected food is fed to a group of dogs for a standard period of time during which intake (amount consumed) and excretion (the amount in the fecal matter) are carefully measured. Dry matter (the entire food) and nutrient (protein, fat and so forth) digestibility are determined by subtracting the amount excreted from the amount consumed and calculating this difference as a percent.
It is not a terribly complicated or involved test, although it does require access to dogs who are being fed the food (and only that food) and full collection of feces for a few days (no big deal to people who are used to picking up poop with their hands covered only by a thin plastic baggie). But here is the kicker: although many dog food manufacturers regularly conduct digestibility tests on their foods, they do not make this information available to the dog owners who purchase their foods. Yet, at the same time, they tell consumers that products vary significantly in digestibility and ingredient quality, and that digestibility is a good measure of a food’s quality (and that their food has high or superior digestibility and contains quality ingredients).
Although it is natural to assume that all of a food should be digested, thus the very best food would have a dry matter digestibility of 100 percent, this is not only impossible but also undesirable and unhealthy. Fecal bulk is provided by undigested food, in particular many of the food’s fiber-containing ingredients. Components of food that are not processed by an animal’s digestive enzymes make it to the large intestine, where intestinal microbes further digest them to varying degrees. This process and the microbial populations that are supported by it are essential for a healthy gastrointestinal tract in all animals, including humans. As a general rule of thumb, commercial dry dog foods with reported dry matter digestibility values of 75 or less are of very poor quality, those with values of 75 to 82 percent are of moderate quality and foods with a dry matter digestibility of greater than 82 percent are high quality.
In general, raw diets that contain little starch will have digestibility coefficients (percentages) that are slightly higher than those of a dry food made with comparable ingredients. However, if the raw food contains uncooked plant starches (potato, tapioca, corn), digestibility values will decrease because of the inability of dogs to digest uncooked starch. Of course, dog owners can only make purchasing decisions based upon a product’s digestibility if they are provided this information in the first place (which they are not).
In fact, as I recently discovered, this information is denied even when a consumer requests it directly from the company. This also is a bit odd, seeing that companies promote their foods as high quality (and often as highly digestible). I contacted companies that produced more than 30 different brands of dog food and politely requested that they send me protein and dry matter digestibility values for their adult maintenance dog food. Of the 32 requests I sent, I received no response at all in 27 cases, even though many of these stated on their “request for information” pages that a response would be sent within 48 hours. Of the five responses that I received, two brands said that they do not measure the digestibility of their foods but that their foods are made from highly digestible ingredients and so are very digestible (huh?). In other words, “we do not measure it, but trust us when we tell you that our foods are really, really digestible.” Amazingly, one company even provided a value for the food digestibility that they do not measure, telling me that their foods are 85 to 88 percent digestible. (Note: Do not believe data that have not been measured.) A third company assured me only that “our foods are extremely digestible.” Only two companies of the 32 requests that I sent provided actual data, both of which fell within the range of being highly digestible. Too bad more companies are not choosing to walk their digestibility talk, even though they are more than happy to talk the digestibility talk in their claims. Bottom line: if high digestibility or quality ingredients are claimed, ask for digestibility data from the company. They should provide this information if they are making quality claims to consumers.
Ingredient Source and Manufacturer
This means that the dog food must be both sourced and produced within the United States. If more than a “negligible” amount of the ingredients are imported, then the company cannot legally make this claim. Unfortunately, neither the FTC nor AAFCO specifies exactly what percentage of a food is more than “negligible,” which leaves this regulation open for at least some interpretation. Still, if you read a “Made in the USA” claim on a pet food package, you can also assume that most, if not all, of the ingredients in that food were sourced within the U.S.
The Take-Away on Label Claims
Adapted from Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices, by Linda P. Case; published by Dogwise Publishing. Used with permission.
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