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.
B: This makes it very confusing to the public, who look to their veterinarian as a reliable source of information.
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.
B: How can consumers know the source of the food they buy?
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: They don’t have to put glutens into pet foods; the only reason they put it in is as a binding agent or something that makes the product more palatable or nicer looking (to the human), so it will hold its shape if it’s a biscuit or a kibble. There is no nutrition in glutens, nothing really to speak of.
B: Are there any changes that the federal government can make to improve the process and to ensure the quality of the ingredients? What about the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)—aren’t they the ones responsible for overseeing this?
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.
DS: The members are in the back pocket of the pet food industry.
B: What is your position on the “cooked” versus “raw” diet?
DS: The reason I always cooked the meat and vegetables for my own animals is if you feed raw meat, it is not completely digested. And if you use carbohydrates, you have to cook them. This is one example of what can happen with commercial pet foods. They contain a lot of cereals; there have been examples where a dry food containing barley, oats and rye wasn’t cooked completely, like it should have been. Because the carbohydrate source wasn’t cooked, animals who ate it had diarrhea. You see this in vet practice—people come in with sick animals and they have been using the same brand of kibble, but then one batch isn’t well-cooked. It doesn’t make national headlines, but when you see this, you know that there is a problem with that particular batch of food.
B: Even some of the kibble in this recall was contaminated.
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.
B: What do you think prevents people from cooking for their pets? Is it because they are made to believe that they must feed a balanced diet and they don’t understand how to do that by themselves?
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?
DS: You know, that is overblown. Here’s an example. We have had animals who veterinarians put a controlled diet, like cottage cheese and rice, diets that didn’t balance out. Clients are instructed to bring the dogs back in a couple of weeks for a recheck, but they wait. And you see the dogs a year later, and they are still on the unbalanced diet, and doing fine.