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Pet Food Politics: Know Where Your Dog's Food Comes From

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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