More than 50 million U.S. households include one or more pets as part of their household. 1 Because therapeutic nutrition is even regarded as an alternative treatment by much of the veterinary community, these pet owners are increasingly turning to nutritional retailers for reliable information more or less the best diets for their darlings. A recent report confirmed that most veterinarians consider their nutrition training inadequate. Of 4,016 veterinarians surveyed, 70 percent say the time devoted to nutrition education in veterinary schools is inadequate, and 55 percent say continuing education courses aren’t much more dependable. When asked where they did learn about nutrition, 60 percent say they get their information from books and journals, and 46 percent report receiving nutritional training from industry authors. 2 When pet owners ask their veterinarian what to feed their pets, most accept the pat answer “any good national brand.” This article’s intent is to discourage nutrition retailers from taking the same shortcut. It may be time consuming to teach customers about more than “good national brands,” but it is the first and most important nexus in a pet’s health.
The Demise Of Pet Nutrition
Why is pet nutrition different from basic human nutrition? During the past few decades, the prevalence of convenient and cheap animal foods has lulled consumers into thinking that these commercial pet foods offer complete and balanced nutrition for their darlings. A basic diet is no longer considered an important source of disease– to the point that pet owners and veterinary surgeons are prepared to look elsewhere for causes and handling alternatives. Ignoring an animal’s basic diet requirements means doctors and retailers are forgetting two basic physiological principles: the importance of fresh and varied foods in the diet, and biochemical individuality. What food consumers in their right mind believe canned foods can offer all of their nutritional needs? While it may be easier to suggest a vitamin-mineral supplement for a sick pet, retailers who advise animal owners about nutritional disease management have a greater responsibility–educating people about basic diet.
Dietary recommendations for domestic species are published as nutrient profiles by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). These profiles are the result of expert evaluations of the National Research Council (NRC) recommendations. The NRC recommendations are based on diets using purified nutrients, taking up 100 percent bioavailability. AAFCO, an organization made up of government, academic and industry experts, evaluated these recommendations and initiated legislation that called for improved testing and labeling of pet foods. 3 All pet foods must now conform either to AAFCO nutrient profiles or undergo AAFCO-approved feeding trials before being commercialized.
These improved procedures, however, aren’t a perfect answer for individual animal nutrition. In the words of Quinton Rogers, D.V.M., Ph.D., an AAFCO panel expert, “although the AAFCO profiles are better than nothing, they provide false securities. I don’t know of any studies showing their adequacies and inadequacies.” Rogers also states that some foods that pass AAFCO feeding tests are short for long-term nutrition, simply there is no means of knowing which foods these are under present regulations. 4 The problem of providing pets with adequate diets isn’t due solely to scientific uncertainty or cost considerations in the animal feed industry. Even if our domestic animals were of a homogeneous race like their wolf, cougar, buffalo or wild horse ancestors, individual differences in physiology and metabolic processes would still complicate matters. Human biochemical individuality, pioneered by Roger Williams, xx of xx also applies to domestic animals. Williams learned that even humans of relatively uniform size and shape vary considerably in their nutritional needs. 5 Needs vary even further depending on age, activity level, existing disease and concurrent drug therapy.
An animal’s breed and function also help see its nutritional necessities. For instance, the diets of broiler chickens needed to be adjusted as birds with higher body weight gain rates were developed.6 A recent study showed that different dog breeds exhibit different abilities to digest the same foods.7 Working animals may also perform differently, and therefore require, diets higher in protein and fat and low in carbohydrates–diets that are not available commercially.8 Individual animals vary enough in their metabolic function that blanket recommendations for “any good commercial diet” may have harmful consequences. When deciding how best to feed pets, it helps to use their “paleolithic” diet as a starting point. Carnivorous animals such as dogs and cats are presumed to need high quality meat, whole grain and high quality fiber sources, along with adequate fat levels, vitamins and minerals. Animals whose individual needs differ due to inbreeding or genetic abnormalities (very common in purebreds) should receive individualized dietary consideration when problems of any sort occur. The Dalmatian breed, for instance, tends to form urate stones and the prevention most commonly recommended is a vegetarian diet. Each breed, as well as each individual animal, represents a unique challenge.
How To Read A Label
Animal diets must provide the basic nutritional building blocks–protein; energy in the form of fats and carbohydrates; essential fatty acids; fiber; vitamins; minerals; and accessory nutrients. The pet food industry spends millions of dollars formulating diets that supply these foods in accordance with AAFCO recommendations by using a mixture of basic elements. The answer is an overwhelming choice of favorite foods in grocery shops, pet stores and health food shops. Such nutrients are often kept to maintain long-term nutrient stability. Many veterinarians think these long-lasting nutrient sources and preservatives may be animal health risks. Common elements found in pet foods include:
Proteins: chicken, egg, beef, lamb, meat and bone meal, alfalfa meal, chicken by products, soya flour, wheat seed, soy grits, soybean meal, corn gluten meal and brewers dried yeast;
Carbohydrates: ground corn, ground rice, ground wheat, barley, brewers rice, brown rice, carrots, oatmeal, cabbage, wheat flour, wheat and flax seed; Lipids: animal fat, chicken, chicken by-products and flax seed; Fiber: alfalfa meal, barley, beet pulp, cellulose, peanut hulls, soybean mill run, wheat bran and tomato pomace; Preservatives: BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin, tocopherols, oxherphol,TM rosemary and ascorbate.
Some foods are higher quality and softer to tolerate than others. For example, eggs and chicken are the best protein sources, until now they are likewise the most expensive. To save money, many manufacturers substitute low-quality protein sources such as chicken by-products, soybean meal or corn gluten meal. Ingredients like corn gluten meal are essentially double as cheap, because they take on both protein and carbohydrate requirements.
The guaranteed analysis on a pet food label may provide data about the levels of protein, carbohydrates, fat and fiber, but this analysis says nothing about the digestibility and quality of the diet. It has been shown that products with nearly identical guaranteed analyses may have wide variations in digestibility and that cheaper brands are generally not as nutritious. 10 The temptation to use low-cost ingredients may cause untold health problems in pets–problems that are easily corrected with better diets. Interpreting pet food labels are akin to recording labels on other nutrient products. Listed in order of decreasing concentration, ingredient labels give much more important data than the guaranteed analysis. The first element should be a high quality meat protein source such as whole chickens or lamb followed by a whole grain carbohydrate source. It isn’t unreasonable to presume that the same factors considered important for human health are also important to animals. For instance, solid food sources of micronutrients may provide as yet unknown phytochemicals critical to pet health, despite the fact that AAFCO nutrient profiles don’t yet list them.
The following two ingredient listings from actual dry dog foods illustrate the divergence in the quality of various diets:
Formula 1–an easily found national brand: Ground yellow corn, soybean meal, meat and bone meal, animal fat (preserved with BHA), corn gluten meal, ground wheat, brewers rice, brewers dried yeast, salt, dicalcium phosphate, calcium carbonate, L-lysine, choline chloride, dried whey, wheat germ meal, zinc oxide, ferrous sulfate, vitamin supplements (A, D-3, E, B12), manganese sulfate, niacin, calcium pantothenate, riboflavin supplement, biotin, garlic oil, pyridoxine hydrochloride, copper sulfate, thiamine mononitrate, folic acid, menadione sodium bisulfite complex (source of Vitamin K activity), calcium iodate and cobalt carbonate.
Formula 2–a “health food” brand with limited distribution: Turkey, chicken, chicken meal, whole ground barley, whole ground brown rice, whole steamed potatoes, ground white rice, chicken fat (preserved with natural vitamin E and Vitamin C), herring meal, whole raw apples, whole steamed carrots, cottage cheese, sunflower oil, alfalfa sprouts, whole eggs, whole clove garlic, vitamin C (calcium ascorbate), Vitamin E supplement, probiotics (freeze dried streptococcus faecium fermentation product, freeze dried lactobacillus acidophilus fermentation product, freeze dried lactobacillus casei fermentation product, freeze dried lactobacillus planturum fermentation product), Vitamin A supplement, Vitamin D3 supplement, niacin, calcium pantothenate, manganous oxide, Vitamin B1 (thiamine mononitrate), Vitamin B2 (riboflavin), Vitamin B12, Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), Vitamin K (menadione sodium bisulfite), folic acid, cobalt carbonate, sodium selenite, biotin. Sick dogs eating Formula #1 rarely need treatment beyond recommending that they eat a diet similar to Formula #2.
What To Recommend
Animal nutrition is complex and requires more time and effort than simply giving an injection or recommending a pill for an animal’s health problem. Hit or miss approaches do little for a pet’s health. The solution instead lies in changing basic diet. Retailers can ensure repeat customers simply by making the simple recommendation to change their pet’s diet. On the other hand, recommending a supplement here and a supplement there increases the odds of losing the customer before hitting on the right nutrient (of the thousands that may need manipulation). Here are some useful questions to ask when a pet owner asks for advice:
Ask what their pet’s current diet is, including whether it includes table scraps or fresh food.
If the diet is not a premium, natural diet, the only recommendation is to switch to a better one. Make sure that the ingredients are high quality, contain no artificial preservatives and the food is not outdated. Contrary to what the majority of veterinarians tell pet owners, supplementing with fresh ingredients is not a crime–in fact, it may supply unknown nutrients not contained in manufactured pet food. It is important to balance these supplements (under a veterinarian’s supervision) if they comprise more than 30 percent of the basic diet.
If the sick pet’s diet is a premium brand, discuss hypoallergenic lamb and rice diets. The fewer ingredients in these diets, the better. Other hypoallergenic diets exist, but these are best reserved for use under a veterinarian’s supervision, if a full work-up of the disease is necessary.
If the diet is a hypoallergenic, premium brand, a basic set of pet supplements may be recommended. Remember that dogs and cats metabolize nutrients and herbs differently than do humans, so it is important to stick with supplements designed for animals. Start with a vitamin-mineral supplement and a mixed n-3 and n-6 essential fatty acid supplement.
Owners who are already feeding their pets high quality natural diets and multiple supplements present a challenge for everyone involved. In future articles, we will discuss specific problems and proper supplementation.