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ARTICLES - After The Recall: A Guide To Healthy Feeding

After the recent pet food recalls, many pet owners are wondering what to feed their animal friends, and where to turn for information. If you haven't checked the latest lists of recalled products, I suggest that you do, as the original list was expanded several times within the first week. If your pets are showing any unusual signs, such as listlessness, loss of appetite, vomiting, increase thirst or urination, you should consult your veterinarian. Sadly, we are gradually learning about thousands of animals who have fallen victim to the toxins in the tainted foods.

It is horrible that animals have died, and many consumers feel betrayed by companies that they had thought they could trust. If there can be a silver lining to the entire situation, it is that animal lovers and veterinarians are finally becoming more aware of the truths about pet foods. Veterinarians and pet owners have been manipulated by the industry to believe that animals can only be healthy if they are fed processed, prepared foods made by large corporations. Hopefully, the sparks that have flown will ignite interest in a better understanding of good nutrition for animals, which can only lead to better health for all. After examining the problem, we'll explore the healthy options available and how to chose what's right for you and your friend.

The Pet Food Industry, friend or foe?
Perhaps the most surprising fact that has come to light in the wake of these recalls is that large pet food companies contract with canneries and feed mills that manufacture foods for many different brands in one central facility. While a few pet food companies still run their own feed mills, "out-sourcing" the production of foods has been the industry norm for decades. In addition, all of the largest pet food brands are owned by larger, giant corporations. Many of these large corporations actually make several foods that are competitive with each other in the marketplace. Examples include:

  • Nestle ( Alpo, Mighty Dog, Beneful, and all types of Purina pet foods)
  • Proctor and Gamble (Iams, Eukanuba)
  • Colgate-Palmolive ( Hills Prescription foods and Science Diets)
  • Del Monte (9-lives, Meow mix, Gravy Train, Kibbles and Bits Milkbone, Pounce…)

The lists go on and on. Frequently, smaller companies that are making a genuinely high quality food are bought out by the big giants, the label looks the same, but the food is not. Recent examples of this include Nutro and Wellness. The manufacturer becomes a middle man, and now there are two parties that are trying to reduce costs, and make a food that "meets requirements" using the least expensive ingredients, so that profits are maximized for all.

It is true that many large pet food corporations have helped to make some remarkable and important contributions to our knowledge of pet nutrition. And, they are generous in their contributions to animal welfare agencies and other charities associated with animal care. However, this show of generosity only further serves their interest because human nature leads us to trust them implicitly based on our perception that they're "good guys". Perhaps there are many well meaning people that work for pet food companies, but the bottom line is that it is big business. Advertising would have all of us believe that if our animals aren't eating a big brand, processed food, then we aren't caring for them properly, and they will suffer.
The marketing doesn't stop at the feeding bowl, it is pervasive throughout the veterinary world as well. Almost every bit of nutritional research in small animals that is done in this country is financed by pet food corporations. Throughout the country, nutrition departments at veterinary schools are literally paid for by the industry. For example, when I was a student at Tufts, the only text book that I didn't have to purchase, was the one for my small animal nutrition class, it was provided free of charge by the Purina corporation. At the time, Hills and Purina sent their own veterinary staff to teach lectures on small animal nutrition. At this time, a board certified nutritionist teaches nutrition at Tufts, but the position is paid for by Hills. As a result, the vast majority of veterinarians actually know very little about nutrition, other than which prescription food to sell for which condition. Often they feel that the pet food companies have told them everything that they need to know, and that they can trust the information, because it came from the "experts".

Reading pet food labels:
Reading pet food labels can be confusing, frustrating and sometimes even entertaining. The first thing to do is guard yourself from the misleading pictures. It used to be that a picture of a cute puppy or fluffy cat could sell a food. These days, and certainly more so after this recall scare, the major food companies are clamoring to portray their foods as healthy. The images that sell these days include colorful photos of meat chunks, vegetables, grains and flowers along with catchy phrases like holistic, natural, healthy, organics, and wholesome. All of these are undefined terms in the industry, and are therefore empty phrases. Now, the term "organic" as a singular adjective, is defined, and if a food lists it's ingredients as being certified organic, they must be, and in that case, it's a major plus!

Federal agencies( such as AAFCO and FDA) regulate animal feed, and have set standards for the nutritional make-up of foods. This gives us the expectation that foods will be "nutritionally complete", however in most cases, the food is tested in the laboratory for it's composition, not in the bodies of healthy pets. So, on paper, the food may appear to have everything that an animal needs, but in reality it may be difficult to digest, have low quality ingredients and may provide minimal nourishment.

When reading ingredient lists on labels, you want to look for animal protein as the top ingredient. Wild dogs and cats live almost entirely on animal proteins. Dogs more so than cats, will also eat some fruits, grasses and berries. While neither species consumes grains in the wild, most pet food companies will substitute grain by-products, soy and corn for meat, to provide a less expensive protein source. Dry foods often contain anywhere from 40-70% grain.

Pet food companies have lots of tricks to make foods appear to have more meat protein than they truly do. When the protein source is listed as just the meat, for example: turkey, it may be very misleading. Since meat is approximately 70% water, but the other ingredients in the mixture are dry, there is usually a small amount of meat relative to a large amount of grain. Meat meals are dehydrated meat, which still contain a good nutrient value. When meat meals appear first in an ingredient list, then there is probably a good amount of meat in the formula.. However, even meat meals can be outweighted by the use of multiple grains. Some foods list 3-4 grains which together may add up to much more volume than a single meat source.
Another misleading trick is the "everything but the kitchen sink approach". Some foods have so many ingredients that your head could spin, such as multiple herbs, pheasant eggs, quail eggs, glucosamine, probiotics, blueberries, exotic meats such as elk, and wild salmon. Most often, these ingredients are added to the recipe to make it look good, but are in such tiny quantities that they add little to no value.

Preservatives are another concern. Most companies have stopped using some of the worst carcinogenic preservatives, such as BHA, BHT, Nitrites and Ethoxyquin. However, some still do, including some of the veterinary prescription foods. The careful label reader may see that some foods state "no added chemical preservatives". This is actually a clue that preservatives may be found in the food, but they were not added at the manufacturing plant as part of the recipe. For instance, the animal fat that is added to the food could have a good amount of ethoxyquin in it, but the AAFCO regulations don't require disclosure of preservatives that are added to the animal fat before it is sold to the per food manufacturer.

The brand name, or the price on the bag has little to do with the quality of the product. It is a fact that many ingredients that are used in pet foods by many different companies are ones that are deemed "unfit for human consumption". This can include animal by-products, meat from diseased animals, animals that have pesticides, antibiotics or steroids in their tissues, fats that are rancid or contaminated, used restaurant cooking oils, and grains that are old or tainted in some way. In her well-researched and highly acclaimed book, Food Pets Die For , author Ann Martin exposed some of these facts, and even that traces of euthanasia solution were present in some pet foods. These ingredients are not safe for humans to eat, and certainly are just as unhealthy for our animals. Not all pet foods are made with such ingredients, but most of the brands that you'd find in a grocery store or any large pet store chain are.

The benefits of better foods:
As a holistic veterinarian, I have always felt that the most important aspect of my work is to improve health through excellent nutrition. The old saying, "you are what you eat"is just as meaningful for pets as people. In the ten years since I shifted my practice to a holistic style, I can say without a doubt that animals who are fed higher quality diets live longer, have a greatly lower incidence of skin disease, allergies, intestinal problems, obesity and almost no dental disease. These are the problems that end up costing pet owners thousands of dollars, and they can all be lessened by feeding better foods.

You may need to try it to believe it, but month after month I meet new patients that are on commercial dog foods, and within 3-4 weeks of upgrading their diet quality, owners will report softer coats, more energy, and very often a decrease if not end to symptoms of chronic health problems. Obesity is another major problem that can be greatly improved once the patients are off the high carb diets, and eating better foods.

Feeding better foods does cost a bit more money, and can take more time but you might think of it like an insurance policy, the investment will certainly pay for itself. In order of increasing nutritional benefits, I'd list the types of food that I recommend in the following order : commercial diets, premium dry foods, premium canned foods, homemade foods (raw or cooked being about equal).

I think it's important to keep in mind that we all have different circumstances and need to understand that our animals are very forgiving. If you're unable to switch foods entirely, then so be it. Do the best you can do for your animals, while keeping yourself and your family healthy as well. It won't help to feel stressed out if we can't do more. Relax and do the best that you can. Perhaps you can cook a special meal once or twice a week, then feed a premium prepared food on the other days. Perhaps next year you'll have more time or money, and can make more changes when possible.

The low budget option
For some families with limited incomes, and hungry children to feed, even a premium food may be too much to handle. In this case, I would encourage that they at least buy a food that is made by one of the major companies and is at least apparently free of artificial colors, sugars and preservatives. Such a diet can be augmented whenever possible with some cooked meats and vegetables. When there are healthy leftovers from the people, as long as they are not spoiled or non edibles (such as cooked bones or fat trimmings) they can be added to the next meal for the family pets. If even once a week your pet gets some fresh foods, that's an improvement.

The "no time to cook for myself option"
If you don't have the time, money or kitchen skills to switch to entirely homemade foods, but can afford a premium diet, then please take the time to find a local small business retailer in your area who sells great foods. Major pet store chains do not sell the truly premium brands, because these brands are made by smaller companies that can not afford to sell their product at bargain basement prices. Prices for premium foods are higher , but remember, it's an investment in good health, and will probably save you hundreds in vet bills over the years.

Follow all of the label guidelines given above, and purchase a truly premium food that is prepared by a small and honest pet food company. Some brands that I recommend currently include: Innova, Eagle Pack, Artemis, Precise, Pet Guard, Merrick, Blue Buffalo, and Solid Gold. I prefer canned over dry foods, and would avoid any that are labeled for senior or overweight animals, Canned foods will have less carbohydrates and provide the body with food in it's natural state, which is moist.

Don't worry about the idea that animals need dry food for healthy teeth! The major cause of dental disease in cats and dogs is commercial foods. Due to the high carbohydrate content, they leave sugars in the mouth which produce tartar. I have spent the last 10 years working with patients that eat only premium foods, and chew raw bones regularly, and dental disease is very infrequent
Most of the dogs and cats that are getting frequent dental cleanings by conventional vets are actually eating dry foods, they just aren't premium quality, and so they're left with a mouth full of sugar residues after each meal. In fact, this is such a problem that veterinary dental cleanings are recommended annually now, and a new vaccine is being promoted that is supposed to help prevent gingivitis. It is so sad to see all of the money spent and animals lives put at risk, when the majority of problems can be prevented with healthy foods.

Home cooking for your animal friends
Without a doubt, the best thing you can feed your animal friend is a well balanced home made food, varying the ingredients on a regular basis. Isn't this what most of us feed ourselves? Could you imagine if the FDA and physicians insisted that we were incapable of such a feat, and told us that the best thing we could do is eat Dinty Moore stew and Stouffers frozen dinners for the rest of our lives? Millions of young children are raised throughout this country on home prepared diets. While many are not be getting optimum nutrition, those raised by parents that have the means and knowledge to provide good foods are living proof that it isn't rocket science. If you can feed your kids, or yourself for that matter, then you can feed your dog or cat.

Before the advent of commercial pet foods, people somehow managed to raise dogs and cats for over 8000 years. While the first dog biscuits were marketed over a hundred years ago, and dry and canned rations were available in the 1930's, it wasn't until the mid l950's that prepared foods for dogs and cats became common place in American households. In fact, most of the hundreds of different breeds were developed long before there were prepared foods, let alone "breed specific" diets. I have a collection of antique dog books and enjoy reading the recipes that are found in the nutrition chapters. It is also very interesting to speak with elder people who can recall their childhood pets being fed leftovers, homemade mixes and fresh bones.

Homemade diets
There are many books and websites that provide recipes. Many of the published recipes however, were formulated to mimic the ingredients used in commercial pet foods. Therefore, they may use grains to provide much of the protein and calories that would otherwise be supplied by meats. With grains in the diet, there is an increased risk of problems such as allergies, flatulence, obesity and poor hair coats. My preference for healthy animals, that do not otherwise need special restrictions, is to feed grain free diets. They do great on these diets, and they are simple to prepare. The recipes included below are designed to be flexible. I recommend that you vary the meats and vegetable regularly. Please be consistent with adding the recommended minerals, vitamins and oils, or you may encounter some skin problems. In the case of cats, it is essential that the supplemental amino acid, taurine is provided as directed.

Whenever possible, the use of organic ingredients and filtered water will reduce the exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals that can be found in non-organic foods.

Raw food safety
The issue of raw versus cooked is a hot topic among many pet owners and veterinarians.
While there may be benefits to raw foods, which are attributed to be from fresh enzymes in the meat, I have not observed a huge difference in the health benefits between raw and cooked homemade foods. It's certainly easier to prepare the foods raw, and the majority of dogs that eat raw do great on it. There are some individual animals who just can't seen to digest it well or have no interest in eating raw meats. No worries, cook their food. The holistic approach is one of individual choices and treatments. Do what works best for your animal, as you would for yourself.

The biggest concern among veterinarians is potential health risk Raw diets have been growing in popularity for the past 10 years, and as a holistic veterinarian, with many patients on these diets, and many professional contacts in the field, I have not heard of any great increase in the incidence of bacterial or parasitic diseases among animals that eat raw diets.

Parasites are a potential threat in dogs that eat raw meats. It is possible that they could contract tapeworms or toxoplasmosis from eating raw meats. They can also get these things from chewing at their fleas, hunting rodents or forays to the cat litter box.

Other worries are generally focused on exposure to the bacteria Salmonella and E Coli. It is possible for animals to become infected with these bacteria through food, and then potentially spread disease to people. In the case of weak and debilitated animals, or when the animals or the people it lives with are immunosuppressed raw foods should not be offered. On the other hand, we must remember that our pets can easily encounter the same bacteria in tainted batches of commercial foods, or when they raid the garbage cans, drink from the toilet or lick their own anus. There was a recall recommended recently of a frozen cat diet, due to salmonella found in the food. In fact, the food was not recalled entirely, and there were no incidents of disease among the many cats that consumed the food. Dogs and cats are obviously much more tolerant of these bacteria than humans are.

Common sense needs to be used. If you feed raw foods, then use good hygeinic cleaning sense, as you would after handling any raw meats you consume in your home. Ideally the feeding dishes should be washed after each meal. This can be easily accomplished if you purchase large ceramic salad bowls -available in packages of 4 for less than $10 at discount stores, and put them into the dishwasher after each meal.

If you choose to feed a pre-mixed, frozen diet, I'd suggest one that has a mixture of meat, organ meats, ground bones and vegetables. Most of these diets are great, but not quite complete. I'd suggest referring to the recipe provided in this article, and adding the oils, healthy powder, vitamins, half the amount of the vegetables and half the amount of the bone meal

Treats: the often overlooked risks
In the latest recall updates, certain dog biscuits and kitty treats have been withdrawn from the marketplace. People love to love their pets, and providing them with their "just rewards" is part of life for most. Sadly, those rewards are often responsible for chronic obesity, diabetes, dental disease and allergic reactions. Again, we have been conditioned by the marketing techniques. We have come to think of dog or cat treats as only those things that come in a bag or box with a label that declares it to be just that.

Instead, consider what dogs and cats truly relish: meat. I suggest that you keep a little container of cooked meat, or organic hotdogs cut into chunks, in your refrigerator. Then, when you want to reward a pet, open the refrigerator, rather than a cupboard, and distribute the delicacy. There are several brands of dried meat treats that are jerky-like, but with no added smoke flavors, salts, sugars or preservatives. Dogs will often enjoy pieces of carrots, apples or green beans as a healthy snack.

If you do decide that you just have to have a specially made tidbit for your little friend, then please read the labels, and be sure to avoid artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and sugars. The majority of commercial treats are quite full of carbohydrates.

Closing thoughts

In conclusion, I wish to honor the lives lost due to the recent tragedy of contaminated pet foods
Their loss has become a lesson that has opened the eyes of millions, and may go on to inspire many people to learn more about the foods they feed their animal friends. Hopefully, as a result, the pet food industry will institute additional standards for quality control. In time, the lives of many animals will become healthier and last longer as a result of those that died from the tainted foods. I hope that will be true for each pet that you care for.

Wolf Rock Animal Health Center | 710 South County Trail | Exeter, RI 02822 | 401-294-0102