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       Fine Food For Fido?

We are starting a monthly series relating to pet care.
This month's topic is "Fine Food for Fido?"

Do we know what we're feeding our pets? Are we too trusting of others to use quality ingredients and manufacture in a responsible manner a wholesome food for pets? Although this was written with dog feeding options in mind, most of it is applicable to cats. One major difference is that felines are more strictly defined as carnivores--more meat please. Following is a very incomplete overview of some options which can be utilized by themselves or in combination.

Bones and Raw Food (BARF): The idea behind this diet is very straight forward; you feed your dog what they ate for generations in the wild. By their very natures canines are opportunistic scavengers. They ate what they found--and it was never cooked or manufactured. The prey animals they consumed also provided a certain amount of fruits and grains that animal had eaten. Those who promote a raw diet maintain it is more nutritious and replicates what nature provided. The consumption of raw bones is also touted for the nutrition and dental health. Those who have concerns argue that they ate that way because there was no other choice and a more wholesome diet can be devised by humans. There is also concern to proper handling of raw foods in regard to spoilage and the eating/digesting of raw bones. Some will find it disconcerting and messy when their beloved pet is devouring raw meat and bones.

Homemade: The advantages are you now have total control and responsibility for the selection and the preparation (as in a raw diet) as opposed to a commercial product. Those who prefer a raw diet would bemoan the fact that some of the food value is lost by cooking. In general this takes more time than a store bought food and less than a raw, as it can be prepared in larger batches, frozen, then thawed as needed. Those who like a commercial product argue that theirs is a more wholesome diet. Please note that with any diet the feeding of either raw or cooked bones is controversial--but there is a general consensus to never feed chicken bones.

Commercial foods:  What to like? Can't beat the convenience. Stop at a big box, grocery or farm supply, pick up a bag, and dump it in a bowl. You get a promise of "Complete Nutrition", "feeding trial and guaranteed analysis". The pet food industry has oversight at the federal level by the USDA and each state has regulators working in conjunction with the American Association of Feed Control (AAFCO). The Pet Food Institute (PFI) is the manufacturers' national trade group. Each of these have a web site.

Dateline March 17, 2007:  FDA issued recall of what would eventually be more than 90 brands of cat and dog food because of possible contamination of one or more ingredients. Menu Foods is headquartered in Canada, the plant involved is located in Emporia, Kansas, and it was found the the problem was contaminated wheat gluten imported from China by an independent broker. There had never been a federal inspector at this plant in the 30 years of operation. A USDA spokesperson later stated that pet food is largely self regulated on the federal level because of a lack of resources, unless there is a known problem. Is this a system set to fail?

I believe there are a couple of things that may be of help. The ingredients are listed in descending order of weight. For example, the first four ingredients in a discount store brand are ground yellow corn, meat and bone meal, soybean meal, and chicken by-product meal. In a specialty premium priced food there is brewers rice, ground whole grain corn, chicken byproduct meal, and powered cellulose pork fat. I, for one, would have a hard time deciding which one I would trash first. In a premium brand, priced between the previous two examples, you have turkey, chicken, chicken meal and barley. Beside the difference in price per pound, look at the quality of the food. Some question if the cheap or unknown foods can even be metabolized. If not, how much is cheap costing our pets? The more whole foods you and your pet get, the better--beef, turkey, duck, rabbit, etc.; never pork. The same with grains--brown rice, soybeans, etc. You never want anything identified (okay, the less the better) as a meal product such as meat meal or grain meal. The problem is the source(s) is unknown. The more meats and whole grains listed towards the top is a very good indicator of one of the better foods. As you read down the label, you may see dyes and preservatives. In general there are two types of preservatives; chemical and natural sometimes referred to as Tocopherois; an example is Vitamin E seems to be preferred. Dyes will do nothing good for pets and may do harm. Price is another clue. If you've ever wondered how a company can make a quality food, package, ship advertise, and still sell a 20 pound bag for $7.77--the answer is they can't, it is junk.

Now for some dirty rotten marketing tricks. By breaking cheap ingredients into different individual ingredients they can now list them individually which moves them lower on the label. An example would be if a label listed chicken first and wheat germ meal at #2, wheat middling at #3, wheat bran at #4 and #6 grain meal. By adding items 2, 3, 4, and 6 your food is now mostly grains, and not the better ones. At the very least scan the entire label. As to cost, many of us were raised with the idea that if you want quality, expect to pay for it. While in general that has merit, it is also true that promoters know the mind set of the public. Therefore it is entirely feasible to sell a lesser quality product at a premium price. The three examples above are actual foods. The second is one where the marketing plan is considerably better than the end product--in my opinion. A couple of terms you can find on most pet foods is "guaranteed analysis" and AAFCO feeding trials. The first promises a certain level of protein, fat, etc, it does not tell you the quality or if it's a source that can be digested. The feeding trials are rather involved. An example of Testing at Adult maintenance protocol, for example uses 8 dogs that are fed only the tested food for 26 weeks. The dogs are examined at the start and the end by a veterinarian for signs of nutritional deficiency or excess. Some be concerned that not enough animals are tested and the time duration is too short.

Another notation may be: "Made with foods from a USDA inspected plant". Note that it does not state the food passed a government inspection; it may well have been from a human food plant (that was inspected) where in fact the food was rejected for human consumption. A good share of pet and feed animal foods are made from ingredients that do not make the grade for human food.

There are also many sites on the internet that have ratings of the foods, some free, some not. One thing I would be careful of is to know the source--is there a vested interest in a particular brand? One other thing is to know the criteria they are using--are they the guidelines you are concerned about? Is your dog overweight, a puppy, a senior, suffering from allergic reactions? If so, there are several foods tailored specifically for that concern; however what is important is for it to be the very best quality you can afford, regardless of whether you feed a raw, home cooked or commercial diet.

I use the AAFCO web site as a reference. From there is a link to which I find enlightening. It is from "Doctors Foster & Smith", a pet supply company who sells pet supplies commercially.
On the Raw Food Diet (BARF), a book that is often cited for starting the movement is "Give Your Dog A Bone" by Dr, Ian Billinghurst.
"Food That Pets Die For" by Ann N. Martin is often referred to.
"Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats" and
"The Veterinarians Guide to Natural Remedies for Dogs" by Martian Zucker are two general information books that I like.
"The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollen - a natural history of four meals.
"Small Animal Clinical Nutrition" by Hand, Thatcher, Remillard, and Roudebush--It is my understanding that this is a text book used in veterinary schools. This is one book that covers pet nutrition in detail; a great reference book. One other thing that I find of interest is that a lot of materials including this book are supplied to vet schools by Hill's. Yes, this is the same Hill's Science Diet that is sold by many vets. None of this makes the food any better or worse. I do have a copy of this book and many others for reference.

In closing I hope there is some information that can be used. Like many things pet nutrition can be confusing. It also can be very simple. I think we all understand that a lot of our decisions are made because of limited time and/or money, but I believe if our pets are not just animals, then we should do what we can for our friends.

A short and sweet disclaimer: While I attempted to give accurate and truthful information, please take note that there is some conjecture and subjective opinions; both mine and others. I am often completely wrong. The books and web sites I recommended were where I drew most of my information. Please free to contact me with corrections, comments, or questions.

"Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are."
Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, 1825

Featured Topic For August Will Be--The Canine Anti-Arthritis Diet


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