Archive for December 2012

Pet Food Marketing Is Confusing and Misleading

We all want to find the freshest ingredients and highest quality foods when preparing meals for our families.  It’s also likely that we want the best food for our pets too.

You’ve probably heard the terms “natural”, “organic” or even “human-grade” when referring to pet food.  But what do they actually mean?

The pet food market has become extremely competitive and very confusing.  More than 3,000 different brands of food sit on store shelves and highly paid, successful ad agencies are often recruited to find ways to convince pet owners that their particular brand is the very best.

Much of this marketing uses the term “natural” and other key words that are really designed just to motivate you.  Much of it has little to do with the quality of the food.  In fact, according to PetfoodIndustry.com, the “natural” pet products market in the US is expected to double to more than $9 billion by 2017.

So, do any of these marketing buzz-words have actual significance?

According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the term “natural” does have legal meaning. The FDA, who actually has authority over pet food manufacturing and label claims, does not give a definition to “natural” but has not objected to its use as long as the foods do not contain artificial flavors, added colors or synthetic substances.

Organic signLike “natural”, the word “organic” also has been legally defined.  Pet foods and treats that wish to be labeled as organic must meet standards set forth by the National Organic Program.  These requirements include both how the food is grown as well as how it is handled.  Additionally, organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and no antibiotics or growth hormones can be given.

But, please remember this, despite modern folklore and Internet rumors, organically grown foods have not been shown to be superior in either nutrition or health. It has become one of those huge marketing gimmicks used to motivate you to buy something that may or may not be good for your pet family members.

The use of the term “natural” also does not always mean healthy or even safe.  A prime case in point is a naturally occurring mycotoxin known as Aflatoxin that can cause serious liver disease in dogs and occasionally sparks pet food recalls, many of these brands are labeled “natural”.

Unfortunately, many pet owners are swayed by other labels and none of them has a legally defined meaning.  One of the worst offenders is the use of the term “human grade” or “human quality”.  A pet food company that markets this way is implying that their pet food is edible for people.  AAFCO has stated that using these terms without meeting all federal regulations is a misbranding of the product. This is government-speak for mis-leading, some would call it fraud.

When you see the term “human-grade” in marketing or on bags of foods, remember that this term has no significant meaning for pet diets.

So, what about all these marketing gimmicks?  Can you always trust foods sold as “premium”, “holistic” or even “gourmet”?  It’s important to remember that all of this promotion is designed for your benefit, not your pets.  How do we choose correctly, safely and also economically?

First, find a food that has undergone AAFCO feeding trials.   This statement can be found on the bag’s label and assures you that  the food is digestible, palatable and that your pets can successfully use the nutrients in the food.  Next, look at the price.  If you are paying less than a dollar per pound of food, that diet won’t work.  You will end up feeding more just to meet your pet’s energy and nutritional requirements.  Look for a food that costs around $1-2 per pound.

Grain free dog food labelFinally, ask your veterinary team about the reputations of pet food companies and for their recommendations.  After all, who knows your pet and their needs better?

As you can see, it’s easy to become confused when the Madison Avenue ad agencies start working their magic.  Your veterinarian and their staff will often have some sound advice concerning pet nutrition.  Better yet, it will often come without all the marketing hype!  The relationship between you and your pets is personal, and the relationship you have with your veterinarian is personal.  Rely on that, not on the impersonal decisions made in a board room.

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Dont Let Pets Suffer From Pancreatitis

During the holidays you can ask any veterinarian in general practice or in the emergency room and they will tell you they see lots of vomiting dogs!  From Thanksgiving through the New Year, veterinary practices are busy treating pets with a potentially fatal disease called pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis means inflammation of the pancreas, an organ that provides digestive enzymes and insulin.  Under typical circumstances, the digestive enzymes are kept safely inactive inside the pancreatic cells until they are normally released into the intestines and activated.  These powerful chemicals help breakdown proteins, fats and carbohydrates so that the body can make use of the food.

However, for some reason, these enzymes are occasionally triggered early and actually start damaging the pancreas itself causing severe inflammation of the organ and surrounding tissues.  This serious condition can appear suddenly (acute) or it may develop slowly over time (chronic).

This is a very painful condition and is more common in dogs than cats.  It is seen around the holidays because pet lovers just can’t resist and give their pets too much of the fatty foods left over from holiday meals.  This fat is thought to trigger the disease.  Pet owners first notice their pets are just not normal, then they may seem to have a painful abdomen that gets worse, they can develop diarrhea, then the hallmark symptom is vomiting.

Chronic cases of pancreatitis are more commonly seen in cats and result from long standing inflammation.  This often leads to irreversible damage and could even develop into diabetes.

Although the exact mechanism of pancreatitis is not known, there are risk factors and some things we do know.  The biggest of these are pets who’ve recently had a high fat meal.  During the holiday season this usually means the greasy turkey, ham trimmings and gravy that we don’t want and feed to our pets.  Certain breeds, some small dogs and obese pets are very prone to quick onsets of this disease.   Veterinarians also report that pancreatitis can develop alongside other diseases, like Cushing’s disease or diabetes and even occur due to some drugs, toxins or bacterial/viral infections.

Even though symptoms range from mild to life-threatening, acute pancreatitis is a very painful condition.  These pets will whine or cry, and often walk with a “hunched up” appearance; a sure sign of pain and that veterinary care is needed immediately!  Dehydration, heart arrhythmias or blood clotting issues may occur without quick medical attention.

Veterinarians will often do blood work or even take x-rays in order to rule out other causes of abdominal pain, such as an obstruction in the intestines,  kidney or liver disease.

If all of this is not bad enough, there is no direct treatment for this problem.  By controlling the pain and the main symptoms, it is likely the pancreas will heal itself, but this needs to happen under direct medical supervision.  Affected pets cannot have any food or water by mouth for several days, so  IV fluids and other medications are essential.  And because of a severely painful abdomen, proper pain control measures are a vital part of the treatment.

Many pets who suffer a bout of pancreatitis seem to be prone to develop the disease again.  Whether this is due to eating inappropriate things, genetic predisposition or some concurrent disease is not known.

One of the simplest things you can do to avoid this serious disease and a holiday trip to the animal ER is to not feed of any pet from the table.  The skin of the holiday turkey, fatty parts of the ham or even leftovers tossed in the trash can all trigger an episode of pancreatitis.  If you notice a change in your pets eating behavior or stance or any signs of abdominal pain, especially with vomiting, call your veterinarian immediately and get early treatment.  This could save your pet’s life.

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