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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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Jerky Treats for Pets Continue to Cause Problems

Using treats as a means of reward or distraction for our pets is not unusual.  “Roxie”, a Yorkie, was owned by a wonderful lady who had long suffered from severe hip arthritis and therefore could not get to the store very often.  She relied on friends to buy her groceries and even food and treats for her beloved canine companion.

Happily her veterinarian agreed to make house calls for her special situation. During a call for an exam and vaccinations, she returned from her kitchen with a bag of treats for reward.  Unfortunately, she held in her hand a newly opened bag of dog treats of a brand that has been associated with numerous complaints to the FDA.  Thankfully, the veterinarian stopped her from giving the treats and explained this serious situation.

Jerky treats have been an extremely popular treat for pets because of their high protein, low fat composition and dogs love them.  Also, the fact that the ingredient list is generally very short (chicken and some flavorings) allows people to feel good about giving their dogs something “natural”.

But somewhere along the way, something has gone terribly wrong.  Since 2007, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued numerous warning about pet illnesses and even deaths associated with these jerky treats.  The most recent figures show more than 2,200 reports on file and these include more than 360 deaths thought to be linked to these treats!  In many cases, kidney failure was the primary reason for the sickness, death or euthanasia of the pet.  What is even more disturbing to most people is that almost without exception, the country of origin of the product is China.  The memory of the nationwide pet food recall caused by tainted ingredients from China is still fresh.   Thousands of pets became very sick and even died in 2007 from this serious problem.

Unfortunately, despite rigorous and continued testing and FDA inspections of manufacturers in China, the source of the problem is still unidentified.  Without knowing what the exact problem is, the FDA is powerless to compel any sort of recall.  Manufacturers of the treats are all reluctant to pull their products from shelves and this has led to a strong backlash from consumers and has social media buzzing.  Even now, several law suits are in progress.

According to Laura Alvey from the FDA, there are productive discussions happening with pet food firms at this time in the hopes of finding a cause for this on-going issue.  The latest testing of the treats is focused on problems stemming from irradiation of the ingredients.

So, what can you do to make sure your pet is not adversely affected?

First, and very simply, avoid buying any sort of jerky treat that is made in China.  Although that sounds easy, it is often difficult to determine exactly where a product is made.  Even products that are “Made in the USA” may source ingredients from China.  If you are not sure, call the manufacturer and ask them if the treats are wholly made in the US from US sourced ingredients.  If you don’t get a definitive answer, don’t buy the product!

Next, consider alternatives for the jerky treats.  Many dogs will happily accept baby carrots or green beans as a snack or reward.  Reputable companies, like Hill’s, Iams and others, also offer a variety of safe treats we can trust.  Other pet owners have found homemade recipes like the ones at DogTreatKitchen.com for making their own special home cooked goodies.

Remember, treats should only make up a small portion of the calories your pet receives each day.  While this sounds like common sense, in many of the complaints on file with the FDA, owners were feeding too many jerky snacks far too often.

Finally, it’s important to see a veterinarian if you’re pet shows any odd symptoms or has persistent vomiting and diarrhea.  In a review of the complaints to the FDA, a fair percentage of pet owners never saw a veterinarian or had any blood analysis done.  Without that information, it is almost impossible to say that the treats are the definitive cause of the illness or death.  Your pets rely on you to make sure their food and treats are safe and they need your help.

If you believe your pets have been affected by these products, please tell your veterinarian and file a report with the FDA online.

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Looking for the Right Pet Food – Part II

Our pets depend on us to keep them properly fed and in the best health.  But for most pet owners, the overabundance of different types of pet foods as well as the enormous number of brand names is often overwhelming.  Then, Internet chat rooms and forums are simply full of a wide variety of opinions on what is the “best” pet food.  How can the average pet owner make the best decision when it comes to feeding their pets?

Thankfully, there are experts in the area of pet nutrition.  Diplomates from the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (acvn.org) are specialists whose focus is the advancement of veterinary nutrition.  Put another way, these knowledgeable veterinarians know what makes a good pet food!

Dr. John Bauer, a veterinary nutritionist with the Texas A&M University, College of Veterinary Medicine says, “When it comes to choosing a diet for your pet, the first thing to think about is the life stage.  Is it a young, growing puppy or kitten or is it a mature adult trying to maintain body size?”

Puppies eatingIn other words, puppies and kittens have different nutritional requirements than adult dogs and cats or even senior pets.  So, a food that is adequate for all life stages may actually have too much of certain nutrients for some geriatric pets.  One way to determine if your pet’s food is meant for all life stages is to look for the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement on the bag.  If the nutritional adequacy statement reads “complete and balanced nutrition for all life stages”, then pet owners know that the food has enough nutrition for pregnancy, lactation, growth and maintenance.   If the label states “complete and balanced for adult maintenance”, this food is appropriate for adult pets only and not young, growing animals.

“Another important thing to look for is whether or not the food has undergone feeding trials,” adds Dr. Bauer.  Again, the AAFCO statement is helpful.  Foods that have been fed to animals prior to marketing to consumers will have a statement similar to “AAFCO animal feeding trials substantiate…” or “Feeding trials show…”.  This is a good sign that the company has invested in the due diligence to make sure pets willingly accept the diet and stay healthy on it.

Foods can also be created to meet specific guidelines.  If the bag of food simply states that “Brand X is formulated to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles”, then the food was not fed in any regulated manner to animals prior to its delivery to store shelves.  Although this does not mean that the food is poor quality or even bad, most pet owners would prefer that their pets are eating a food that has proven to do well for other animals.

Kitten eatingFinally, the reputation of the company making the food is an important consideration for pet owners.  Does the manufacturer use a veterinary nutritionist to help develop and maintain the diets or is the food one that just has a celebrity endorsement?  Does the company engage in beneficial nutritional research or do they simply follow the most recent dietary fad?

Although the Internet is full of opinions and folklore about pet foods, the best source of nutrition information will come from your veterinarian.  He or she not only has the needed schooling to help you understand your pet’s dietary needs, but many veterinarians will also attend continuing education lectures to keep up to date with the latest advances in animal nutrition.  In addition, your veterinarian understands your pet’s unique needs and any specific concerns you might have about pet foods.  Anonymous strangers in online chat rooms or forums simply won’t have that knowledge or the same level of concern.

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Pet Foods Part 1 – Myth Busting!

Asking someone about their preferences in pet foods can be as polarizing as if you asked about their political affiliation.  Many pet owners have very strong opinions and beliefs when it comes to the type of food they choose for their four-legged companions and that is certainly their right.  However, there are a few myths about pet foods or pet food ingredients that need some clarification.

First, a very common assertion in online discussions, and even in veterinary waiting rooms, is that corn is a bad ingredient and our pets cannot digest it.  In fact, some people will outright refuse any pet food that contains any corn in the formulation.  This myth comes about because of the human preference for eating whole kernel corn.

But, looking more closely at ingredient labels, pet owners will see that the “corn” present in many pet foods is actually corn meal or even corn gluten meal.  These processed ingredients provide a very high quality carbohydrate source and, in the case of corn gluten meal, a very digestible and good source of amino acids.  The amino acids found in corn protein complement many of the amino acids found in meat, thereby creating a food with all the essential amino acids a pet needs.  An important fact to remember is that nutrients are the most important part of a pet’s diet, not the specific ingredients!

Despite the numerous myths circulating, corn is no more allergenic that any other protein source and actually has been shown to be less allergenic than beef, soy, wheat and dairy proteins.

The next myth has to do with an unfortunate naming convention.  Almost everyone has seen pet food commercials showing paid actors pretending to be disgusted by the pet food ingredient called “meat by products”.  Again, the confusion and misunderstandings happen because of what humans have decided to name particular parts of the meat producing animals.  Skeletal muscle is the most common meat that ends up in our grocery stores and on our dinner plates.  But, there is a lot of muscle and other protein rich organs that are not consumed by people.  Since we don’t use these leftovers for human food, they are termed “by-products”.

In reality, by-products include highly digestible and nutritious organs, such as the liver and lungs and do NOT include things like hair, horns or hooves, as advertising gimmicks would have you believe.  More to the point, if pet food companies did NOT use these organs and other parts, a large portion of the animals we raise for food would go to waste, resulting in the need to raise MORE animals to feed our pets.  As the American Animal Hospital Association has said, “Feeding by-products = green living”.

Finally, many people believe that veterinarians are not instructed in any sort of nutrition basics during their intense schooling.  This is actually a big fallacy as almost all veterinarians will have at least a semester devoted to nutrition and many may have completed undergraduate nutrition courses before applying to veterinary school.  Continuing education opportunities that discuss nutrition are also popular lectures for veterinarians and veterinary technicians.

What you feed your pet will be a decision you make based on a variety of factors.  But, don’t fall victim to Internet fads promoted by individuals without scientific training or who will profit when you purchase their brand of food.  It’s also important to review a variety of information sources before you reach any conclusion about how good, or bad, a particular ingredient might be.

Whether you choose to use a “grain-free” diet, an “organic” pet food or the cheapest food you can find, it’s important to discuss your pet’s nutrition with your veterinarian.  He or she can help you understand what the pet food labels really mean and help you make a sound decision based on the needs of your pet.

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