All Posts tagged Pet Allergies

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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Does your pet suffer from secondhand smoke?

The history of smoking tobacco may reach back many hundreds of years, but research in the 20th century has made it clear how harmful this habit is.  Furthermore, secondhand smoke has been implicated in the illnesses and even deaths of non-smokers.  What’s even more disturbing is that smokers may have unknowingly contributed to severe disease in dogs and cats.

Most people understand that secondhand smoke from cigarettes contains an incredible number of hazardous substances and many of them are carcinogenic.  These chemicals are found in high concentrations in carpets and on furniture around the home.  Pets sharing this environment will get these toxins on their fur and then ingest them during normal grooming.

Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, a board certified specialist in veterinary internal medicine and certified veterinary journalist, has written that increased numbers of smokers and smoking in households corresponds with higher levels of the by-products of nicotine metabolism in pets sharing that home.  She further describes how carbon deposits are often seen in the lungs of these animals.

Research is now showing that our pets’ health is affected in ways similar to what is seen in humans.

X-ray of dog with lung cancerIn the early 1990s, researchers found correlations between nasal cancers in dogs and the presence of smokers in the home.  There is also a concern that environmental tobacco smoke may increase the incidence of lung cancer in our canine friends as well.

Cats may actually be at higher risk for serious disease when they live in a smoking environment.  As mentioned above, many cigarette smoke toxins settle to low levels in the home and cats will pick up these substances on their fur.  Because of their fastidious grooming habits, cats end up ingesting a higher level of chemicals and this leads to a greater chance of several types of cancer.

Lymphoma is a cancer of white blood cells and is one of the most common cancers seen in our pet cats.  When smokers are present in the cat’s household, the risk for this killer is increased by two or three times over cats living in non-smoking homes.  Sadly, when our feline friends are diagnosed with lymphoma, the prognosis is very poor and many won’t survive another six months.

Another serious cancer with links to secondhand smoke is a cancer of the mouth known as squamous cell carcinoma, or SCC.   Studies have linked a higher risk for SCC in cats living in smoking homes.  Again, the prognosis is very grave and most pets won’t survive another year.

An unpublished study has also found that the levels of nicotine found in the hair of dogs exposed to second hand smoke is similar to levels found in children living with parents who smoke.

With more than 46 million smokers in North America and about 60% of the population owning dogs or cats, the risk for the animals is substantial.  Pets are often good at hiding signs of illness, so many smoking owners fail to realize the damage that their habit is causing to the four legged family member.

Of course, the best course of action is to give up the tobacco habit entirely.  It’s not only best for the health of the smoker, it will also greatly reduce risks for pets.  Understanding that it’s not easy to quit this addictive habit, people who smoke and have pets should attempt to minimize their pets’ exposure by smoking outdoors.

Lit cigaretteAnother important thing to remember is that smoking in the car with pets can create a toxic environment, even with the windows open.  Some states and Canadian provinces even ban smoking in cars when children are passengers because of the chance for serious exposures.  If you must smoke when you drive, leave your pets and kids at home!

Pets who are developing illnesses from secondhand smoke may exhibit symptoms ranging from lethargy to coughing to the appearance of masses in the mouth.  It’s important to have your pet seen by a veterinarian if any of these signs are noted.

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Itchy Pets are Miserable Pets!

Seeing a beloved pet scratch often leads many owners think their pets have fleas.   When trips to the veterinarian and doses of flea products fail to resolve the itchiness, it is time to think about environmental allergies, or ATOPY.

Just like people, our pets can suffer from allergies and sensitivities to particles in the air.  Many times, pollen, certain grasses and trees or even dust mites can trigger this reaction in pets.

Unlike people though, our pets rarely sneeze and show signs similar to “hay fever”.  Instead, our pets are itchy and they will do anything to relieve that sensation.  Some pets scratch constantly, others lick and chew at certain spots, like their feet and still others might rub against carpets and furniture.  This behavior, and the consistent noises and thumps produced, is often too much for many pet owners.  Sadly, some pets are relinquished to shelters or rescues due to a condition that is actually manageable.

Whenever your pet is itchy, it is important to remember that external parasites or even food allergies can cause very similar symptoms.  Your veterinarian must help you distinguish between flea bite allergies, food allergies or atopy.

According to Dr. Kimberly Coyner, a board certified veterinary dermatologist with the Dermatology Clinic for Animals in Las Vegas, about 10% of dogs suffer from atopy and some cats can develop this condition as well.  Many pets will start showing signs as early as six months of age and most will occur before the animal is five years old.

Beyond the itchiness (known medically as pruritus), pets might also show recurrent skin and ear infections or seem to be obsessed with licking their paws.  These symptoms most commonly occur in warm weather for pets with pollen or dust allergies, but can also occur year round in some cases.

Diagnostic tests for atopy try to determine what allergens are causing your pet’s problems.  Blood tests are often convenient since they can be done by most veterinarians, but Dr. Coyner cautions that this method has drawbacks.  Skin testing (similar to scratch testing in people) is the gold standard for determining what is causing your pets allergies and is more accurate than blood tests.

While not simple, atopy can be managed with baths, medications, managing the environment and sometimes with immunotherapy.  You’ll need good communication with your veterinarian and maybe a veterinary dermatologist!

First, for pets that suffer seasonal allergies, being prepared ahead of time is key.  Some mildly suffering pets can benefit from daily cool water rinses and a fragrance free shampoo one to two times weekly.  Clipping longhaired pets decreases the allergen load and makes bathing easier.

Pollen counts in the home can be reduced by asking family and visitors to remove their shoes at the door.  Routine vacuuming of areas that the pets frequent and washing of pet bedding in mild, fragrance free detergents can also limit the allergen exposure inside.

Some pet owners opt for antihistamines to help provide relief, but experts caution that they are only effective in 30-40% of dogs.  Other owners insist that “steroid shots” or pills are the answer.  However steroids simply decrease the symptoms and do not solve the problem – and they are not without secondary side effects.

Ideally, all pets with atopy would undergo skin testing and then start an allergen specific immunotherapy, guided by a veterinary dermatologist.   By slowly exposing the pet to increasing quantities of the allergen, this immunotherapy can actually “desensitize” the pet and, over time, help reduce the severity of the symptoms.  Dr. Coyner says that 70-75% of allergic pets respond to this treatment and it takes several months to become effective, so it is not a certain cure or a “quick-fix”.

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