All Posts tagged Pet Foods

Is a Grain Free Food Right for Your Pet?

As a society, we have become very concerned about our diet and a number of health issues related to our consumption of various foods.  Gluten sensitivity in people is just one example and it has lead to many looking at “whole food” diets or even eating only foods that our Paleolithic ancestors consumed.  Naturally, pet owners will translate these concerns to their cats and dogs and look for more natural diets for their four legged friends.

Pet food marketers have been quick to respond to the public’s desire for grain free options in their lines of food.  Catchy brand names like “Taste of the Wild”, “Natural Balance” or “Earthborn” tempt the human shoppers.  But, are these pet owners choosing a diet simply based on marketing hype and the sales pitch in the store?

Many believe that the gluten sensitivities common in people are also a widespread problem in pets and chose a diet based on a lack of specific ingredients, such as wheat.  Unfortunately, there is no evidence that these particular problems occur regularly in dogs or cats.  Gluten-sensitive intolerances are documented in Irish Setters, but, to date, we simply don’t know if other breeds are affected and the problem has not proven to be widespread.

Jack Russel pups eating from bowl - Veterinary News NetworkAnother frequent reason for choosing a grain free pet food is that the owner believes that wheat, corn or some other grain is highly allergenic and causes food allergies for their pets.  The fallacy here is that many dogs are actually allergic to the proteins in the food.  In a review of 267 cases, wheat actually was responsible for fewer canine allergy cases than beef and dairy and corn comes in at a distant 8th, behind chicken, egg and lamb.

Some owners mistakenly believe that “grain-free” equates to low, or even no, carbohydrates.  Dr. Susan Wynn, a well-known speaker on clinical nutrition and integrative medicine, remarks that “if the pet food is a dry kibble, it contains carbohydrates.”  The manufacturing process to produce the dry diets (known as extrusion) won’t work unless a minimal level of starch is present.

Dr. Lori Huston, a Certified Veterinary Journalist and author of the Pet Health Care Gazette blog concurs.   She even mentions that many of the popular replacements for grains, like potatoes, can actually increase the carbohydrate content of the food.

Finally, a common myth is that our pets are unable to effectively digest the grains present in commercial diets.  The reality is that dogs do quite well digesting grains and starches.  Not only has decades of research proven this, but new genetic information shows our domesticated canine friends have many more copies of a gene for amylase than their wolf cousins.  This important enzyme helps cut starch molecules and enables dogs to effectively use grains as an energy source.

All of the above reasons aside, is there a downside to feeding grain free foods?  Overall, the consensus from veterinary experts is that these foods are generally safe and will also provide a complete and balanced diet for your pet.  In some cases, the levels of fat or protein may be higher than necessary for some pets and that could cause health issues.  To quote Dr. Wynn, since “excess protein is not stored by the body, high protein diets are often simply good for producing expensive urine.”

If grain free is an option that interests you for your pet’s diet, talk with your veterinarian.  We can help you sort through the myths and misconceptions that so often abound when it comes to pet foods.  This is especially important when it comes to food allergies.  Over the counter (OTC) “hypoallergenic” foods can often confound a food allergy diagnosis.  Studies have shown that these OTC foods may often contain the very allergens the owner is trying to avoid and cross contamination in the manufacturing process is a common occurrence.  In addition, one well known OTC pet food manufacturer was reprimanded by the FDA after lab analysis showed their lamb diet contained no lamb, but beef instead!

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The Silent Epidemic Affecting Our Pets

Veterinarians have estimated that more than 88 million pets are far too heavy and this tendency towards chubbiness is causing injuries, illnesses and even shortening life spans.  Unfortunately, there is a serious disconnection between what veterinarians tell owners and what the owners see in their pets.

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) surveys veterinarians and owners each year to find just how overweight our pets are.  Recent surveys have shown that 53% of dogs and 55% of cats are classified as overweight or obese by their veterinarians, but 15 to 22% of owners see those same pets as normal weight!  In the words of APOP founder, Dr. Ernie Ward, pet owners have now normalized obesity and made fat pets the new normal.

What’s even worse is that despite veterinarians’ warnings, the numbers of fat pets continues to grow.  In recent years, pets classified as obese (greater than 30% above normal body weight) have increased after each survey.  This means that more and more pets are at higher risk for a variety of weight related problems.

Carrying excess pounds can cause pets to develop breathing problems, kidney disease and aggravate arthritis.  Cats are extremely prone to acquiring Type 2 diabetes when they are overweight and any anesthetic procedure for your pet is automatically more of a risk because of  increased body fat.

Above all, excess weight will shorten a pet’s lifespan.  A landmark study has shown that pets who intake a limited amount of calories actually live almost two years longer than pets without calorie restriction.

Pet owners are the major gateway to both preventing our pets from becoming obese and in helping them lose the excess fat.  After all, it’s the owner who controls the pet’s access to all foods!

So, if your veterinarian has diagnosed your pet as overweight, first, don’t despair.  Your veterinarian is happy to develop a plan that will safely and effectively lose the extra pounds.  Next, use tools like a Body Condition Score chart http://www.hillspet.com/weight-management/pet-weight-score.html to more fully understand what an overweight pet looks like.

Involve your whole family in the pet’s weight loss process.  Assign one person to be the pet’s primary feeder and make sure that no one else in the family is providing non-approved treats or snacks on the side.  It may not seem like much, but even a couple of dog biscuits each day can add an extra 50-100 calories.  That’s almost 25% of a small dog’s total daily requirement!

For obease pets, your veterinarian will recommend a prescription weight reducing diet for your pet.  Although you might be tempted to continue feeding the previous brand of food at smaller portions, this practice could actually lead to nutritional deficiencies.  Reduction diets are specially formulated to provide the right amount of all nutrients while still limiting the amount of calories.

You may need to change your pet’s feeding schedule too.  Most pet owners leave food out for their pets all day (free choice feeding) and that often leads to the obesity problem or they only feed a large amount once a day.  By feeding a the right amount twice or even three times a day, you can actually help your pet lose more weight.

Increasing your pet’s exercise is also a crucial component to weight loss.  Once your veterinarian gives the okay, try to work up to two 20 minute walks per day or even one hour long walk.  The extra benefit is the positive effects on your health also!

For cats use kitty toys to encourage play and movement.  Teasers on strings and even laser pointers can keep your cat moving and a couple of twenty minute sessions each day will help your feline burn more calories.

Once you have started the process, your veterinarian will want to see you for regular weigh-ins and consultations to make sure you are meeting goals and adjusting as needed. .

This is a serious issue and has proven affect on longevity.  We all want our pets to be with us for as long as possible, so helping them lose excess weight is just one way we can help make that happen!

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Feeding Bones is an Expensive Gamble.

We have all seen the cartoons and commercials depicting dogs burying bones and stashing them away for later.  Unfortunately, most pet owners are completely unaware of the significant risks and problems that are associated with feeding these treats.  The situation has gotten so bad that even the FDA has warned consumers to avoid giving bones to their dogs.

Advocates of raw pet foods and other so-called “natural diets” claim that, given properly, bones are a great way to clean your pet’s teeth and provide an instinctive means of stress relief. Some even state that bones provide important nutrients and should be included in your pet’s daily routine.

So, is it okay to give a dog a bone?

Most veterinarians answer that question with a resounding “NO” for several reasons.  One of the most common problems for a dog with regular access to bones is fractured teeth.

Attrition of canine incisorsVeterinarians will see unusual patterns of enamel wear, cracks in the teeth and even painful fractures of the canine teeth or large molars and premolars.  Even if the fracture doesn’t look serious, the connection of the inside of the tooth with the outside environment can lead to abscesses that show up on the muzzle or under the eye.  These conditions will require a veterinary dentist to extract the affected tooth or perform a root canal.  Either of these procedures will also cause pain to the owner’s wallet as root canals can start at $700 – $1000 and even extractions are rarely less than $500.

The American Veterinary Dental College’s website (avdc.org) states that dried natural bones are “too hard and do not mimic the effect of a dog tearing meat off a carcass.”

Another common problem seen with dogs who chew on bones is an obstruction of the digestive tract.  These treats can become lodged in the esophagus, the stomach or anywhere along the intestines.  Blockages in any of these areas will require emergency surgery and several days of hospitalization.  A typical exploratory surgery to remove an obstruction caused by a bone or bone fragments can exceed $2000 or $3000!

Bones in a basket at pet store - Veterinary News NetworkCooked bones are especially dangerous as they have the potential to splinter.   These shards then can poke through the digestive tract or even lacerate other delicate structures, such as the tongue.  A pet who experiences a perforation of the stomach or the intestine may be at risk for a deadly case of peritonitis and an expensive trip to the animal ER.

Beyond these very common dangers, veterinarians will also see pets with bones lodged in their mouth, encircling the lower jaw or even serious constipation caused by bone fragments.  These conditions are not only painful, but just imagine how scary it would be to have a bone fragment lodged in the roof of your mouth!

Proponents of giving bones to dogs downplay these risks, citing the importance of matching the right type of bone to the dog.  They state that uncooked bones are much safer, decrease the risk of obstruction and provide more nutrients.

However, veterinarians routinely see the problems listed above with ALL types of bones.  It doesn’t matter if it is a large beef cattle femur or a poultry wishbone, the risks are still there.

With respect to the nutritional argument, bones are composed of minerals that are commonly found in many other foods and dogs can’t properly digest uncooked collagen, the main protein component of bones.  Your pet can get all the beneficial nutrients in other foods with a much lower chance of problems.

So, before you decide to follow the dubious information provided by these so called “experts”, spend some time talking with your veterinarian about these potential hazards.  They have seen the bad cases and can fully explain the very serious risks.

Many safer alternatives to bones exist for dogs and your veterinary team can help you find the right match for your pet.  It’s important that owners always supervise their dogs when giving them any chew item, especially one they have never had before.

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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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