National marketing campaigns and grass roots fads have caused tremendous confusion in knowing what to feed our pets. Walk into any pet food store like PetSmart and you will be confused by the dizzying array of foods. Even Trader Joes has a pet food brand.
Pet stores, feed stores (and even breeders) are the last place you should go for advice on what to feed your pet. As a start, their employees do not understand the basics of nutrition. Next time you go ask one of them to name 4 fat-soluble vitamins, or tell you what an essential amino acid is, or name 10 essential amino acids, or how many kilocalories there are in a gram of fats, carbohydrates, or protein. The answers to these questions are Nutrition 101, and we have never had a pet store employee that can answer them.
Next ask them how familiar they are with your individual pet. Do they know its vaccine status, its body condition score, its weight or temperature, its heart rate and respiratory rate, the results of its lymph node exam or heart exam, etc.? Without this basic information on your pet how can they even begin to give nutrition advice?
Then ask them if they have the laboratory findings on your pet regarding its fecal parasite status, its protein and electrolyte numbers, its liver enzyme values, its kidney status, its white blood cell and red blood cell count, and its viral or heartworm status. And ask them if they know of any medication your pet is taking to treat a disease. These are all important points, and of course they would not know any of these
Finally, ask them how many times they have treated a pet for a nutritional problem. Do they know what food to feed a cat with hyperthyroidism, a dog with acute kidney disease, a cat with chronic renal failure, a dog or cat with sugar diabetes (diabetes mellitus), or a dog with cognitive dysfunction syndrome. Do they know that cats with a taurine (an essential amino acid) deficiency are prone to a heart disease called cardiomyopathy and even blindness?
When they give you advice on what food will treat your pet’s “skin condition”, ask them what skin condition they are treating and how they diagnosed it. Only a small percent of skin conditions are caused by food allergy, yet if you rely on their advice the special food they are pushing that week will correct your pet’s supposed food allergy. We would love to know how they diagnosed the food allergy your pet has. To learn much more about how our doctors make a diagnosis we have a Diagnostic Process page.
This is a picture of our bible when it comes to skin diseases of animals. It is over 1400 pages long. Its put here as an example of just how complicated skin disease is. Its hard to believe someone at a pet or feed store can make a diagnosis of the cause to a skin problem so readily.
They have no idea that an excess of a nutrient is just as harmful as a deficiency. Excess protein can cause liver or kidney disease. Excess calcium can cause bladder stones or bone disease. Excess phosphorus can exacerbate chronic renal failure in cats. When asked about food for kidney disease, all they do is repeat what the sales rep told them that it is “low in protein”.
They have no idea that the ratio of nutrients is just as important as the total amount. We see this problem with a disease called metabolic bone disease, where the ratio of calcium to phosphorus is not in the proper 1:1 to 2:1 range.
Terms like “by-prooduct” and “natural” are thrown around without any idea of what they truly mean. Here are some definitions from Wikipedia:
A by-product is a secondary product derived from a manufacturing process or chemical reaction. It is not the primary product or service being produced. A by-product can be useful and marketable or it can be considered waste.
A natural product is a chemical compound or substance produced by a living organism – found in nature that usually has a pharmacological or biological activity for use in pharmaceutical drug discovery and drug design. A natural product can be considered as such even if it can be prepared by total synthesis.
These small molecules provide the source or inspiration for the majority of FDA-approved agents and continue to be one of the major sources of inspiration for drug discovery. In particular, these compounds are important in the treatment of life-threatening conditions.
Does this mean every by-product is bad or good. It depends on the by-product in the food. If it is made of nails and hair, the nutrition your pets needs is not there. If the by-products are from organ meats like liver kidney, or vegetable material like soybean, then the nutrition is excellent.
If something is natural does that mean it is good for you? Maybe. Water is natural, but excess quantities can cause hyponatremia (low sodium), leading to coma, brain swelling, and even death. Alcohol is a natural product of the fermentation process. We all know how toxic alcohol can be in certain quantities.
The point here is the terms “by-product” and “natural” (and others) have been used as marketing tools because the selling of pet food is huge business and the profit motive is so strong. Pet and feed stores make their money by selling an unbelievable number of different brands of pet food. Each of these foods has its specific marketing angle as to why it is better than some other food. This has misled people, and is used by many people to get you to purchase their superior product.
Raw foods have increased in popularity based on the fact that wolves eat their food raw and its “natural”. There are 36 genes that differ between wolves and dogs, a normal part of evolution as time goes on. Ten of these genes play a role in digestion and metabolism, so there are significant differences between wolves and dogs when it comes to nutrition. In additions, wild animals like wolves have a short lifespan compared to dogs, so their “raw diet” might have proper nutrition after all. There are no long term studies properly analyzing raw diets for domestic dogs. All reports on raw foods are anecdotal. A 2013 study ( Journal of the American Veterinary Association pages 1549-1588) found that 60% of homemade raw diets had nutritional imbalances. Many raw diets are contaminated with Salmonella or Listeria.
Another fallacy perpetuated is that raw food or grain free diet made some pet “better”. Possibly, but what do they mean by better? That is such a subjective term that it is open to tremendous interpretation. Were objective tests performed to say a certain dog can run longer or jump higher, or a cat had less dental disease, or an anemic pet had its anemia resolve without any medication, or a pets haircoat looked better (does that mean glossier, smoother, or shinier?) without taking into account the environmental factors (season allergies, summertime fleas and mosquitoes, changing seasonal daylight) that can be a big influence. Unless these parameters are objectively quantified the statement a pet is better has no value.
Many buzzwords are used to get you to purchase food. One of the more popular ones is “grain free”. Grain free does not mean hypoallergenic (will not cause a food allergy), no is there a set definition of what actually consititutes grain free. The manufacturer is using their own definition. An important point is sometimes lost here. Even though dogs and other predators are carnivores taxonomically, the are omnivores when they eat prey. They not only eat the meat of their food source, the also eat stomach and intestinal contents, which contains large amounts of the grain food that animal is eating. This has been seen many times on our Africa trips when we watch the lions, jackals, cheetah, and hyena eat their prey. So, raw food and grain free food are not their only diet.
And if that is not enough, there is a major point overlooked by most everyone who is a self proclaimed nutrition expert. The fact that just because a company puts a label on the outside that says it has a specific amount of a certain ingredient does not mean that is what is in the can or bag. When tested, too many foods showed a discrepancy between what they stated on the label and what was actually in the food. This takes quality control, meaning many cans and bags are pulled off the assembly line and checked for their nutritional content. Only a few companies do this to any significant degree because it costs money. You get what you pay for on this one.
Many pet food manufacturers outsource their production to another company. Do these companies have board-certified veterinary nutritionists on staff to supervise and test? Do they have an American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) feeding trial statement? You can find out some of this information from the Whole Dog Journal.
Added to the lack of understanding of animal nutrition at pet and feed stores we now have to deal with a new source of misinformation- the Internet. With the explosion of information on the Internet everyone is now an expert on nutrition for animals. Erroneous information is repeated, which as it expands almost exponentially on the Internet, takes on an aura of fact. Most of their information is to convince you that the food they are selling is better than any other, all to get those dollars from you.
If you want to know what is in the food you feed your pet make sure you read the Guaranteed Analysis statement. Here is an excellent reference to understand all this information:
And make sure the food is approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).We recommend Hill’s products for numerous important reasons. 100% of their dry foods are manufactured in their own facilities by Hill’s employees and not in China or other location to reduce costs. They have stringent quality and safety programs to make sure their products are safe and not contaminated from bacteria like salmonella and E. coli. Just as important, their quality control ensures that what you read on the label is actually what is inside the can or bag, something that cannot be said for many of the products we purchase in addition to pet foods.
This level of quality is no small undertaking, and requires over 150 veterinarians, food scientists, technicians, and Ph.D. nutritionists to make it happen. We know of no other pet pet food manufacturer that has made such a commitment. That is why their Prescription Diets are unconditionally guaranteed.
We are the experts on nutrition for your individual pet, and will give you advice on what food your pet needs, especially when there is a medical problem. And you can be sure it will not be based on a big shipment of a certain food that is in stock at the moment. It is based on your pet as an individual, and takes into consideration your pet’s age, lifestyle, our exam findings and diagnostic tests, not to mention the decades of experience we have treating sick animals. For ill pets some of these foods can be found on our Prescription Diet page.
If your pet is not ill and you want to feed a superior quality pet food that is consistent with our preventive medicine approach (preventing dental disease, obesity, etc) we recommend Hills Healthy Advantage.