Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Pet Food Decisions

Have you visited a PetSmart or Petco recently to shop for pet food or supplies? It’s almost like visiting your neighborhood Kroger but without the Starbucks, pharmacy or bakery. Aisle after aisle of competing brands, ingredients, and that ever annoying factory representative hoping to grab a few minutes of your valuable time to “educate” you why their particular brand is better than all the rest . It’s maddening at times, especially if you are in a hurry or aren’t quite certain which product to buy.

According to the National Pet Food Institute, annual U.S. sales of pet food, including treats, reached $19 Billion (that’s billion with a “B”) in 2012. Exports to other countries add billions more. Needless to say, we humanoids love to feed and pamper our pets.

But are all these brands, ingredients and options really necessary? Haven’t we taken something that should be a rather straightforward task (i.e. feeding our family pets) and made it far more complex and expensive than it should be? It’s been said that U.S. household pets probably eat better than half the world human population. We tend to agree and often wonder why it’s become so confusing to select the right diet to care for our furry companions.

Feeding into this dilemma (pun intended) is a certain degree of angst or uncertainty about food ingredients, preservatives and possible allergies - in dogs especially. Almost daily we read or hear of yet another manufacturer trying to warn us of the dangers of grain based diets and all preservatives, in general. To listen to a certain few, it’s almost as if cereal grains, especially corn, have suddenly become another toxicity to be avoided. (Never mind that our ancestors thrived on corn diets for thousands of years and most vegan diets are essentially grain-based.)

Let’s consider a few thoughts from the experts about commercial diets first, and then we’ll review some information later about raw diets (bones, frozen diets etc).

Pet owners may choose to feed unconventional diets for multiple reasons, including having negative feelings about commercial diets and positive feelings about alternative diets. Negative feelings include concerns or misconceptions about certain ingredients (eg, fillers, by-products, carbohydrates) and other potential toxicities. Other clients may prefer to feed so called “natural” diets ( ie, what a wild canine or feline might eat), raw uncooked foods, or to prepare home diets for their pet to avoid triggering a real or suspected food intolerance or allergy. 

Pets foods often contain by-products from human food processing. These include offal (ie, organ meats) and parts that are nutritious but may be unappealing to humans dependent on cultural or religious beliefs. For example, stomach or intestines may be included in pet food, and although these may be considered undesirable in some cultures, they are regularly consumed by humans in others. These products are often nutritious and result in good use of the carcass. Commercial diets may also contain antioxidant preservatives to prevent nutrient degradation or fat rancidification. Some contain coloring agents to make food more visually appealing to clients. These agents are the same as those added to processed human foods and are generally considered safe by most (including the FDA).

There is also great misconception that fillers, such as sawdust, or other indigestibles, are included in commercial pet foods. This is untrue for most, if not all of the top-shelf brands we are most familiar with. Pet foods do, however, contain fiber (ie, indigestible ingredients) which serves many functions such as probiotics for bacteria to promote colon health. Otherwise, most if not all ingredients in commercial pet diets typically provide nutritional value.

Feeding dogs a diet similar to that of wild dogs or wolves (ie, low grains or carbohydrates) has a popular following. Some pet owners opt to feed bones or raw foods, thought to be similar to a wolf devouring a carcass or cat catching prey. Pet owners should be reminded that dogs have been domesticated over the past 10,000 years , during which time their diet involved greater consumption of grains. Their genetic makeup evolved to accommodate this increase in dietary carbs, and today domestic dogs are actually dissimilar to wolves in several key genes involving starch digestion and glucose uptake. Many other metabolic traits were unaffected by domestication and, although dogs and cats will often chose lower carbohydrate diets by choice, both can digest carbohydrates effectively. Cats remain obligate carnivores, requiring higher levels of protein (meat, fish or poultry) than do dogs. 

Next time, we’ll take a closer look at raw (and frozen) diets including bones and how that may impact pet nutrition.
Love your pets and take good care of them.

Dr. David Zoltner is a Denton Veterinarian at Dove Creek Animal Hospital in Denton, Texas.

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