Friday, February 15, 2008

Pet Foods: notes from the experts

Towards a greater understanding (part 1)

There is a huge body of information regarding pet nutrition that plays loose and fast with the facts. With so much misrepresentation floating around out there, getting a clear understanding of an already complex issue becomes nearly impossible. This rather confused state of affairs has to do with a whole assortment of issues some relating to pet food sourcing, preparation, and quality control, others to changing consumer expectations. These are not necessarily all bad things; especially when it comes to owners who want to feed their pets the best food they can get and afford.

The pet food industry is an extremely competitive and active field. For example, in the past three or four years 1,000 pet food products have been introduced into the US market.This has resulted in a dizzying surge of pet food nutritional claims, a plethora of new ingredients, and advertising gimmicks that cater to an increasingly discriminating pet owner.

Trying to evaluate all these pet foods is indeed a formidable task for veterinarians and pet owners alike. This is made even harder when many people lack the knowledge or tools to navigate all the crazy details in the constantly changing world of nutrition. Though it is hard to select a pet food with all these choices (including home-made), the bottom line is that veterinarians and pet owners really want to select the most appropriate dog or cat food for their own individual pets.

The good news is that it can be done- at least reasonably well. It all comes down to education, education, education. For example learning how to read labels, understanding ingredients, where they come from, why they’re used, and how pet food is regulated would go a long way towards getting the most out of this experience.

A discussion

A recent round table discussion among several veterinary nutritional experts sponsored by Veterinary Learning Systems Veterinary Forum discusses many of these concerns. These specialists offer up an interesting glimpse into many of the challenges clients and veterinarians face when trying to make sense of the confusing world of pet food and offer up some sound advice regarding pet foods.

One of the most important issues they note is that there needs to be a solid foundational client/doctor relationship from where –as a team- the best science and evidence based choices for a particular pet can be considered and actually implemented. With respect to food choices the matter might actually be a bit easier with a sick animal than a healthy one. There are often clear therapeutic choices and perhaps a better idea of a pets’ nutritional needs in the case of illness.

On the other hand, a healthy animal poses a problem because of the hundreds of choices out there. In this case, a routine healthy visit can become a frustrating experience when it comes to recommendations. Both doctor and client need to be invested and interested in focusing on these nutritional issues because it can vary from pet to pet, region to region, and pet food to pet food. A place to start is to check the label and make sure the pet food in question was subjected to AAFCO feeding trials (and not approved only through its nutritional profile).

According to Dorothy Laflamme, DVM, Phd, DACVN “Animal feeding tests, according to AAFCO, are certainly a greater level of assurance , but even that , in my opinion, is probably a minimum level. Those studies will identify gross nutritional deficiencies. But we’re formulating diets that we anticipate to be fed for years- sometimes the lifetime of a pet- and you have to look at an AAFCO feeding trial as an important component, but only one component. You also have to look at the history of the company, and the research it does. Veterinarians need to complete diet histories for all their patients to establish a pattern of diets that are associated with healthy pets and diets that are associated with pets that aren’t doing quite so well.”

This is where the doctor/patient team becomes a vital clearing house for the the endless streams of a veritable media and propaganda blitz from pet food companies, tips from some misguided pet shop clerks (most do their objective best), and alternative nutritional “experts” (veterinarian or otherwise) pushing unsubstantiated theories. Add to that a plethora of self prescribed nutritional supplement gurus ready and willing to steer the topic of nutrition into a world of conspiratorial accusations (of “the man” – big industry- big pharma) against the pet food industry proselytizing about unproven claims of superiority for their “pet feeding paradigm” and you just want to pull your hairs out! That said there are many people out there genuinely interested in the pets’ health and act as objective support to the client doctor team.

Even without the confusing blather of misrepresentation regarding pet food, it can still be really difficult to hone in on the “ideal” diet for a pet. Each animal has general as well as unique requirements that play into the equation. For example, some pets are over-weight, others extremely active, and yet even others prone to food intolerances.

Labels can be difficult to read and do not say much about actual nutrient levels. They do give a general idea of the list of ingredients (ordered by weight), crude protein, and crude fat percentages for example, but they don’t give other important details. For example Sean Delaney, DVM, MS, DACVN notes “I would provide the proximate analysis, meaning the protein levels and then, by difference, the carbohydrate level. Being able to calculate and compare that information can be useful…My favorite example is Fancy Feast- the fat level among different flavors can range from 25% up to 55%. That’s a huge difference from a physiological point of view.”

Another example is that reduced calorie diets are often based on a particular original formulation and may not be what you think. Daniel McChesney, Phd adds “if product X started with 2,000 calories, a reduced-calorie diet must be less than 2,000 calories. However, if another brand also claims to be a reduced- calorie but started with 3,000 calories, the calorie intake would be substantially higher than that found in product X. Though not the norm for now, adding some calorie information to the label would help the doctor and client along with their decision.

Keeping an inventory of the available pet foods in the area help veterinarians establish a solid baseline from where to establish recommendations with their clients. Laflamme states that “By completing dietary histories on all patients and then considering additional pertinent information from pet food manufacturers, veterinarians can identify a number of different foods they can feel confident recommending in different price categories to meet the financial capabilities of all their clients.”

Fortunately, there is usually a range of acceptable products (and recipes) to choose from. Pets today can be offered very good and balanced diets with the help of their concerned owners and veterinary care givers. In the end, it goes back to a good doctor/client relationship and old fashion education.

(Part2 touches on ingredients, raw food diets, home prepared diets, last years recall, and regulatory issues)

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