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Pet Food and Feeding: Personal Ruminations

Updated: Saturday, June 01, 2019 05:00 PM
Published: Thursday, July 16, 2009 11:42 AM
Written by Michael W. Fox, DSc, PhD, BVet Med

The big, multinational pet food manufacturers – a subsidiary of our non sustainable and increasingly toxic agribusiness industry – and still far too many veterinarians, tell people not to feed their pets human food. "Dog food is for dogs, cat food for cats – all scientifically formulated and properly balanced for health and maintenance" is the constant refrain. What goes into manufactured pet foods of the kind that concerns us here are ingredients that food scientists and engineers have put together from the byproducts of the human food and beverage industries and fast food restaurants that recycle used cooking oil and baked goods into pet food. These kinds of pet foods and pet snacks soaking in sugars, salts, and propylene glycol, are akin to the junk, convenience and fast foods that are now being recognized as causing and contributing to a host of costly and disabling diseases in consumers.

I am an advocate of whole, organic foods that are biologically appropriate for the species. Food for dogs is different from "Dog Food" – it's human food quality, but with less grains – and none for cats. Food for cats is not the same as food for dogs because cats are different physiologically and are obligatory carnivores. Many cat foods are not biologically appropriate because they are primarily based on plant by-products like corn gluten, wheat "middlins," rice bran and soy.

I learned my first lesson about manufactured and adulterated human food at the age of nine when my dog Rover developed running fits, racing through the neighborhood in absolute terror, shaking and having petit mal seizures and snapping at flies that he seemed to imagine were chasing him. I too was terrified, but I caught him, carried him home and sat with him in a dark place to help him calm down. He began to improve after he had vomited several times.

I later learned that he had stolen a loaf of white bread from a neighbor and it had been bleached with the chemical called Agene – nitrogen trichloride – that causes running fits in dogs. So much for human junk processed foods! My parents only bought real bread – whole wheat, Hovis, locally baked.

Then as a vet student I worked on sheep farms and learned what sheepdogs were usually fed – a porridge of flaked maze. I did a survey and found that many of these hard working dogs developed a debilitating disease that the shepherds called Black Tongue, canine pellagra. Some got better around lambing time when they could eat the afterbirth placentas. This provided a vital source of tryptophan, the precursor to niacin or Vitamin B3, a deficiency of which was shortening the lives of many sheepdogs, even national trial champions!

Many of the coal miners in my part of northern England kept greyhounds and whippets, and they put linseed oil in their food to make their coats shine – we call it flax seed oil today – the latest pet food industry "discovery" additive to sickening dry dog food, sixty years later.

The miners would also put a small lump of yellow rock sulfur in their dogs' water bowls that they felt was good for their joints and protected against distemper and other infections. Modern science is rediscovering the values of such old folk medicine.

The pet owners in those days would get part of their dog and cat food from the local butcher – lights (lungs) green tripe, and other nutritious trimmings and organ parts that were fresh and un-processed. Dogs would have knuckle-bones to chew on – best thing for their teeth and joints, because the cartilage included nutraceuticals like chondriotin and glucosamine that are the latest discovery to go into manufactured pet food formulations – sixty years later. The most common nutritional problem in those days was secondary nutritional hyperparathyroidism seen as crippling rickets in dogs, and osteoporosis/osteogenesis imperfect – in cats, easily corrected lack of calcium deficiency in the diet. Skin problems were fixed with fish oil or linseed oil, by not giving cats any seafood, or dogs with diarrhea, horse meat.

When pet food ingredients were whole and simple, so were the nutrition-related maladies and solutions. Now, the multiple, fragmented, depleted, denatured, bleached, and once or twice already processed and cooked ingredients made from the byproducts of the human food industry, and synthetic additives, nutrition-related maladies and solutions are more complex and costly than ever. The nutritive value and healthfulness of meat, dairy, and poultry products are likewise jeopardized by food industry byproducts being recycled into their feed.

Veterinarians are charmed by the pet food industry seminars, scientific reports and lavish grants to their colleges that advance our understanding of nutraceuticals, like the new pet food ingredient miracles of taurine, L-carnitine, and omega fatty acids; nutritional genomics or nutrigenics, and nutritional epigenetics. The end product is more special diets, prescription-only formulations for specific health problems that arise predominantly from dietary deficiencies, imbalances, and related intestinal dysbiosis.

We should be wary of this kind of reductionism that continues to justify testing pet food ingredients and supplements on cats and dogs in contracted laboratories around the world. There would be no need for such continued animal testing, long-term cage-confinement and suffering, if whole food ingredients of known origin and content were used to make wholesome food for pets and people alike. Now all the super-antioxidant nutraceuticals and other supplements that are being put into new and improved manufactured, convenience foods, especially healthy snacks, beverages and pet foods, are a prop, a science-based piece of quackery when the basic diet of most consumers – 20 million of whom are morbidly obese in the US alone, – and of our dogs and cats – remains unchanged.

How much have we really learned about dogs' nutritional wisdom and behavior after 40-60,000 years of domestication? They often eat dirt, feces, grass, elm tree sprouts and leaves and other herbs for good reason, not simply because they are sick, want to make themselves sick, or simply have a depraved appetite – pica. Pet owners are discouraged from allowing their dogs and cats to eat "dirt" – usually high mineral clay or rich, loamy humus, and various grasses, especially Couch and Bermuda grass. But these are rich sources of nutraceuticals, trace minerals, and even pharmacologically identified medical benefits (notably for some hepatic, digestive, urological and inflammatory conditions). The feces of deer and rabbit are packed with probiotic bacteria, and with prebiotic substances and substrates also in the grasses, that may help prevent intestinal dysbiosis in dogs and cats confined indoors or otherwise confined in unnaturally sanitized environments; and unable to self-medicate by eating herbs and soils – and different prey parts of choice!

Much pet food research has focused on making the inedible palatable, and the incomplete or non-nutritious ingredients complete, "balanced" and "fortified" with synthetic additives. The end result is a sickening chemical feast for pets that their kind of profit driven science, funded to find efficient ways to recycle slaughterhouse, food and beverage industry wastes, actually applauds. The pet food industry has convinced many veterinarians, and veterinary associations, that pet foods are not a cause of animals becoming ill, and that cereal-based dry foods are fine for cats.

As for my own veterinary ethos, I am a critic, since I advocate bioethics. I acknowledge that it is easier to be critical rather than constructive, to find fault rather than to find remedy. But I and my co-authors of Not Fit For a Dog, Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins and Prof Marion Sharp, have applied reason and critical thinking in our efforts to remedy the cat and dog health problems associated with many popular brands of manufactured pet foods. The denial and ignorance, as well as the bad science that stand in the way of reform and progress in the pet food industry, we have confronted dispassionately and non-judgmentally as concerned and informed professionals.

Those who may feel misjudged, or who deny the validity of our documented concerns, must be held accountable for the continued and unnecessary health problems and suffering of companion animals from improper diets, many of which are sold world-wide for profit by veterinarians.

The pet food multinationals pour hundreds of millions of dollars into advertising, into support of animal shelters and adoptions, veterinary colleges, lectureships, research, conferences, seminars, cat shows, dog shows, and the American Kennel Club. One of the biggest, Hill's Pet Nutrition, along with two drug companies, gave the AVMA $4.5 million in 2008, this same pet food company giving $ 5 million soon after to a Canadian veterinary college. We need not wonder why it has taken so long for the connection between pet foods and pet health problems to be recognized.

This is like digging into a hornet's nest, but we must not lose perspective – it's the big multinationals using nutritional science and advertising to recycle the hazardous and potentially harmful waste of the cosmetics, food and beverage industries into livestock feed and pet foods, with added ingredients from the drug industry, and contaminants from the petrochemical- agrichemical, pesticide industry. Now more evidence is accumulating that demonstrates how much healthier livestock and poultry are when fed organic, biologically appropriate feed than what they are fed according to industry standards; and on how nutritionally inferior, even harmful (e.g. because of omega 6 excesses and vitamin A deficiencies) the produce is of conventionally fed rather than organically fed farmed animals. (The situation with farmed salmon is deplorable, the feed given leading to dioxin accumulation in the fish, and increased susceptibility to sea lice and disease).

After reviewing the testimonials of pet owners that attest to often spectacular improvements in animals' health and wellbeing once they are taken off these kinds of highly processed, food-industry based by-products filled with synthetic additives, I am convinced that veterinarians applying an evidence-based medical approach to pet health problems will be gratified when there is due attention given to what the patients are being fed, and appropriate dietary changes are prescribed.

So long as the kinds of pet food being put on the market shelves continue to be biologically inappropriate and potentially harmful to cats and dogs, the veterinary profession as I see it, is not serving the best interests of companion animals by remaining silent on this issue. But many are breaking away from the hypnotic mantra which they were conditioned to incorporate as students that main-stream pet foods are scientifically formulated and are therefore good. Consider that over the past 20 years of his holistic veterinary practice Minnesotan Dr. Will Winter, for instance, has observed and effectively treated his client's pets with a natural diet of raw meat and greens. And, in so doing, he has helped foster many important and lasting changes in dog and cat well-being, including: beautiful gums and teeth and fresh breath; shiny coats with less shedding and dandruff; less allergies for people in the house; healthier ears; a drastic reduction in fleas, ticks and lice; smaller stools, cleaner litter boxes and less urine; less inflammation of the anal glands; and, overall calmer, more centered and vibrant pets.

There are many veterinarians now following suit, but in the mainstream this holistic approach of integrative veterinary medicine that regards nutrition as the cornerstone of health care maintenance is seen as either quackery or not needed because there's nothing wrong with manufactured pet foods because they have been scientifically formulated. It concerns me that some veterinarians and many pet owners are seduced by the pseudo-science of manufactured pet foods that have nutraceutical additives that claim medical benefits, as for fur balls in cats, obesity, heart, joint and skin problems, not unlike the health claims made on the packages of main-stream sugar coated cereals and "health" snacks. A bag of pet food, (that could be a year old before it is opened), bearing the label claim of containing chondriotin and glucosamine, good for the joints, or L-carnitine, good for weight control, and omega fatty acids, good for the coat, give the false impression of being special, "improved," while the basic ingredients are no better than any other highly processed junk pet food. Such supplements, of dubious therapeutic levels in the food, are at best a gimmick, and worse, a cover-up window-dressing for pet food formulations deficient in essential nutrients.

When I shop for my two-and four-legged family I always look first for the USDA Organic Certified label first. Then I look for other good signs like Natural; No Chemical Preservatives or Artificial Coloring; No By-products; G-M Free or No GMOs; No Irradiation/Radioisotope Treatment; Humane; Free Range; Grass Fed; No Hormones or Antibiotics. The more processed, denatured and adulterated the various ingredients are when it comes to prepared meals and "convenience" foods for pets and people alike, the more synthetic additives there will be in the formula.

For more details on the problems with manufactured pet foods and its adverse effects on companion animals, see Not Fit For A Dog: The Truth About Manufactured Dog And Cat Food by veterinarians Dr M.W. Fox, E. Hodgkins, and M.E. Smart, published in 2008 by Quill Driver Books, Sanger CA.

Michael W. Fox, BVetMed, PhD, DSC, MRCVS is a member of the British Veterinary Association and an Honor Roll Member of the American Veterinary Medical Association. He has doctoral degrees in ethology/animal behavior and medicine from the University of London, graduating from the Royal Veterinary College London in 1962. In 1961 he was awarded the gold medal and Fellowship of the Royal Veterinary College Medical Association for his report on the effects of poor nutrition on the health of working sheepdogs, (published in the J. Small Animal Practice, 5:183-192, 1964). Spending most of his professional life in the US as an advocate for animal health, welfare and rights under the flag of One Medicine, One Earth, he has published over 40 books and writes the syndicated newspaper column "Animal Doctor."