Category Archives: pet food industry

Happy birthday, Duke

Duke, the magnificent cat-beast who jump started my passion about feline nutrition, turned 14 years old this month. He’s eaten nothing but grain-free, vegetable-free raw food for a full eight years now. (Well, okay, he’s stolen some cooked chicken off our plates now and again.) His blooming good health is, to my mind, testimony to the ‘miracles’ that can happen when a carnivore eats like a carnivore. The first six years of his life were, for him, a struggle with cramping, diarrhea, and all of the misery that comes from inflammatory bowel disease. His story is discussed in more detail on my website, so I won’t belabor the details here. I’ll only say that seeing that happy, healthy, and energetic boy-cat running around our house and demanding and eating his meals with enthusiasm and gusto fills me with gratitude that I caught on when I did to feeding cats properly.

I get a lot of emails from people worried about taking the first steps toward raw feeding. I remember that same feeling of trepidation: “What am I doing? Am I going to kill my cat here?” Although I was lucky to have a handful of raw feeding mentors in my corner, it still felt like a risky proposition: to feed my beloved, already sick cat something that didn’t have a reassuring label indicating “nutritional completeness” on it.

Time, and results, shifted everything. My biggest concern now is running out of raw cat food and having to serve something that someone I don’t know has prepared. It’s been years since I’ve visited a pet supply store except to stock up on cat litter. And cringe as I walk by aisles of dry food.

And speaking of that, I made a recent, wonderful excursion with a friend to a local holistic pet supply store. It’s called Pet Sage. I’ve heard great things about this store for years, but since I’ve generally had little need for visiting places like that, I postponed a visit. Besides, I know myself, and I know how cranky I get walking around stores and seeing all kinds of ridiculous things for sale. I was, however, intrigued about a visit there given that the store had, courageously, opted to stop offering many of the dry foods it previously sold.

That’s huge! Honestly, my heart swelled to the size of South Dakota hearing that. And you should see the selection of amazing, truly healthy cat (and dog) foods they sell. What a relief to be able to walk into a store and see fresh food for cats and dogs in freezers rather than aisle after aisle of species-inappropriate meat-flavored cereal.

I left a retail store, for the first time in eight years, buying some food for my own cats. I picked up some Bravo ground rabbit and used it to make up a batch of food at home. To my surprise, since my cats have been distinctly disinterested in rabbit for some time, they dug in.

So? Happy birthday, Duke.

And eight paws up to Pet Sage. May you be the leading edge of a new trend.

Birthday Boy

Birthday Boy

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Getting real about food safety squabbles

Big thanks to Rebekah, a website visitor, for the tip on a story from earlier this week about that big outbreak of salmonella that grabbed so much attention in 2006 and 2007.

Before I get to that, recall that for years, many of us opting for home-prepared raw meat diets for our cats and dogs listened to stern admonitions about the risks of raw feeding from a spectrum ranging from well-meaning veterinarians to less honorably-motivated marketers of many commercial pet foods. Given the presumably well-known risk to humans from eating raw meat, that’s a pretty easy sell: everyone knows that humans ingesting raw meat are taking a chance, especially given the grisly conditions at factory farms.

I recall vividly that in 2000, during an exchange with a leading figure at a major veterinary school about the value of feeding a raw diet to cats suffering from inflammatory bowel disease, an exasperating debate erupted between us about food safety. He indicated that no veterinary school could, in good conscience, implicitly or explicitly endorse raw feeding not only because of the risks posed to the animals from salmonella but because of the “very real risk to humans” handling the raw meat.

(It was never clear to me how humans handling raw meat intended for a cat’s consumption were at any higher risk than humans handling raw meat prior to cooking it for their own consumption. Not to be snarky, but I never suggested humans eat the raw food they were preparing for their cats, but okay.)

Implicit in this admonishment, I realized as I dove headfirst into the world of raw feeding, was the notion that commercial pet foods were somehow ‘safer.’ Free of dangerous pathogens. More sterile. Layer on top of that the strawman arguments about how homemade food has the ‘potential’ to be unbalanced (well, d’uh), and the be-really-wary-of-raw gang seemed to have their rationale all sewn up. “Stick with tested commercial formulas backed by years of quality research and it’s healthier for the animals and safer for humans.”

  • The massive pet food recall of 2007 quickly began to unravel the threads stitching up that rationale: There’s no need to belabor the details of that horrific episode here, except to remind readers that the Big Lie that big-name pet food companies exercise careful control over the ingredients that go into their products became harder to escape.

So what now?

The results of a just-released investigation by the US Centers for Disease Control, conducted jointly with the FDA, on the 2006-2007 salmonella outbreak in the US that sickened 70 people across the US, identified the source of these human infections.

Where did it come from?

Dry dog food.

Many have been quick to warn warn about the risk of feeding fresh meats that are stored in freezers but don’t think twice about selling bags of (potentially contaminated) dry food with no admonition about the real dangers associated with deadly bacterial overgrowth on those products. This latest CDC revelation notwithstanding, remember that the bacterial count on dry food can be very high and the danger of toxic levels of aflatoxin contaminating dry food is always present. Many dry pet foods are drenched in fatty flavor enhancers that provide an ideal medium for the growth of bacteria and fungus. And those bags of food are generally stored at room temperature and go unconsumed for weeks or months.

I’ll repeat what I’ve said on my website: No food you feed your cat is entirely without risk. Respect those risks and take steps to minimize them. It’s not that hard: use fresh meat from the highest quality source you can find, don’t leave it sitting out for ages, and don’t eat it yourself. Leave the raw meat eating to the obligate carnivores. Oh, and wash your hands for pete’s sake.

Whatever you do, don’t buy into the notion for a second that dry food is clean, pathogen-free, and therefore safer for you and your cat. Especially now.

Shining light into dark corners

Thanks to a regular site visitor for alerting me to an upcoming documentary set to run on CBC this month. It’s called “Pet Food: A Dog’s Breakfast,” and a glance at the preview online looks more than a little promising. Tell your dog- and cat-loving friends to watch. Tell your vet too.

For those wondering, CBC is Canada’s national public broadcaster. The documentary was produced in conjunction with Yap Films, an independent, owner-run production company. It’s wonderful to see more light tossed into the gloomy, secretive quarters of the pet food industry, isn’t it?

We’re all waking up at last.

Parade passes by (an opportunity)

“These meals may also have contaminants and food-borne bacteria or toxins.”

This comes from an article that appeared in this weekend’s Parade magazine by a veterinarian titled, “The Right Food for Your Pet.”

For a brief moment when I first scanned the article, my heart skipped a beat. How terrific, I thought, that an article by a veterinarian in a mainstream, widely read publication was drawing attention to the problem with so many commercial pet foods and the contaminants and toxins found far too often in them.

That’s what I get for scanning an article before I permit my heart to leap. No, sadly, the author was instead referring to the ostensible disadvantages and dangers of homemade pet food in a pretty unfortunate article ostensibly designed to dole out sound advice on what to feed “Fido and Fluffy.”

Say what? With all the pet food recalls over the years for aflatoxin–never mind the latest appalling situation with the record recall this year–we’re being warned off of making our own food? Isn’t it about time to teach us how to do it safely?

“Cooking for a pet requires knowledge beyond boiling chicken and rice.” Well, um, yeah, but not much more knowledge. Come on. This isn’t rocket science. Reverse engineer a mouse and serve it. Lots of people have been doing it with great success for a long time. During that same long time, tens of thousands of cats and dogs have succumbed to needless diseases from eating steady diets of inferior commercial food.

What a shame that the author didn’t use her bully pulpit to speak out on the folly of feeding dry food to cats and dogs. The article begins with an admonition to steer clear of homemade diets (“Stick With Store-Bought” reads the subheading) and then goes on to “weigh” the pros and cons of wet vs. dry. Dry food’s advantages are explained: it’s economical, convenient, and requires no refrigeration. The only thing going against it, apparently, is that it has “less palatability.”

No mention of the overwhelming evidence that dry food contributes to inflammatory bowel disease, urinary tract disorders, diabetes, and obesity. None.

  • Dry food is a completely upside-down diet for a cat. A cat needs high (animal-based) protein, low or no carbohydrate, and plenty of moisture. Dry food is low in animal-based protein, extraordinarily high in carbohydrates, and is moisture-depleted.

The other warning about making homemade food — “few have been tested for performance over long periods of time.” Really? As opposed to the obscenely short (and often inhumane) feeding trials that allow a manufacturer to slap an AAFCO label on a can or bag and imply that the food is nutritionally complete? If you dig around on my website, you’ll find that I take no comfort in AAFCO. (That’s the Association of American Feed Control Officials).

It’s important to understand what AAFCO is and what it isn’t. A pet food can carry the AAFCO claim if it, or a member of its related family of products, has been tested on a small population of animals for six months and has been shown to provide adequate nutrition. We ought not to confuse this with the notion that it means the food is truly health-building and health-sustaining for life. If a can or bag is labeled as meeting AAFCO standards, all that means is that animals don’t DIE when fed only that food for six months and don’t lose more than 15 percent of body weight. So as long as the animal is alive, hasn’t lost 15 percent of their body weight, and a minimal blood test reveals that a handful of values are in an acceptable range, the food gets the AAFCO seal. Moreover, only eight animals need to participate in the feeding trial, and only six need to complete the 26-week trial.

The diet being tested fails if any animal shows clinical or pathological signs of nutritional deficiency or excess. Specific minimum values for the blood tests are given, and applied to the average result of all participating animals that finished the trial.

Remember, the rules for AAFCO are that if one particular product in a manufacturer’s line was tested and found to meet the AAFCO standard, the company can include this same statement on other products in the same family. So when you see an AAFCO statement on a pet food label, you have no way of knowing if that specific product was actually tested in a food trial. Moreover, the AAFCO protocols include blood tests that screen only four different blood values at the beginning and end of the food trial: RBC, hemoglobin, packed cell volume, and serum albumin. Even the basic veterinary blood profile screens for at least 25 values.

So please, Parade, don’t worry that the homemade diet that I serve and that tens of thousands of others serve “hasn’t been tested for performance for long periods of time” by the pet food companies or AAFCO.

Mother Nature did that for us.

The must-read for your (and your vet’s) fall reading list

There aren’t any excuses left for veterinarians that continue to advocate, sell, or look the other way about dry food for cats.

For years now, while a number of nutrition-savvy vets have ‘gotten it’ about the folly of feeding meat-flavored cereal to obligate carnivores, for the most part, the only easily accessible published information out there about why and how it is cats do infinitely better on a quality canned food or a balanced raw diet has been on websites like mine, Michelle Bernard’s, Feline Future’s, and the terrific site run by Dr. Lisa Pierson.

My gratitude for those people is immeasurable. Without them, and without early support from Lee Ellis and the wonderful crowd on the Yahoo Feline IBD e-group, I’d likely never have seen the light about what a ridiculous and dangerous idea making dry food the staple of a cat’s diet is. Without Michelle Bernard’s book–which I still consider an absolute ‘must-have’ for anyone with a cat–I’m not sure I would have had the courage to strike out on my own making cat food. Which means that without her book, my cat Duke would likely be gone by now. Or at least gravely ill. Instead, we just recently celebrated his 13th birthday. (True confession: he got whipped cream. Oh, c’mon, it was just one day.)

True, there have been scores of scientific papers and studies done by pet food industry researchers and veterinarians on cats as carnivores, but some of the pet food industry research seems to be held tight like some kind of state secret. And while there have been notable papers out there — such as Deborah Zoran’s groundbreaking 2002 JAVMA article and Dr. Deborah Greco’s comments on the ‘Catkins’ diet–it seems that even that work hadn’t really grabbed the attention of the mainstream veterinary community in a way to create the sea change we need.

It’s astonished me more and more each year, as the evidence mounts about how upside-down so many of the pet foods sold for cats are, that the aisles of the pet food superstores are packed to the rafters with dry food and nearly every veterinary clinic I walk in or hear about still carries incredibly low-grade, species-inappropriate dry food.

What’s it going to take? While more and more lay people have taken it on themselves to learn about nutrition — a task thankfully made easier by the Internet — it’s still hard to walk into a vet’s office and have The Conversation about diet with a kibble-peddling veterinarian. And if you say, “well, I read about it online . . . ” it’s not unusual to be met with blank stares, rolling eyes, and maybe even a stern lecture about being cautious about anything that comes from the Internet.

Well, maybe what it takes is the book published this summer by Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins, “Your Cat: Simple New Secrets to a Longer and Stronger Life.” Have you read this book?

I was lucky enough to see the book just before publication, and as good as I thought it was then, I’m even more impressed now that the book is out. It’s one of the most practical guides to living with cats out on the overcrowded “pet care” shelves at bookstores today. Not only does this highly-credentialed and compassionate veterinarian cover all the basics about dealing with all the issues that arise in living with a cat from kittenhood through the senior years, but it also gives the reader one-stop shopping for some long overdue, sane advice from a veterinarian about:

  • the myth that dry food cleans a cat’s teeth;
  • vaccinations, and the discovery that vaccinating annually may be dangerous and entirely unnecessary;
  • the latest treatment for chronic renal failure (hint: um, it’s not about protein starvation!) ;
  • and nutrition (hint: quit being so gosh darn scared about raw diets.)

And that’s just for starters.

Really, you gotta get this book. And if your vet hasn’t read it, ask why.

We aren’t snowed any more

It probably goes without saying that I put very little (okay, absolutely no) stock in the notion that specific breeds of cats have unique nutritional needs. All cats are obligate carnivores, regardless of their breed or, for that matter, whether they spend their time indoors or outdoors. It strains the imagination to think that knowing what we know with certainty now about cats’ very specific nutritional needs that anyone could, with a straight face, try marketing cat food on the basis that where a cat spends its time or what breed it is has any serious bearing on its dietary requirements.

And yet? You don’t have to spend much time perusing the websites of some of the more popular pet food lines to learn that in spite of the overwhelming, common-sense evidence that cats are carnivores that suffer from eating moisture-deprived, carbohydrate-based meat-flavored cereal, many companies are latching on to increasingly absurd and deceitful methods to peddle exactly these diets.

Methinks they’re getting more desperate.

It used to be enough to make inaccurate claims about the nutritional ‘completeness’ of various diets, but in recent years, the marketing pitches get increasingly more absurd. Now, we are told, certain breeds of cats have special requirements requiring special formulas. Never mind that more than a couple of companies are now hawking foods that ostensibly meet the differing nutritional needs of outdoor cats and indoor cats.

Just for kicks this not long ago, I spent a little quality time dissecting the claims made on some of the pet food company websites that are now aggressively marketing this way. Here are just a handful of the implicit and explicit conclusions one is led to draw from the ‘technical articles’ and explanations they offer:

All breeds are apparently quite fine eating nothing but dry food.

The shape of the kibble is paramount to ensuring that each cat gets what it needs. Maine Coons, for example, ostensibly benefit from especially large-sized kibble, according to one company, whereas Persian cats do best with kibble that’s shaped like an almond.

Corn gluten meal is a perfectly reasonable primary ingredient in the diet of an obligate carnivore.

Chicken meal is appropriate as the primary ingredient for all cats.

Outdoor cats, perhaps owing to the “greater stress they face,” have a greater need for corn gluten meal.

Need I go on? Really, if it weren’t for the fact that these dry, carbohydrate-heavy foods are overwhelmingly implicated in fueling illness in living, breathing, and deserving creatures, it would be funny. (One website boasts about “ergonomic kibble.”) Reading over a few of these company websites this morning, I was tempted to send several of them an email asking what I would do if, pray tell, I had a half-Persian, half-tabby cat that spends 20 percent of his time outdoors and has a history of digestive sensitivity to grains. Do I mix the various dry formulas in a certain ratio? Or in this case am I better off using a prescription dry food with plenty of rice protein concentrate and a bit of BHA-preserved soybean oil thrown in for good measure?

Puh-leez.

We’re not snowed any more. If we were before the pet food recalls and the attendant attention it’s brought to the laissez-faire attitude of many companies’ to the suppliers they use, we certainly have no excuse now.

The jig is up.

  • A Maine Coon cat does best on the diet Mother Nature intended. One that is grain-free and contains real meat, bone (or another good bioavailable calcium source), and organs.
  • A Persian cat does best on the diet Mother Nature intended. One that is grain-free and contains real meat, bone (or another good bioavailable calcium source), and organs.
  • A Siamese cat does best on the diet Mother Nature intended. One that is grain-free and contains real meat, bone (or another good bioavailable calcium source), and organs.
  • An indoor cat does best on the diet Mother Nature intended. One that is grain-free and contains real meat, bone (or another good bioavailable calcium source), and organs.

You get the idea.

Our cats don’t need a specially-shaped kibble and they never have. All they’ve needed is a diet that respects the fact that they’re carnivores.

The author of the groundbreaking book, “Food Pets Die For,” Ann Martin, has an article published just last week reminding readers that she personally traced euthanized pets from veterinary clinics in the city she lives to the rendering plants where they are processed and shipped to pet food companies. Thus, pentobarbital–the drug used to euthanize animals–ends up being fed to pets.

A senior official at the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, an organization charged with regulating the manufacture of food additives and drugs given to animals, told Martin that pentobarbital is not approved for use in pet food but that the CVM has no plans to undertake any special enforcement efforts to detect it in pet foods. We’re on our own, folks. Mostly.

This sounds like it’s all a Big Bad News Story, I know. But despite the rank absurdity that so many in the pet food industry tries to shove down our throats, I detect lots of Good News Stories these days: Unbiased information on how to safely and correctly feed our cats is readily available to anyone with the curiosity and an Internet connection. Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins’ remarkable book hit the streets in June and we have no excuses left. The nutritional consequences of the cat’s carnivorous nature is well-documented in the mainstream veterinary literature and remains undisputed. Michelle Bernard’s information-packed and oh-so-readable book on the hows and whys of species-appropriate feeding is available to anyone wanting to dive deep into the individual ingredients while steering clear of the baffling overuse of smoke-and-mirrors “science” that characterizes the pet food company nutritional information websites. There are responsible, passionate, and dedicate people in the blogosphere who can keep us current on the latest things we need to be on the lookout for in the world of commercial food. And more honest, small companies are appearing on the horizon that offer truly great alternatives to the junk food that we find in the pet food superstores or, sadly, lining the shelves of veterinary clinics.

We’re not buying what the pet food industry is selling any more These companies that have contributed so conspicuously to terrible conditions like diabetes, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, and urinary tract disorders? Whatever residue of benefit of the doubt was there once is fast slipping away.

We have informed choices to make now. And we have the information we need to defend those choices readily at our fingertips. We can share this information with our vets, demand straight answers, and confidently feed diets that are closer to what Mother Nature intended for these magnificent creatures — no matter the breed.

It’s about time.

There are two ways we can look at all this: through the prism of discouragement and anger over how dreadfully deceived so many of us have been for so many years; or through a welcome sense of hope over the shift that’s underway.

I vote we embrace the latter and move forward.