Pets 101

The Pet-Food Puzzle

How to read a label, deal with the recall, and be a safer, better-informed guardian

By Katie Marsico

Up until recently, purchasing pet food seemed like a relatively uncomplicated task. Speaking as the guardian of three dogs, we initially consulted our veterinarian, observed if the pups reacted well to a particular brand, and then routinely threw a 20-pound bag of kibble in our cart without any afterthought. As of this past spring, however, this simplicity changed for animal caretakers across the country. As a rash of nationwide animal deaths erupted, Canadian pet-food manufacturer Menu Foods, Ltd. began recalling its products at an alarming rate. Over a matter of weeks, the panic even spread into the agricultural industry and businesses related to food consumption for humans.

It was ultimately revealed that the source of animals’ kidney failure, which led to fatalities in some instances, was wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate from China that had been tainted with melamine (a chemical used in plastic production). In response, average consumers, animal nutritionists, and the U.S. government seemed to immediately reevaluate exactly what was going into Fido’s bowl. In a world where people scan nutritional labels to keep track of their calories, monitor cholesterol, and create a balanced diet, pet guardians now have to turn their discerning eyes to what ingredients make up our pets’ meals. But how can guardians protect their furry family members, and what are pet-food manufacturers and politicians alike doing to ensure that our dogs and cats receive the safest, most nutritious diet options?

A Label or a Labyrinth?

Have you ever read the label on a box of Natural Peanut Butter Flavor Dog Biscuits? What exactly is expeller-pressed canola oil (preserved with mixed tocopherols)? If it sounds confusing, the guaranteed analysis on the back will probably have a similar effect—what specifically does 12 percent crude protein mean? The names and numbers are enough to make college-educated pet guardians feel like they’re flunking high-school chemistry. How is it possible to analyze and evaluate each and every individual ingredient?

“The public really ought to be more concerned about nutrients than specific ingredients,” says Dr. Richard C. Hill, DVM. Hill is a Waltham Associate Professor of small animal internal medicine and clinical nutrition at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville, Florida. He is also the president of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition. “Ingredients are simply the building blocks that provide the necessary nutrients and energy that are part of creating a balanced diet.”

Dr. Korinn E. Saker, DVM, outlines how such nutrients are generally made available to pets via processed foods. “Dry pet foods typically contain a source of carbohydrates [CHO], protein, fat, and vitamins and minerals. Most commonly, carbohydrates are found in a corn or rice product, though less common sources include barley, oats, potatoes, and wheat,” says Saker, associate professor and director of nutritional services at the Virginia–Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Virginia, and immediate past president of the AAVM. “Fiber is a form of CHO and is frequently added to commercial diets via powdered cellulose, pectin, or beet pulp. Protein can be supplied from animal sources such as chicken, beef, lamb, fish, duck, turkey, venison, rabbit, and even kangaroo. But protein can also be derived from plant products such as corn gluten meal or a soy-based ingredient. Fat is generally present in vegetable oils or animal fat.”

As for vitamins and minerals, those not naturally included in the nutrients described above are often added in a premix and are noted at the end of the ingredient list on a label. Most pet foods have some water content as well, which Saker estimates to be about 10 to 12 percent for dry food and 75 to 82 percent for wet food.

When it comes to comparing labels on various brand names, your best bet is to consult your veterinarian and review your pet’s individual dietary and health needs. Some animals have conditions or lifestyle characteristics that dictate how much fat and protein should be included in their meal plan, and the amounts of these elements can differ from product to product. Additionally, be sure to look for the phrase ‘Complete and Balanced’ somewhere on the can or package. As Kurt Gallagher explains, “This means the food has been carefully formulated to be the sole source of nutrition for pets. Generally speaking, most foods on the market carry this description, as opposed to treats, which are meant for occasional feeding rather than an animal’s primary and complete nutritional source.” Gallagher is the Director of Communications and Export Development at the Pet Food Institute (PFI) in Washington, D.C. PFI currently represents 98 percent of all cat- and dog-food producers in the United States.

Keeping the aforementioned information in mind may help you decipher dense labels and do a better job grasping the role that different nutritional elements play in your pet’s diet. Even empowered by knowledge, however, can you effectively safeguard against items that don’t belong in Fluffy’s dish—the ones you can’t always read on the side of the can?

Unseen and Unavoidable?

While commercial diets are formulated to be nutritionally complete and balanced, that doesn’t necessarily address incidents such as the unforeseen melamine catastrophe. “Melamine is not approved for use in human food or pet food. It should never have been in either wheat gluten or rice protein concentrate, and the Food and Drug Administration is investigating how this adulteration occurred,” says Gallagher. “It is important to keep in mind that the recall affected less than 1 percent of pet-food products, and consumers should feel confident about making pet-food purchases in stores today.”

That said, it is unlikely that shoppers would have even had a chance to raise their brows at the name melamine because they never would have found it listed on a label. Nor would most tests run by manufacturers and the government have weeded out the contaminant prior to this past spring. As Hill remarks, analyses used to screen pet food often focus on nitrogen levels, following the assumption that nitrogen comes from and is present in protein. “Melamine was therefore included by unscrupulous protein suppliers because it boosted nitrogen content without actually adding protein.” So if guardians couldn’t have avoided buying tainted goods simply by keeping their eyes focused on the small print on a bag of cat kibbles, how can they exercise caution in the wake of the pet-food recall?

“The best way for pet parents to steer clear of products that contain melamine is to review the lists of items that have been recalled and to consult a veterinarian if a resulting change in diet needs to be implemented,” says Inga Fairclough, who works with media and communications at the ASPCA in New York City. “At this time, we would hope that no more recalls will be made, but guardians may want to contact their pet-food company to inquire what further assurances they can offer.”

Fairclough notes that, in addition to such blatant issues of safety, it is not always possible to determine whether ingredients are “high quality” simply by evaluating an information panel. “There may be differences in ingredient quality for different companies even when the same ingredient name is used on the labels. Since there can be challenges with interpreting these labels and assessing food quality, it’s usually extremely beneficial to seek the advice of your veterinarian for specific product recommendations.”

As an example of nutritional elements that may negatively affect a pet’s well-being, Saker refers to foods that are higher in fat or sodium and that should be avoided if animals are obese or hypertensive. “In reality, however, this is just a matter of working with your vet to choose the most appropriate diet for a disease state,” she says. “I would venture to say that there are numerous ingredients in commercial pet foods that have no proven health value but that simultaneously appear to do no harm.” Yet in worst-case scenarios where severe harm is possible, who’s stepping up to protect pets and to aid guardians agonizing over issues such as safety and diet?

Raising Standards and Awareness

“All ingredients [in pet food] are allowed for use by the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” Gallagher says. “These are the same agencies that regulate human food.” Apart from the chaos caused by recent recalls, both everyday citizens and U.S. officials were also prompted to question the level of government involvement in the pet-food industry. Politicians such as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) are suggesting changes that would help ensure that a similar tragedy doesn’t strike America’s pets a second time. Proposed legislation features measures that would call for tougher FDA regulation of the pet-food industry, including fines for companies that delay reporting to the FDA, increased FDA inspections, improved data and reporting from the FDA, and a consolidation of federal food-safety agencies. In early May, Durbin and DeLauro even met with an ambassador from China to discuss how to implement these innovations on an international scale.

“There are two main reasons why I’ve pursued this issue,” Durbin says. “First, I know how important pets are in the lives of so many people. More than 60 percent of U.S. households have pets. That’s more than 68 million households nationwide. For millions of Americans, pets are…considered members of the family. They are loyal and playful, provide companionship, and relieve stress. The second thing that disturbs me about this incident is that it confirms yet again that pet food, as well as human food, is at risk because of significant gaps in the system of regulations and inspections that govern the food industry. There are…health implications to this broken system—illness, death, lost economic activity, [and medical] costs.”

In addition to efforts by government representatives, many pet-food manufacturers have responded to the events of this past spring by screening for melamine and substances similar to it. Such tests do not eliminate the possibility of future problems if a different and unsuspected contaminant is involved, but they reflect an overall shift in attitude on the part of big-name companies, government officials, and average pet guardians alike.

“Since the recall, people seem to have a much greater awareness about their animals’ diets,” Fairclough says. “Pet parents are taking more time and effort to make informed choices. The magnitude of the recall has increased attention to the pet-food industry and has raised the importance of creating more stringent quality-control standards. The lessons learned from this situation will likely decrease the chances of similar circumstances occurring in the future.”

Offering Fido an alternative

Frustrated guardians are increasingly turning toward home-cooked meals to safely satisfy their four-legged friends. But making sure your pet receives a nutritionally balanced meal is no easy feat and most veterinarians caution against this option.

“With the recall, we have definitely seen an increase in the number of pet guardians who are interested in switching to a home-prepared meal plan or an alternative commercial diet,” says Dr. Korinn Saker, DVM, associate professor and director of nutritional services at the Virginia–Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Virginia, and immediate past president of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition. “Always be sure to consult your veterinarian if you are considering a major change of any kind.”

Regarding home-prepared diets, Saker adds that people should talk to experts before striking out on their own. It is imperative that a diet be nutritionally complete and compatible with the specific health requirements that are unique to every animal. If you opt to cook for your dog or cat, you also should be cautious around any raw ingredients that might lead to the spread of bacteria. Additionally, it is important to speak to your vet about the digestibility of certain foods, as items such as bones can break, splinter, and lead to choking or other gastrointestinal woes.

If you prefer to stick with a commercial product, you may face the challenge of interpreting the significance of price tags. “Like all things in life, sometimes you do get better value from a more expensive purchase, and sometimes you do not,” says Dr. Richard Hill, DVM, Waltham Associate Professor of small animal internal medicine and clinical nutrition at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville, Florida, and president of the AAVN. “Manufacturers of more expensive brands tend to spend more money on research and testing of ingredients before they are put into pet food. Conversely, the very cheapest food may be made from ingredients that contain less available nutrients. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to make these distinctions simply by looking at the label or the price tag.”

Regardless of the dollar amount or whether you buy from the pet store or get cooking in your kitchen, it’s critical that a transition in diet be made gradually and under your vet’s supervision. “Pets’ digestive systems can be quite sensitive to change,” says Inga Fairclough, who works with media and communications at the ASPCA in New York City. “An abrupt transition can lead to digestive upset. We therefore generally recommend caretakers switch diets over a period of five to seven days, feeding 25 percent new food initially, and then gradually increasing to 50 percent, 75 percent, and ultimately 100 percent.” Further, you should immediately call your vet if you note any obvious signs of distress or illness after a dietary switch.

For more information

American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition

American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro

Menu Foods Recall Information

Pet Food Institute

United States Department of Agriculture

United States Senator Dick Durbin

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

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