Vets, Pet Diets, & Never Switching Pet Foods

  • "That's what my vet told me to feed"

    Most veterinary schools do not even require nutrition courses for graduation. If nutrition courses are offered at all, they’re usually electives.

    And who teaches these courses?  Amazingly, schools allow company reps from Hill’s (Science Diet), Iams Co. (Iams/Eukanuba), and Purina, to provide the instruction.  What’s more, many of the textbooks and other material for veterinary schools are published by subsidiaries of these same pet food companies

    Most of the major pet food brands are now owned by a select few human food and consumer products conglomerates:  Hill's is owned by Colgate-Palmolive, Iams Co. by Proctor and Gamble, and Purina by Nestle.  Nutro and Royal Canin are owned by M&M Mars, and P&G now also owns Natura Pet Products (California Natural, Innova, EVO), which originated as a small manufacturer of higher quality alternatives to all the junk out there.  This is just a sampling of the incredible consolidation of virtually every major pet food brand into the hands of just a few giant conglomerates.

    From the time they begin their studies, vet students are surrounded by materials and influence from these companies.  Hill’s Science Diet, as one example, provides them with food for their own pets, either free or at deep discounts; after they graduate they are then given kickbacks or commissions for selling food when they start their own practice.  Purina particularly targets breeders with deep discounts.  This doesn't even cover the myriad of prescription diets (more on that later).

    Unfortunately these companies have monopolized the nutrition training of most vet students.  It’s simply the only training they experience.  Thus you will often hear from vet students the same things these company reps would argue about their products:  “You can feed your dog anything and it will do fine.” or “Ingredients don’t matter, it’s the balance of nutrition.”  Given the expertise of veterinarians, one would hope that they would provide better nutrition advice than this, but this usually is all they are taught regarding this subject in an otherwise incredibly thorough education.

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  • “100% complete and balanced?"

    This one's a real doozy.  You've seen it on pet foods everywhere; scientists have worked their magic.  Just feed this one bag of pet food for your dog or cat's entire life, and they'll live long and healthy lives.

    So this is it?  After thousands of years, a few lab techs have come up with the perfect formula for your pet.  How do they know?  Well, it has all the right percentages of protein, fat, fiber, etc.  Well, actually it meets "minimum nutrient requirements" established by a quasi-government regulatory body known as AAFCO.  You're reading this right:  if a bag of pet food meets "minimum" requirements, then it's complete, no, 100% complete, and balanced.

    Ignoring that this notion is void of any common sense, let's examine a few glaring issues here:

    First, the aforementioned "minimum nutrient requirements" keep changing!  One particularly ugly example of this:  in the late '80s, researchers concluded that thousands of cats dying because of taurine deficiencies.  Science Diet, Purina Cat Chow, and other famous foods were some of the foods used in the study; turns out cats aren't like other animals that were sampled to determine necessary taurine levels.  Did this change the paradigm for pet food manufacturers?  Nope!  They just added the taurine--we know it wasn't 100% before, but it's 100% complete and balanced now!

    Second, these nutrient requirements completely ignore the importance of ingredient quality.  The theory goes, and this is seriously taught even in vet schools, that it doesn't matter if you use garbage (actually a legal ingredient for pet food according to AAFCO), leather, etc. so long as it contains the right percentages of protein, fat, etc.  This notion is bad enough.  But even if it were true, the idea of perfectly complete and balanced percentages is nonsense:  to deem a food complete, just by containing a relative few nutrients (there are many more nutrients, both known and unknown, than are included in the requirements), one must assume that everything else nature has to offer (even things we don't yet understand) has no part in any picture of 'completeness'.

    Finally, let's examine the protocol for determining whether a food meets these requirements--the vaunted AAFCO feeding trials.  The standards to which pet food manufacturers must conform are regulated by the American Association of Feed Control Officials--or AAFCO.  You've probably seen AAFCO statements on pet foods you've purchased:  stating that they have passed AAFCO feeding trials for “all life stages”, “puppies”, “pregnant/lactating mothers”, etc.

    Unfortunately, these standards leave a lot to be desired:

    • 8 dogs older than 1 yr. must start the test
    • At start all dogs must be normal weight & health.
    • A blood test is to be taken from each dog at the start and finish of the test.
    • For 6 months, the dogs used must only eat the food being tested.
    • The dogs finishing the test must not lose more than 15% of their body weight.
    • During the test, none of the dogs used are to die or be removed becasue of nutritional causes.
    • 6 of the 8 dogs starting must finish the test.

    And that's it. The dog's alive, and it lost only 14% of its body weight--"100% complete and balanced nutrition!"

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  • "He does well on that (food), I don't want to switch him."

    Now that the "100% complete and balanced" dogma has been broken down, it follows that the other pillar of conventional wisdom on pet feeding needs torn down as well.

    The mentality that your pet should eat the same thing, meal after meal, day after day, for its entire life, is pretty silly to begin with; but that's what we're told to do. Nobody would ever do this with their child, nor would any pediatrician recommend such nonsense. But the pet food industry has convinced most pet owners that, while nobody has come anywhere near such a magic diet for humans, they have devised the perfect diet for your pet.

    It's bad enough that pet owners have been told to feed their pet one thing their entire life, but the industry has also largely succeeded in convincing people that any other diet regimen is unhealthy. Could you imagine your doctor telling you that eating anything other than Total cereal (hey, it has all your vitamins and minerals) three times a day was bad for you?

    Feeding the same diet, over and over again, is more likely to be the cause of disease, sickness, and poor health. People often object to the idea of diet rotation at first, saying that their pets do well on a certain food, but how many times do they eventually switch because they have to? Allergies, food intolerances, and lack of interest (most pets get tired of eating one food day after day, imagine that) from their pets cause most people to switch foods more than once. Unfortunately, they do this because circumstances force them to, not because they're intentionally maintaining variety in diet for optimum health.

    Another objection we often hear relates to potential stomach upset caused by the change in diet. The issue here is that the change in diet isn't the problem: it's the lack of change in diet, as well as the product being fed. Dogs and cats were never meant to eat heavily processed dry kibble, "fortified" with a slew of vitamins and minerals needed to make the diet "complete and balanced". If your pet is eating a lower quality dry food, with little in the way of whole food ingredients, animal proteins, etc., then he will most certainly need to harden his system to one food or another. Once the diet is switched, the completely new formula (with entirely different synthetic vitamins and minerals) designed to be "complete and balanced" causes digestive upset.

    Switching foods isn't the cause so much as the catalyst which reveals the underlying issues with your pet's diet. Quality foods, fed in variety, are the keys to healthful living. For the same reasons that a pet food manufacturer cannot be expected to create a "100% complete and balanced" food, one should never expect them to create a food worthy of exclusive consumption for life.

    As with much of our health system, pet food regulators completely ignore long-term implications of feeding a diet that goes through their trials. Chronic diseases take many years to develop. Simply checking for toxicity or short-term weight loss is nowhere near sufficient proof of a food’s quality.

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  • Should you feed your pet the same thing every meal?

    Given the silliness inherent in the theory that a single food can be complete and balanced, it follow that feeding a single food each and every meal leaves much to be desired nutritionally.

    Feeding the same foods over and over again are far more likely to cause disease that to prevent or cure it.

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