As fancy pet foods proliferate, here's what experts say dogs and cats need
November 6, 2007
By ELIZABETH AGNVALL
SPECIAL TO THE FT. WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM
If you really want to start a heated debate up at the dog park, don’t bring up Iraq or the presidential election: Ask the dog owners what kind of dog food they use.
You’ll get an earful about raw food diets, antioxidants, organic and holistic dog foods, steamed vegetables for dogs and the best books with instructions for making your own dog food. Unsubstantiated rumors fly -- such as the particularly nasty one that big-brand dog and cat foods are made of euthanized companion animals. Cat owners can be just as vocal about the very best foods for their finicky feline friends.
It used to be that everyone picked up a big bag of dried dog or cat food and stuck it in the garage closet. Not anymore. Some pet owners drive to special stores and even have their frozen raw pet foods delivered to their doorsteps. Others buy specialty foods from their vets. Many owners turned to these specialty foods during the pet food recalls this spring and haven’t turned back. By all accounts, it’s a booming industry.
But do dogs and cats really need these specialty foods? Are they healthier and happier with holistic foods than with old-fashioned kibble? We called some animal-nutrition experts and asked them to fill us in on how our companion animals should fill themselves up.
What type of food is best for my dog or cat?
“If I’m dealing with a healthy animal, I will recommend any major brand of food,“ says Bonnie Beaver, who heads up the community practice service at Texas A&M veterinary school. Beaver says if dogs or cats are picky or finicky eaters, owners might consider changing flavors of pet foods, but they don’t need to do it if the animals finish their bowls.
Mainly, she said, owners can trust their own judgment.
“Owners know their animals. If Fido has always licked the bowl clean of brand X and all of a sudden he’s not eating, that’s not normal. Then we start to worry,” Beaver says. “On the other hand, if Fluffy has always been a finicky eater and will not eat more than two days in a row of that flavor, then owners probably shouldn’t worry if she leaves some food.“
Can you just feed them the same dried food, day after day?
Yes, Beaver says, dogs and cats can eat the same food day after day with no ill effects. Often that bothers the people more than the pets, but if you do have a finicky eater, variety may help.
So do dogs and cats need food formulated especially for them?
Some do. Beaver says puppies and kittens should have special food, as should large-breed dogs. Older dogs and cats may have different needs, depending on the breed. “Giant-breed dogs, like St. Bernards, may be ancient by the time they are 6, while for a wirehaired fox terrier, 6 years old is middle-aged.”
Beaver said activity can also affect the needs of dogs and cats -- active hunting dogs need more calories and energy than “couch potato“ dogs. Pregnant animals also have special nutritional needs. Animals that are ill may need prescription diets -- for example, an animal with kidney problems may need a special diet that is low in protein and doesn’t challenge the kidneys.
What about nutritional differences in canned versus dry food?
Beaver says canned food has more water per volume than dried food, so a cup of canned food has fewer calories and less nutrition than a cup of dry food. Big dogs, she says, have a hard time eating enough canned food to meet their needs, and “I don’t want to be picking up all the poop that they are going to be putting out, either.” (Hey, she’s a vet, she’s allowed to say these things.)
My dogs are always begging for table scraps. It’s so tempting to scrape the leftovers into their bowls.
It may be tempting to give table scraps when facing those hard-to-resist puppy-dog eyes, but owners should be wary of overfeeding their pets and upsetting the nutritional balance of their regular pet food.
What about gourmet cat foods? Are they better for your cat?
“Cat owners want to pamper their animals, so they give them all the different flavors. It doesn’t matter to most cats,“ Beaver says.
She adds, however, that some cats do seem to prefer one flavor over another.
What about small “boutique” pet-food companies?
Beaver is wary of all the new brands of “natural“ pet foods. She said the major brands have paid for the research to create a careful balance between vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin A, Vitamin D and fatty acids. The amounts and balances have been worked out, she says, and tinkering too much with supplements can cause health problems.
Beaver says pet owners should look for foods that have passed the standards of the Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO, the regulating body of the pet-food industry.
Why am I seeing more “alternative foods” for pets?
Scott Freeman, owner and manager of Tejas Pet Products, which manufactures and distributes Nature’s Logic food for dogs and cats, says the market for holistic and organic foods has skyrocketed since he started in the business 20 years ago.
Although the “alternative“ pet-food market is still only 5 percent to 7 percent of the pet-food industry, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, Freeman says growth rates far outpace big name brands. He says that whereas the growth in sales for large-company pet foods has been below 5 percent, many natural-food companies have had double-digit growth for the past decade.
Even the traditional pet-food companies are getting in on the act. This year Iams launched a Healthy Naturals line, touting beta carotene, vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.
The same shoppers who have made Whole Foods Market a huge success in the United States want natural, organic or holistic food for their animals as well.
How about organic foods? Are they better for my animals?
Beaver says organic foods are a personal choice for pet owners.
“If I were a person who ate organic foods, wouldn’t I love to have an organic food for my dogs?”
What about raw-food diets for dogs and cats? I’ve heard they are closer to the way animals are meant to eat. Are they healthier?
Beaver says raw-food diets have the potential for salmonella poisoning in dogs and in people who handle the foods. She says she had three salmonella cases in the past week in her office. (Warning: Mention to raw-food fans that dogs can get salmonella poisoning and you might find yourself in a fistfight.).
I’ve seen ads for new pet foods with antioxidants and omega-3s. Will these supplements make our pets healthier, happier, perhaps, even better-behaved?
Claudia Kirk, associate professor at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine and head of the department of small-animal clinical sciences, specializes in animal nutrition. She says questions about supplements for pet food come down to two concepts: Does the food meet basic minimum requirements?
Does it provide optimum nutrition? Years of research in animal nutrition have provided some good answers to the first question, but “we have only very few of the answers“ for the second.
How long have nutritional scientists been studying vitamins and supplements for our pets?
“Vitamins have always been added to pet foods to make them complete and balanced,” Kirk says; however, scientists and owners have become very interested in the question of optimizing vitamins for pets in the past 15 years. The research into antioxidants, vitamins and other supplements for dogs and cats has paralleled research into vitamins for humans. In fact, study results are often applied cross-species (and that goes both ways).
Kirk said the research on the benefit of individual vitamins varies. Minimum requirements for vitamins have been set by using growth rates. Figuring out levels for cancer prevention, for example, is much more complex.
In other words, it’s one thing to give a dog or cat food that will allow a pet to grow and keep it alive. It’s quite another if you want to try to find the perfect balance that will improve immune function, cognition and behavior and prevent cancer. Just like with humans.
So I understand this is a fairly new field. What does the research say so far?
Kirk said studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids may improve cognitive function in older dogs. Short-term studies show benefits for osteoarthritis, pain relief and reducing heart arrhythmias. There’s even a study that shows omega-3s might improve trainability in puppies (but will it keep them from jumping up on the table for scraps?).
Vitamin E may benefit the immune system, improving resistance to disease. Other studies have shown antioxidants may improve cognitive dysfunction in aging dogs. Glucosamine is now regularly added to dog foods for joint health, although the research on whether it helps human joints is conflicting.
All of that sounds terrific, but as we’ve seen in humans, one study doesn’t prove anything. Before animal nutritionists can make definitive statements, they need to repeat findings in longer-term studies.
Wait, better-behaved puppies? I’m ready for a few specifics here.
Our dogs may benefit from studies aimed at humans. A series of studies by Norton Milgram, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Toronto, and Carl Cotman, a neurochemist with the Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia at the University of California, Irvine, have studied older beagles as models of human aging.
They’ve found that antioxidant supplements such as vitamins E and C may slow cognitive decline in older dogs. (The fortified food had no effect on young dogs.) One 2006 study that John Bauer, an animal nutritionist and veterinarian at Texas A&M, published in the “Journal of Nutrition“ found that pet food with DHA -- a type of omega-3 fatty acid -- enhanced visual performance in puppies. A few caveats: many of these studies are short-term with small numbers of animals, and most are funded at least in part by pet-food companies.
Also, just as with humans, there are ongoing debates about which form of vitamins and minerals (as supplements, as part of food?) provides the best benefits.
Some of the studies sound promising.
Should I start giving my pets extra vitamins?
Tread carefully. Kirk says the danger of running to the local vitamin store and loading up your dog or cat with supplements is that based on some of the research we’ve mentioned, many of the pet-food companies are now supplementing as well.
“The risk is that they can get into excessive levels,” Kirk says. Excessive levels of omega-3 fatty acids, for example can increase the tendency for excess bleeding. In one of his papers in the “Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association,“ Texas A&M’s John Bauer cites nearly 50 cases of suspected caffeine and ephedrine poisoning in dogs traced to herbal preparations containing guarana (caffeine) and ma huang (ephedrine).
Kirk and Bauer recommend talking to your vet about supplements you are considering and the pet food you use.
And finally, a little tidbit verbatim from the Q&A page of the Association of American Feed Control Officials . . .
Am I correct that parts from sick, dying or dead animals are allowed?
Animal by-products, which may include materials from animals which died by means other than slaughter, are explicitly defined as adulterated unless the materials are rendered in compliance with animal health and protein product regulations to destroy any potential microorganisms which may be in the products.
In other words, if the dead animals are handled correctly, they are allowed to be used in pet foods.
Some of this seems a bit confusing. What’s the best way for me to sort it all out?
Talk to your vet about the nutritional needs of your pet. Be sure to talk about what kind of supplements or extra food (even table scraps) -- and how much -- you’re feeding your pet. One study found that one of the most important factors in companion-pet health was not overfeeding -- a bad habit that is contributing to the obesity epidemic in dogs, cats and their human owners.