What's in your pet's food?

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Posted: Sunday, February 23, 2014 12:15 am | Updated: 5:14 pm, Thu Mar 6, 2014.

The following pet health scenarios frequently involve the foods pets eat:

l A pet eats a high-quality brand of food. The owner has never changed the diet, but about three days after starting a new bag, the pet begins vomiting.

l An owner is frustrated over repeated allergy and ear problems. When I discuss diet and treats as a source of problems, the owner becomes frustrated and says, “I don’t understand; I buy good food and am seeing more health problems than ever.”

l In an attempt to save money, pet owners buy low-quality foods. They also feed treats, high in additives, which are more costly per pound. Pets are becoming obese, diabetic and more prone to allergies, cancer and infections.

As a veterinarian, I look at these situations and understand that food is not the same as it was 30 to 50 years ago. All food has lost quality through shorter growing times, genetic modification and chemical treatment. For pet foods, an added obstacle to finding wholesome and nutritious food is labeling.

Why can’t owners just read labels to understand ingredients, and whether a food is organic, holistic and nutritious?

First, the above-mentioned terms: Organic and holistic are not regulated when it comes to pet food. Having a background in animal nutrition, I know the creative terminology that manufacturers use to make ingredients sound appealing, while misleading the consumer.

Pet foods are manufactured by large corporations with lobbying groups. They spend lots of money to assure use of labeling terms that create healthy perceptions, while maximizing profits and allowing for less than complete disclosure of ingredients.

Examples include:

l The phrase “made with x” (“x” being beef or fish or another real protein). Only 3 percent of the product must be the mentioned meat. The term “flavored with” means that the flavoring be detectable in the food, not in significant quantities.

l Protein includes rendered meats (diseased and drugged) animals, animal litter, waste, hooves, beaks, non-digestible proteins and feathers.

l “Least cost analysis” means companies are allowed to change ingredients without changing labels. The reason the government allows this is to prevent huge fluctuations in prices of pet foods if the price of one ingredient rises, but it is an abused practice.

l Additives do not have to be listed on the label. A labeling practice is to say “preserved with vitamin C and rosemary, no artificial preservatives added,” which really means, “no preservatives were added after the bulk tank of animal fat got to our plant.” They don’t have to list the preservatives that were added to fats prior to shipment.

All of the above practices have led to lower-quality foods and more diet-related health problems. In 2007, more than 150 brands of pet food were recalled due to contamination with melamine, which caused renal failure in pets.

Over 8,500 reports of animal death were logged by the FDA. Since then, many other foods, including jerky treats, have been recalled related to bacterial contamination, chemical and unknown contaminants.

In 2013, jerky treats were recalled after 3,600 pets became seriously ill and over 600 pets died. No cause has been identified to date, but the products were all manufactured in China, where regulation is even less stringent than in the United States.

Chronic illness stems from poor diet. Deficiencies, in addition to toxins in soil, water and environment, add up to increased risk for infections, cancer, and many inflammatory health conditions (arthritis, asthma, allergies).

Solutions to the problems of nutrient deficient and contaminated diets:

l Work with a vet who stays informed about nutrition. Ask if you can schedule a nutrition consult.

l Ask your vet about what you read or hear. The Internet contains lots of misinformation and pet store reps will give information from the manufacturer.

l Subscribe to the Whole Dog Journal to get more pet food facts.

l Add whole food supplements, not synthetic vitamins, to your pet’s diet.

l Add Omega-3 fatty acids (not fish oil, full of heavy metals).

l Use frozen raw diets or high-quality prescription diets with fixed ingredients.

l Offer a variety of human-grade foods: steamed veggies, raw berries, raw bones and real meat. If you decide to make your own pet food, you must work with an animal nutritionist to balance vitamins and minerals.

l Avoid processed snacks. Make your own jerky treats.

l Do not purchase supplements on the Internet. Excess, contaminated or wrong supplements can be worse than not supplementing. Check with your vet for trusted foods and vitamins.

Improving your pet’s diet is the biggest way to impact health on a daily basis. Your vet can help you find the best diet which fits your budget and lifestyle.

Dr. Cynthia Maro is a veterinarian at the Ellwood Animal Hospital in Ellwood City and the Chippewa Animal Hospital in Chippewa Township. She writes a biweekly column on pet care and health issues. If you have a topic you’d like addressed, please email ellwoodvet@msn.com.

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