WE ALL WANT WHAT'S BEST FOR OUR FIDOS, FIFIS, FEATHERY FRIENDS AND FERRETS, especially when it comes to our pets’ nutrition. Pet food companies are capitalizing on the many niche human diet movements — low-fat, low-carb, grain-free and high- and low-protein nutrition plans abound. Thanks to the booming premium pet food industry (which, according to Petfood Industry magazine, brought in $8 billion in 2016), your precious furbutt can “enjoy” the same dietary restrictions you do.
However, if you suspect your pet is more than just “hangry” about his specialty food, you may be right.
In July, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) sounded an alarm about a potential link between grain-free pet foods and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). DCM is a disease in which the heart muscle becomes enlarged, hampering its ability to pump blood, which can lead to congestive heart failure. The illness is life-threatening, so if your pet exhibits any signs of the disease (weakness, shortness of breath, coughing or fainting) — whether or not it’s on a grain-free diet — it’s crucial to take action immediately.
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The exact cause of DCM is unknown. Animal scientists believe there’s a genetic component, since the disease shows up most often in large and giant breed dogs such as Great Danes and Newfoundlands. But a deficiency of nutrients such as taurine, an amino-acid essential to the metabolism of fats, also can affect the normal function of the heart. According to consumer reports filed with the FDA, DCM was diagnosed in smaller breeds of dogs that were fed a grain-free diet. The FDA hasn’t declared that grain-free diets are the cause of DCM in these animals, but the link is strong enough that consumers should be wary. Some food companies now add taurine to their grain-free foods, but there isn’t scientific evidence that the supplement eliminates the risk of DCM.
As of July, only dogs were affected, but all pet owners should be concerned. An article by veterinarian Lisa M. Freeman in the November issue of the “Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association” warns against what Freeman and her colleagues call BEG diets — boutique companies, exotic ingredients and grain-free — and their potential to negatively impact an animal’s health. Freeman also thinks a taurine deficiency may not be behind these cases of DCM. In some cases, dogs with the disease that were fed a BEG diet had normal levels of taurine, suggesting that the illness is more a function of the way these diets affect nutrients and their bioavailability (the ability of the body to absorb and use those nutrients).
But it says it on the label
Pet food labels are full of buzzy jargon that gets consumers’ attention based on what they think about their own nutrition: human-grade, limited ingredients, raw-frozen, natural and organic. Grain-free foods have one of the largest niches of premium pet foods, raking in a whopping $3 billion in 2016, according to Petfood Industry. Exotic proteins such as bison, salmon and even kangaroo are now listed as casually as the standard chicken or beef.
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“There’s not necessarily a correlation between what [a food] costs and how good the food is,” says Ned Henry, veterinarian at Crescent City Veterinary Hospital, and — just as is the case with people food — some of these marketing terms are meaningless because they’re unregulated. There’s no Department of Agriculture (USDA) equivalent for the manufacturing of pet foods, even though the FDA does work with the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to issue guidelines and announce recalls. Henry considers AAFCO to be the go-to source (other than your veterinarian) for advice and data about pet foods, but AAFCO doesn’t offer a comprehensive list of approved foods, and you won’t see an AAFCO “seal of approval” on a bag of kibble, so it’s still tough to get precise advice on your own.
“People will choose foods for their pets based on what they choose for themselves,” Henry says. “I’m not saying that’s wrong, but ‘organic’ doesn’t necessarily mean anything in pet food. There’s just not a rigid policy or enforcement [of those standards].”
The problem with grain-free diets
When humans go for a grain-free diet, often what they really mean is low-carb. But that logic doesn’t apply to pet food.
“There’s no wheat,” Henry says, “but instead, there’s potato or legumes or something. If it’s a simple carb like a potato, there’s not really any nutritional value, whereas wheat has protein and other nutrients in it.”
Henry says there’s no real reason to feed a pet grain-free food. He and his colleagues do see pets with food allergies, but it’s usually to proteins, not to grains. This is the rare case in which he’d recommend a food made with an exotic protein, but a balanced food is still the name of the game.
“Taking out the protein all together and being a vegetarian or taking out the carbohydrates is not a balanced diet, “he says. “(Pets) need all that.”
What should I feed my furbutt?
“I wouldn’t spend a lot of time looking at the ingredients list,” Henry says. “I would go with something made by a reputable company with a long track record.” Choose a quality dry food that’s appropriate for the pet’s life stage, especially with young puppies or kittens and elderly animals. For middle aged animals, most dry foods will suffice. But, in 2016 (according to Petfood Industry), there were 559 different pet food brands. Which one do you choose?
“Big food manufacturers like Purina, Science Diet, Royal Canin and Iams — generally speaking, they have better quality control because they have the resources for it,” Henry says. These food companies also employ veterinary nutritionists and food scientists to make the food — something consumers would think was a no-brainer, but isn’t actually required by the FDA. As counterintuitive as it may seem, when it comes to pet nutrition, simple and big box is better.
AAFCO (www.aafco.org) provides a comprehensive explanation of pet food jargon and its own pet food standards.
Crescent City Veterinary Hospital (524 Jefferson Ave., 504-894-0752; www.crescentcityvet.com) specializes in pet nutrition.
The FDA’s Safety Reporting Portal (www.safetyreporting.hhs.gov) is a resource for reporting cases of DCM potentially linked to pets’ diets.
Tufts University’s Petfoodology site (www.vetnutrition.tufts.edu) contains scholarly journals, studies and clinical nutrition advice for consumers and veterinarians alike.