A visit to a local supply store for pets has convinced some that many people’s pets eat better than their two-legged companions, or their companion’s children.
Whatever you think your pet needs (dog or cat, that is, we are not getting into nutrition for birds, rabbits, turtles and the many exotic animals people keep as pets), there is a product ready to meet it: vegetarian, organic, holistic, natural, raw, kosher, all-meat, gluten-free, high-fiber, high-protein, grain-free, low-fat, “lite” and anti-allergy. There are products for young and old pets and those with sensitive skin, sensitive stomachs and sensitive skin and stomachs, as well as foods enriched with supplements like antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine and chondroitin, the value of which has yet to be established for people, let alone pets.
Do the conscientious pet owners who buy these products really scour the supermarket for the human equivalent of “Grain-Free Optimal Holistic Nutrition for Dogs, Thoughtfully Chosen Whole Food Natural Ingredients in Every Bite,” as proclaimed on the package of Earthborn Primitive Natural dog food? Or baby food like Innova Puppy Food made with turkey, duck, barley, brown rice, apple, tomato, carrot, potato, egg, cottage cheese and alfalfa sprouts?
Parents know how to respond when a baby reacts badly to a newly introduced food. But if a puppy eating Innova had a food sensitivity, how could you tell which ingredient was responsible?
I’m not against feeding pets well. They are, after all, much-loved members of the family, providing valuable emotional support. Although both cats and dogs can be as mischievous as toddlers and as rebellious as teenagers, they are always happy to see you and they never talk back. In fact, too often pets are overindulged, with too much food and too many snacks in proportion to the exercise they get. Veterinary groups have estimated that 20 to 60 percent of American dogs and cats are overweight or obese and at risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.
Are the people who invest in high-end pet foods are getting their money’s worth. Are their pets really healthier and happier? Do they live longer? And are these foods any better than the generic versions sold in supermarkets and big-box stores? Recognizing the high value most owners place on their companion animals, and distressed by recent recalls of contaminated pet foods, two scientists decided to examine the pet food industry and the evidence for the value of its products and the claims made for them. Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, and Malden C. Nesheim, emeritus professor of nutrition at Cornell University, have packaged their findings in “Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat,” published in May by Free Press.
In an interview, Dr. Nestle (pronounced NES-sel) said: “People are willing to spend anything on their pets. The $18-billion-a-year pet food industry is considered to be recession-proof. Although during this economic downturn shelters have been overwhelmed with pets people could not afford to keep, those who have kept their pets are not stinting on what they spend to feed them.” She noted, however, that the so-called premium pet foods cost three to four times more than supermarket brands. Within the premium brands, there is also a wide price range, yet when the ingredients lists are compared, they are strikingly similar since all have to meet certain nutritional standards. The first five ingredients of nearly every kind of dog and cat food are generally the same, representing protein, fats and carbohydrates, Dr. Nestle said, adding that “anything listed below the salt would be present in only very small amounts.” She and Dr. Nesheim compared 10 premium chicken dinners for dogs and found that all contained basically the same ingredients: All start with chicken or chicken broth, followed by grains and vegetables. The nonpremium brands use more grains and poultry, meat and fish byproducts.
Most important, Drs. Nestle and Nesheim say, is to look for products labeled “complete and balanced,” indicating that they meet the nutritional requirements of cats and dogs listed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. This organization, in conjunction with the Food and Drug Administration, state officials and the animal feed industry, develops model regulations for pet foods, which are voluntary unless encoded in state laws. “All pet foods are made from the byproducts of human food production,” Dr. Nestle explained. “No matter what the package says, your dog is not getting whole chicken breasts, but what remains after the breasts have been removed for human food.”
And, indeed, it is primarily human food companies — Nestlé, Purina, Mars and Procter & Gamble — that make the pet foods sold throughout the world. Of course, in much of the world, domestic dogs and cats survive on table and street scraps, not commercially produced pet foods. In seeking evidence for the added value to health and longevity of commercial pet foods, the authors found almost none with any validity. No agency requires proof of pet food health claims, and no pet food company is willing to invest in decades of research to determine whether its products keep animals healthier and extend their lives, the authors state. Pet food companies say they do research, but it is rarely done in a scientific fashion, with comparable control and experimental groups. There is, however, ample evidence that, despite claims to the contrary, both dogs and cats “are perfectly able to digest grains if they are cooked,” Dr. Nestle said.
None of this should imply that different pet food products make no difference to individual animals. When my friends’ havanese began licking its paws incessantly, the vet suggested they try a corn-free pet food, which stopped the itching. However, they need not spend $31 for a 12.5-pound bag of premium food free of corn; Costco’s Kirkland Super Premium Dog Food, also free of corn, costs about $15 for a 40-pound bag. Still, Dr. Nestle suggested, “if one or another brand seems to completely change the way a dog behaves or cures an allergy, when you find something that works for you, stay with it.”
While many pay good money for marketing gimmicks, Dr. Nestle also does not object to people paying for attributes they value. If characteristics like natural, organic, holistic, vegetarian or kosher are important to pet owners, it may be worth it to them to pay top dollar for pet foods that claim to provide the desired attribute, even if there is no official or enforced definition of the claim.
Although some owners insist on cooking for their pets, the authors said animals are more likely to get all the nutrients they need, and in the right amounts, from a commercial product. “Besides, the pet food industry serves an important ecological function by using up food that would otherwise be thrown out,” Dr. Nestle said. “If everyone cooked human food for the 472 million cats and dogs in America, it would be like feeding an additional 42 million people.”