The Smart Pet Diet

Two years ago, contaminated food sickened and killed thousands of animals.
Now pets need healthier options.

By Lisa James

November / December 2009

Pet owners first noticed something wrong in early 2007, when previously healthy dogs and cats showed signs of serious illness—vomiting, not eating, suffering from raging thirst. The afflicted animals started pouring into the offices of veterinarians across the United States and Canada where the diagnosis, in case after case, was kidney failure. “I had two clients affected,” recalls Nancy Brandt, DVM of Natural Care Institute in Las Vegas. One client’s pet survived after treatment. The other person “lost quite a few animals. It was painful.”

Outbreaks of disease among people trigger a data-gathering protocol involving the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other agencies, but that system does not exist when it comes to sick pets. “It was so widespread that it was a problem trying to piece things together,” says Joseph Bartges, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, DACVN, professor and Acree Chair of Small Animal Research at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.

The trouble was eventually traced to Menu Foods, Inc., a manufacturer that supplied dog and cat chow to other companies. Menu had used wheat gluten, a thickening agent, from ChemNutra of Las Vegas, which had imported the gluten from China. The product was contaminated with melamine and cyanuric acid in an apparent attempt to falsely boost the gluten’s protein level. Relatively nontoxic by themselves, these substances in combination were found to form kidney-destroying crystals.


No one is sure how many animals were affected in the 2007 incident. The FDA received more than 14,000 reports of illness during the first four weeks of the recall, which began in mid-March, and some estimates of the death toll have run into the thousands. “It was definitely one of the largest and most complex recalls,” says Laura Alvey, director of communications at the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA/CVM).

The 2007 recall drew unprecedented media coverage to pet food safety—and the attention of pet owners everywhere. Alvey points out that the incident two years ago involved deliberate adulteration, adding, “Pet food is generally very, very safe.” But other observers believe the problems run deeper. “It was something that was bound to happen,” says Ann Martin, author of Food Pets Die For: Shocking Facts About Pet Food (third edition, New Sage Press). “We see three, four, five recalls of pet foods every year, generally because of contaminated grains.”

Ingredients and Labels

Most pet food comes from a handful of large manufacturers (Menu Foods being an example), who supply product to labels that range from supermarket brands to high-end premium lines. Martin says that such large entities are inclined to use substandard ingredients to maintain profits, although not everyone agrees. Bartges, for one, says that pet foods are “safe, and maybe safer than human foods in terms of the controls the larger companies exert over processing from start to finish.”

Martin is especially critical of “meat meal,” created at rendering plants that cook waste animal material—including, she charges, pets euthanized at shelters and clinics—into an indistinguishable mass. “I have yet to find a rendering plant that separates out dog and cat carcasses from other animal by-products,” Martin says, noting that the industry disputes such claims.

Run, Spot, Run: The Importance of Exercise

Like people, pets need exercise to reduce the risk of obesity and other ailments—and it’s your job as a responsible owner to ensure your pet gets all the physical activity he or she needs.

“Most of my patients don’t get enough exercise,” says Audra Alley, DVM.

Simply walking your dog is a good start. Nancy Brandt, DVM says that many dogs also enjoy swimming (use a life vest if your pal needs support). Cats are more of a challenge. “They don’t hunt anymore, so there’s this lack of having to run to find their food,” says Brandt.

“Shift food around so they have to find it.” Alley suggests tempting Fluffy with climbing trees, laser lights and feather toys.

Try to give your pet 10 minutes of play a day—or get help. “If you’re out of the house 15 hours a day, use a pet sitter as a personal trainer for your pet,” says Brandt, who adds that some boarding facilities provide daycare with playtime.

Arthritis can make exercise difficult for an older animal. Many pets respond to the same arthritis-fighting remedies used by people, including glucosamine and chondroitin to nourish joints, and herbs such as boswellia, bromelain, feverfew and turmeric to ease inflammation.

One of the problems with pet food lies in how it is labeled. The FDA/CVM specifies that the product is properly identified and that all ingredients are listed in order from most to least by weight. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), a private organization, creates model laws to serve as guides for regulatory agencies in each state. But Martin and other industry critics say that this results in a patchwork system, leading to a lack of ingredient testing that can result in pet food contamination.

Some veterinarians are not happy about the current state of pet food labeling. “You feel that you know what’s in there, but you might not,” says Audra Alley, DVM, CVA, of Bowman Animal Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina (and, like Brandt, a member of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, www.ahvma.org).

Good Food for Good Health

As a result of the 2007 recall, many veterinarians saw a surge of interest in feeding pets properly among their clients—at least for a while. “They are definitely more aware of the quality of the food,” Alley says. “And for a while we were doing a lot of home-cooked diets. I don’t have as many people asking me about it now.”

A number of animal owners have become home cooks. That includes Martin, who has made her own pet food since 1990. “Our vet is always amazed at the age our pets live to,” she says. “One of my cats was 27.” Bartges says that one of the most requested services at his school’s clinic “has been help in formulation of homemade diets. We also formulate diets for animals with specific diseases.”

He says that nutrition is becoming a more common specialty in the veterinary profession; it has its own governing body, the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (www.acvn.org).

Some owners swear by a raw-food diet that includes raw meat and bones, eggs, some vegetables and, in some cases, small amounts of dry kibble. Some people, like Martin, are against feeding raw, saying that contamination can lead to severe diarrhea and that bones can become lodged in the intestinal tract. But many owners whose pets eat a raw diet report that they have seen reductions in allergic reactions and overall better health. (They also follow basic food-safety guidelines, such as disinfecting bowls and utensils regularly.) Brandt feeds her own pets a raw diet, saying, “I can either put it together myself or use a branded product.”

What should you feed your pet? “There is no one best diet,” says Bartges. “It depends on what the owner is willing or wanting to feed and what the dog or cat is willing or wanting to eat.” He suggests getting recommendations from other pet owners, veterinarians and vet technicians: “What foods have they seen problems with? What foods do animals do well with?” And keep in mind that animals are as individual in their responses to different foods as we are. “It comes down to observation,” says Brandt. “I tell my clients that animals don’t read the textbooks.”

A growing number of commercial foods use human-grade ingredients, some organic; the federal government is currently formulating organic standards specifically for pet food. If you do use a commercial brand, read the label. “If you can’t pronounce what’s on the label, don’t buy it,” says Martin, who suggests contacting the manufacturer directly with questions. “Where are they getting their meat, their grains? If the company won’t answer you, don’t buy their food.” Also follow the 95% rule for meat-based foods; for example, 95% of “beef dog food” must consist of beef (meat, byproducts, or rendered bovine material) before cooking. “Beef dinner” must contain at least 25% beef, “beef flavor,” not much at all.

Cats have different nutritional needs than their canine cousins. Dogs, like humans, are omnivores, meaning that their digestive systems are meant to handle both plant and animal foods. Cats are true carnivores; they need meat to thrive, especially an amino acid called taurine. And although they love it, “tuna is not good,” Martin says. “It will deplete their systems of a number of nutrients.”

Finding the right diet for your pet can work wonders, especially in helping to clear up ongoing health problems. Melissa Peacock, 51, a homemaker from Raleigh, North Carolina, is the owner of Molly,
a three-year-old golden retriever. Molly’s first year was difficult for dog and owner alike. “She had
frequent diarrhea,” Peacock says. “We tried a whole bunch of different dog foods, some with exotic meats. None of them helped.”

With Alley’s assistance, Peacock found a nutritional service that helped her devise a plan of homecooked meals for Molly. “In general the diet has taken care of things,” says Peacock. “I cook in volume and freeze meal-sized portions. She’s on ground chuck with white rice and a green vegetable, and her dog treats are frozen green beans—she thinks they’re like cheesecake.”

Researching the various pet food options may take some homework on your part. But if it helps keep your loyal friend happy and healthy, it will be well worth the effort.

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