Friday, March 23, 2007

A Word on the Pet Food Recall

It's been all over the news: huge amounts of pet food made by Menu Foods have been recalled after a number of kidney failure-related deaths were linked to it. Now, it has been announced that the key suspect ingredient in the food is wheat gluten, and it may have been contaminated with rat poison. Rat poison!

Let's step back a moment from the case at hand and the investigation of how it happened, and take a look at the bigger picture. If you are a concerned pet caregiver, it's time you learned what's really in most commercial pet food. Studies have shown that a great proportion of brand-name pet food is made of "food" unfit for human consumption. This includes not only any portion of the chicken, fish or cow you'd refuse to eat, but past-expiration meats, rancid grains, additives, and even the bodies of euthanized pets. That's right, in 1990 the American Veterinary Medical Association and the FDA confirmed that not only diseased livestock was rendered into pet food, but cats, dogs and other pets. Meaning that you could be feeding your cat another cat, or your dog could be eating not only a relative, but the chemicals that were used to put that relative to sleep, too. I know, disgusting.

Besides the dubious meats, the large amount of grains in pet food, particularly cat food, is not conducive to good health. Whereas dogs are technically omnivores with carnivorous leanings, cats are built to eat meat, period, with just the occasional bit of vegetable matter sometimes thrown in. Eating food full of corn meal and wheat is like you or me eating candy as our main foodstuff. Believe me, one of my cats would much prefer to eat Saltines and Meow Mix at every sitting, but I can't let her do that, just as I wouldn't feed my child Big Macs and Pixy Stix for every meal. Sure, there are some people who feed their kids that, but we all know that's not healthy by now, right?

Therefore, here's a tip: if you look at the back of your can or bag of cat or dog food and the first few ingredients say "by-products," "meal" - as in chicken meal - or grains, like corn? It is bad pet food. It doesn't matter how much you pay for it, or if the label says "Kozy Kitten," "Fancy Feast" or "Science Diet" - it probably comes from the same factory, and it is not good for your pet. Take a look at the recall list for the recent scare. You'll see everything listed from "generic" grocery store brands to the Iam's and Science Diet pushed at many veterniary offices. They are all pretty much the same, and if you read the labels, you can tell. The one uniting factor in this case is that the type of food was the "cuts in gravy" variety, and if you look at the ingredients, you will realize that most "cuts" are actually formed masses of extruded meat and grain proteins - like the targeted wheat gluten - that have no resemblance to actual carved meat and gravy.

So, why do vets sell foods like Science Diet and Iam's if they're the same as bargain food, and what should you feed your pet? The answer to the first question is pressure and money. There are a few types of SD food that are formulated for special needs animals like diabetic cats or dogs with allergies. Vets often stock these because they are the easiest way to get clients to feed their animals something vaguely within their pets' dietary restrictions. The important thing is to address the specific disease and offer a type of food that the caregiver will actually buy, because it is relatively inexpensive, readily available and requires no preparation, even if it isn't as good for the animal as feeding it higher quality food. Let's face it, most people don't want to go through a lot of effort to feed their pets, or spend a lot of money. So, this food fits a minimum basic need.

However, companies like Science Diet routinely pressure veterinarians to not only stock their foods, but to sell a variety of them. I've heard tales of vets who would not be left alone by major pet food companies. On top of that pressure, selling food can be a vital financial source for veterinary offices. Basic veterinary care is not a high-profit business, so if they have the space in the reception area, most practices will elect to sell food and other products. The clients buy the food because they feel it must be good, since it's in the vet's office, and the practices are not only able to furnish the clients with restricted diet food, but boost their bottom line with sales of regular food. The pressure to sell, therefore, comes not only top-down from the pet food industry, but up from the clients, who want the reassurance of having "vet approved" food available, and from the very monetary needs of the vets, themselves.

Finally, the answer to the second question, what should you feed your pet? As I mentioned, dogs are borderline omnivores who lean towards the carnivorous, and cats are carnivores. This means that both species should eat mainly meat. However, just like you wouldn't eat any meat you happened to find (I hope), neither should they. The food they eat should be reasonably fresh and healthy, just like what you would feed yourself.

Does this mean you should cook specifically for your pets, or feed them a raw or BARF diet? Lots of people think so, and blend raw meats with veggies and probiotics, or cook meat and veggie stews for their animals. But, if that seems too expensive or like too much work for you, you don't have to go whole hog. Other options include:

- Buying commercially-available raw diet mixes. These are blends of dehydrated or frozen veggies and vitamins that you mix in with your own raw meat. These can be found online or at premium pet food stores.

- Buying commercially-available frozen or dehydrated raw-food diets, like "Stella and Chewy's" or similar brands. These are basically like little frozen hamburger patties, only with appropriate ingredients. Just defrost in the fridge, and plop 'em in the food bowl - easy! They are available now online, at many pet stores and in better vet offices, like the one I'm interning in.

- Buying commercially-available canned or dry food that has good ingredients. How do you know they're good? Read the label. If you see meat, like chicken or turkey, first, then limited amounts of grains like brown rice, vegetables and fruits, with a few vitamins or supplements like taurine added, those are good ingredients. As I mentioned, the word "meal" is bad, as are by-products, artifical flavourings, colourings, preservatives or sodium. If the can says "organic" or "human grade," all the better.

Remember, even if you have limited money, there is enough of a range of foods now that you should be able to but something decent. So maybe you can't swing the 100% organic, yet. Try to at least eliminate by-products and corn, or meat "meals". Maybe you won't find them at your local mega-mart grocery store. Look online or at a local pet food store, and you should be able to find something.

As an example, here are some food brands I regularly feed my cats:

- Merrick
- Wellness
- Eagle Pack
- Newman's Own
- Innova
- Wysong
- PetGuard
- Felidae
- Evolve
- Natural Balance (yes, the one by Dick Van Patten of Eight is Enough fame)

There are few more, but you get the picture. I am enough of an animal freak that I'm becoming at vet tech, and I worry about what my "kids" eat. Still, my busy life and budget mean that raw-food meals for them are rare, and mainly I serve them canned and dry, bagged foods. But there are enough brands of this that are decent now that I can pick them up at the local pet food store - or our vet clinic - and know that my critters will be eating healthy grub.

The bottom line on all this is that, with a little bit of extra effort, you can not only help your pet have a healthier, longer life, but you can probably save yourself not only some extra medical care bills for them, but the panic of this sort of poison scare. If the food they eat doesn't come from one of the country's largest, anonymous plants and isn't crappy to begin with, chances are you won't find diseased chickens or contaminated wheat in it, much less chemical toxins or the former residents of the local pound.

Thus endeth the lesson. Thanks for bearing with me, and I wish all of you and your animal pals good health.

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Warrior Two said...

Hey, Vet Tech, I usedta do that. Lucky you get to pick your own scrubs. (Uh, that sounded strange.) You get used to the gore, and yes, you will be talking to people at parties about chondroitin and anal glands. Assuming you go to parties, of course.

Anyway, bad music links up. Party over at my blog!

First Nations said...

that kicked ass! outstanding!
something people don't realize is how many DOGS are allergic to chicken, a common ingredient in commercial foods, even the good stuff. a chicken allergy can cause a dog a slow, tormented death without anyone realizing the reason why.
when the package says 'chicken' what that means is THE WHOLE CHICKEN, thrown into a grinder-beaks, feet, feathers and all. it's the feathers which cause the problems. many dogs with recurring 'hot spots' or itching skin will get better almost overnight if you watch out for that ingredient. lamb meal and rice is the best (yes, it's the whole lambie, but that's what dogs eat in their wild state...the whole am daminal.)

oneofhismoms said...

Ok, offense, but, Eeeew.

Anywho, I just wanted to thank you for the convenient post. What I mean is, I went online to find more info on the rat-poisoned pet food. I got distracted. I ended up checking your blog and killed two birds with one stone (not one chicken with one grinder).

Of course I feed my big bundle of cat fancy pants cat food, so I wasn't worried about him. Though he is a bit lathargic. But that's his MO.

Da Nator said...

WT - ooh, another vet tech amongst the blog circle! You'll be sorry you outed yourself. Now I may try to pick your brain...

FN - thanks, chickie. You are quite right about the chicken, so thanks for adding that. Another thing I could add is that many cats are allergic to fish. One of my cats gets crystals in his urine if he eats fish, which can escalate to a life-threatening problem, and it turns out this is rather common. Another case where people need to closely observe their animals, despite conventional dietary wisdom.

OOHM - is there ever a time Dodo ISN'T lethargic? That cat is like... well, he's like me. ;o)

Da Nator said...

P.S. - I forgot to add that on my first day I saw an anal gland expression! Fortunately, I was far enough away that I couldn't smell it, but from the looks on the techs' faces, the odour was impressive. Hee.

Corn Dog said...

My sweetie pies are on the Dick Van Patton's. Fortunately the dog food is a lot better than his acting.

One of the worst things that EVER happened was Dinky's anal glad ruptured and we sped to the emergency room. I was so ashamed like the proverbial bad Mom. I had no idea. No I am always running in to have them expressed and there is nothing there. The vet and the dog thinks I'm a freak and just want to play with the dog's bum. It has never happened again, needless to say.

First Nations said...

i'll hold off adding my 2 cents to THAT subject.
for NOW.

(ah, but the possibility is always there...the anal gland of damocles, as 'twere.)

First Nations said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
aqoona said...

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claire said...

woo, has been awhile since i've been here (your page had been working properly for awhile on my work computer and then stopped one day) so i'm checking from home and realized i missed a whole lot.

this pet food thing? always gives me the heebie-jeebies. mostly because I KNOW all of this stuff and did A LOT of reading about it when we first got BigDog. When we got her, she had been eating crap at the shelter and i made it my mission to give them a better diet. Long story, short: i tried the best stuff: Innova (two kinds), Wellness, Royal Gold, etc and they all gave the BigDog the runs. I got to be a pro at introducing it slowly like you're supposed to and they never worked.
Sadly, they still both eat McDonalds and Pixie sticks. I am such a failure.