As long as the internet continues to be a depthless repository of the past, an endless attic of antiquity where people can dredge up whatever photo or story they want from previous years and turn it into whatever they wish, Procter and Gamble will struggle with the PETA/Iams cruelty video from a decade ago. Peta continues to drag it out every few months because, well, it gets well meaning people to send them money, despite the fact that it was inaccurate at best, and no longer relevant at worst.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I really would love you to read the piece I wrote for Good Dog magazine last year, because it goes into the history of animal testing in pet food and how P&G has changed so very much since that time. I’ll get back to this in a bit, but I wanted to mention it because today I’m talking about animal testing and the Natura tour. The bottom line is, despite what was or is rumored to be, companies can and should aspire to develop foods the way P&G Pet Care does.
Animal Testing: Then and now
Natura, which as you likely know was acquired by P&G two years ago, has always incorporated animal testing into their product development. In order to really get how this all works, you need to understand a few things about animal testing in the pet food industry:
1. Animal feeding trials are considered the ‘gold standard’ in determining whether or not a food will perform in the market. You can formulate a food to AAFCO standards to meet certain minimum requirements, and it’s very likely the dog will grow and be in decent health, but at the end of the day until you put that food in front of a dog or cat, you really don’t know how it will taste, how the flavors will work, how their coat will look, how well they will digest it, that sort of thing.
2. Invasive testing- I’m talking about anything involving a scalpel or even a needle- is no longer considered a necessary part of the process. Procter & Gamble and Hills, both of which I have toured, have an explicit policy prohibiting invasive testing in animals, and Royal Canin/Mars and Purina, which I have not toured, also have similar statements as part of their animal care policy.
What does that mean? Animals who participate in non invasive trials have only certain types of data they can provide: do they like the food. How is stool quality. How is the pet’s weight. What is happening to urine pH. How is their coat. How are their teeth. The days of euthanizing a dog at a year old to evaluate their joint cartilage are long gone.
Animal Care Post-Acquisition
So this is the question I get over and over from interested consumers who send me off to these tours with a list of concerns to address: How well, exactly, does a test animal live? And the answer is, it depends.
A company can still contract out their research to a third party facility. To be honest, I don’t know what it’s like for those animals. I haven’t been there. I’m sure they meet the minimums of the Animal Welfare Act, but beyond that- well, invite me for a tour and I’ll let you know. All living arrangements are not created equal.
Until the acquisition, Natura tested their food in two situations: at the Natura Health and Nutrition Center in Fremont, Nebraska, an on-site facility where dogs and cats live, and at an outside facility with whom they contracted for longer studies. The dogs in Fremont were mostly rescues, who came to live there after being relinquished by their owners. I met two of them while I was in Fremont, a beautiful pair of smooth collies who were playing fetch with one of the employees as part of their daily activity.
Natura came under a lot of scrutiny after the P&G acquisition, but the across-the-board reaction from the employees, who were just as if not more skeptical than everyone else about how this would shake out, was this: the dogs have benefitted from it. As soon as the acquisition happened, the animal testing process was subject to the P&G Animal Care policy, arguably the best in the industry. Under this policy, animal research can take place at only one of three places:
- the in house facility itself, either the Natura Health and Nutrition Center or the Iams Pet Health and Nutrition Center in Lewisburg, Ohio;
- in people’s homes as part of a clinical research study- owned pets like yours and mine- about 70% of the research animals at P&G fall into this category;
- places where pets live as part of their job, such as Canine Companions for Independence.
So the outside facility was, well, out. They also stopped bringing in rescue animals for testing, which may surprise you, but bear with me. It’s a good thing. Here’s the deal:
An animal who has been used to living in a home environment may not adjust right away, or at all, to a group living environment. You can provide group housing and enrichment and exercise, but at the end of the day it’s still a big adjustment. Under P&G’s policy, which I’ve written about previously, dogs are acquired as puppies from breeders and intensely socialized fron day one to live in a group setting, with the eventual goal of transitioning to a home at about 6 years of age. This program, developed by a behaviorist with the emotional well-being of the dogs in mind, results in happier dogs with less stress, which means better results for all involved.
The folks in charge of the facility at Natura have recently started working with a new group of dogs who had just completed training in Ohio, and they all admitted with some surprise that this has been a really good change for them. That’s right, things got better post-acquisition.
Life as a Natura Test Dog
So I don’t really know what life is like for a test dog at some companies, but for the 35 dogs at Natura it’s this: I get up, I eat, I hang out with my kennel mate, I get group play time outside, I get individual time with a person, I get trained about how to live in a house with vacuum cleaners and doorbells, I get regular veterinary care, someone collects my poop when I’m not looking, and then I get adopted. And that is pretty much it.
The Fremont Health and Nutrition Center is undergoing renovations this year, to make the kennels even more dog-friendly and provide the space for a full-time on-site veterinarian. The kennels are specifically designed to provide hiding areas, places to look out and see what’s going on, vertical space, and easy outside access. They are also improving the group housing facility for the 24 cats to incorporate outside access for the felines. When this is completed, they also plan to get accreditation from the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory and Animal Care, a voluntary certification that goes way above and beyond the minimum standards put forth by the Animal Welfare Act. Most facilities don’t do this. It’s a very good thing.
We all want what is best for our pets, and at the same time we (hopefully) want to know that the products we choose are developed in an ethical and humane manner. I’m very glad to see companies being proactive in their animal welfare protocols and continuing to improve year after year; and happy to give credit where credit is due to a company who is doing things the right way. Even a big company.
So there you go. Still have a post on the manufacturing plant to write- I was waiting on the picture with the giant probe, and it’s totally worth the wait, by the by.
I’m happy to feed Natura. If you would like to try it, I have a coupon for one bag of any size dog or cat food from the Natura line (Evo, Innova, California Natural, Karma, and HealthWise) that I will be giving away this week- you know the drill! Details are below.