One of my primary goals when I am invited to tour a pet food manufacturer is to see their animal welfare policy in action. It’s probably one of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to pet foods: do you use animals to test your foods? And how do you use them?
There was a time, a little over a decade ago, when animals were used quite a bit by various companies. They were used in various ways, including terminal studies in which the animals were euthanized at the end of the study. (Though I was told by Dr. Karen Johnson at Hill’s Pet Nutrition that as far as she knew, Hill’s has never participated in or funded terminal studies.) How things have changed.
Animal Welfare Policies have become the norm with pet food companies, usually readily available on the company website. Hill’s policy is to use only non-invasive methods for which there is an equivalent human comparison, which is limited to data collection via physical exams, bloodwork, and fecal and urine evaluations. This has become, as far as I can tell, the standard in the States- and I am glad for it.
So why do companies still use animals? And what’s their life like? (more…)
Last week I had the pleasure of joining some of my favorite pet bloggers out in Topeka to tour the Hill’s Pet Nutrition campus. I really enjoy going to these types of events for a lot of reasons: one, I always learn something. Two, it’s really helpful from my perspective to get to meet the individuals behind a brand and get a feel for who these people are and how they embody a company’s vision.
(I own a grand total of two sweaters, by the way, neither of which actually provides any actual warmth. Good thing we spent all our time indoors. I’m such a wuss.)
The Hill’s vision is this: “to make nutrition a cornerstone of veterinary medicine, which builds on Hill’s heritage of leading-edge research.” Hill’s was founded by a veterinarian in 1948, and they now employ over 120 vets on staff. This is a science driven company, and that philosophy permeated every presentation we had during our daylong tour.
I want to cover a couple of things in the next few weeks that will answer questions a lot of you had for me, about how Hill’s uses animals in research and something really cool about how they used genetics research to show there isn’t a reason to make a breed specific diet, but my attention span is short so I’m not covering it all today.
Today, I’m revisiting one of my favorite topics that was covered by Hill’s Principal Nutritionist Bill Schoenherr: Ingredients. Let’s focus on one of the more, shall we say, controversial ingredients and why a company uses them in pet food.
When I was little, my grandfather and father used to hunt deer. They would come back from Maine with a big buck strapped to the hood of the Buick, tell me it was Bambi (I know, right?) and hang it in the garage. Then, while I was sobbing in the corner until my grandmother realized what had transpired and whop them with her big purse, my grandfather would dig in to his very favorite part of the meal: the kidneys.
My other grandfather was from Quebec. Though he didn’t hunt, he sure did savor his pigs’ feet. And chicken necks. And liver. “More for me!” he’d gleefully declare when everyone else in the room declined to have a bite. No wonder my grandmother was so tiny.
By-products, all of them. Viscera, to be more specific. Giblets. I call it nasty, but they called it delicious. My point is, while we are culturally inclined to be grossed out by anything that isn’t nice filets of skeletal muscle, by products can be very nutrient-dense sources of proteins, vitamins, and minerals.
Liver, for example, used to be recommended to pregnant women as a source of iron, like that’s just what every nauseated pregnant woman wants to choke down. But I digress.
I have in my hands a copy of the 2011 AAFCO Official Publication (thanks Jason! Told you I would use it!) that gives the legal definition of all the ingredients you see on pet foods. Here is the definition of poultry by-product:
Poultry By-Products must consist of the non-rendered clean parts of carcasses of slaughtered poultry such as heads, feet, viscera, free from fecal content and foreign matter.
Kind of a broad definition, right? I asked Bill if there was any sort of official stipulation as to what percentage of by-products would be feet versus livers, and he said no.
So here is where it gets tricky: by-products can be a good source of nutrition, a nutrient dense protein source. Or it could be a pile of chicken feet, which is good as a calcium source, but not much else.
According to Bill, Hill’s deals with this by making additional stipulations on their suppliers for minimum protein requirements for their by-products- if it’s just feet, a big pile of calcium, it won’t pass muster and the product is rejected. There are high quality by-products and poor quality by-products. All by-products are not made the same.
Now here’s where it gets even trickier: here’s the definition of poultry:
Poultry is the clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from parts of whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, feet, heads, and entrails.
So everyone wants to see a named meat as the first ingredient- that’s what all the label reading guidelines tell you to do. Something that says, “chicken” could be what you get in the grocery store. That’s what you picture, right? Or it could be a pile of bones and skin of which all the good parts were pulled off to send to the local Krogers, with a little bit of back meat hanging on. You know, the carcass you toss in the trash after you’re done eating your roast chicken. There’s no official minimum requirement for muscle or protein on that, either.
Depending on the quality of your sourcing, by-products could actually be a higher quality ingredient with more meaty stuff in it than something labeled chicken. Now it’s getting Inception-level complex.
Who do you trust? And why do you trust?
So how do you, the consumer, know what a company is using? You don’t. It comes down to trusting the company and the people who make the product, whether or not you believe they are making those choices to select a high quality ingredient from an ethical supplier.
And that, my friends, is a tricky proposition, isn’t it? This is why companies are asking bloggers and journalists in and promising transparency, in an attempt to create that trust in a world where information is much more readily available than it was a decade ago. People want that. I know I do.
I will say this: Hill’s did promise transparency in their presentation, and I believe they provided it. Everyone I heard from was very honest about the process, both good and bad, and answered every question put to them. I hope they continue to provide that and to use bloggers as a conduit to answer questions and continue a dialogue.
I’ll touch on organic versus human grade and holistic labeling in another post. This may or may not have you on the edge of your seat, but really, I find it all utterly fascinating. It’s like some crazy sleight of hand trick.
To see what the other attendees had to say, check out their blogs:
To Dog With Love
Ask A Vet Question
In the meantime, since I have a manual in front of me, are there any product definitions you’re dying to know about? Ever wonder what leather hydrolysate is, for example?
Lots of people like to cook for their pets, but most people don’t do it every single day. Of those who do, most do so because they have to, a pet with kidney disease who also has food allergies and diabetes, that sort of thing. Occasionally there is the person who just likes to do it, like the chef who makes seared sea bass for his two incredibly spoiled schnauzers every day. I admire that dedication, which is significant.
More common are people like me, those who do it every once in a while for giggles at times like Thanksgiving- and yes, I’ll be coming up with something for the dogs because why not, it’s a holiday. And then they will go back to their regular food until Christmas, when I make them gingerbread. Because cooking is a show of love, even if you only do it twice a year.
(Yes, I made those both last year in a peppermint induced fit of insanity.)
For those sorts of occasional treats, balance isn’t a big deal. But when you are making a maintenance diet, a complete and balanced diet is vital.
I recently wrote an article on the topic of home cooking for Good Dog Magazine, and rather than re-invent the wheel I’ll just give you the link because I worked on it for quite a while, and I’m very proud of it, and it has tons of information about how to go about the process if home cooking is something you’re interested in. I had to interview a bunch of people for it, which as you know is a show of journalistic effort I don’t undertake on a regular basis, so you know it’s something special.
For the article, I interviewed Dr. Sean Delaney of BalanceIt.com. Dr. Delaney is a board certified veterinary nutritionist who just happened to be a resident in training when I was a senior student at Davis, and he remains just as friendly and knowledgable and excited about nutrition as he was that day one hundred million years ago when we were in a cramped room in the hospital annex with some Flintstone-era nutrition software doing nutrition consults.
We talked about food. We talked about online recipe sites and books. We talked about kabocha squash (did you know it caused neurologic signs in a group of labradors? Brand new info here, guys. You heard it here first.) I kept the poor doc on the phone for an hour but it was so interesting, and I love nutrition topics, and I know you do too.
Dr. Delaney has since developed newer web-based versions of nutrition software that creates custom recipes for veterinarians as well as for consumers. BalanceIt has about 500 recipes to choose from, all designed by a board certified veterinary nutritionist and best of all, balanced. When clients tell me they want to cook for their pets, this is where I send them because I know they’re getting information from a trusted source. After the melamine fiasco, I’ve been mentioning this site more times than I can count.
It’s a neat site because, as you can see above, you can really customize your options. You select the protein source and the carbohydrate source, enter your pet’s age and weight, and out comes a list of choices that fit your criteria. If your pet has a medical condition, you can ask your vet to create an appropriate recipe on the section of the site that is just for veterinarians.
So here’s their gift to you all: with the holidays bearing down, perhaps you are looking for a little something special for your dog or cat’s festivus plate. Dr. Delaney is offering all pawcurious readers one free recipe from the Pet Lovers BalanceIt site- a $20 value! The diets can be made using BalanceIt supplements or human supplements- you’ll get options for both.
Just enter the code “pawcurious” at checkout. And don’t forget to give them a like over on Facebook and tell them I said hi!
Will you get the English dinner? The Surf and Turf? Which recipe are you going to try? Have you ever cooked for your pet?
Today I’m showing Part 2 of the Ask Dr V series. I believe, though I haven’t checked it against the itinerary, that I should be on my way to the Ngorongoro Crater as we speak. Unless a chimp shoved me off the mountain earlier in the week, in which case these pre-published videos will be on a whole new level of macabre.
Which, by the way, my shade would find utterly hysterical.
I finished a comprehensive course in veterinary acupuncture in 2006. It was intense. Thinking about health from a Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine standpoint as opposed to our standard Western approach is just such a different mindset, but once you think about it, it makes sense. Our bodies are not a collection of closed systems that function independently of one another, yet we’re trained to treat them that way. Once you step back and see the entire organism as a collective effort, your entire approach takes a shift.
August 30th is National Holistic Pet Day, celebrating the myriad ways we take care of our pets’ bodies, minds, and hearts as well as the way we function as part of a larger pet community. Given that I just got back from a conference celebrating that very thing, it’s a perfect fit.
Holistic health its core simply means taking the big picture into account, which makes perfect sense to me. It’s hard to think changing a pet’s diet will make a significant difference if they get no exercise and live in a high stress environment. They’re all puzzle pieces. It’s really not that different from our own lives, right? “I’ll have a double double, a chili cheese fries and a diet Coke. DIET, please. I’m watching my figure.” etc.
A recent survey of 700 pet owners asked them what they currently do to contribute to their pets’ overall well-being.
Out of 700 respondents, 74.8% have dogs and 57.7% have cats
78.7% of pet owners surveyed exercise their pets regularly
2.1% take their dog for Doga (Dog+Yoga!)
26.2% learn about holistic living at their local pet food or natural food store
59.5% use non-toxic household products
48.9% use natural supplements for skin, coat or digestive care
43.7% take their pets for regular dental check ups
54.8% play mind stimulating activities and games with their pets
5.7% take their pets for acupuncture
44.8% help a local rescue or shelter
47.6% use all natural shampoo and grooming products
Well, you all know how I feel about doga, but I’ve done the rest to varying degrees. Do you have a favorite health-promoting activity? Any you’re dying to try?
Today I’m happy to feature a guest post from Amanda Maurer, discussing one of my favorite topics: the joys of adopting a special needs pet. Cerebellar hypoplasia is a common condition that- well, wait, I’ll just let her tell you. Enjoy!
Special needs pet owners view their pets as just that: special. They’re an extraordinary group of pets that are often overlooked because they’re different and consquently may have more needs than “normies.” But here’s a secret: They make great pets — especially cats with “CH” or cerebellar hypoplasia.
You see, three years ago I came across a Petfinder profile for a tiny, gray tabby named Scrabble. His picture was precious, but what really grabbed my heart was his story. He was a special needs cat born with cerebellar hypoplasia, a neurological condition that results in clunky fine motor skills because of an underdeveloped cerebellum. His profile said he walked like a drunken sailor and loved playing with plastic ties from frozen orange juice cans. I knew he was the one.
But he was special needs. I’ll admit, it made me hesitate. Could I handle a special needs pet? There was a great deal to learn and consider.
Apollo is 13 years old now. He had never marked the house as a kitten, not with the introduction of a new dog, or even a new cat to the home. When I moved after vet school, he would very occasionally mark, but only when my mother-in-law brought a package over that must have smelled like one of the cats in her household. No big deal.
It wasn’t until we moved into our current home that his marking behavior picked up significantly. I’ve ruled out medical problems for him- multiple times, so I’m left with the conclusion that his desire to drench the house in his special parfum de peuw is the result of some primitive instinct in his little furry cat-head. Marking can be a manifestation of stress or insecurity. So what’s different about this house now in 2011 as opposed to my other home in 2002? (more…)
While the world has been in chaos and disarray, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to spend pondering the smaller issues in our household: namely, Apollo and his marking. But I have been passively conducting an experiment with the litterbox, otherwise known as the Litterbox Buffet.
When you are trying to make your cat’s bathroom the Happy Place, one of the key questions you need to ask is “What kind of toilet do you like?” It would certainly make it easier if you could simply present the cat with a catalog and let him point to the Toto, the Kohler, or the Dagobert Throne.
Let’s hope the Throne is not the potty of choice.
I’ve already made my thoughts on dog yoga pretty clear: they’ll do it, but not willingly. Certainly not with the spirit of relaxation and meditation one is supposed to bring to the practice, anyway.
Cats, on the other hand, are natural yogis. They can inherently go from a million miles an hour to dead body pose in 2 seconds flat. They meditate, as anyone who has watched them stare intently out the window for an hour and a half will attest to. Their spines bend and twist into conformations unseen outside the confines of a Cirque du Soleil tent. All this, with a calm detachment that would make a guru proud. (more…)
Today, poor Apollo is getting a dental cleaning and his full yearly workup. It was due anyway, and it will make me feel better to know he is still doing well at 12 years old. (12? Wow, how time flies.) And while he is a little overglazed on meds, I’ll be setting the stage for his triumphant recovery from his marking behavior.
At the Western lecture, Dr. Yin referenced a study from Dr. Patricia Pryor that I remember them undertaking while I was in school. The study followed marking cats, both male and female over a period of several weeks. The owners were instructed to follow the same advice that one would if you were dealing with a litterbox aversion: namely, making the litterbox a pristine wonderland. That one change was enough to improve the marking behavior in a statistically significant number of cats- 76% of the females and 40% of the males. From the study:
Results suggest that male cats and cats from multicat households are more likely to exhibit urine marking behavior than females and cats from single-cat households. Results also suggest that attention to environmental and litter box hygiene can reduce marking frequency in cats, regardless of sex or household status of the cats, and may come close to resolving the marking problem in some cats.
So here’s the take home: before stuffing your cat full of antidepressants or dumping him at the shelter, try just cleaning the dang box. Even if the behavior is marking as opposed to inappropriate elimination.
I have pages of notes from the Western Veterinary Conference, which I will be sifting through over the next week or so to bring you the most valuable bits. For me, the most personally useful seminars were those on kitty problem potty behaviors, which as you know is something we are dealing with here at the casa.
Dr. Sophia Yin is a veterinary behaviorist and wonderful lecturer who I was fortunate enough to learn from this go round at the conference. She broke down this confusing and frustrating issue into comprehensible patterns and offered a systematic approach for owners and veterinarians to address this, one of the number one reasons cats end up in shelters.
Here is the basic outline for the rationale and approach to kitty potty problems. I will go into more detail about the individual steps in future blogs as I implement the steps myself.
Apollo’s been looking exceptionally mangy lately. It happens whenever he’s been getting into the foods he shouldn’t have, which is pretty much all of them.
I do the best I can, but with the household we have, it is pretty much impossible to keep all foods out of reach of all animals at all times. There are dogs eating, kids snacking, people munching at all hours of the day, and all it takes is one forgotten nugget for Apollo to go temporarily bald. This despite the fact that he feasts on venison and duck every day. It’s never enough. (more…)