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?
Pet food companies that utilize animal testing do so in two ways: on site testing and clinical research. In the latter, client-owned animals in the community participate in feeding trials, often to evaluate the efficacy of a diet for a medical condition. This has the benefit of evaluating the diet in the context of naturally occurring disease, in a real-life environment with confounding factors like a dog who steals the other dog’s food, that sort of thing.
On site testing is used in a couple of ways: one, for palatability testing. Studies show, for example, that contrary to what you might thing, cats don’t really like the taste of fish. Dogs, however, do.
Another goal of on site testing is to complete feeding trials. When you look on a bag of food and it says, “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Blahdiblah Adult dog food provides complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance of adult dogs”, this means a company has completed a feeding trial as opposed to simply formulating a diet to meet criteria specified by AAFCO, which is the other way a company can determine nutritional adequacy.
One of my fellow bloggers asked at the Hill’s tour if there were times a diet formulated to meet AAFCO standards didn’t pass muster at a feeding trial, and the response was, “Absolutely.” It is generally accepted that, though they are more expensive, feeding trials are the better of the two methods- for reasons like this.
So what is a feeding trial, anyway?
Here’s a summary of the requirements for proving an Adult Maintenance claim for dog food, per the AAFCO manual:
- minimum of eight healthy adult dogs at least one year of age
- test runs a minimum of 26 weeks
- the diet must be the sole source of nutrition
- daily food consumption recorded
- body weight measured weekly
- Blood parameters measured are: hemoglobin, packed cell volume, albumin, and alkaline phosphatase (a liver enzyme).
AAFCO then goes on to specify parameters for those body weights and blood values that must be met in order for a diet to receive the AAFCO label. There are different tests for different label claims such as growth or gestation, but that is one example.
The Hill’s Pet Colonies
Hill’s maintains two colonies: a dog colony and a cat colony. I didn’t note the exact numbers but I believe it’s about 400 of each. The dogs are purchased from a breeding facility; mostly beagles, though the breed can vary. The cats are also purchased from a breeding facility, and run the gamut as to breed.
The animals live at the Hill’s facility for their natural lives unless they have a difficult time in a group setting, in which case they are adopted out. The dogs live in groups of about 20 in rooms with plenty of natural light, either in paired kennels or individually based on their preference. They have daily outdoor exercise and socialization with the dedicated staffers.We saw plenty of pups zipping around the bark park, playing tug-o-war and doing the sorts of things dogs like to do.
The cats have group-living rooms with perches and toys, and access to a sunroom for lounging as well. When we were there, we saw the staffers testing out an exercise machine that could best be described as a big hamster wheel to run around on. They all seemed happy and relaxed.
Medical care: As I would expect in a pet food company founded by a veterinarian, the health care provided for the animals on site is top notch. There is an AAHA-certified full service veterinary hospital on-site, with surgical suites, radiology, and ultrasound to provide for the animals’ needs. While we were there, we saw the staff setting up for the dogs’ annual dental cleanings.
My general impression: the animals are happy and well adjusted, and their well-being is a priority at the facility. That made me happy. Employees are encouraged to take the dogs and cats out for interactions; they can even have meetings in a room where the cats can come in for pets.
I don’t think, though I would need to ask each and every company individually to verify this, that any pet food company does terminal or even invasive testing any longer. It seems like it is no longer the accepted standard for pet food companies, and with the exceptional alternatives available these days, it’s no longer necessary. That is a good thing.
Any questions about what I saw at Hill’s?