I'd love nothing better than to head back in time to last week when I was still in London kicking up my heels in Hyde Park, doing the museum thing all day long and punctuating my wanderings with world-class food along the way. Sigh. At least I have the memories.
Now that I'm back stateside, it's time to come clean as I unveil the findings of my two day expedition to the dead center of England and beyond … into the not-always-so-secretive world of conglomerate pet food.
I'd not been to the U.K. for twenty years, so let me first say that I was excited to have been invited on an all expenses paid trip to one of the most interesting cities in the world. (Full disclosure: The trip was paid for by the Mars company.)
The first thing I learned?
London is glorious in the winter, too
Everyone who said I'd suffer in the damp and cold was wrong. It was gloriously drizzly weather. That is, I thought so up until the last day, when I finally succumbed to the flu I'd been keeping at bay for the previous two weeks. Oh well, can't have it all. Anyway, it didn't slow me down … and we weren't staying in London anyway.
Turns out London was the lure (a nice one, too), but the real destination was three hours away in the dead center of England. Take a guess at a spot in the middle of the fattest part of the country and you'd be pretty close to where we ended up: in the middle of nowhere, which is where you’ll find the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition.
There I found a community of 150 dogs and 300 cats in a rabbit warren of dog and cat playgrounds peopled with employees that are dedicated to play times and training and pettings and feedings. Veterinarians are on-site. Dogs and cats are not subject to any invasive testing. Mostly, they just hang out and get treated to the best of everything. Reincarnation would be nice if I could come back as a dog or cat at the Waltham Centre. OK, so maybe the food isn't always the best money can buy, but with all the other amenities … I think I'm willing to let that one slide.
It was at the Waltham Centre that I and nine other veterinarians and pet media people had been called to, to partake in a sneak peek of the Centre’s newest research results: dental plaque-fighting innovation through shape and texture; foods that dogs are more likely to chew for a longer time and foods that are less likely to be swallowed whole.
In case you want to know whether I was "sold" on their spiel, rest assured that I was. After all, other products in the marketplace have proven they can reduce tartar by the same means. And after being treated to a tour of their research facility where this product was tested and the reach methods employed, I can honestly say I'm convinced that this new stuff does cut down on plaque. How much? Hard to say since it'll be different for every dog, but I can tell you this: it still won't come close to what tooth brushing can achieve.
In no particular order, here are some of the more useful things I learned last week:
Pet Nutrition: Art or Science?
Here's a big picture item for you: I learned that in nutrition circles, both academic and industrial, it's now become acceptable to pose this rhetorical question. I deduced as much based on the eponymous title of Waltham's most recent international symposium on pet nutrition (held in Cambridge last summer).
Though strict reliance on science has historically been the pet food industry's strongest selling point, the admission that there is "artistry" in the direction, interpretation and application of said science plays a vital role in pet nutrition, and is, to my read, a very big step forward for the pet food industry as a whole.
After all, it's easy to slavishly mind/mine the stats in one's favor while getting hyperbolic on the influence of science. While copping to the fuzziness of it all might make for a softer landing after taking a dive off the "based on science" high horse, it reflects a maturing, mellowing stance on the reality of how nutrition is actually delivered to pets.
Portion control, especially in the weeks immediately after neutering, may be critical in keeping pets at a normal weight for life
Speaking more to the micro level of pet nutrition, it's becoming increasingly clear that obesity prevention has got to be addressed more effectively than it has been thus far. Lip service is all well and good, but when results are not forthcoming it starts to smack of ye olde sales job. Which is why more practical research into how obesity can be best prevented is a very welcome thing.
In particular, my fellows and I learned that Waltham's research into portion control immediately following sterilization (female cats have been most closely studied) is teaching us the importance of life cycle-specific feeding regimens. Feeding a restricted-portion diet during this sensitive period may significantly improve a pet's chances of skirting obesity.
Which means veterinarians have an even greater responsibility to address feeding, nutrition, and weight gain at the time of spay or neuter.
We still know so little about what pets really need, food-wise, but an understanding of energy requirements (caloric requirements) in pets is particularly elusive, and highly frustrating to veterinarians
This point has always been a big deal for me. It's to do with the age-old question: how much do I feed?
While pet food companies address the issue with back-of-the-bag instructions based on theoretical ranges, veterinarians typically advise owners to take a highly individualized approach to feeding, one which almost invariably veers sharply away from what the bag of pet food states — as in, much less food than the bag instructs.
After sitting in a room with nutritionists and pet food executives, I learned that this disparity is highly frustrating for veterinarians; me, mostly. It drives me crazy to hear that they honestly believe the average 150-pound mastiff eats proportionally more than the average 10-pound papillon. As if a dog is a dog … is a dog … is a dog.
It's just one of those zones where theory and practice diverge — likely because we have such a limited understanding of energy requirements. It’s nice to know, however, that the back-of-the-bag recommendations come from an earnest adherence to science rather than from a desire to see more product consumed.
The canned vs. kibbled cat food debate rages on!
This Waltham finding from a paper currently undergoing the peer review process is the most interesting recent entry in the wet vs. dry debate: Among cats fed identical formulas of moistened or non-moistened food, those eating the moistened version were more active and gained less weight per calorie ingested.
The assumption is that wet food led to increased activity, which is presumably what leads to a weight disparity in cats fed these dueling feeding formats.
Ingredient quality still gets short shrift in the industrial nutrition setting
At the very end of the two-day session on pet nutrition at the Waltham Centre I asked my final question: "How would you describe the difference in quality between all the different brands Waltham's science supports?"
When the answer was a resounding, "There is none! The same science underlies all of our brands," I couldn't help but go one further: "Then how do you defend the price disparity between them?"
The answer came down to the price of ingredients and consumer perception — the latter of which was completely independent of the Mars/Waltham POV, one which pointedly avoids assigning qualitative differences to foods based on ingredient choices.
In case you're wondering, this approach to ingredients has to do with a strict adherence to the science I criticized above — as in, "science tells us what animals need and we supply it." I call this philosophy "nutrient-feeding," which is somewhat distinct from "food-feeding," which is ideally what we all aspire to, right? I do, anyway.
To recap, I learned aplenty. There's food safety stuff and dental stuff and fatty acid supplementation stuff and lots of abstracts I could rattle off, but these were the biggest points I took home. The rest, you can be sure, will be percolating through this blog for days, weeks, months and years to come … so stay tuned.
Me in Hyde Park, London
Dr. Patty Khuly