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Written by leading veterinarians to provide you with the information you need to care for your pets.

The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

The Contribution of Commercial Pet Food to the Quality of Our Pets' Lives

The melamine contamination of pet food in 2007 was a real shock to pet food owners. Concern about the quality of commercial pet food sparked greater interest in alternatives and greater numbers of pet owners turned to raw, homemade, or niche "natural" and "organic" grain-free pet food manufacturers.

Many of the major manufacturers of popular affordable pet foods faced major criticism and the organization that oversees commercial pet food formulations, the Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO, was chastised for the lack of quality concerns in their formula mandates.

Much of this criticism was, and is, probably warranted. However, it is important to remember the contribution standardized nutrient requirements has had on the quality and length of our pets’ lives.

The Beginning of the Commercial Pet Food Revolution

Prior to the start of World War II in 1941, most dogs were fed leftovers from the kitchen table and cats earned their keep (and most meals) by hunting rats and mice. Although a commercial canned dog food existed, few pet owners purchased the food. The war changed all of that when American men went overseas to war and American women headed to the factories to produce the vehicles, equipment, and weapons needed to fight. Cooking dinner was less frequent and food rationing reduced potential table scraps. Poor Fido was the odd man out. Households turned to commercial canned food to fill the void.

After the war, pet owners continued to purchase canned commercial food. Canned cat formulations also became available. In the late 50s the process for making dry kibbled food was invented. That really sealed the deal and pets no longer relied on leftovers for their nutrition. As the popularity of this method increased, so did nutritional oversight. The National Research Council (NRC) and AAFCO established nutrient requirements for dog and cat foods that have been continually updated as nutritional research has evolved.

Nutritional Guidelines

The NRC and AAFCO have established minimum daily requirements for protein and fat. They also specify daily amounts of 12 amino acids (13 for cats), 2 fatty acids (3 for cats), 12 minerals, and 11 vitamins that are essential for optimum health in dogs and cats. Varying quantities of these required nutrients have been established for various life stages and lifestyles (growth, maintenance, pregnancy, lactation, and performance and working). All commercial pet food is required to meet these quantitative standards.

This is very different than the table scrap leftovers offered to pets prior to WW II. The economy had yet to recover from the Great Depression. The majority of households had barely enough food for the large families that were typical of that period. Family meals were far from adequately balanced for humans, let alone pets. And as a member of that generation I can personally verify that the concept of second helpings at meals did not exist.

The leftovers offered to pets were not nearly adequate or complete as the balanced nutrition found in today’s commercial pet foods, no matter what the brand. Generally, pets were unkempt and had shorter lifespans. In fact, the misguided concept of one dog year equaling seven human years, with animals over ten years of age being "ancient," was born in this period.

Change in Pet Lifespans

Lifespan studies in pets verify a trend that the lifespan of pets has increased during the decades following WW II. Without a doubt, effective vaccines, early sexual neutering, and advances in veterinary medicine have influenced these trends, but the role of nutrition cannot be overlooked. Geographical, cultural, and economic differences yield significant variability of pet lifespan, but the trend in all categories is toward longer lives.

This means that even pets without access to preventive care or veterinary advances are still enjoying longer lives. Although not conclusive, this suggests that nutrition has played a significant role in this trend. Broad access to affordable, standardized pet food formulas has allowed for more pets to benefit from a more complete nutrition. It is easy to forget this when incidents like melamine poisonings occur and blanket indictments of pet food manufacturers is fashionable. Like contamination incidents in human food, it is easy to condemn while forgetting the billions of healthy meals that were consumed prior.

Not a Defense

This blog is not intended as a defense of commercial pet foods. In fact, I formulate homemade diets for dogs. Rather than a one-size-fits-all, these diets can be easily manipulated to meet the individual needs or problems of each dog. Human food ingredients also offer a greater quality of bioavailability (digestion and absorption) than many of the ingredients in commercial pet food. However, each diet is formulated to meet or exceed the NRC and AAFCO requirements for the 39 essential nutrients that are required for all commercial pet foods that display the AAFCO certification. Millions of pets have benefited from these standards.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: Kachalkina Veronika / via Shutterstock

Comments  30

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  • Memories
    08/16/2012 07:20am

    Memories of caring for the family cat make me shiver.

    We always had a male because they didn't have kittens.

    The pet never got veterinary care.

    The cat was put out at night to fend for himself.

    In the summer, the cat was always covered in fleas.

    The cat usually met an untimely end by getting hit by a car.

    When moist kibble was introduced, we jumped on the bandwagon and added that to table scraps. I distinctly remember a cat eating hamburger covered in ketchup and onions with green beans on the side.

    Thank goodness things have changed for the better.



  • Far from a defense
    08/16/2012 08:51am

    You write: "This blog is not intended as a defense of commercial pet foods."

    Yeah, right! Not in the least a defense! Never occurred to you to defend junk-food kibble or even think you had to! Could have written about just about anything else before considering defending the pet food conglomerates! Bottom line, though: a Gold Star for you from the Hill's and Purina's "Useful Idiot Clubs". Were you a Hill's Contact in vet school?

  • 08/16/2012 02:53pm

    FYI, when someone uses "you" statements, they are making personal, confrontational attacks. There is absolutely no positive value to the statements unless they can be supported by scientific data, of which you seem to have a total vacuum as far as reference material goes. All that I have seen you provide has been very subjective material supporting a specific belief system, not scientific fact.

    I am not sure why YOU need to snipe at every post Dr Tudor writes about pet foods, but it is getting really tedious. If you can't understand what science is, or how it is needed to substantiate your statements, you might impress people more by focusing your angst elsewhere.

  • 08/16/2012 03:03pm

    Get over it.

  • Artificial preservatives
    08/16/2012 10:05am

    Problems With Artificial Preservatives in Dog Food: Are undeclared artificial preservatives in pet food a problem? http://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/13_5/features/Dog-Food-Preservatives_16221-1.html

  • Commercial pet food
    08/16/2012 10:40am

    Sellout.

  • 08/16/2012 02:31pm

    Just noticed there are 4....count them FOUR advertisements for Hill's on this website....

    I have to agree, this is now the second article with very obvious propaganda motives.

    I will be unsubscribing from the e-newsletter today.

  • 08/16/2012 09:45pm

    Beth, those same Hills ads are showing up on every single PetMD page because Hills is clearly having an online blitz. That has absolutely nothing to do with Dr. Tudor, or his postings.

    Clearly you didn't read Dr. Tudor's disclaimer at the end of his post?

    As Dr. Tudor has clearly done his research before posting, the only loss will be for the pets under your care. What a shame.

  • 08/17/2012 08:58am

    Pat, your inordinate defensive nature betrays you. Danger or hazard or shame for pets under my care? Au contrair...they all thrive.

    As my vet explained to me one treatment plan was based on the "anecdotal" evidence & experience. Science was just taking a long time to catch up with proving its effectiveness.

  • What?
    08/16/2012 03:22pm

    This article is nonsense. While I appreciate the view of how food for our pets has changed over time that does not really pertain to the food poisoning that happened due to not having proper saftely measures for checking the food. The two things are unrelated in my opinion.

    Undoubtedly the commercial pet food is better than post depression table scraps as far as nutritional value however modern man has a better idea of our own nutrition than those people also. Since knowlege has improved our understanding of food that we consume it only stands to reason that our pets would benefit also. That it why we pay for commercial food for our pets not ever expecting they will be killed by the products we trust to feed them.

    Pets now a days live longer than they used to.. unless they were poisoned by those dog foods and then they just died for no reason.

  • 08/16/2012 04:40pm

    Jennifer, I get recall warnings and WHO warnings several times a day on human ingredients for foods as part of my own area of expertise. This posting is about the fact that commercial foods being available for people who have lives other than the internet, so I don't see anything negative at all about what was stated. As "TheOldBroad" said, some of us have been around long enough to see how commercial foods have been a major advantage for both pets and humans.

    If you are going to disagree, could you PLEASE provide reference material so we can understand why you are saying what you say? tia....

  • 08/16/2012 04:48pm

    That is just it, so many are convinced that bigger companies are better, when the reality is when something gets contaminated if affects a whole line of products that consumers thought were unrelated to each other.

    And to compound those matters, it always appears as though the conglomerate companies attempt to hide behind every excuse and deny the anecdotal evidence demanding their "scientific" investigation.

    The problem I think, Dr. Tudor has in attempting to write these blog posts, is he doesn't realize he is going up against a consumer and pet owner that has done a lot of their own homework regarding pet nutrition. We're not idiots and we don't need to be condescended too either in PetMD blog posts.

    The bad-rap these companies get is often well deserved and they are responsible for their own reputation, not the vets.

  • 08/16/2012 09:55pm

    Sorry Beth, but as someone with actual nutritional training who has worked hard and paid good money to learn about how our pets differ from the humans I used to treat, I am thrilled to see that some veterinarians are willing to overcome the barrage of abuse that, as someone below termed "evangelism" to provide a place where some of us can discuss science.

    Despite all your wild protestations I don't see any useful scientific references any of us can us to further our education on pet foods. And, as I stated elsewhere, I see all the recalls and warnings surrounding human foods all over the world and have to agree with Dr. Tudor that the sensationalism over the melamine scare looks pretty rediculous when all is in view.

    Most people are lucky to be able to afford reasonable food for their pets, in spite of working long hours with not enough pay, and I am sure they would prefer that you didn't try to throw sand in their eyes to promote your own personal agenda here. PLEASE provide the scientific data behind your statements so those reading can truly make their own choices, not necessarily just validate yours.

  • 08/16/2012 10:18pm

    You're not going to find much "scientific" data supporting raw diets because the so-called "science" is funded by the commercial pet food conglomerates. No pet owners are going to pay for studies of raw diets. I have been involved with enough "scientific" research over the past 45 years to know that the major drug, chemical, and also pet food companies decide what is going to be researched and what that research's outcomes are supposed to be. If they don't get the results they expect, I have witnessed researchers banished to distant locations and the companies start over with new researchers who have seen what happened to the last lot of them.

    So, stop using the "no scientific research" argument if you really mean to be objective. Because, research in this area of science, and particularly by "board certified veterinary nutritionists", is not objective; it is goal-directed.

  • 08/17/2012 09:34am

    Pat said, "...the sensationalism over the melamine scare looks pretty rediculous..."

    So how much melamine needed to be in the pet food for it to NOT be sensationalistic?

    How much poison is ok with you to be in pet food? That is what it sounds like you are saying. I surely don't think you mean that, do you?

    Please put your tone aside regarding your references to what you do. I am not an idiot. My last job was the field safety director at the decommissioning of dual nuclear reactors for the government. So I do know how to read scientific literature very well, interpret anecdotal evidence, apply law, and comprehend who has what $$ at risk in the world.

    Dr. Tudor started out this post putting the word "organic" in quotes. It is clear he does not understand the legal use of the terms in the food industry. Certain requirements must be met to be able to even claim a food prodcut or ingredeient is organic or organically sourced. These small companies trying to sell such products cannot use the term organic on the main label, it is a legal issue. They can let consumers know the quality of their ingredients are organically sourced and considered holistic.

  • 08/17/2012 09:44am

    Beth Pasek wrote: "Dr. Tudor started out this post putting the word "organic" in quotes. It is clear he does not understand the legal use of the terms in the food industry."

    I suspect the quotes are to denote sarcasm. When I see a "veterinarian" refer sarcastically to terms like organic or raw or home-prepared, I sense a combination of a lack of objective vet school education on the topic of companion pets' nutrition, coupled with a subsequent lack of intellectual curiosity on the topic, leading to a bias towards the pet food benefactors of both the "veterinarian's" vet school and, perhaps, his/her current practice.

  • Remembering ...
    08/16/2012 06:46pm

    Remembering the days of my childhood, when our family's Basset Hound ate two cans of Alpo per day, for all his 12 years. He was always in good health. Those were also the days when dogs still roamed freely. He travelled, on his short Basset legs, two miles into town, then two miles back, receiving snacks of all sorts along the way.

    Our next dog, my teenage dog, was an Alaskan Malamute who continued the tradition of Alpo cans, except more per day. At that time these crazy semi-moist pink patties came onto the market (Gaines Burgers). He loved them. We didn't know any better. He developed skin problems, which plagued him from then on.

    Then I left home and had my own dogs, several decades worth of commercially-fed dogs. My understanding of better-quality vs. poorer quality commercial foods began to develop, and I made changes accordingly.

    Then I learned about raw feeding and switched 100% to that, for years and years. I became a rabid raw-feeding, anti-grain evangelist ... preaching the method to anyone who didn't have the guts to shut me up.

    Fast forward to the economy tanking, and the effects of that on my life ... and me with three 100-lb dogs to feed, as well as a large-sized cat.

    I had to eat my words and return to commercial foods. There are a lot of people who say raw can be fed for the same price as commercial foods. I must be inadequate, I guess, because I couldn't make it work.

    My dogs still get fresh foods along with their kibble ... eggs, some veggies, sardines, yogurt, salmon oil, turkey necks to chew, and table scraps. I do my very best for them. They are all in good health, with no allergy problems. Plus, they get their proper veterinary care, and I go out of my way to make sure their teeth are clean.

    I learned to live and let live. Everyone has their own situation to contend with.

    Thanks for continuing to post, even though controversial, Dr. Tudor. Your posts have changed my understanding of quite a few different things related to my pets' health.



  • Do what you can..
    08/16/2012 09:58pm

    I would like to believe that every 'good' pet owner does what he or she can afford, which means that if they can afford only kibbles n bits per se then that is what they feed their pet. However if they have the time and money for a homemade diet then that is what they feed their pet. I like to think that whatever that person decides, they are making that pet's life better than what it would be if living on it own. Whatever your may be feeding your pet(kibbles n bits or homemade diet), it should be nothing to be a shamed of because you are giving your pet a better life.

  • Oh, and how ...
    08/16/2012 10:21pm

    ... could I forget the stint of home cooking that I did for my 3 100-lb. dogs? I paid hundreds of dollars to a well-known canine nutritionist to help me create and tweak balanced diets for each dog.

    That was like making Thanksgiving dinner for 50 people every single weekend. I could never get out ahead of it, because 3 100-lb. dogs eat a LOT of home-made food!

    The day I stood in my kitchen crying rather hysterically while stirring yet another huge vat of home-made dog food was the day I had to give it up.

    Home-made, raw, and commercial ... I've done it all. I know that I care for my dogs very well, whichever way I need to choose considering my current circumstances.

  • 08/16/2012 11:30pm

    First I want to say that I agree there ARE some good dog food products out there. The bulk of it, though, I don't believe is that great.

    Do you really believe that people who cannot provide their dogs with preventive care or veterinary advances (talking about basics here, not neurosurgeries) can and go buy commercial dog food? And if so one of good quality?

    I can tell you, back in my old country (eastern Europe), most dogs indeed don't get much veterinary care ... but they are also still fed table scraps and like. (interestingly enough, they're are surviving that)

    The other thing I believe we need to look at is that while our dogs might have longer life spans, the numbers suffering with chronic or degenerative diseases are also going up (that's according to Banfield). So while they might be living longer, they are not any healthier ...

    And obesity? Is it really the owners' fault? Perhaps in some cases ... just recently, I think it was here on petMD there was an article that even experts cannot get the portion control right. If they can't, who can? And should it be rocket science?

    And are we truly sure that meeting the minimum protein requirements (which is what most dog foods do, and if they exceed that it's usually by 1 or 2%) and feeding our dogs not only processed food but also one loaded with carbohydrates has nothing to do with all that?

    It is one thing to do a food trial on 8 dogs for 6 months and it's another thing for a dog to eat that their entire life.

    And perhaps commercial diets overlook some "nutrients" which are not regulated, such as phytochemicals and so on.

    Just saying ...

    Life spans might be longer but our dogs are more and more diseased. I believe that nutrition plays its role in that also.

  • Relevant article
    08/17/2012 07:39am

    Here is a link to a relevant article which shows how half-cocked the commercial pet food companies can "go off" in the name of prescription diets, not to mention basic kibble, like Hill's Science Diet:

    "Should Any Dog Food Formula EVER Have Corn Starch as the Main Ingredient?" http://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2012/08/17/low-fat-diet-for-dogs.aspx

    One of my favorite quotes from this article is this one:

    "Then I reached the end of one of the articles and noticed it had been “underwritten” by a manufacturer of prescription pet food diets."

    Duh!

  • Readers
    08/17/2012 10:58am

    Indeed there are strict legal definitions for "organic" in human products. Unfortunately there is no recognized legal definition with regards to the ingredients in pet food. Truth-in-advertising standards for human nutrition is also very strict. That is not the case in the pet food industry. That is why claims of "organic" on commercial pet foods warrants quotations marks.
    Dr. T

  • 08/17/2012 11:52am

    When doing some research online I ran across companies based in Asia where the only "organic" leanings the company had was in their name. Clearly an attempt to sway naive consumers in the English speaking community. If I remember correctly I was trying to trace whether a product was legitimately "organic" and was extremely disappointed when I found the source of their materials.

    So much of what we consume, (supplements, flavorings, fish meal as examples), come from Asia and they just don't have the regulations there that we hope are being followed for items we use here. Personally I prefer the "Five Mile Diet" concept for that reason, not that it is realistic where we live.

  • 08/17/2012 11:57am

    I'll give you close on that Dr. Tudor. The brand I use actually states it uses 'certified organic' chicken. Pet food or human food they can't use that terminology unless it meets the legal criteria.

    Yes, some brands do try to muddle the words and the savvy consumer is well aware of the pitfalls. That is why discussions like this...while heated are useful.

    For those interested in more detail regarding the obstabcles faced by the 'organic' pet food companies your readers might like reading this:

    Natural, Human Grade, Organic Dog Food: Really?
    An Organic Primer
    By Marion Nestle, PhD, and Malden Nesheim, PhD
    http://www.thebark.com/content/natural-human-grade-organic-dog-food-really

    "To be certified as organic, plant ingredients IN PET FOODS (emphasis mine)must be grown without pesticides, artificial fertilizers, genetic modification, irradiation or sewage sludge. Animal ingredients must come from animals raised on organic feed, given access to the outdoors, and not treated with antibiotics or hormones. Producers must be inspected to make sure they adhere to these standards."

  • Pet Owners are more savvy
    08/18/2012 10:54pm

    Pet owners have become more "savvy" when choosing pet foods. While there are still some that think "If the vet sells this food, it MUST be good", more are "catching on" to the fact that this is not true. It still irks me that most vets sell what I affectionately refer to as "cwappy vet diets". If vets had more than a 2-3 day "wonder course" on so-called "pet nutrition", sponsored by companies like Hills (Eewwwww!), they'd catch on too. It's no big secret that vets have been "in bed" with companies like Hills, etc. for years, on the receiving end of all their "perks". That's a sad state of affairs IMO. Bottom line, like several posters have stated - we all feed the best food we can afford, and that our pets will ACTUALLY eat. No "science" to that - just common sense.
    And my "scientific data"? ~ 34 yrs in the medical profession and 28 yrs of cat ownership!

  • 08/18/2012 11:34pm

    If everyone writing these contentious posts think that ALL VETERINARIANS have 3 day "wonder" courses, then what are you all doing wasting time reading this blog, let alone rudely sniping at it?

    There are definite personal agendas floating around here that boggle the mind.

    The idea that veterinarians don't have access to good nutritional training is no longer necessarily true. If they are sincerely wanting to preserve the health of animals, then there are specific institutions such as Texas A&M, a school in Florida, and I understand at least one other in the US. I am not thrilled with the instructors in one Canadian veterinary school we have, but then they didn't have good nutritional training in order to have the expertise to set up good curiculum.

    Granted vets don't have the five year courses that are needed just for one human species of fully qualified experts, but it is no longer correct to suggest that veterinarians don't have the option to study small animal training, either during their studies or as post graduate work.

  • 08/18/2012 11:50pm

    Westcoastsyrinx wrote: "There are definite personal agendas floating around here that boggle the mind."

    I have no personal agenda. I just resent ignorant and biased vets who pretend to be knowledgeable and objective on the issue of companion animal nutrition. There is nothing personal about it. So, if your mind is boggled, it is your problem.

    Westcoastsyrinx wrote: "If they are sincerely wanting to preserve the health of animals, then there are specific institutions such as ... a school in Florida ..."

    I'm fairly well familiar with the vet schools in Florida, and unless you are referring to the Chi Institute -- http://www.tcvm.com/ -- a truly unique institution, then I cannot imagine any such school. Certainly not the University of Florida, which has a huge display of Hill's Science Diet in the middle of its emergency clinic's waiting room.

  • 08/18/2012 11:37pm

    I should also point out here, that if you are truly in a medical profession, then you know that doctors don't get good training in nutrition for humans, and need to defer to RDA specialists who DO have five years of nutritional training under their belts.

    If a doctor doesn't refer patients when going beyond their area of expertise, they are being negligent, as I am sure you understand.

  • 08/19/2012 07:15pm

    Westcoastsyrinx wrote - "I am not sure why YOU need to snipe at every post Dr Tudor writes about pet foods, but it is getting really tedious ....... you might impress people more by focusing your angst elsewhere."

    ab irato argumentum ad hominem

    Westcoastsyrinx wrote - "If everyone writing these contentious posts think that ALL VETERINARIANS have 3 day "wonder" courses, then what are you all doing wasting time reading this blog, let alone rudely sniping at it?"

    audiatur et altera pars
    It is fair to acknowledge that most veterinarians are not “experts” in nutrition, if by this one means they have extensive specialized training in the subject. Expertise is no guarantee of never falling into error.

    Westcoastsyrinx wrote - "I am not thrilled with the instructors in one Canadian veterinary school we have, but then they didn't have good nutritional training in order to have the expertise to set up good curriculum."

    As one Canadian to another - if you feel strongly about this, then perhaps you are in a position to advise them?

    Westcoastsyrinx wrote - "..... if you are truly in a medical profession .....

    Yes I am - and proud of it!

    Westcoastsyrinx wrote - "If a doctor doesn't refer patients when going beyond their area of expertise, they are being negligent"

    Same could hold true for veterinarians and nutritional advice.

    Rod Russell wrote - "I have no personal agenda. I just resent ignorant and biased vets who pretend to be knowledgeable and objective on the issue of companion animal nutrition. There is nothing personal about it. So, if your mind is boggled, it is your problem."

    Well stated.

    'Nuff said.

  • To Our Readers
    08/24/2012 11:22am

    As promised in our community rules, we have been monitoring the comments, making sure they don’t stray too far off course or became verbally abusive. It will be specified here that monitoring is done entirely by a group of content editors at petMD, and not by our veterinarian writers.

    This has been an enlightening discussion for us, as apparently it has been for many of our members here, and we appreciate the passion our community members feel over the health of their companion animals.

    While some members have clearly used our pages to further their views, most are not, in our opinion, abusive.

    We have observed that our involved community is well-educated and generally willing to consider other ideas. As long as the language does not get abusive, we allow you all to call each other out. With that in mind, if you feel that a member of the petMD discussion community is being intentionally provocative, you have the right to ignore that person entirely, in addition to sending an abuse report to petMD’s customer service.

    Please keep the comments constructive.

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