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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 Unnecessary Anger of the Pet Food Discussion

As our country becomes more polarized and heated on political issues, the same appears to be occurring over the nutrition of pets. Unseemly, vitriolic responses to blogs on this site attest to the personal convictions pet owners feel about their food offerings to their pets.

Every pet owner has a deep desire to feel they are doing the right thing for their beloved pet and will defend fiercely, rightly or wrongly, their choices of pet food. In fact they wish to impose that fervor on all other pet owners, much as a missionary wishes to spread the advantages of their faith to those who do not share that belief. It doesn’t need to be this contentious.

Veterinarians have been wrong in not devoting more energy toward nutritional understanding of the species they serve. Veterinary training provides the necessary skills for self-education about nutrition if it was lacking during the veterinary education. Leaving nutritional guidelines to commercial food companies is unforgivable. Owners are also in error for leaving their food choices to the pet nutritional “genius” in the pet store vest. You wouldn’t view that individual as a dietician if he/she served you at a fast-food restaurant!

Dr. Google is well meaning but most often ill-informed. Nutrition itself is far from an exact science. Most research links associations of feeding and outcomes without proving cause and effect. The adaptability of biological systems is uncanny so exact rules are presently futile with our current understanding of biological metabolism.

Why is Every Way Right?

The beauty of the biological systems is its incredible ability to adapt. Think about it. Few Americans eat a balanced diet as defined by the National Research Council (NRC), yet the life span of Americans has steadily increased. Nutritionally speaking, this should not happen. The life span should shorten and the quality of life should suck.

Because quality of life studies are so subjective, there is no reliable data that following the NRC guidelines leads to a greater life quality. In fact, objectively, what does quality mean?

The discussion is no different with pets. There is little evidence to suggest that all wild cats and dogs eat a balanced diet. They evolved in a state of inadequate calories and nutrition. Have you ever seen a coyote or bobcat with a beautiful coat that was overweight in a natural setting as opposed to an urban or suburban setting? Yet the canine and feline species evolved so that reproductive capabilities were achieved before nutritional deficiencies resulted in death. Until the 1950s dogs and cats lived primarily off table scraps and whatever else they could scavenge or kill. Yet everyone remembers their grandparents’ pets living to ripe old ages. In fact they didn’t, but they certainly lived longer than would be predicted by NRC nutritional guidelines.

With the advent of quantitative standards for pet food and environmental control the life span of pets has increased. Yet much of the pet food controversy (raw vs. cooked, grain-free, carb limited, etc.) focuses on beliefs of the quality of ingredients and the quality of these extended life spans without regard to these advances. Pets continue to thrive despite attempts to attribute every ailment that they experience to poor quality food with no evidence to substantiate it. We all wish it to be true but experimentally we can’t prove it.

An Evolving Process

There is no Rosetta Stone for nutrition. It is a process of discovery through research, discussion and re-analysis. All approaches need respectful analysis and consideration to arrive at a better understanding of the impact of nutrition on pet health without unbridled fervor to a particular solution.

Dr. Ken Tudor

† The stone tablet that revealed the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Image: Anna Baburkina / via Shutterstock

Comments  16

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  • Vet ignorance prevails
    05/02/2013 12:26pm

    Dr. Tudor writes: "Until the 1950s dogs and cats lived primarily off table scraps and whatever else they could scavenge or kill."

    Still believing Hill's false propaganda, are you, Dr. Tudor?

  • 05/02/2013 03:16pm

    Why do you even bother reading this blog if you don't respect the authors or information given? No one cares for your facetiousness.

  • 05/02/2013 03:45pm

    That's right, attack the messenger instead of recognizing the continued spreading of the falsehood that pet dog had to scrounge for food before the mid-1950s.

  • PET FOOD!!!!
    05/02/2013 04:52pm


  • Important to remember..
    05/02/2013 06:47pm

    I think it is important to remember that responsible pet parents are doing the best they can regarding the care of their pet. And whatever the responsible pet parent is feeding their pet or pets (and caring for them)is significantly better living situation than being unclaimed wandering the earth or in an enclosure shelter (that may euthanize them due to being unclaimed) - which happen to many, many animal. With that said, I agree with Dr. Ken Tudor that the 'angry' debate around pet food may be well intentioned but in the end, is offending people who are doing the best they can with whatever resources they have.

  • 05/02/2013 07:56pm

    The issue is not what pet owners feed their dogs. It is the lack of education and resulting ignorance of so many veterinarians about what healthful, species-appropriate diets actually are, and those vets' financial ties to certain pet food manufacturers who treat dogs and cats as if they are herbivores.

  • 05/02/2013 10:33pm

    I agree with everything you said Karen -- and one thing that really bothers me. ANGRY people. Is this a personality flaw of some people? We don't all think alike, like the same things - we can pick and choose what WE think is best for our families and our pets. I try to feed my family the very best veggies, etc. just like I feed my pets the food I think is best. It's ok if no one else agrees! PLEASE people - stop being so angry!

  • 05/02/2013 11:00pm

    This is not about "anger". That is just a word used by Dr. Tudor, in this instance, to deflect from the real issue, which is about veterinarians who don't bother to truly educate themselves about one of the most important health issues for any dog or cat. Instead, they rely on the pap fed to them by the kibble manufacturers who sponsor their symposia and underwrite their research and keep their clinics profitable. This is about those vets' ignorance and their responsibility and their conflicts-of-interest.

  • 05/02/2013 11:33pm

    Oh, and I forgot. They sponsor this webpage, too. Go figure.

  • Re:
    05/03/2013 03:46pm

    Just to clarify: Dr. Tudor is not paid by Hills or by any pet food company, he is not influenced or edited to reflect anyone's message but his own, and petMD's advertising revenue comes from multiple pet related sources, not just one pet food company.

    Just as magazines, newspapers, and television networks support themselves on advertising revenue without being influenced by their advertisers (in the best of worlds), so are modern websites supported by advertising revenue without placing onerous expectations on their content providers - in this case, our doctor bloggers.

    Please keep this in mind when disagreeing with our doctors. They are not writing in support of any food manufacturer or product, they are writing in support of their personal experience and knowledge.

  • 05/03/2013 10:46pm

    PetMD Editorial writes: "...they are writing in support of their personal experience and knowledge."

    Vel non.

  • 05/02/2013 08:08pm

    If it were really that simple, but it is not. I think the US is probably the most advertisement-saturated and marketed-to society in the world. I take care of hundreds of dogs a year, and I got into the habit of checking the contents of every brand of food that owners bring for their dogs. The number of cheaply made and meat scarce foods out there is not a good thing for our pets. It simply is not. The advertising of these products is misleading at best. People grab a bag of what looks like on the outside to ba wonderful food, but it is full of ingredients that are not meant to be food. For instance powdered cellulose in prescription dog foods that cost dearly. Cellulose is the cell wall material of plants. It is made mainly from wood pulp and cotton, If made from wood it is otherwise known as sawdust, and is not digestible by carnivores. It is used mainly as a cheap fecal bulking agent.

    I recently checked a bag of expensive prescription food a customer brought in, and it was corn, corn gluten meal, brewer's rice, chicken by product meal, powdered cellulose, etc. I'm not the angry type, but this makes me angry.

    I have learned that there is no reason to expect that the giant corporate makers of pet foods are going to be honest with us. Their motive is profit, and as far as prescription food goes, the veterinarian profession is a captured industry for them, using the authority of the person you trust the most to take care of your pet to market their inadequate food to us. As a veterinary oncologist said to me recently, he believes that the explosion in cancers in dogs is because of the food we feed them. Perhaps he doesn't have proof, but I would believe him over any of the large pet food manufacturer. The smaller independent pet food producers are a different story.

  • Pet Food
    05/02/2013 08:12pm

    Thank you Dr. Tudor for a balanced article. I too watch what my animals eat, but as a vegan I watch what I eat.

    I don't agree with many of the industry's nondisclosure on questions consumers have re ingredients they are paying for. I understand confidentiality, but when so many brands are recalled there are a lot of unanswered questions on quality assurance, country of origin (ingredients), etc.

    I had a dog named Toulouse when I was in college. He ate whatever I ate. I can remember buying him Skippy!!! He lived to be 14 years, 1 month, 1 day. I honestly can't say that I worried about what he ate as long as he ate.

    Times have changed though and most informed people want to know what they are paying for and if it has potential to harm their pets. Thanks again.

  • Individuals
    05/02/2013 10:20pm

    In my opinion, each critter is an individual - just as we humans are all individuals. And, as individuals, our needs are different.

    Personally, I believe that whatever works best for your critters is the best choice for that particular animal.

    Getting upset and proselytizing isn't going to change anyone's mind - just as Dr. Tudor used with the example of religious beliefs. I don't know anyone who would convert if they were called stupid because they weren't a particular faith.

    The people that frequent this blog appear to be very good "pet parents" and many are extremely well-informed. I would be more likely to be swayed by a comment detailing how well Fluffy or Fido is doing on such-and-such diet. I'd take in the information and consult the doctor with any questions (yes, my vet is very well informed about nutrition).

    When things get rancorous, I tend to quit reading and, as a result, don't get a lot of the information that could be offered in a gentler manner.

  • Feeding
    05/03/2013 07:47pm

    I compete in obedience and rally with my dog. Additionally, we get A LOT of exercise. I regularly go to training sessions with others who also compete. We all have beautiful, shiny, healthy, energetic dogs of various breeds. And...we all feed differently. I feed my dog home-prepared meals (pumpkin, yogurt, green beans and fresh ground turkey, cooked) balanced by a top-quality American made kibble. (Right now it happens to be a grain-free salmon and garbanzo bean but we have also done chicken and rice. My sheltie seems to really love this salmon stuff, though. I frequently use his kibble as his training treats.) Several of my other classmates have similar feeding habits to mine and some of them feed a raw diet. All of our dogs look and feel fantastic.
    No dog and no human ever eats a perfect diet. For me, there is a huge ick factor to the raw and it is hard to use when you take your dog on a trip. I will feed it for someone when I am dog-sitting but I do find those raw patties a bit unappealing to deal with. I am the same way with certain people foods...if my husband wants anything with mayo in it, for example, he better make it himself!
    I also do not understand why everyone get so angry about diet. It is not so different with human diets, though; people get so angry if you do not do things the way they do! I have had people get really mad at me because I am healthy and fit and I eat carbs. I LIKE carbs, I stick to whole grain (usually) and I get plenty of exercise to use them up. I don't care for the high fat, high protein diets. But...I know people who do really well on them. So, as the doctor says, we are adaptable. Everyone is different. Quit fighting over diet; it will just raise your blood pressure...no matter what you eat!
    Now, if we can only quit fighting over religon and politics...
    And remember, most vets became vets because they love animals. They want the best for our pets. While there are dishonest people in every profession, most vets are not taking money from commercial companies and promoting things that are not in the best interests of our dogs. Being a vet is a hard job. Most of the vets I have known, (and I have had many horses as well as small animals) have really tried. Do they know everything about nutrition? No. Of course not. But you know what...no one really knows everything about nutrition. So lets all be nice, okay?

  • Thriving
    05/06/2013 04:21am

    Quote: “Pets continue to thrive despite attempts to attribute every ailment that they experience to poor quality food with no evidence to substantiate it.”

    “The adaptability of biological systems is uncanny....The beauty of the biological systems is its incredible ability to adapt...”

    Is it THRIVING for cats to be overweight (most are now), develop diabetes, IBD, allergies, skin conditions, cystitis, crystals, stones and urinary problems, various types of cancer, and even kidney disease? I’ve been involved in a number of feline forums and I see cats all the time with these various conditions. I don’t see the majority of cats just thriving and adapting and having no problems. Is this what you see in your work with animals? There are some; but it’s not the majority of what I’ve seen. And I find it hard to believe that some of these degenerative diseases are due mostly to “aging”. How could the fuel and food and ingredients pets ingest daily not have an influence on health - at least on some of these health issues? (There is evidence of dietary influence with cats - such as urinary issues and dry food, and I’d also say feline diabetes). Sure, there are those pets, I’d say, those few pets, who live long lives on what is considered lesser quality, highly processed food, full of grains and fillers, but there is a lot of sickness out there. Another point is I think the food supply is getting more contaminated - with GMOs, with meat being more & more contaminated with antibiotics and other toxins, with more toxic fillers, and I think degenerative diseases could only get worse as a result. So all this makes me wonder why you seem to be saying that food isn’t really that much of an issue, and there is nothing to get ‘worked up’ about since cats and dogs thrive and adapt so well.

    Cats can adapt....but to an extent.
    There is often a limit to this adaptability. Yes, for a number of years, many pets can deal with food/fuel that isn’t really species appropriate, full of grains and fillers and highly processed; perhaps considered more food-like than actual food. It’s like what Dr. Pierson says on the section of catinfo.org: “my cat is doing just fine on dry food”. My own cat was able to adapt to eating a grain/corn-based type dry food for a long time. But he was diagnosed with diabetes at age 12; his body could only adapt to this unnatural diet for so long. I knew nothing about feline nutrition then and I got no information from any vet.

    Sure there will always be a few pets who are able to live long, perhaps disease-free lives eating only what is considered lesser quality food. (Another question is do we really know the life span of cats or dogs in ideal conditions? Human life spans have changed at various times). Just like in humans, there will be those genetically strong individuals -- the George Burns type individuals. George lived to 100 years old while smoking 10 -15 cigars a day, drinking hard liquor and probably not eating a great diet. And like I said, I think it may only get worse with diseases in animals, so maybe there will be less of the George Burns type people and pets. Food and nutrition ARE an important aspect of health, and it’s a big subject and people can be passionate and sometimes get angry.

    I have also seen some of this anger in these diet and health discussions. Part of it is because people have had disappointment with food and nutrition information they’ve received from veterinary medical professionals. Many are upset about this unforgivable, as you say, association of vets with some pet food companies. And people get tired of hearing old myths, like “dry food cleans the teeth”, “wet food is just full of water”, “protein causes kidney disease” or “high fiber is good for diabetic cats”. I know numerous people who feel diet contributed to illnesses in these wonderful beings who are cherished family members -- I am one of them. I am still angry about the lack of nutritional advice from vets, in spite of my giving them lots of money. When a life of a cherished cat or dog may have been shortened possibly due to diet, it can make people reactive and passionate about this whole topic.

    We’ll never have exacting or absolute research regarding nutrition and health, but we always have common sense (and we also do have some research in this area). Common sense to me means trying to feed better quality and less processed, more species appropriate food; just cleaner, more biologically appropriate food. Human physicians now usually advise about the importance of food choices and health, so why shouldn’t we expect this from vets? I think we’ll continue to see strong opinions and sometimes anger with these issues because it’s an area where life and death may be involved and where change is needed.

    Quote: “The life span of Americans has steadily increased. Nutritionally speaking, this should not happen. The life span should shorten and the quality of life should suck.”

    Human life span increases are largely due to advances in modern living and modern medicine. Chronic, degenerative diseases have only increased and continue to, but we have quite effective disease management in these modern times.

    Quote: “It is a process of discovery through research, discussion and re-analysis. All approaches need respectful analysis and consideration to arrive at a better understanding of the impact of nutrition on pet health...”

    Well said, and we still need common sense and good nutritional guidance.

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