The Unnecessary Anger of the Pet Food Discussion

Ken Tudor, DVM
Published: May 02, 2013
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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