Pet Food Industry & Vets: Undue Influence?

by Mary Haight on January 23, 2010

There are many varieties of commercial dog foo...
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It’s not escaped anyone’s notice that the pet food industry has been a hot topic for several years now, and not only because of recalls.  The other part of the conversation centers around the relationship between that industry, our Vets, and the quality of pet foods offered through them.

I haven’t come across a practice that doesn’t promote  foods from the some of the giants of the industry:  Science Diet and Iams. (Pedigree, Purina, Beneful, and the rest do not support vets but do use controversial preservatives named in this blog.)   And the two food companies give appropriate financial support to veterinary practices in exchange, like paying costs for continuing education, which adds up to be quite an expense for larger practices, and conferences.

This is not, repeat, not a criticism of vets.  If they cannot trim their cost of doing business, the prices we pay will go higher and any flexibility in their charging practices will disappear.  Keep in mind that many vets do an enormous amount of giving to rescues, shelters, people who have lost their jobs but the cat is sick, or the dog is injured. They unselfishly do not charge for many parts of treatments given, trying to balance the needs of their clients with the needs of supporting their practice and the people they employ.

What’s important here is that we are inundated with ads for these foods everywhere, on websites,  promoted at our vets office as healthful, preferred, the best, because that’s the message the client gets when they look at the display on the counter. 

They are conveniently available at the local supermarket when we are shopping for our household. Because of this millions and millions of people buy without a further thought.  There’s not much room for alternative foods on supermarket shelves nor is it necessarily affordable for new products,  so customers with convenience in mind don’t always get much choice or opportunity to judge differences.  But let’s look at some ingredients that are common to almost if not all of the major brands of  kibble.  

BHA/BHT, synthetic preservatives, are used to stop spoilage (oxidation) of fats in dog food. Preservatives are necessary.  But both these synthetics are known carcinogens.  Ethoxyquin is also used as a preservative in pet food and is a pesticide controlled by the EPA. For researchers, it’s about risk assessment and shelf life. For consumers, it’s about removing any possible harm from their furry friend’s food.  Vitamins C and E are used to preserve many natural and organic dog foods, albeit without the longevity of  synthetics, lasting only around four months. But does food that lasts for years in an unopened bag scream quality nutrition to you?

Research posits that as long as the carcinogens and pesticides are only so many parts per million, health hazards should not result in a major cross- section of the pet population, a conclusion which  allows pet food companies to use these harmful ingredients.  Am I, a non-scientist, missing something or is this the crazy talk I think it is?

Then there’s tartrazine, carmoisine and sunset yellow, are all of which are thought to cause hyperactivity in humans.  Would it not have a similar effect in pets? Kidney and liver disease, heart disease, and dental problems are all on the rise, as are allergies and other issues linked to food.

The numbers on pet obesity stand at one in four (National Academy of Sciences) which just adds fuel to the diet fire as related to processed foods.  Just as with the current health argument that processed foods with a particular ingredient profile are making people sick and fat (even outside the obvious lack of exercise and overeating issues that are also present), so it may be with our pets. Not all processed foods for dogs are bad of course, but it takes time and information and reading the labels to figure it out.

Other things that don’t belong in your pet’s food: Wheat and corn gluten meal and rice protein concentrates (all poor sources of protein), by-products are not good if they are the main source of protein, sweeteners like sugar, sucrose, corn syrup.  Molasses or honey is fine in your dog treats.  You can do your homework at thepetfoodlist which has links to the manufacturer’s sites to confirm timeliness of the information provided.

I’ve chosen to stick with what I see as the non-controversial end of the food ingredients argument.  These are the things that should be an easy fix for the major pet food companies. These are things they should want to change. 

Do vets have any influence with the pet food industry, or is this up to people, petitions, and the inevitable plea to legislators?  Why can’t the major pet food companies get in front of the curve for a change? Anyone have some insight, an opinion to offer? How tied are the hands of vets in their relationship with the industry?

Source: Daily Mail

Related Posts: Survey Says: No Trust in Pet Food Jan 23, 2009

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31 comments
@TwocentsCanada
@TwocentsCanada

Everyone concerned about animal welfare should understand that diet and TYPE of diet is actually an important issue when you consider that popular cat foods are likely responsible for the majority of the cases of feline cystitis. It’s well documented that litter box issues are one of the leading reasons cat owners relinquish their animals. Those owners who don’t understand the problem may also punish, abuse, euthanize or abandon their cats. Kibble diets contribute to other painful urinary conditions, including sudden urinary blockages that can result in an agonizing death (- a major reason cats should not be left alone for more than 14 hours). Treatment is expensive. Dr. Pierson, Dr. Debra Zoran, Dr. Jean Hofve (LittleBigCat.com), and Organizations like Feline Outrech.org & the Feline Nutrition Education Society would like veterinarians, cat owners/caregivers and animal advocates to understand the issues because many feline problems are easier and cheaper to prevent than to cure.

@TwocentsCanada
@TwocentsCanada

Lisa Pierson, DVM is a gutsy vet who has been writing about this for a few years on her site, Catinfo.org. Some of her information applies to all pet food. She agrees that vets receive very little training about nutrition and most information they do have is provided by pet food manufacturers. The analogy is that it would be like your doctor recommending and selling you McFood. It has really opened my eyes to the link between pet health and diet. I have no doubt it has helped countless owners improve their pets’ health. A search show links to her site appearing on many veterinarian’s own websites. She reiterates everything you're said - and more. Dr. Pierson also talks about the risk to human health that dry pet foods pose. It’s not something kids should be playing with! Most pet owners probably aren’t aware that kibble and pet treats should be handled with the same care we normally take with raw meat. I found safe handling instructions for pet food on at least one US government site.

Shawn Finch, DVM
Shawn Finch, DVM

Hi All! Mary, I think this article is very well written and brings up issues we all should be thinking through, for our pets and ourselves. What our pets eat is at the center of their long term health. As pet owners, we sometimes forget how very important that is. (Some pet owners I mean, not you guys!) I found myself thinking through my nutritional plans for my own eight pets and dragging out all our pet food to re-read the labels, and that is the highest compliment I can pay you! In the past several decades, the lifespans of pets have steadily increased and great strides and breakthroughs have been made in their nutritional care. I do think we as consumers (and veterinarians) should keep pet food companies accountable to provide the very best product possible, but let us not also forget to THANK the ones involved in pet nutrition who are as passionate about our pets' well-being as we ourselves are. Any pet food company worth its wages has veterinarians trained in nutrition intimately involved in every step of their organization, making scientifically and nutritionally sound decisions, with the ultimate goal of a long and healthy life for each pet. I have personally never had CE paid for by pet food companies, or been financially compensated for supporting any of them, however neither have I ever felt unsupported by the pet food companies with whom I choose to work. The way pet food companies can support me, if they care (and I honestly believe that many of them do) is by staying on top of the game nutritionally, scientifically, and with longevity studies. The ones who choose to provide prescription diets (or even maintenance diets) AND partner with me have to be the best of the best. And they are. This is what I demand of every company that chooses to be in the business of coming along side me to restore and maintain the health of patients I love. I realize I am one veterinarian, and there are thousands and thousands in the pet food industry, but I am heard, I am respected as a well-rounded scientist also obsessively focused on the nutritional well-being of pets (dogs, cats, and exotics), and I am very satisfied with the relationships that I have. Phew, never does one article make me rethink everything I hold so dear! Nicely done :)

Mary Haight
Mary Haight

Hey, Rod, thanks for stopping in! Re your first question, I think what is surprising to most--and this goes for many areas even in government--is the extent to which industry has taken control of even oversight of their own products. When you hear that vets are taught about nutrition by the food industry they will be featuring, that pretty much shuts out whatever contrary information may be available as to formulations and evaluation of processing chemicals and methodologies. When you look at this closed system, it can't be shocking to the industry that people question and/or become disengaged and distrustful. We all saw what the tobacco industry did with their "owned" scientists. By virtue of this system, it is a company-centric line that is being fed to vets, so yes, the knowledge is per force limited. Vet schools may have better coursework now so that's worth checking out. And to your second question, I recognized but marginalized the lifestyle issue because I wanted to focus on removing endocrine disrupters, which affect weight certainly, and chemicals and toxins out of feed. These problems sit in the fat of animals (including us!) and wreck all kinds of havoc when released over time, shortening lifespans, damaging DNA and producing cancers.

Nadine M. Rosin
Nadine M. Rosin

At the age of 8, my dog was diagnosed with cancer and given 6 weeks to live. She had been eating a kibble sold to us from the vet. I immediately began home-cooking organic food for her. Along with a holistic regimen of clear/cleanse/build, I was able to strengthen her immune system so her body could heal itself of the cancer. She thrived for an additional 11 years. I also home-cooked all her treats. Because even when a simple dry dog food (or treat) with no chemicals, sugars, corn, and other garbage, lists "chicken", "beef", "chicken meal", or "beef meal" as it's main ingredient- if that chicken or beef is not organic and human grade, then it's full of hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides!!!! Not only are we poisoning our pets with junk food, but the chemicals we expose them to everyday (air fresheners, cleaning products, flea poison). We all need to do a little research, get a little information, and become aware, conscious consumers. Thank you, for helping us do that here!

Rod@GoPetFriendly
Rod@GoPetFriendly

Wow ... great post. So many things to comment on. I will pick two. #1 - Should we be surprised that the food (drug) companies are in bed with vets (docs)? I'm not. Not sure where I read this but remember someone commenting that vet students do NOT get a lot of training in nutrition. Have you heard the same thing? #2 - Should we be surprised that dogs are as much susceptible to lifestyle diseases (pet obesity) as the humans that feed them? Why? Because it's easy to feed (eat) processed food (Burger King) than to take the time to read a lable, prepare nutritous food with natural ingredients, and take responsibility for actions instead of saying "I can't understand why this is happening to my pet (me)."

norminontario
norminontario

All I can say is thank goodness my "guys" are healthy and don't require regular attention. When they do rarely require attention, I travel 60 miles to a wonderful Holistic Vet who listens to my concerns and answers my questions rather than dismissing me from the practise.

Rebecca
Rebecca

Mary - When I first got my dog, I asked my vet for a dog food recommendation. He REFUSED to give one and he explained to me that he wasn't in the business and simply didn't know enough about nutrition to give a good answer. And he went to University of Pennsylvania School for Vet Medicine, one of the top schools in the country. At the time I was a little taken aback, but once I got informed I gained a lot of respect for him for being so honest. (And, btw, he is a member of a large practice that sells Science Diet - and he still wouldn't make a recommendation).

norminontario
norminontario

"Keep in mind that most vets do an enormous amount of giving to rescues, shelters, people who have lost their jobs but the cat is sick, or the dog is injured. They unselfishly do not charge for many parts of treatments given, trying to balance the needs of their clients with the needs of supporting their practice and the people they employ" I can only speak to the profession in my area of Ontario. This statement is not true as many are turned away because they cannot afford treatment. I know of one vet who works for a larger clinic. Her hours have been drastically reduced because she does not forward to the billing office much of what she does for the furbabies. Further down in the article, the question was posed about how much influence the vets have against "big food". IMNO, they have much influence, however, they don't exercise that power as they learn very quickly that "ther's no money in healthy animals" and I firmly believe they choose to follow the money above all else. Am I disappointed in a once noble profession, you bet I am.

Jim (Doggybytes.ca)
Jim (Doggybytes.ca)

Fantastic article! Essentially I agree with everything said here, except this; "If they cannot trim their cost of doing business, the prices we pay will go higher and any flexibility in their charging practices will disappear." Maybe if people stop feeding these "junk pet foods" fewer vet will mean saving $$ for pet owners, not to mention their pets will be healthier for it.

Karen Friesecke
Karen Friesecke

The big business of food is a real burr under my saddle. I've been aware of Monsanto & their evil ways for quite some time and I have been keeping an eye on the GMO debates. The poor contents of dog foods are just the tip of the iceberg. It will be very interesting to see the impact that these GMOs have on human health in the next 25 or so years.

Rebecca
Rebecca

Finally! Someone else questions the fact that vets are promoting these types of pet foods. Another thing many people don't realize is that the big brands often pay for or a rep teaches the nutrition course at vet school, plus give out plenty of free samples to the vets. And I don't mean to criticize vets, but I also don't think that they should be in the business of selling pet food. They should stick to medicine.

Bloggie Stylish
Bloggie Stylish

I realize that vets need to make money to keep their practice going and hawking certain pet foods is a good way to do that. But vets have to realize how influential their message is when they are promoting certain brands of food. As for vets standing up to the food companies, well, you just might end up getting your ass fired. In 1998 six canadian vets/scientists that worked for HEALTH CANADA refused to approve Monsanto's rbGH for use in the beef and dairy industry due to human health concerns. It was also reported that they refused to take "bribes" disguised as research grants. Good for them, they were actually concerned about the long term health of Canadian citizens! Well guess what? ALL of them were either fired or forced to quit due to difficult workplace situations. you can read about THAT here; http://www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org/View... sorry that I had to split up my comment, but the comments program said that my post was "too long" I could go on and on about this topic! The best way to send a message to the dog food companies is to vote with you dollars and not buy!

Bloggie Stylish
Bloggie Stylish

When I got Jersey as a puppy, she was a *very* fussy eater and she wouldn't eat any of the commercial dog foods. I tried everything out there to appease her pallet, but it came down to me making her dog food. She gets boiled meat and the dehydrated veggie mix from Sojos. I also give her raw bones and table scraps, too. I didn't know much about dog nutrition, I just wanted to feed my dog. Last September, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) ran a very interesting doc called Dog's Breakfast, which was an expose regarding the pet food industry and it made me think of the big dog food companies in a whole new light. You can see a review of this doc here, it's quite interesting http://www.cbc.ca/doczone/dogsbreakfast.html

Edie
Edie

Great post! By the time my dog, Frankie, was diagnosed with diabetes I was already reading dog food labels and I was appalled to discover that the prescription kibble that the vet was selling for diabetics was filled with chemicals and devoid of almost any natural food sources. It was also far more expensive than the better quality kibble and fresh meat/veggies that I ended up going for instead. I think one of the problems -- same as with human doctors -- is that nutrition isn't given much emphasis in veterinary schools. They belief the AAFCO (dog food regulatory agency) imprimatur is enough to provide nutritional balance -- even if the protein source is old shoes (or, more realistically, substandard meat).

MaryHaight
MaryHaight

Hi, Dr. Finch, and welcome. I'm glad the article had you double-checking your tribe's (doesn't 8 pets merit a special name?) food ingredients. What I'm getting from your comment is that veterinarians have considerable influence on food companies inasmuch as vet nutritionists are the folks who put together the formulas for the corporation? If I'm on the right track, then where is the point at which the BHA/BHT and ethoxyquin continues to be approved for use by vet nutritionists? It's my understanding that vets have been suggesting a second reduction in the amount of ethoxyquin used, but this has not yet become accepted practice by pet food companies. There are points of argument in every body of knowledge, and I remember how many scientists happily backed the tobacco industry claims much to the ire of their otherwise employed colleagues, but if this is the case in the veterinary field as many may suspect, why do we not hear more arguments from vets against the use of these chemicals? Wouldn't your group be in the best postiion to change this, or is the concern too diffuse to bring pressure to bear on industry? Or have many in the industry said "thanks, we'll take it under advisement" and left it at that? Are there any white papers that of come out on this issue? I agree we need to thank those who do a good job with our furry families food, and I think most of us vote with our dollars on this. Thank you for providing some insight here, Dr. Finch, and I hope you'll come back again.

MaryHaight
MaryHaight

Hi, Nadine, I'm glad you could make this discussion. I would love to have my dogs for longer than the 15 year record, happy and healthy. If we can clean up the food issues, we might "only" have environmental and genetics to deal with. I personally love organic and would choose it every time were it not so costly. So I pick and choose. But not all can afford to do even this much for themselves let alone their pets. It's why I hope we can level the playing field for all pet owners by asking the pet food industry to use other preservatives for their foods. I know the parts per million (ppm) rates used of the pesticide have dropped according to Vets suggestions once already, and it has been proposed that they be dropped again. I don't know the status of that, or what's happening with the use of carcinogenics like BHT. Maybe we'll get more answers here. Thanks so much for bringing your expertise to this discussion. If people reading don't know, Nadine M Rosin is a published author on this subject, and learned much through the trials and tribulations of her own dog. Her blog is wonderfully informative on this topic and also on environmental impacts of everyday household cleaners, etc. You can check out what she offers here: " target="_blank">http://www.thehealingartofpetparenthood.com/Consu...

Nadine M Rosin
Nadine M Rosin

Rod- I've been told that vets are required to take 1, 3-hour class on animal nutrition- and that that class covers ALL small animals. Shameful!

MaryHaight
MaryHaight

Ok, so you are like me, and maybe many who are reading this. We're the types that will travel long distances to get what our dogs need:) I'd say you've had some very good luck with your dog, but I am in the prevention column on this one. Once a year for whatever shots, bloodwork, dental check and stool testing, and now that Tashi is getting older, I think that twice yearly check ups, the big one in the Spring, and stool and general physical check-up in winter are good habits, but only if and when you can afford it.

MaryHaight
MaryHaight

I love that:) That's the most sound way to answer a client as it does not endorse, and doesn't go against any business contract the practice has with the food company. This is one more thing that we as consumers are responsibile for--we have to know how to ask good questions to get what we need, and no endorsement is the best "don't buy" signal I've heard! Thanks for that, Rebecca! We all have to remember that our vets just don't know everything and nutrition is a field unto itself.

MaryHaight
MaryHaight

Hi Norm, and thanks for sharing your experience in Ontario. I know what you mean that corporate offices don't care because they don't. It's all about the numbers, and for the public companies, you've got to satisfy the shareholders, and ironically not the customers. We've seen *a lot* of that attitude here from many corporate sectors who have used taxpayer dollars and then turned around to slap their customers in the face. But you did mention one vet whose hours were cut because she wasn't billing enough. That's what I'm talking about. She puts her own economic life in jeopardy to help. Corporations are made up of people and the people at the vet businesses have a little leeway to help where they can. Of course, some vet offices are run with an iron hand and there is no discernable heart to the practice. I would not take my precious pup to a place like that. And I know that the vets most likely to close down operations are those who help the most. Maybe some vets will jump into the conversation, if they can (corporate polices being what they are). I appreciate hearing your POV and thanks for sharing it here.

MaryHaight
MaryHaight

Hi, Jim. Glad you liked the article, and I know how strongly you feel about poor nutrition and what it does to dogs from your articles. As a general argument, when there are less experts available to the public and they are harder to get to many people are unwilling to travel miles and miles to a vet or specialist unless it is absolutely necessary. We know prevention is key to good health. And from that perspective there would be less early, life-saving discoveries of major health issues, and more costly treatments for problems that progressed beyond an easy fix as with dental health, arthritis, diabetes, etc. Also when there are fewer experts, they usually command more money. I appreciate your comment on this important topic. Let's hope we can find a way to fix this!

MaryHaight
MaryHaight

I agree, this food discussion could go on for days:)) Oh, and GMOs are already in big trouble. Monsanto's GMO corn has been found to have serious human health implications....at least that was a headline I had seen fly by so I'll be googling tomorrow. We are all unwilling subjects in someone else's experiment. Unfortunately there is no "opt out" button.

norminontario
norminontario

totally agree. When they make as much revenue from sales of crap-in-a-bag, they lose perspective of why they are there in the first place

MaryHaight
MaryHaight

Hi, Rebecca. You bring up exactly a part of the equation here that really gets under my skin: Who is minding the store if the industry is in charge of every possible aspect of oversight? And I am not sure, but I bet the actual food sales are not as valuable as the help that comes in the form of underwriting of conferences and continuing education. I think companies are fully aware of the value of positioning a brand for maximum impact, and know people will remember the brand they saw at the vets when they shop their local market. Thanks for commenting!

Kelley Denz
Kelley Denz

My vet actually recommended I feed my dogs Iams when I asked him about food. He said it was a good quality food and had everything my dog needed. Fortunately, my dog Rusty knew better and wouldn't eat it. That is what made me start to do a lot of research, I changed his food to a high quality no pesticides, chemicals etc dog food, now he loves his food and eats every last bit. Sometimes its good to listen to our pets.

MaryHaight
MaryHaight

I agree with you about realizing the importance of influence, rather than simply considering the bottom line. Things are so tough for so many now. I'm sure it is much easier for us to suggest they don't sell food, but economic realities set in when the bills come due. It's why I decided to go to the root problem. I'd like to know what's been done since the survey taken one year ago today, and am hoping at least one of the companies I'll be contacting will give me some information. Thanks for your contributions here Karen; I'll be very interested to check out those sites!

MaryHaight
MaryHaight

Well I replied to you earlier today and now I see it's gone missing somehow! Did you get my response via email? Just want to be aware of what's working, what's not....thanks, Edie!

MaryHaight
MaryHaight

Yes, and my concern here is that because so many think AAFCO is independent of the pet food industry--which it is not--that approval means the product is fine. The reality is much more complicated, with industry teaching vets nutrition, self-reporting on their own recall issues, and basically being autonomous of government oversight. But I would like to understand what can be done, and if Vets have a big enough influence on industry to help them change. How much of a price differential there is in using vitamins as preservatives vs. toxics? What would happen to production and distribution if food only lasted 4 months? And if organics can do it, why can't the Mars Corps of this world, granted with some rethinking? What are the real world results of this change in terms of product price? Will it be affordable? All people should have the expectation of safe food, for themselves and their pets. We should not have to be concerned with dangerous substances being used to process them. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Edie!

norminontario
norminontario

I am in complete agreement with both of you. This is just like the vet I mentioned who doesn't conform and is being punished.

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