It's been one year since the first round of massive pet food recalls in the US and some owners still feel concerned over pet food safety. What's a worried owner to do - make your own pet food? Well, you know what comes next - "Consult your Veterinarian". O the irony: Most Veterinarians I have met or otherwise come across in the media say basically that you'd have to be a rocket scientist in order to feed your pets using real foods from your own kitchen so you'd better stick with canned or kibbled pet food.
It helps to know that Veterinarians receive relatively little education on pet feeding in school and some are actually taught by representatives from Hill's Pet Foods. In fairness, Vets have a very hard job. Their patients can't explain how they feel, what weird thing they ingested, etc. And Vets are supposed to know everything about pets' medical needs from treating skin conditions and parasites to administering anesthesia and performing leg amputations. It's probably a relief for a Vet student to hear something like, "Don't worry about feeding because the widely available pet foods on the market are perfectly balanced for a lifetime of reliable nutrition". That's good, you know - one less thing. But it doesn't mean that's an accurate statement (I'll get to that in a bit) or that all pet owners are going to buy into it. So while I truly value and appreciate my Vet, I have no compelling reason to believe I should consult ONLY her on how best to feed my dogs. She's a general practitioner who does not specialize in canine nutrition and I'm fine with that. But it means I'm going to consider other sources when seeking advice on canine nutrition.
Another bit of worn out advice that I wish I could delete from the universe: "Never feed human food to a dog". When I look at the marketing done by pet food corporations, it seems they are trying to entice me to buy their products by showing me images of beautifully prepared meats, vegetables and grains. They want me to associate these fresh foods with the dried pellets inside their bags of pet food. Somehow they are hoping I will believe that the image of real beef stew has something to do with the product inside the can which actually contains squares of wheat gluten made to look like meat. But hello - aren't meats, vegetables and grains actually human foods? Isn't beef stew something I might prepare for a family dinner? (Again with the irony thing.) So if I take this one step further, do I assume that the folks manufacturing these pet foods are the equivalent of rocket scientists? That they know far more than I could ever hope to about how to feed a dog? Considering the pet food corporations have sickened and killed thousands of pets in 2004 and again in 2007 by selling tainted products - which they say they didn't know were toxic - you'll forgive me if I am skeptical as to their vast mental superiority.
Don't get me wrong - unlike a few others, I’ve never thought pet food companies were intentionally trying to kill pets. I do believe that many of them count on the ability of dogs particularly to survive on low quality foodstuffs and fillers. I believe many of them use the cheapest ingredients they can find (such as meat deemed unfit for human consumption) in order to make a profit from a low quality product. I believe many have been deceiving us for years with their “Made in Grandma’s Organic Kitchen on our Vermont Farm” labeling when in fact they were using - knowingly or unknowingly (read: uncaringly) - untested, cheap ingredients from overseas. And I believe that many of them have financially profited from a “self-regulated” industry which was broadly exposed for the UNregulated industry that it is during the massive pet food recalls of Spring 2007.
Further, the AAFCO 'Nutritional Adequacy' stamp, which we were led to believe meant a dog food is 'complete and balanced for all life stages', does not mean that a food has been tested in feed trials over the lifetime of dogs. 'Nutritional Adequacy' indicates that, if the food was tested in feed trials, it was fed for 6 months (or less, depending on the life stage) to 8 dogs. Animals participating in feed trials are weighed and have their blood tested for a few basic levels. I'm not a Veterinarian but having a guess, 8 dogs could probably eat a pretty poor quality diet for 6 months and still pass the weight/blood tests with satisfactory scores to earn the seal of approval. The bottom line is, an AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy statement on the food does not mean that the food can be safely fed to dogs over a lifetime without any risk to their health. That information simply isn't known since tests longer than 6 months are not performed by any third party organizations.
And, a little news item that I doubt would have been reported by the mainstream media if it hadn't happened during the 2007 recalls: Iams received a letter from the FDA about an unapproved chemical found in six of its Eukanuba Veterinary Diets foods. Iams apparently didn't think the chemical - chromium tripicolinate - was important enough to include as an ingredient on the food labels however the FDA describes the chemical as "genotoxic" - meaning it can alter DNA and cause tumors. Gee, I guess I see why Iams left it off the labels. There was no recall requested or offered regarding the affected foods but Iams said it would stop adding the chemical.
That got me wondering, how do we know what else they don't list on the labels? How about other pet food companies - do they omit unapproved chemicals (or other things) from their ingredient lists too? If a pet ate this food and developed tumors somewhere down the road, how on earth would anyone make the connection between the pet's medical condition and the food? As the recalls wore on, some companies issued statements recalling their products saying they contained possibly tainted ingredients not listed on the labels but "it's not our fault" because they DID NOT KNOW what the manufacturers were actually putting into their products. So: What's on the label isn't necessarily what's in the bag and don't blame us!
OK pet food companies, I won't blame you but I don't trust you either. So I'm choosing to feed my dogs from my kitchen cupboard. No, I have not consulted my Veterinarian and Yes, I'm feeding human foods to my pets. In fact, I've been doing it for years and despite my lack of a degree in rocket science, everyone seems to be doing well. Really well. I'm not going to make any outrageous claims about the benefits of my home prepared diet but I will say that the dogs seem overall healthier and heartier than the kibble fed dogs I've had in the past. And that's good these days because, you know - one less thing...
From my bookshelf and recommended reading: Home-Prepared Dog & Cat Diets: the Healthful Alternative by Donald R. Strombeck, DVM, PhD
Mary Strauss has written extensively about home feeding and offers a variety of options for owners to consider
For the gourmet-inclined: One gal who deliciously combines the worlds of human and pet foods is Rachael Ray. Check out her recipes for pets and peeps!