Fact or fiction? Debunking common pet food myths

December 26, 2020
Erica Tricarico, Managing Editor

Firstline, Firstline January/February 2021, Volume 17, Issue 1

A veterinary technician nutrition specialist busts some popular pet food misconceptions and explains how best to discuss them with clients.

Thanks to Dr Google, pet owners are exposed to a great deal of misleading information about canine and feline nutrition, and in turn, may be providing their pets with a diet that is less than ideal. At a recent Fetch dvm360® virtual conference, Robin Saar RVT, VTS (Nutrition), exposed some of the top pet nutrition-related misconceptions. Share these with clients whenever you can—during appointments, as part of your on-hold phone messaging, and online.

Myth 1: Meat should be the primary ingredient in pet food.

Ingredients on pet food packaging are typically listed in descending order by weight, which means it is impossible to tell the true volume or quality of any ingredient. “We also cannot be sure how the ingredients are being used to provide nutrients or how available those nutrients are for absorption,” Saar said.

She warned that manufacturers can manipulate a diet formulation by setting multiple ingredients to the same weight, making the food seem more appealing to the buyer.
“A package that lists meat as the No. 1 ingredient could be kind of fake because the meat could be providing a lower percentage of protein yet weigh the same as the next 5 to 10 ingredients,” Saar explained.

Myth 2: A high-protein diet is superior.

Pet stores often market diets with 25% to 35% protein, which is well over the 18% required by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). According to Saar, not only can excess protein turn into fat, but it can cause flatulence or intermittent bad stool (Stool that does not have ideal consistency. You should be able to pick up the stool easily without leaving a mess or wet spot) in some pets. “It’s the quality, not the quantity, of protein in the diet that matters,” she said. Eating more of a poor-quality protein is not better, and having higher protein doesn’t mean that the protein is digestible or that the food will be better for the pet, she added.

Myth 3: The more fruit and vegetable ingredients the better.

Although clients may think a long list of fruit and vegetable ingredients is healthier for their pets, what that ingredient list doesn’t reveal is which nutrients those fruits and vegetables are providing and for what purpose, said Saar. Some nutrients are used as antioxidants to help preserve the food. The fact is that fruits and vegetables don’t necessarily make pet food healthier. Owners must do their research to find out the quality of the ingredients and what exactly they add to the pet’s diet.

Myth 4: Organic and all-natural pet foods are healthier.

Words such as “natural,” “organic,” and “holistic” are trending right now, but are foods with these labels actually healthier for pets? Not necessarily, said Saar. There is no research to support claims that natural or organic foods provide better nutrients.

AAFCO defines natural as a product that is derived solely from plant, animal, or mined sources that have not been produced by a chemically synthetic process. The label must state “with added vitamins and minerals” because these must be synthetically synthesized. According to Saar, no product can be 100% natural.

As defined by AAFCO, pet foods labeled as organic have restrictions on the use of feed, antibiotics, hormones, and living conditions, as well as on pesticide use for crops. Although the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) certifies all ingredients that are going to be listed as organic and human-grade, it only certifies foods intended for the human food chain, says Saar. So, once the product goes into the pet food chain, it may no longer under the purview of the USDA.

Additionally, clients may think that pet foods with “holistic” stamped all over the packaging are made with wholesome ingredients. But because there is no definition for the word holistic when it comes to pet food, there’s no evidence that these diets are more beneficial to pets.

Myth 5: Byproducts are waste.

Its commonly believed that byproducts contain drugs and/or roadkill and other waste products. The fact is that byproducts are a highly digestible source of many nutrients that are missing in muscle meat, and they don’t include hair, horns, teeth, hooves, stomach or intestinal contents, drugs, or feathers, said Saar. (Hydrolyzed pet foods may contain feathers.)

What many clients may not know is that some byproducts are considered human grade (think pork and beef liver, tripe, spleen), and there are benefits to using as many parts of the animal as possible. Doing so decreases land waste, the release of nitrogen into the atmosphere, and the total number of sacrificed animals, said Saar.

Myth 6: Gluten and grains are bad for pets.

Gluten-free and grain-free diets are growing in popularity among pet owners, but are they all they’re cracked up to be? The answer, according to Saar, is a resounding no. “The carbohydrates and proteins provided by grains add nutritional value and structure to pet food,” she said, “and grains spare protein by providing energy that allows protein to be used to build or maintain muscles and tissue.” Saar also noted that sensitivity to gluten is rare in dogs and has never been reported in cats.

Myth 7: Raw food diets are superior to kibble.

Many pet owners think raw meats are best for their dogs and cats because that’s what they would eat in the wild. Well, maybe, but our pets are not living in the wild, and therefore may not be able to tolerate raw meats. Here are a few considerations Saar said you should share with clients thinking about making the switch to raw:

Contamination. Pathogenic bacteria, such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Clostridium, from raw ingredients, can lead to potential health risks for vulnerable individuals living in the household, including babies, elderly people, and those with a compromised immune system. Sources of contamination can include dishes used to prepare and feed raw foods, the food itself, and the pet’s saliva and feces.

Balance. Without an AAFCO label on the food, the owner does not know whether the diet is balanced, said Saar, and this can easily lead to a nutrient excess or deficiency for the pet. For example, raw liver fed to a cat daily as a main diet ingredient will cause vitamin A toxicity.

Bones. Uncooked bones in raw foods can fracture the pet’s teeth, or tear or block the esophagus, stomach, or intestines.

Myth 8: Cats can eat vegan diets.

“Cats are true carnivores, and they really need meat,” said Saar. Cats cannot process plant sources of taurine, only meat sources. Cats that are deficient in arginine can become deathly sick within hours, said Saar. “A vegan diet for cats is almost impossible to do.” You may need to opt for a veterinarian diet, which includes eggs and milk, she added.

The takeaway

With so much information at their fingertips, it’s no wonder clients flock to the internet for answers to their pet food questions, but it’s our job to provide them with accurate pet nutrition information, said Saar. Recommend trusted online resources to encourage self-learning while controlling the content, she advised. At the end of the day, we all just want what’s best for our animal companions.

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