Responding to client reactions about Pet Fooled

August 11, 2017
Sarah J. Wooten, DVM
Sarah J. Wooten, DVM

Dr. Sarah Wooten graduated from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. A member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists, Dr. Wooten divides her professional time between small animal practice in Greeley, Colorado, public speaking on associate issues, leadership, and client communication, and writing. She enjoys camping with her family, skiing, SCUBA, and participating in triathlons.

Chances are, at least some of your clients have seen this Netflix documentary Pet Fooled. Are you prepared to discuss to answer their concerns?

Your clients may be suddenly suspicious that something is hiding behind such pretty packaging. (Shutterstock)Have you seen the Netflix documentary Pet Fooled? See my take on it here. If your clients come in with questions, it's the perfect opportunity to start a likely much-needed discussion about nutrition in pets. Below are some possible concerns or questions you might hear from clients. I consulted with Joe Bartges, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, DACVN, and together we formulated some possible responses as a jumping off point.

“Have you seen the documentary on Netflix called Pet Fooled? What do you think?”

I understand how after watching this documentary you would be concerned about the food you feed Fido. I'd be concerned too. While there is some excellent storytelling, there's also a lot of misinformation designed to alarm you. Here's what I know.

First, although this movie says dogs are wolves and eat the same things, this is not true. In order to live with humans, dogs diverged from wolves tens of thousands of years ago. Dogs have different digestion genetics than wolves. A study published by Nature in 2013 indicated that a crucial step in the early domestication of dogs was adaptations that allowed modern dogs' early ancestors to thrive on a diet rich in starch, relative to wolves' carnivorous diet. Dogs excrete an enzyme from their pancreas called amylase that allows for digestion of starch (or carbs) in the gut. In dogs, the gene responsible for amylase secretion is 28 times more active than in wolves.

[Here's the reference to that study, for your reference: Axelsson E, Ratnakumar A, Arendt ML, et al. The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet. Nature 2013;495:360-364.]

“The documentary said corn and wheat cause allergies and disease. What do you think?”

Corn and wheat can be associated with allergies, but there are a couple of things to know in general. First, food "allergies" are actually quite rare. An allergy implies an immune reaction to the food or more specifically a component of the diet. Most of the ingredients that have been shown to cause an actual allergic reaction are proteins such as beef and chicken-corn and soy do appear on these lists but are more rare. When we suspect food allergies, we switch the protein source in the diet, not the carb source.

“The movie showed that they put roadkill, euthanized animals and diseased animals in my pet's food! Is that TRUE?”

That is false. It is not legal for a pet food company to do so.

“The movie says that feeding dry kibble to a cat can cause kidney disease. Am I killing my cat with her food?”

No, you are not killing your cat. Dry food does not cause kidney disease in cats just as crackers do not cause kidney disease in people. Protein also does not cause kidney disease. Kidney disease in cats-and dogs and people-may be caused by many things and it's likely a combination of these insults occurring over time.

My personal opinion: It's a good idea to feed your cat a combination of dry and canned food to provide extra moisture from the diet and prevent strong diet preferences.

“The documentary said that dogs' stomachs are more acidic and can neutralize bacteria. Is that true?”

It's true-stomach acid in dogs has a higher acid output than humans. This does not mean that a dog can't contract Escherichia coli or Salmonella poisoning, or that they don't shed it in their feces, putting humans at risk. Many dogs will not get sick at all from Salmonella, but they will carry the disease, which is also a human health risk. In November 2013, the FDA issued a warning about feeding raw-food diets to companion animals, cautioning that owners had a higher risk of getting infected with Salmonella and another common foodborne bacteria, Listeria monocytogenes. In addition, it's not the bacteria that makes a pet sick, it's the toxins released by the bacteria. The latest research continues to show there's no nutritional benefit to feeding raw meat or eggs, and even USDA Grade A eggs are contaminated with Salmonella.

“What do you think about cooking the meat and serving it rare to make it safer?”

If your client insists on cooking, it is a good option to offer them. Except for ground meat, all the bacteria is on the surface, so searing the outside will reduce bacterial exposure.

“In the movie, they say that BHA is a toxic preservative!”

BHA is a synthetic antioxidant that has been shown to be safe, but many pet food companies have stopped using synthetic antioxidants and have gone to using more natural antioxidants such as vitamin C and E.

“The movie said that chicken byproduct meal is totally rendered and inappropriate nutrition for dogs and cats. What do you think?”

This is not true. Byproduct meal is actually very nutritious and a good protein source. People even eat byproducts, such as kidney pie, hot dogs, brats and haggas.

“What about carcinogens in the food? The movie said that the way the pet food is made creates two carcinogens-heterocyclic amines and acrylamides. What about the potential of creating those toxins?”

“Potential” is the operative and important word here. They can be produced and they may be associated with issues, but whether they are or are not is unknown at this time, other than experimentally in rodent models. Sadly, the same accusation is true of human food as well. Do you know what temperature a fast food restaurant cooks their hamburgers? How about precooked foods that are frozen that you get out of the frozen foods section? There is ongoing research in this area in dogs and cats, so perhaps we will know more at some point.

“Yeah, I think I am going to look into feeding raw.”

OK. Bear with me as I have a soapbox moment (this usually gets the client to laugh and breaks the ice). It's my job as a sentinel of human health to let you know there are inherent risks to your health and your pet's health with feeding raw meat and to give you all the information I can so that you can make the best, most informed decisions for your pet. Is that cool?

"Yeah, that's cool."

It important for you to know that meat from healthy animals is contaminated with microorganisms in between slaughter and the display case where you purchase it. This is very different than carnivores consuming fresh kills in the wild.

The two most important things for you to consider are infectious disease safety and feeding a diet that is complete and balanced. Here is the CDC website with the top recommendations for pet owners feeding raw diets (psst, bookmark that site, or print out copies to have on hand). It's always best to have a recipe from a board-certified veterinary nutritionist.

"So what do you recommend?"

As far as recipe recommendations, Dr. Bartges says, “I have formulated raw food diets for dogs and cats but when doing so it is best to individualize the diet-whether raw or cooked homemade-to the pet and pet parent. So I don't have a stock ‘generic' raw food diet that I give out. There are many websites but the diets are not formulated by a veterinary nutritionist on these sites-thus, buyer beware."

If you want the health benefits of a raw diet for your pet, then there are going to be some risks that you are going to have, both for the humans and the fur kids in the family. I encourage you to do your research before settling on a diet for your pet, and please contact me with any questions. You and I are a healthcare team for your pet, and I want to help.

(Don't forget to cover your butt and write down all your recommendations and precautions in the medical record.)