Quibble over kibble?

Dining critic talks puppy palatability with pet food expert

By Paula Johnson

Photo: Technical services veterinarian Dr. Amy Dicke and Roxie

This year Americans shelled out millions of dollars on Valentine’s Day gifts for their pets. But do most pet owners put even a fraction of that thought and energy into deciding what to put in Rover’s food bowl? Isn’t one dog or cat food pretty much the same as the next? If you are someone who pays attention to your own food choices, choosing locally sourced, organic and sustainable foods, is it important you do the same with pet food? And, most importantly, how do you know it tastes good?

I asked these questions to local Mars Petcare technical services veterinarian Dr. Amy Dicke.

How can people know they are buying a good quality food?

Amy Dicke: Few pet owners are aware of the immense scientific expertise and resources involved in the development and manufacture of premium pet foods. It takes a team of experts to get pet food into the bowl, including nutritionists, veterinarians, microbiologists, biologists, food scientists, chemists and engineers. All of these specialties link the whole product development process together from scientific research to recipe design, from ingredient selection to processing, packaging and testing of finished product.

You need to go beyond the pet food aisle and beyond the bag. It’s important to investigate and get educated about the company producing the product. Here are some questions I would ask: Who is formulating and producing it? Do they have nutritionists, veterinarians and food scientists? Do they have a phone number you can call to get information? Do they have a research institute to do studies to try and improve their product? How is the food sourced? Do they own their own facility and is it located in North America?

Why is that important?

AD: It’s quality control. Look for North American plants, which are certified “Safe Feed, Safe Food” facilities by the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA). It’s a voluntary, independently certified program that establishes comprehensive standards of excellence that go beyond existing regulations to maximize safety. Everyone remembers the tragic deaths of so many pets in 2007 due to food from China containing melamine and cyanuric acid to mimic increased protein content.

What about the recent news about food marketed by Purina, a major player in the pet food industry?

AD: With only the news reports to make an opinion I am not satisfied this is a quality issue, though it has been publically perceived as one. The pet owner and legal representation are focusing on the ingredient propylene glycol. This ingredient is frequently used in pet food and human food … and has been for many years. Like many ingredients, excessive levels at some point can lead to undesirable health effects. I would think if levels were elevated in the food these dogs were eating a recall would have been issued by now.

Are there valid reasons to feed your pet a customized diet?

AD: Absolutely! This can really be a game changer in your pet’s health. Nutritional intervention can control things like diabetes. Oftentimes allergies are expressed with symptoms like skin itching and can easily be brought into control through diet. If you’ve got a senior dog, look for a food with glucosamine and chondroitin, and if your pet has a sensitive stomach a food with pre and probiotics is really beneficial.

Does feeding your pet low quality food have long-term metabolic consequences?

AD: Health and life span are determined by genetics, environment, health care and nutrition. So yes, it’s a factor. Unfortunately some of the life-limiting consequences of poor diet don’t become evident until a pet becomes symptomatic and the damage is done.

I’ve read that feeding puppies a diet rich in Omega3 fatty acids actually boosts how they learn and remember. Does that mean a higher quality diet translates in a smarter, more obedient dog?

AD: Diet has been shown to aid in trainability, along with guidance, patience and love! A puppy has 70 percent of its adult brain at six weeks, and 90 percent at 12 weeks. A puppy formula really needs to have high amounts of protein and fat, particularly DHA, to make sure they have adequate energy to develop brain function.

Does low cost always equal low quality?

AD: I feel confident saying there’s a linear relationship there. Lower cost foods are often missing nutrients, vitamins and supplements, which would need to be added to provide your pet what’s necessary for his health. That’s not to say that there aren’t products that are priced inappropriately high. Buying the most expensive isn’t necessarily always the best choice.

Is it possible to feed your pet a vegetarian diet?

AD: While grains do provide energy, vitamins and fiber, that doesn’t constitute a full balanced diet. For instance, separate amino acids would need to be added in. And to have a premium diet containing Omega3 DHA fatty acid, those are sourced from fish, shellfish or fowl. So maybe for a dog, if you are paying strict attention to supplementing, but cats absolutely not!

There’s a trend for people to make their own pet food because they want to guarantee their pets the same quality as the food they eat. Is this a good idea?

AD: People do this out of love for their pets, thinking it’s the right thing. But a home cooked meal is not in the pet’s best interest because it’s not balanced and complete. Though your pet might seem healthy, many problems might not show up for a year or more depending upon what’s missing from the diet. I would add that the pet food industry spends millions of dollars researching to better understand an animal’s dietary needs and improve their quality of life.

Has there been a demand for pet food that reflects our interest in an ethically sustainably raised organic diet? In other words, does Farm to Table translate to Farm to Food Bowl?

AD: Well let’s look at the question of sustainability, and how the livestock industry and the human food system are related. Pet food diets are formulated to meet pet owning consumer demands, not what the pet itself really needs. The bottom line is that your dog doesn’t need to or care if he’s eating all white meat chicken breast. That can set pet food up to compete with human food needs. If you really want to look at what is sustainable and not wasteful, that would be using the whole chicken, so when you see chicken meal on the label, that’s not a bad thing. That is ethical and sustainable.

How do you make it taste good? How is that tested? Are cats and dogs the same in what they find palatable? Do people actually taste the food?

AD: The first thing that makes food attractive to pets is smell. That’s what draws them in, then texture and finally taste takes over. Humans have over 9,000 taste buds, dogs have 1,700-2,000, and cats only 500. And cats are completely taste blind to sweets. We do have some folks at the manufacturing sites who taste, and I have sampled a few things!

Reach DCP freelance writer Paula Johnson at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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