Focus on health: Common pet food myths

By From page A9 | November 25, 2012

Myth: My dog or cat has been eating the same food for years, so it can’t have a food allergy.

Food allergies are caused by the body’s immune system reacting to one of the components of the diet, often the protein or carbohydrate source. This reaction is typically manifested in pets as red, itchy skin and ears.

The most common ingredients that lead to food allergies in dogs are beef, dairy, and wheat; in cats, the most common are beef, dairy, and fish. Since many pet foods on the market use one or more of these ingredients, it is easy to see why food allergies are more common than people may think. The quality of the food does not matter—even the highest quality ingredients will cause a reaction of the animal is allergic to them.

Food allergies take months to years to develop. As the body is continually exposed to allergens, it builds up the level of antibodies that respond. With more time, and more antibodies against the offending ingredient, comes more of a significant inflammatory response. Many owners don’t notice the problem until it is significantly advanced.

Myth: Therapeutic diets are just a marketing ploy by pet food companies.

Let’s be clear — pet food companies obviously do profit from the sale of their products, and offering an array of therapeutic diets will improve the market share of any company. But therapeutic diets are not just gimmicks, and when used in appropriate circumstances can truly improve the health of a dog or cat.

For some disease processes, studies have shown that pets fed specially formulated diets live longer than their counterparts fed a regular pet food. For example, some diabetic cats can be controlled with a low carbohydrate, high protein and fiber diet, and ultimately not need insulin injections. However, cats with kidney disease benefit from a protein-restricted diet that is lower in salt and supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids.

There are other therapeutic diets formulated for dogs and cats that help manage obesity, bladder stones, inflammatory bowel disease, liver disease, hyperthyroidism, and food allergies, to name a few. Most of these diets require a veterinarian’s prescription, and will be used by the veterinarian as part of a comprehensive approach to treatment.

Myth: By-products in a pet’s food are inherently bad and should be avoided.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets definitions for ingredients found in pet foods. By definition, “by-products” of chicken, beef, and other meats include the clean, non-meat portions of the carcass, but cannot include feathers, hair, horns, teeth, or hooves. Organs such as liver and spleen, which are sometimes what wild animals will eat first in their prey, are defined as by-products. Bone is also defined in this manner. While owners may feel strongly about avoiding by-products in their pets’ foods, the use of by-products as defined by AAFCO is not inherently dangerous or problematic.

Myth: My veterinarian will disapprove if I want to prepare my pet’s food at home.

Many pet owners like the convenience of a pre-packaged food for their pets, but other owners prefer to make the food at home. While some veterinarians may be more supportive than others about homemade pet food, there are many pet owners who provide the appropriate nutrition their pet needs by preparing a pet food from scratch.

Owners may purchase kits of ingredients to mix together, or may purchase the ingredients on their own. Some owners prefer to feed a raw meat diet to their pet; there are some risks with bacterial contamination associated with this that should be discussed with a veterinarian. There are also many recipes that include cooked ingredients. The most important thing is to make sure that a homemade diet is nutritionally balanced—just feeding chicken to a dog or tuna to a cat is not appropriate. A veterinarian can provide an interested pet owner with resources to help ensure that a homemade diet provides the appropriate vitamins, minerals, and overall nutrition needed.

— Keith Rode is a veterinarian at Woodland Veterinary Hospital and a graduate of UC Davis. For more information, call 530-666-2461.

Keith Rode, DVM

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