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What Should I Be Feeding My Pet? How to Make Informed Decisions.

By December 20, 2018 No Comments

This month we are again honoring Mariposa, our July Pet of the Month.  She was diagnosed with Dilated Cardiomyopathy [DCM] in July 2018 which is presumed to be associated with the grain free food she had been on for the past four years.  She recently had a check-up with her cardiologist, and will be celebrating another birthday on New Year’s. Fortunately, after switching foods, starting on Taurine and heart medications, Mariposa’s heart has shown some improvement. With time it is hoped that her heart disease will improve further.

Following the FDA warning about grain-free foods, the doctors at Hawthorne Hills Veterinary Hospital have had many conversations with concerned pet owners about ‘what should I be feeding my pet, how do I find a good food, and what about comments I am hearing from others’? We thought this would be a good time to address a number of issues and give some guidance to all of our clients and pet owners that are asking the same questions.

First, an update on the ‘Grain-Free’ warning.

In early December, the Clinical Nutrition Service at Tufts University [Cummings Veterinary Medical Center] released an update on the research around diets associated DCM. It appears that it is not just ‘grain-free’ foods, but also dog foods from boutique manufacturers and foods with exotic meats. They have coined the term ‘BEG’ diets for boutique, exotic meats, vegetables and fruits, and grain-free. You can read the full article here:

Further, testing done at their hospital show that 90% of dogs have normal taurine blood levels; supplementing Taurine and sticking with a BEG food doesn’t reduce the risk. This is an important point for pet owners to understand. In addition, they caution against switching to a raw diet or homemade diet because they have diagnosed DCM in dogs eating those diets as well. Their advice and best recommendation for now is to “stick with a commercial pet food made by a well-established manufacturer that contains common ingredients, including grains.”

Additional Articles:

Nutritional research in animals is time consuming, expensive and challenging depending on the species being studied. Properly conducted nutritional research must follow specific rules and can take years before the results are known. As a consequence, many smaller food manufacturers skip the research stage, and they don’t conduct proper food trials utilizing their formulations before sending the product to market. They rely instead on research done by others, or formulate foods that may sound appealing to the public.  

While all manufacturers must meet the minimum AAFCO standards, regulation and enforcement is left to individual states. In fact, one very popular food company touts the fact that they feed their foods to a group of pets, implying that the food has been thoroughly tested and researched. The power of marketing, and misleading messages can make it very difficult for the general public to decipher what is science-based fact and what is just a marketing message.

If your pet has been diagnosed with a specific health issue (diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, food sensitivities, cancer etc.) then you should follow the advice of your veterinarian. They have access to a wide range of resources to help guide the decision as to what food or ingredients will be best for your pet. If your veterinarian has made recommendations, follow their advice. Avoid the temptation to do your own thing, but definitely give feedback as to how you think your pet is doing. Collaboration is the only way your veterinary team can help you manage your pet’s health appropriately.

For the general pet population, there are many options to choose from for feeding wholesome, nutritionally balanced and complete foods. We have assembled a variety of resources so that you can know where to go for accurate information, decipher truth from fiction, and educate yourself on a number of topics.

Who should I trust when it comes to pet nutrition? Here are a few of the leaders:

Which pet food companies are the world-wide leaders in pet food nutritional research?

These companies spend significant amounts of money researching their own products; they are also the leaders in studying diseases that affect animals; they are supporting scientists and universities that are educating and mentoring individuals who are dedicated to furthering our knowledge about pet nutrition and disease. Here are some of the ways they are enhancing pet’s lives through nutritional research and formulated diets. 

What is AAFCO? The Association of American Feed Control Officials

  • Pet food is directly regulated by the States and by the FDA.
  • From the AAFCO site:  “AAFCO establishes the nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods, and it is the pet food company’s responsibility to formulate their products according to the appropriate AAFCO standard”.

What is a feeding trial?

  • Feeding trials must adhere to specifics determined by AAFCO
  • Feeding trials substantiate the ingredients and claims of the food
  • Feeding trials confirm that research has been done and published
  • A feeding trial is science-based facts, not just marketing
  • And, with foods developing via feeding trials demonstrate that statements are validated

Perhaps one of the most comprehensive feeding trials ever done was the Landmark study done by Purina published about 2001 – which studied Labrador Retrievers from 8 weeks until death (14 years+).  This was the first ever study of this type done in a population of dogs looking at a wide variety of factors throughout their life. Conclusion was that ‘lean-fed’ Labradors lived 1.8 years longer than their counterpart ‘control’ dogs, and they lived better – showing fewer signs of aging, later age onset of aging (such as graying of the muzzle), and required less medication for arthritis when it did occur. This was huge! Living 15% longer just because you aren’t overweight. Imagine for people, the difference of dying at 80 years of age, versus living until you were 92, especially if those additional years were comfortable and productive.

How can I select a good food?

Here are some guidelines from the WSAVA, Selecting the best food for your pet: 

Common mistakes pet owners make. 

  1. Not Feeding a complete and balanced food
  2. Giving too many treats and extras
  3. Not knowing your calories
  4. Not feeding for the right life stage
  5. Picking a food based on the marketing

This is advice from Deborah E. Linder, DVM, MS, DACVN  – a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, is the head of the Tufts Obesity Clinic for Animals and has had articles appear in Eating Well, the Boston Globe, AARP, SHAPE, and XM Sirius Radio Doctor Channel. She has spoken at national and international conferences and a Capitol Hill briefing, and is an expert in pet obesity, nutrition communication, and in the human-animal bond.    

What do some terms mean that I read a pet food bag or can?

There can be a lot of confusing terms used to describe pet foods. Here is a link to the AAFCO terminology that is regulated. Marketing terms however can sometimes be used that intentionally or inadvertently mislead the consumer. Be informed!

How to read a pet food ingredient label?

Understanding the ingredient label is important. ALL pet food labels list ingredients by WEIGHT. That means ingredients that weigh more are listed first; it does not mean that the food is primarily composed of that ingredient. In some cases, ingredients can be labeled in several ways such that it is harder to determine from the label alone how much is present in the food.

  • Example: Meat by definition has water in the tissue, and may have along with it any associated fat, gristle, fiber that normally accompany the flesh. This will weigh more than a product that has ‘meat meal’ where the meat has been rendered and dried to a powder. Because fat and water have been removed, the product weighs less, but is not automatically less nutritious.
  • Example: look at human products and the ways that sugar can be defined – added all together, there may be significantly more sugar in a product than you suspected. [Sucrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, galactose, monosaccharides, oligosaccharides or polysaccharides, sugarcane, honey etc.]

Why you shouldn’t judge a pet food by its ingredient list

From the Clinical Nutrition Team @ Tufts   Posts authored by the Clinical Nutrition Service team are by Dr. Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVN, Dr. Deborah E. Linder, DVM, MS, DACVN, and Dr. Cailin R. Heinze, VMD, MS, DACVN.

Myth, Marketing or Fact? There are a number of the pet food myths being promoted by some manufacturers and lay-people.  Don’t let misinformation dominate your feeding choices.

Research has shown that dogs do in fact digest starches/carbohydrates unlike their wolf ancestors. Some pet food manufacturers have manipulated their marketing to lead consumers to believe that grains and carbohydrates are bad for dogs because they are equating dogs and wolves. This is simply not true. Dogs are not wolves. Over the past 11,000 years, domestication has led to genetic differences between the two.

Holistic, Organic, Raw / B.A.R.F.(Biologically Appropriate Raw Foods, Bones And Raw Foods), Meat vs Meal, Corn and other grains


There are many reliable and validated resources to help you make the best decisions about feeding your dog or cat. We hope that the information presented above will be useful.  The doctors at Hawthorne Hills Veterinary Hospital are here to help. We have spent many years collectively managing patients with a variety of health issues in addition to attending conferences, seminars, and webinars to expand our knowledge and improve outcomes for our patients.


Mariposa As A Butterfly


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