Feeding Galloping Gourmets


Will your dog really be better off if you buy the 70-cent-per-can "gourmet" dog food instead of the ordinary half-dollar brand? Will your finicky cat thrive, yet lose weight, if you switch to an expensive "diet" dinner? Finding the right answer for your pet can be important to its health and to your pocketbook.

Feed for pets is more than a $6 billion industry, with almost $5.7 billion devoted to dogs and cats. According to the Pet Food Institute, a trade association, there are 54.5 million dogs and 63.2 million cats in the United States.

After the first dog biscuits were sold in 1860, change came slowly. Canned horsemeat joined dry dog foods in the 1920s, with dry meat meals and the first cat foods appearing in the 1930s. Commercial variations flourished in the 1960s.

The Human's Dilemma

If you stroll down the supermarket pet food aisle today, you may find some 100 varieties of dog food.

Most common are "low-calorie" products to help Rover lose weight. Prominent, too, are brands with nutrients suited to dogs of different ages. Some victuals claim benefits purely cosmetic, such as alleviating canine "bad breath"--a condition more likely to trouble the master than the mastiff. Amid such a profusion of products, how is one to choose?

Specialized pet foods, sometimes called "prescription" feeds or diets, have been marketed primarily through veterinarians or kennel clubs, and intended as part of a comprehensive health regimen. Recently, however, they've begun showing up on supermarket shelves.

"We are opposed to the sale of 'prescription' diets in supermarkets," says George Graber, Ph.D., director of FDA's division of animal feeds in the Center for Veterinary Medicine. He explains that feeding a pet such foods without the advice of a veterinarian could harm the pet.

The regular dog and cat foods on the market provide a "complete and balanced diet" for pets, and clearly show this in their package labeling. While some products may claim to taste better--and large manufacturers maintain kennels with the happy mission of testing such claims--all foods so labeled are adequate nutritionally for healthy animals. FDA insists that pet food be as safe for animals as human food is for people. Labels list ingredients in order of preponderance, along with a chemical analysis. Even a product's name may not be misleading as to content or nutritional properties.

FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine works closely with the states through the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to insure the safety of animal feeds. Manufacturers must provide scientific support to justify nutritional claims, including the assertion that a product constitutes a "complete and balanced" diet, either throughout an animal's life or during a specified part of its life cycle.

Who's the Gourmet?

Whether or not a pet becomes a demanding "gourmet" depends on its owner. In choosing varied, "gourmet" diets for our pets (diets to which they may become quickly and expensively accustomed), we fall into an anthropomorphic fallacy, a tendency to attribute human characteristics to animals.

Dogs and cats are creatures of habit. A pup or kitten raised on an ordinary feed will grow to like it, sometimes shunning rarer delicacies in favor of "the usual." Though Fido may clamor for your steak while his own chow waits in his bowl, he'll ordinarily go for his regular meal if other temptations don't compete. Variety is not so important to him as it may seem to you.

Some "gourmet" pet foods (and especially pet "treats") are designed to appeal more to the human purchaser than the animal consumer. Color-blind canines are indifferent to the pastel hues that beckon the buyer of dog candies, just as kittens value the cute shapes less than the content of their bonbons. We pay extra for such gimmicks because we consciously or unconsciously equate human tastes and needs with those of our pets. Catering to this tendency in the extreme was a luxury mineral water marketed in New York as "the only water your dog needs to drink."

"What are you trying to achieve in adopting a special diet for your pet?" asks Beverly Corey, D.V.M., an FDA veterinarian. "Once you know that, do you have enough information to make the proper selection?" Your answers to these common-sense questions can protect you from wasteful spending, and they can prevent you from inadvertently harming your pet's health.

You should have reason to depart from a "complete and balanced" pet diet in favor of a more specialized regimen. These reasons may include age, disease, or even stress, but they should be diagnosed by a veterinarian. Otherwise, a good rule to apply to your pet's system is the traditional wisdom, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Pet Foods with Drug Claims

FDA is especially concerned about pet food products labeled for the prevention or treatment of disease. Such labeling, Graber points out, renders the product a drug. He says that as far as he knows, no pet foods carrying drug claims are being legally marketed in the United States.

FDA has been working with the states, through AAFCO, to make sure that pet foods are not labeled with drug claims. Of particular concern recently has been cat food labeled for the prevention of feline urological syndrome (FUS), a urinary tract problem in male cats.

In February 1990, AAFCO sent a letter to pet food manufacturers reiterating FDA and AAFCO's position that claims that a product may prevent or treat FUS are drug claims and are not allowed on feeds unless they're approved as drugs. Even though FDA gave companies ample time to make necessary label changes, some failed to make them.

Armed with FDA documentation, Missouri and Texas state officials have seized hundreds of tons of cat food labeled for the prevention of FUS, and New York state officials are contemplating similar action. At least one company whose products were seized has assured FDA that it will no longer label products for sale in the United States for the prevention of FUS.

In a similar case in 1987, the manufacturer of Purina Puppy Chow complied with FDA's request to withdraw its advertising claims that the product could ease canine hip displasia (CHD), a genetic disease affecting the hip joints of some breeds of dogs, particularly German shepherds. The supporting evidence printed in the advertising brochure provoked a strong reaction in the veterinary community, which dismissed it as scientifically inadequate. Although American Kennel Club breeders have made progress in breeding a tendency toward CHD out of some purebreds, many dogs still suffer from the complex problem, which involves not just breed but genetics, weight when young, and other factors. No dog food has been shown to relieve the disorder.

FDA allows companies to make "gray area" claims on pet food labels provided there is adequate data to support their safety for these uses. "Gray area" claims are defined as those that provide useful health-related information, but do not directly state disease prevention or treatment. Examples of gray area claims are "low magnesium" or "produce acidic urine pH."

Weighty Problems

"Low-calorie" pet foods have emerged to help pudgy pooches and fat felines reduce. A safe and effective weight reduction program, however, must
recognize not just the physiological differences between humans and dogs or cats, but also those between dogs and cats.

From a fifth to over half of dogs are overweight, though the lack of agreement as to what constitutes canine obesity complicates the estimate. If your dog is overweight, in most cases a veterinarian's opinion is needed to decide what to do. Placing the dog in a hospital and starving it used to be considered an option. But, according to FDA veterinarians, this is rarely done today because it's now known to be extremely dangerous. It produced only slightly more weight loss than reducing the amount of regular food, and certainly the dogs didn't like it.

Unless your dog is so committed to its regular food that it refuses anything else, the best course is usually to switch to the same amount of "diet" product recommended by the dog's vet, rather than reducing the amount of regular food.

Putting cats on a diet can be tricky, too. A "fasting" cat can develop a painful liver condition called hepatic lipidosis. More gradual weight reduction, with enough food to maintain 60 to 70 percent of the cat's usual energy intake, is essential. A veterinarian can help you determine what this means in terms of food portions or types for Tabby.

Other Nutritional Needs

The commercial success of age-based dog foods set off widespread mass-marketing of specialty pet foods. Promoters claim these products address the particular nutritional requirements your pet encounters as its physiological makeup changes with age. Does your pet really need this costlier precision in its diet?

Some veterinarians find advantages in these products for some dogs and cats, though the nutritional benefits will likely vary with breeds as well as with individual animals. But it's also true that any "complete and balanced" food will be adequate for pets of all ages without particular health needs.

Specialized foods can make valuable contributions toward controlling pets' afflictions, though usually as part of a comprehensive therapeutic program. For example, inflammatory bowel or other gastrointestinal diseases can respond well to special diets, but the advice of a vet is essential in treating pet illnesses. Well-intentioned experimenting with a pet's diet may relieve one condition only by risking another.

Cats and dogs aren't our only pets, though they have commanded the lion's share of veterinary research. AAFCO now is devoting new attention to "specialty products" designed for gerbils, goldfish, ferrets, and other creatures. Overweight hamsters may some day find themselves doomed to reducing diets, just like dogs, cats--and people.

Though gourmet goodies may tempt you as you stroll the pet food aisle, it's wise to keep in mind that expert advice, rather than impulse and intuition, should be your guide in feeding Fido and Tabby. This approach can protect both your pet's health--and your pocketbook.

Stephen J. Ackerman is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Judith Levine Willis is editor of FDA Consumer.

This article was published in FDA Consumer magazine several years ago. It is no longer being maintained and may contain information that is out of date. You may find more current information on this topic in more recent issues of FDA Consumer or elsewhere on the FDA Website, by checking the site index or home page, or by searching the site.