Is Conventional Pet Food Poisoning Our Dogs?
Rebecca Hosking decided to turn detective when her collie fell ill. What the woman who led Britain's first campaign to ban plastic bags discovered will alarm every animal lover.
It was early spring this year and my other half, Tim, and I were down in one of the lower meadows on our Devon farm, coppicing willow while keeping half an eye on our ten-month-old border collie, Dave, as he indulged in his favourite pastime: moth hunting. Not that we knew it then, but that was the last time in months we would all be worry-free.
Half an hour later, as we sat down for tea back at the house, we heard a horrible thumping sound from outside.
The following seconds are still a blur. I don’t remember getting to the kennel, I just recall pulling Dave into the recovery position and putting a blanket under his head. He was convulsing violently,legs wildly paddling, frothing at the mouth.
Dave, we would later discover, was having a grand mal seizure and that thumping sound was his head uncontrollably banging on the kennel floor. It was a sound we would come to dread and one we would sadly hear all too often.
The vets told us that dogs can have seizures for many reasons and that there are only so many tests you can run. If, as in Dave’s case, the specific cause cannot be identified, the diagnosis of ‘idiopathic epilepsy’ is made. That translates as: ‘He’s having seizures and we don’t know why.’
Dave was prescribed anti-convulsant medication but the seizures continued. They were particularly severe and we knew that any one could be lethal.
Vets tell you: ‘Live with canine epilepsy, not for it.’ Good advice, but much easier said than done. We went entirely the other way and buried ourselves in research, starting on a journey that would take us far beyond canine epilepsy.
A concerted internet trawl through scientific journals, veterinary publications and pet-owner forums revealed a huge and growing incidence of dogs with diseases of the joints, internal organs, immune system, eyes, ears, skin, teeth and nervous system; not to mention cancers, behavioural disorders and, yes, epilepsy. And, this being the internet, the suggested treatments encompassed everything from fancy pharmaceuticals to collective prayer.
There was one piece of advice, however, that cropped up far too often to ignore – ‘get your dog off commercial pet food’.
At the time we were feeding Dave what we thought was a high-quality dried food or ‘kibble’. According to the description on the side of the packaging, it was ‘rich in meat’ with ‘wholesome ingredients’ and ‘100 per cent complete and balanced’.
But the ‘ingredients’ section on most petfood packaging is notoriously vague and misleading. Manufacturers don’t really want you to know what’s in there. After some serious delving, I could understand why.
In all probability we had been feeding Dave the waste by-products of industrial grain processing, vegetable pulp (and possibly woodchip), a grounddown mix of non-nutritious animal parts, along with used fats and oils, possibly from restaurant fryers and industrial food-processing units. This mixture is preserved with powerful antioxidants banned in the UK for human consumption and linked to liver and kidney damage, stomach tumours and cancer.
Like so many pet owners, I just didn’t think to question my dog’s food until something went wrong. But when I did, I stumbled upon a battlefield, with commercial petfood manufacturers on one side and those who advocate a more natural diet for pets on the other.
Pet-food makers say processed pet food is safe and nutritious; natural feeders argue that commercial food, being mainly composed of cooked cereal grains, is inappropriate for animals that evolved to eat raw meat and bones.
I simply wanted to know what I should be feeding my dog. Asking vets seemed a sensible approach but many were reluctant to be drawn on the issue.
Roger Meacock, however, was one vet who was happy to talk at length. He was also unashamedly in the natural diet camp: ‘You only need to look at David Attenborough programmes to know that wild dogs eat carcasses. They catch live animals or scavenge carrion; they don’t attack wheat fields, they don’t dig up potatoes, they don’t cook, they don’t add preservatives or flavour enhancers . . . if it doesn’t happen in the wild we shouldn’t be doing it for them.’
If it’s that obvious, why the confusion? Meacock says: ‘Pet-food manufacturers would have us believe dogs are not carnivores but omnivores. This deliberate misclassification flies in the face of all the scientific evidence.’
The pet-food industry is dominated by a handful of multinational corporations and is estimated globally to be worth £30 billion a year. Profits are maintained by using the cheapest possible ingredients that regulations will allow.
In North America, ‘mammalian meat and bone meal’, a key animal component in pet food, has been shown to include the ground-up remains of euthanised cats and dogs – flea collars, name tags, microchips and all.
Pet-food manufacturers like to point out that our pets are living longer than ever, and argue this is because of improved nutrition.
Meacock has little time for this claim: ‘Human beings today are living longer than ever but if KFC and Burger King tried to take the credit they’d be met with utter disbelief.’ He believes huge advances in veterinary care, particularly in immunisation, have extended animals’ lives despite their processed diets.
The vets I talked to agreed that a diet of processed food was linked to many chronic ailments and degenerative conditions.
‘I tend to see a lot of dogs with cancer or arthritis or allergies,’ said Meacock. ‘The main part of what I do is taking them off a commercial diet and putting them on to a raw diet, and that is where I see the biggest difference. I’ve had dogs which have been expected to die and they’ve left me with a clean bill of health simply because I’ve put them on the raw diet.’
Pete Coleshaw is a recently retired vet with decades of experience from his practice in Staffordshire. He sees the cereal content of many commercial pet foods as the problem: ‘Dogs and cats are not meant to eat large amounts of highly fermentable starch. They have not struggled to survive for millions of years on a diet of meat and bones; they have thrived.’
A month or so after Dave’s seizures started we noticed his physical condition was deteriorating. His coat had become ragged, his gums were pale and he had recurring diarrhoea, persistent rashes and skin irritations. I felt I had nothing to lose by trying Dave on a more natural diet.
There are enough scare stories out there – about bacteria and choking on bones, for instance – to make changing to a raw diet a very anxious time. The majority of these stories can be traced back to people or companies selling processed pet food.
The idea of Dave choking on a bone played on my mind but vet Richard Allport commented: ‘Nothing is risk-free in life but I think the risk of not feeding raw bones is far higher than the risk of feeding raw bones.’
One of the risks of not feeding raw meat is gum disease. Some 85 per cent of dogs over the age of three now have gum disease or tooth decay. A raw bone is nature’s toothbrush for a dog.
A criticism levelled at raw feeding is that its not ‘scientifically proven’. True, unless you are prepared to accept several million years of evolution as a scientific experiment.
And a closer look at the ‘scientific’ testing behind processed pet food reveals it to be about as useful as ‘the science bit’ in shampoo adverts. ‘Complete and balanced’ is the gold-standard claim on a pet food, but what does it actually mean? The specific combination of nutrients, vitamins, minerals and trace elements that a ‘complete’ food must contain are derived from feeding trials carried out in the United States under the guidance of the Association Of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), an organisation seemingly influenced by the petfood industry.
Coleshaw explained: ‘AAFCO feeding trials consist of at least eight dogs being fed the same diet for 26 weeks. During this time, 25 per cent of the dogs can be removed from the test and the dogs eating the food can lose up to 15 per cent of their weight and condition; the food will still pass the test and be labelled “complete and balanced”.’
That doesn’t sound quite so reassuring, does it?
Dave’s illness meant a lot of visits to a lot of different vets and every surgery waiting-room was adorned with displays for processed pet food. If these processed foods are so inappropriate, why are they sold or endorsed by so many vets?
Some people believe there is a grand conspiracy between pet-food manufacturers and vets. However, I’m pretty sure this isn’t the case. All the vets that helped us with Dave were fantastic. If they thought commercial food was making him sick I know they would have said so.
Richard Allport said: ‘This has really come about not because vets decided to do it, but because of the marketing campaigns of the pet-food companies. What saddens me is that my profession, which I like to think is ethical, has been taken in by this.’
The pet-food industry is heavily embedded in the veterinary profession. It runs courses that give veterinary nurses qualifications in animal nutrition; it publishes textbooks on nutrition and hands them out free to veterinary students. And, as Allport explained, it doesn’t stop there.
‘In many cases, the salaries of lecturers in nutrition in veterinary colleges are paid by the pet-food companies,’ he said. ‘So most students today don’t get any information about anything other than commercial pet food.’
If I were a veterinary student, this would make me very angry indeed. Vet schools obviously need their departments funded. Universities admit the money from pet-food companies is important but also regularly proclaim their independence when it comes to nutritional teaching.
True independence, however, is hard to argue when FOI disclosures reveal contractual clauses like this: ‘The University agrees that Royal-Canin will be allowed to provide expertise and material for integration into the agreed university courses on basic and clinical nutrition teaching.’
Pete Coleshaw believes ‘it’s a constant indoctrination into commercial pet nutrition’.
The acceptance of processed pet food is so ingrained in veterinary teaching nowadays, it is unlikely to change in the near future, but people such as Coleshaw show it is never too late to teach an old vet new tricks.
‘I’m a late convert,’ he said, ‘and I’ve had clients say to me, “Yes but you told me ten years ago to feed a commercial food.” My answer to that is to hold my hands up and say I was wrong, I swallowed the company line and believed it – I don’t any more.’
Since then he hasn’t looked back: ‘By the time I left the practice we had the best part of 100 dogs all rawfed, and all of them were absolutely thriving. I’d see them out on dog walks and get very positive feedback from every owner.’
Between them, the vets I spoke to had more than 2,000 dogs and cats on natural diets, and business was booming.
Sadly we ran out of time with Dave and he had one big seizure too many, but that’s not to say the dietary change was a failure – quite the opposite. In the three months we had him on a wild-type diet we saw some remarkable improvements in his overall health and condition.
Within days his coat became superglossy and he lost that dog smell we had assumed was normal. His teeth became whiter, his bad breath disappeared, his skin allergies cleared, his energy levels picked up and his eyes brightened. For a while, even the severity of his seizures was reduced and he recovered from them in hours rather than days.
We really can’t say if a processed diet caused Dave’s illness but it certainly didn’t help. A developing young carnivore being fed a diet of less than five per cent meat may well have the odds stacked against him.
We have a new puppy arriving next month – Wilf – and I want to give him the best start in life, so that means a raw diet from day one. The pet-food industry tends to dismiss the evidence of tens of thousands of healthy dogs on raw diets as ‘anecdotal’, but I’d rather be another anecdote with a healthy dog than another clinical statistic sat in a waiting room.
Some will question the views of Meacock and Allport. Yet both are fully qualified and respected vets, vocal members of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and frequent contributing writers to the Veterinary Times.
As Roger Meacock says: ‘There’s an old phrase, “Fit as a butcher’s dog.” Doesn’t that say it all?’