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Regular readers know that my vet, Stephen, and I hardly ever disagree. But on the matter of feeding my dogs, we’re not 100% in agreement. I “free feed” Janice and Leroy – I come home with a big bag of dog food, dump it all in one of those great Rubbermaid containers, and let them graze. I’ve always fed my dogs that way, because I find that there are no “issues” over food, and also, none of my dogs has ever had a weight problem. Steve believes in regular, scheduled feedings. We have pretty much had to agree to disagree on this, since really, it’s not such a huge issue, and besides, I’m disinclined to change a system that seems to be working perfectly well.
One area in which we are in agreement, though, is on the type of food to offer. I’ve always given my dogs puppy chow for the first year and a half. Remember those ads with the cute jingle that went “Puppy chow for a full year, till he’s full grown”? Well, with larger breeds, they’re not really fully grown in just a year, so I find it’s better to keep them on puppy chow for longer. Then, I offer dry dog food. And with both the puppy chow and the adult food, I don’t go overboard and buy the expensive brands.
My dogs have mainly been raised on generic dog food. In the beginning, I have to admit, one reason was that I didn’t have a whole lot of money. But if I really believed that the pricey stuff (you know, the dog food that costs about as much as a car payment to feed over the course of a month) was better, Janice and Leroy would be getting it. In fact, I did experiment with expensive dog food at one point, and ended up going back to the generic once I read the ingredient lists. What I discovered was that the expensive stuff was higher in some nutrients, but they weren’t the essential nutrients. When it came to essential nutrients, there was very little difference.
Now, the reason I’ve kept on with the generic food is pretty simple – with very few exceptions, all my dogs have been very long-lived for their breed. And by “very long-lived,” I mean that every one of my Boxers has lived into the double digits, with the oldestdying at 15, and they have all enjoyed good health pretty much to the end. Given that the life expectancy for the breed is about 9 years, and anything beyond that is considered to be a bonus, I’ve bonused in a huge way. Gloria was the youngest, but even then, I had her several months into her tenth year.
So, my point is, I must be doing something right. I’m not about to change the way I feed my dogs because dog food companies seem to want me to shell out a whole lot of money on the belief that I’ll be helping my dogs to live longer. Lots of exercise, lots of love, and regular veterinary checkups and shots are, to my way of thinking a far more reliable way to ensure a long, happy life for a dog than is obsessing over food.
That said, I know that there are people who disagree. And certainly expensive food isn’t going to harm your dog – I just question whether it has much effect at all on health and longevity. If you are the sort of person who favors costly brand names, I’m not going to tell you that you should do anything different. But do you really know what’s in your dog food? Let’s talk about it.
You’ll see this claim on dog food bags, and in ads for various brands of dog food. But what do manufacturers have to do in order to back up that claim?
You might be surprised (as I was) to learn that dog food manufacturers don’t have to prove in any way that their products really do contain even the minimum nutrient requirements before they market their product as “complete and balanced.” And there’s no way of forcing them to do so.
AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) is the agency that is responsible for overseeing the pet food business. However, AAFCO isn’t an enforcement agency by any means. In their own words, AAFCO “provides a forum whereby control officials and industry meet in partnership” to establish “model guidelines” and create definitions for pet food. Sounds pretty vague, doesn’t it? Usually, AAFCO’s guidelines are adopted by individual states when it comes to regulating pet food, but that’s not mandated by law. AAFCO’s members are also kind of all over the map, consisting of veterinarians, pet nutrition researchers, consumer representatives – and representatives from the pet food industry.
AAFCO has been revising the definition for decades, evaluating the minimum and maximum nutrient levels that are essential over a dog’s life. They reference three main categories – gestation/lactation, growth, and adult maintenance. A fourth category is “all life stages,” meaning that the food meets the nutritional requirements for every stage of the dog’s life. As new research becomes available, AAFCO often changes the standards. Just as an example, current research suggests that large breeds may need less calcium than was previously believed to be essential, so this will result in changes to labelling.
This isn’t the only way that AAFCO uses to identify a particular brand of dog food as living up to its claim of being “complete and balanced,” though. There are three other methods – feeding trials, nutrient levels, and “family product” claims.
With a feeding trial, a single product is fed to a number of dogs over a specified time, and the dogs are observed to determine if their health needs are being met. Assuming that the blood tests done on the dogs are satisfactory, and they haven’t lost weight when fed the recommended amounts of the food being tested, then the dog food company can label its product with the following: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that[product name] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [life stage] dogs.”
Sounds good, right? The problem is that all this means is that the product sustained the dogs. Their health didn’t suffer, and they didn’t lose weight. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they improved in any way.
Another problem is that food trials are very expensive to conduct – roughly $20,000 for each food, over each life stage. A trial for adult maintenance food, for example, typically lasts for at least six months. A food trial for the gestation/lactation stage has to begin before the females come into heat, and doesn’t end until the puppies are four weeks of age – this means that the trial will last for at least 13 weeks. In a growth trial, puppies start the trial when they are weaned – at eight weeks – and will consume the food for at least 10 weeks. For an “all life stages” trial, the food is fed to the bitch during the gestation/lactation stage, and then to her puppies in a growth trial.
Given the expense of conducting food trials, what this means is that large dog food companies will do them routinely, thereby earning the right to label their products as being AAFCO compliant. Smaller companies – which may actually be making better dog food – will not be able to conduct feeding trials, and will not be able to label their product as being AAFCO compliant. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s anything wrong with their product – just that they didn’t do feeding trials.
Smaller companies can still make claims to the effect that their product is “complete and balanced) by measuring nutrient levels. AAFCO has established minimum crude protein and amino acid levels, crude fat, linoleic acid and omega-6 fatty acid levels, and minimum levels for the essential vitamins and minerals. The levels for adult maintenance as well as for growth and reproduction are similar. However, in adult maintenance food, the minimum requirements for protein, calcium fat, phosphorus, chloride and sodium are lower than for growth and reproduction. If the company is representing their product as being good for all life stages, the minimum requirements must be met for the growth and reproduction stage.
If the pet food company uses nutrient levels to back up its claim that the product is “complete and balanced,” then it is entitled to label its product as follows: [Name of food] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for [life stage]. It sounds pretty good, but to the average label-reader, it probably doesn’t offer quite the same impact as “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that[product name] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [life stage] dogs.”
What this means is that the dog food is “nutritionally similar” to another product that has also been approved following a feeding trial. AAFCO states that it has “procedures for establishing pet food product families,” and if the company can show that the product is indeed similar, then it can label the dog food as follows: “[Product name] provides complete and balanced nutrition for dogs of [life stage], and is comparable in nutritional adequacy to a product which has been substantiated using AAFCO feeding tests.”
The operative word here is “comparable,” not “identical. And honestly, this is a pretty weak endorsement. Not only are dog foods carrying this label not tested in a feeding trial, they also don’t have to meet the AAFCO nutrient requirements.
I’ve mentioned before (in 13 Things You’ll Learn if You Have Both a Dog and a Baby) that my sister, Colleen, refers to me as an FKIA, which stands, I believe, for “Famous Know It All.” Well, it turns out I really don’t know it all. I always thought that if a dog food company labeled its food as having certain nutrient levels, that company would actually have to be able to prove that the food really did contain the nutrients in the amount stated. I had visions of government organizations like the FDA conducting random tests, and holding pet food companies accountable for their claims.
Here’s how it really works. A representative of the company has to sign an affidavit stating “This product meets the nutrient levels established in the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for [life stage]. Then they need to have it notarized, and keep a copy on file. They don’t even have to file a copy with AAFCO, or any other organization or government regulator. Which is, essentially, just saying “This product is complete and balanced because we say so”!
It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But I s*** you not. It’s the equivalent of “cross my heart and hope to die,” and as a consumer, you don’t have any way of ever validating the “complete and balanced” claim. You just have to take it on faith that the dog food company is being honest – because they say they are. I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty skeptical about the nutrient content of pretty much any dog food right about now.
It matters in a huge way, if you care about your dog. In our grandparents’ day, most dogs lived on a diet of table scraps. Maybe in part because of this, dogs back then didn’t live as long as they do today. They were probably fed a lot of things that weren’t really good for them (I’ve talked about this inYour Dog is Not a Human, So Don’t Feed Him Like One). Today, most dog owners feed commercial food practically exclusively, perhaps with the occasional treat of leftover meet or veggies.
What this means is that we place a lot of trust in dog food manufacturers. And of course those manufacturers are going to push their product, encouraging you to feed only their brand, and warning you of the dire consequences if you decide to switch products. And what this says to me is that if your dog is going to eat only one kind of food over his lifetime, it’s just plain wrong that you have no way of being certain that the food really is “complete and balanced.”
Why are we not able to ask for, and get, a full analysis of the food that we are feeding our dogs? Why do we not have the right to know that our dog food is actually “complete and balanced”?
Whole Dog Journal conducts annual reviews of various dog food brands, and one of the questions that they ask is “Do you make a complete nutrient analysis for each of your products available to consumers? If so, are the analyses available only upon request, or is this information on your website?” Most companies last year were not able to provide nutrient analyses – they were unable, or worse, unwilling, to produce them.
The publication has revised its review process, insisting that the companies being reviewed provide what they term a “typical analysis,” and will compare the results with AAFCO’s nutrient standards. The editors have also let the various companies know that if they don’t get and analysis of their product, they will not include it on their “approved food” list for 2016.
Some companies have already responded, but the publication is still waiting to hear back from several. Others sent computer-generated analyses, which are created by loading nutrient values, and then generating a formula for dog food. This isn’t exactly an analysis of any particular food – it’s a template for how dog food should be made. So it kind of sounds as though some companies are skirting the issue. It’s just a projection, not an analysis. It may have nothing to do with how well the company follows the recipe, whether there could be chemical reactions in the manufacturing process that could affect the nutrient levels, and whether the company actually tests the ingredients regularly and then enters the results into the software. In short, what the computer analysis shows, and what an actual lab test might show, could be very different.
What it means, at its essence, is that right now, we really don’t have any way of knowing with any level of certainty what is in the food that we’re giving our dogs. Whole Dog Journal is obviously working to achieve some level of accountability from dog food manufacturers, but realistically, short of an independent lab analysis (which is not likely to happen), we may have to just take the “I’ll do the best I can” approach when it comes to purchasing dog food. The AAFCO standards are weak at best, and sometimes (as in the case of “Family Member”) practically useless.
In the absence of truly effective labelling standards, people are going to have to take it on faith that dog food manufacturers are being honest. And they’re also going to be subjected to a lot of sales hype – “You don’t want this dog food; it contains a ton of water!” “That dog food is bad because it’s mostly grain, and dogs are totally carnivorous!” Um, they’re not. Remember the last time you gave your dog half a banana and his eyes lit up? Or the time you tossed him a piece of bread and he looked at you as if to say “I love you, Mom!” Or the time he dove happily into that bowl of buttered carrots that you had left over from your own dinner?
And then there’s “Yes, we know that our dog food costs an arm and a leg and we’ll also want a lien on your first-born, but you’ll save money in the long run because our food is so high in nutrients your dog will be able to survive, and even thrive, on a single kibble!” Oh, please, as if.
The dog food industry is, indisputably, trying to hold us hostage, playing on our emotions. We love our dogs, and we always want what’s best for them, and it’s very easy to buy into the idea that you need to buy [insert name of ridiculously high-priced dog food], because if you don’t, you just don’t love your dog enough, and you’re dooming him to an unhappy, unnecessarily brief life.
If find this kind of manipulation unconscionable, especially given that it’s delivered in the context of withheld information. If your product is so great, tell us why! Be honest about the nutrient content of your product – take that ridiculous affidavit out of your file and toss it, and then let us know what we’re really getting in our dog food.
Until someone can prove to me that their product really is better, in a huge way, for my dogs, I’m going to continue with what has always worked – plain old generic dog food, which is probably labeled no more and no less accurately than the expensive stuff. And which has taken my dogs well into healthy old age. I’m a big believer in the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
So, I’m off to Wal-Mart. That Rubbermaid basin looks like it’s starting to empty out a bit. I think I’ll pick up some Milk-Bones while I’m there, too. I probably don’t really know what’s in them either, but Janice and Leroy like them, and as far as I know, they haven’t shortened the lives of any of my other dogs. I’ll stick with the status quo until someone convinces me, beyond a doubt, that there’s a better way. I figure that’s not likely to happen any time soon.
What you decide to do is, of course, up to you, but I’d hate to see you waste money based on what might be misrepresentation on the part of dog food companies, and no science whatsoever.