Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Dry cat food -- a conflict of interest on the part of veterinarians

For many years, like the majority of pet owners in North America, I fed my cats an exclusive diet of dry food.

I was told emphatically and insistently by my veterinarian that this was “the very best food that you could feed your cat.” Further, I should never feed my cat anything else other than one of these veterinary prescribed diets.

Unfortunately I believed my veterinarian. Why wouldn’t I? Don’t they get trained by impartial nutritionists in their program of study at one of the most illustrious institutions in Canada, the University of Guelph? I have since learned that the answer to that question is a simple “no”.

Veterinarian and veterinary students receive very little in the way of non-pet-food-company-sponsored impartial scientific training in nutrition, although many are embarrassed to admit this. What little information they receive in their formal training comes from the pet food industry themselves, who aggressively do everything they can to win the hearts and minds of veterinary students.

Free pet food to veterinarian students is standard practice. Business marketing plans are targeted towards lucrative incentives for veterinarians to encourage a lifetime of feeding commercial dry cat food. Most veterinarians are, in essence, “on the take” from the pet food industry -- they have effectively become pet food company sales representatives. The sale of dry cat food often comes to as much as 35% of a veterinarian clinic’s income.

After 10 years of continuous, day in day out feeding of these dry cat food formulations, my first female Siamese, Baby X, developed kidney problems and my second Siamese, Baby X, developed feline diabetes and eventually died of suspected kidney failure. It was only during the illness of Baby X that I researched cat nutrition and discovered that dry cat food is essentially nothing more than meat-flavoured cereal -- corn, rice, wheat laced with questionable additives and preservatives. I also learned that cats should not be eating ANY carbohydrates at all and that ALL dry food is too high in carbohydrates. Many of these veterinary prescribed prescription diets are as much as 40% carbohydrates! So it is quite clear -- there is NO FORM of dry food that is acceptable for a cat to eat.

Further, I discovered many shocking things about how this dry cat food is made -- these cereals are cooked in large vats and created through a process of extrusion that molds it into cereal-shaped kibbles. The food is so unpalatable to cats -- who have reputations as discerning gourmets -- that the manufacturing process necessitates spraying “digests” -- fermented meat by products--- onto the outside of the kibble. This is the so-called "healthy and balanced" "food" that the industry claims on every label on every bag of dry cat food? False and misleading advertising, indeed!

Cats are obligate carnivores -- no veterinarian would dispute that scientific fact. So how is it that so many veterinarians exclusively prescribe, promote and sell only these prescription diets?

How has the pet food industry influenced both the training of veterinary students in the universities, as well as the veterinarian profession at large, into the false belief that it is acceptable for cats to eat meat-flavour-coated, preservative-laden commercial cereals -- and only this food, nothing else -- for an entire lifetime? It's like a general practitioner telling a human client, "you must eat ONLY these diet bars I sell to you for an entire lifetime -- no fresh food ever."

There is currently an epidemic of illnesses in cats -- feline diabetes, chronic renal failure, inflammatory bowel syndrome caused by these species-inappropriate formulations that constitute dry cat food. Grains are indigestible for cats and dry food products are heavily constituted in grain. Even those that are "grain free" are still made by this dubious process of extreme heat processing and extrusion to make them into breakfast cereals.

Pet owners find themselves in a situation where the very food that their veterinarian prescribed and sold to them creates illnesses that endangers the health of their beloved cats. This pet food company created marketing ensures a steady business for the vets in the way of repeated vet visits, tests and expensive (and usually ineffective) treatment plans.

Veterinarians do not seriously consider vet kibble as a source of many of the illnesses they are seeing in cats in their clinics. There's a serious disconnect happening here! By overlooking this problem, veterinarians become part of the problem. They are, in essence pet food company representatives, not impartial scientists who keep up on the latest research. Veterinarians selling commercial multinational pet food constitutes a conflict of interest.

The claims of “health” on these products cannot be verified over the long term health of a cat since any studies done are short term for acute toxicity only. Our cats have effectively become “experimental animals” (Hodgkins) and the only real long term tests are those done by cat owners who feed these dry commercial pet food formulations for the lifetime of their pet -- as their veterinarians insist!

Pet food is a highly profitable business -- more than $40 billion dollars a year in North America alone. It’s certainly cheaper for the industry to make cat food from cereal rather than meat. Higher profits and easy to ship and store, but more ill health for our pets.

As cat guardians become more educated that dry food is causing many of the illnesses in their cats, the people they will blame are NOT the faceless corporate pet food company executives and shareholders, but the veterinarians who recommended, prescribed and sold them these species-inappropriate, meat-flavour coated cereals with preservatives and chemicals.

Veterinarians have an ethical responsibility to their clients to upgrade their education and knowledge about nutrition from non-pet food company sources.

There are progressive veterinarians that are keenly aware of this problem and who are not only speaking out about it, but encouraging their clients to feed natural diets. Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins, Dr. Lisa Pierson, Dr. Marion Smart, Dr. Ian Billinghurst, Dr. Tom Lonsdale, Dr. Paul McCutcheson and other holistic vets strongly encourage pet owners to feed raw meat -- a cat’s natural diet. Remember mice and birds? Well, they need to eat a diet that is as close to that as possible.

Unfortunately, despite its esteemed reputation, the University of Guelph is failing miserably in this respect. Pet food companies teach veterinary students that nutrition is all "in the bag" for all cats.

Most veterinarians, although unqualified to advise on nutrition, routinely aggressively discourage the feeding of raw meat -- a cat’s natural diet -- while parroting the pet food industry propaganda to owners that they will kill their cat with salmonella poisoning if they do so.

Safe and effective handling of raw meat is of course paramount, and pet owners are not uneducated simpletons who cannot understand how to put together a nutritionally balanced formulation when provided with the correct information. The problem is that the multinational pet food industry has effectively indoctrinated veterinarians into believing their pseudo-science and provided lucrative incentives for them as part of this process. Many veterinarians are, in essence, ”embedded” within the pet food industry through their practices and clinics across North America.

In the meantime, legislative changes are needed to strip the claims of “health” from dry cat food; remove offending products from the market and effectively educate owners how to ensure the health of their cats by feeding natural diets. Vets should not be allowed to sell dry food -- or any multinational corporation's commercial food -- to cats.

Are they a "food" or a drug? If they are a "food" then how is it the need to be "prescribed"? If they are being "prescribed" how is it that they are not being tested and regulated the way drugs are?

Tainted pet food is but the tip of the iceberg: the real scandal is how dry cat food formulations, most of them veterinarian prescribed and sold, are causing so many illnesses in our cats.


NOTE: An edited version of this blog post was published as a Letter to the Editor in the Volume 48 (11) November, 2007 edition of Canadian Veterinary Journal - read both and note what they edited out -- any criticisms of the university's role in perpetuating this problem.

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