On Pet Food or the Power of Anecdotes

One of the most delightful parts of my childhood were the pets we kept in our home. One dog, and one cat. What I learned from this was that dogs eat dog food, and cats eat cat food. Till now I never questioned that.

The Saskatoon Sceptics’ Society was pleased to hear a lecture from Dr. Marion Smart, a expert in animal nutrition, and the co-author of “Not Fit For A Dog: The Truth About Manufactured Food”. Dr. Smart is a sincere researcher concerned about animal nutrition, and the influence that pet food manufacturers have over the veterinarian profession. In fact, she had skipped the chance to be wined and dined by Iams pet food in order to talk with us. Pet food manufacturers market directly to veterinarian students at the University. This aggressive campaign is reminiscent of the strategies employed by pharmaceutical companies marketing directly to doctors. There are great reasons to be concerned about it this. A slick sales pitch is not a substitute for actual research, something that seems to be lacking in the field of small animal nutrition.

In Canada, five companies hold most of the market share. All pet food in Canada must pass the Canadian food inspection agency. This is to ensure that the product meets the safety standards. A different agency, AAECO, sets the nutritional guidelines. These are minimum standards that all foods must meet. The book, has issue with these standards, especially food safety standards. One of the reasons this book was rushed to print was to be current and topical after the largest pet food recall ever. I think we all agree that food safety is important, and the guidelines should be strict, but this book veers into paranoia. There is a difference between sheer incompetence and malevolence. This book can has an agenda of its own; it is advocating raw foods for pets.

Raw foods should not be a controversial idea, after all us humans, eat it all the time. At least, those of us who cook our own meals from scratch. Pet food manufacturers and veterinarians do not, in general, recommend raw food diets, quite the opposite. The authors imply a conspiracy on the part of these institutions — I doubt it.

I think the recommendation to feed pet food, and only pet food, to companion animals is what I like to call public service science. In other words, a public service announcement that is not entirely true, but is said for the benefit of everyone. Other examples of public service science are statements such as, “there is no safe level of second-hand smoke”. Of course there is a safe level. The veterinarian recommendation to avoid giving an animal “human food” most likely has more to do with the desire to avoid obesity, nutritional deficits, and other health problems that could potentially arise. How many pet owners would know the nutritional requirements of their companion animal? Already it has become difficult to get good nutrition information from the internet. Most pet owners would understand that a natural diet for their cat or dog would contain meat. Feeding your lucky dog steak may seem as an obvious solution, but would deprive that dog of essential nutrient. Wolves do not eat steak, rather the energy rich fat and the nutrient rich organs and marrow. The book does contain balanced recipes for dog and cat food, unfortunately some supplementation (vitamins) is still required.

PSA: This is not cat food

PSA: This is not cat food

The most important part of the book for me was the discussion on dry cat food. Food is manufactured using the same process as for dog food, in other words, the kibble is held together with plant matter. This results in a large portion of carbohydrates in the cat’s diet. Felines have no dietary requirements regarding carbohydrates, since they are obligatory carnivores. Dry cat food is packed with unnecessary ingredients. This diet can even lead to health problems as veterinarians like Dr. Smart, are well aware. Here is where the power of anecdote is felt most strongly. I have two of these delightful animals. Both had been raised on a diet of dry cat food. After reading this book I was moved to protest; “But my cats are healthy”. This is anecdotal evidence and not data. Even as a sceptic I was persuaded by my own experiences, clearly more information was needed.

This brings me to one of my biggest complaints about the book: no bibliography. Without it there is simply no way to check the claims made in the book. I did find, after considerable Google digging, a reference that is not only consistent with the information in “Not Fit For A Dog” it also has a full bibliography. My scepticism and my attitude to dry cat food was clearly not in line with the facts. I had to change my mind, and my cat’s food.

This book not only advocates a raw food diet for cats it also advocates for organic farming, a topic to complex to treat here. Conventional farming, the book alleges, have deprived food of essential nutrients  this claim is not bolstered by any tangible research: again, note the lack of a bibliography. Many claims are made, some bordering on ridiculous, but there is no solid data. When I pointed this out to Dr. Smart she was also concerned about the lack of references. Without references it is very hard to take the book seriously.

One of the authors is Michael W. Fox, author of such books as “the holistic dog book: CANINE care for the 21st century” a book that advocates acupuncture, acupressure, homeopathy, and other such dubious therapies. He even advocates for a form of therapeutic touch, the alternative medicine modality that had been debunked by a fourth-grade student. I am going to venture a guess that Dr. Fox is responsible for the flakier parts of the book. One can hope that further versions of “Not Fit For a Dog” will have his contributions excised.

The dubious claims were a black mark on what could be an excellent and thought-provoking book for pet lovers.


3 Responses to “On Pet Food or the Power of Anecdotes”

  1. saskskeptic Says:

    Fixed a couple of typos

  2. saskskeptic Says:

    I think you may have misunderstood what raw food is. It is not unprocessed food. It is uncooked (and unprocessed) food.

    We eat lots of vegetables raw but not as much meat.

    Raw cat food is basically raw meet.

  3. koinosuke Says:

    As a lover of sushi and rare steaks, I must protest 🙂

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