Could we be feeding our precious furry ones arsenic? And how would we know if we were: what would the symptoms be?
New pet parents face a dizzying array of choices when it purchasing puppy / dog food. Not only are there choices about what to purchase, but where to purchase it. That second choice puts pet parents at the mercy of a store’s stock, encounters with company reps, and personal opinions of staff who work there.
What to do? Who to trust? Where to begin?
When there’s new information, such as the melamine contamination in 2007, all pet parents have decisions and possibly vet visits, to make.
Here’s a quick list of tips to help navigate the maze of kitchen decisions of pet parenthood.
#1 Do your research: Learn your pooch's gastronomic history
Depending on Rover’s age, you may choose to stick with that food for a while. Or if puppyhood is ending soon, you may have to start researching different options in the same line of food or perhaps choosing a different type of food if you are not satisfied with the ingredients.
That brings item #2: Consult your veterinarian
A professional will offer advice specific to the breed (Shepherds have sensitive stomachs; Chows can eat anything; Rottweilers have a slower development of their immune systems) and perhaps have a history of recalls, successes or failures over time.
#3: Read ingredients
Chicken is better than chicken byproduct meal. Beef is better than beef byproduct. Lamb meal is a concentrate and although it is processed meat, it contains nearly 300% more protein than fresh lamb, which shrinks down in production process because of its high moisture content.
Less grain content is generally better than more. Wheat doesn’t benefit dogs much and may present allergy problems.
Now back to the arsenic issue: Consumer Reports studies (published September 2012) of 3,633 participants found physical evidence of arsenic in humans, which occurs naturally in the environment. Specifically,
“People who reported eating one rice food item had total urinary arsenic levels 44 percent greater than those who had not, and people who reported consuming two or more rice products had levels 70 percent higher than those who had no rice.”
What does this mean for dog food containing rice products?
The FDA conducted independent tests on 58 types of dog food, determining that the level of arsenic was about 4.2% of the maximum level tolerated. These levels are set by the National Research Council, which investigates environmental, organic, inorganic consumption of poisons. Of course, not all dogs are alike: what 4.2% means to a Great Dane may not be the same as for a Shih Tzu.
Well, experts point out that the FDA hasn’t yet issued federal standards for arsenic in most composite foods. And … their tests were conducted in 2011, one year before the discovery of these extreme levels of arsenic.
So, when the pet food label says “whole grains”, read carefully and see WHICH grains are in that bag and then choose carefully. Do dogs in the wild run through a wheat field and eat the grain? Would a Shiba Inu eat rice, even in Japan?
#4 Identify the protein source
The list of ingredients runs in order of amount. It’s not uncommon that any kibble or wet food will contain many different sources (chicken, lamb, beef). Don’t be grossed out by chicken fat: even tho’ it’s a waste product, experts say it’s actually a pretty quality ingredient. It provides omega-6 essential fatty acid. Other ingredients to look for would be canola oil, flaxseed oil, sesame oil. These have omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids.
#5 Watch for change
But what happens when your loyal kibble provider changes the recipe: do you stay or do you go?
Do your research: why the change? adding ingredients to boost canine health based upon new research? or is the change in manufacturers a hidden way to cut costs?
A popular brand with decent ratings from reviewers is Nutro. Around since 1926, Nutro Products have a new owner: Mars Inc. Since Mars purchased the company and changed the formulas in fall 2012, complaints have poured into Consumer Affairs and onto the web site, Nutro’s own site, Yelp and other pet affairs sites.
Most list urinary and bowel issues and high bacterial content in their pooches that cleared up with antibiotics and a switch in food. In some cases of elderly dogs, the results were less good.
In all, 1,336 complaints in 2 months on the Nutro formula change.
In pet stores, Nutro reps offered a spiel about updating the packaging, saying it was merely updating the design. They handed out coupons freely and advertising campaigns launched. But these campaigns appeared to be just discounts and offer little information about the changes in formula. Other pet parents pressed the issue, asking for specifics:
Robin of Greenville, South Carolina, reported on consumeraffairs.com that a Nutro rep emailed her this list of ingredients added to the formula:
Whole Grain, Brown Rice, Spearmint Extract (for palatability), decaffeinated Green Tea Extract (for palatability). Other ingredients were deleted, including: Synthetic Vitamin K, Egg & Kelp, Rice Flour.
A pet owner in San Antonio, Texas, shared her complaints about Nutro's food, blaming the ingredients for making her dogs so ill she had to put them to sleep. Watch her story on WOAI. TV:
On WOAI.com, Nutro offered this statement:
We have no reason to believe that Nutro pet food would contribute to the loss of a pet, and we want to assure each consumer that our products are safe, made with some of the highest quality standards in the industry, and undergo more than 600 quality checks before leaving our factory. We remain confident in the safety and quality of our products. We routinely cross-reference our own data to determine if the reviewers on consumeraffairs.com have contacted us directly. Because we value the concerns and feedback of our consumers, we’re disheartened to learn that most of them have not contacted us directly, which makes it difficult to review for similarities. We are committed to the quality, safety and performance of all our pet food brands. As we have for over 80 years, we strive to deliver the finest natural products to our customers and their pets.
All my own dogs and Puppy Love Rescue foster animals have been fed one of the Nutro lines of food the past 9 years. As soon as the formula changed, Spice and Suki became ill (well, Suki refused to eat her usual kibble). About one month later, Kae had the “growlies” and nonspecific intestinal issues. We figured she had gotten into rabbit scat (coccidia parasite) and were ready to scoop, bag and head to the vet.
But, three days after opening the super-duper size of Nutro, we were pouring kibble into a small container for a dog sitter and a live mouse flies out. Imagine our reaction (even the cat was frightened by my shrieking). Worse: among the spilled kibble was a second mouse. Dead.
Inside the bag was a significant amount of mouse pellets. There was no entry hole on the bag, which indicates the mice came from the manufacturer.
Pet Supplies Plus offered a store credit and phone numbers. The Nutro rep never called back, but the 800 Customer Service line offered an answer after a week: what we experienced couldn’t possibly have happened, but a refund check is in the mail anyway.
#6 Read reviews!
Last item to consider is the size of the kibble for you dog: wee bites? big bites? Kibble is good for the friction it provides canine teeth. It will save on teeth cleaning and extractions and all kinds of pain later on.
Read this primer on reading dog reviews to get a sense of why it’s difficult to assess the quality of products that may change their sourcing and ingredients fairly frequently. The FDA updates its list of pet food recalls regularly: so bookmark the page.
The best advice of course is to keep track of your pooch. If they have growlies or loose stools or excessive urination or thirst, chances are a change needs to happen in their doggy kitchen.