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Choosing a Pet Food:
Choosing a food for your pet has always been an important part of our wellness plans. The reason for choosing a food developed by qualified nutritionists and with research backing has become more evident recently, as some diets are being linked to a serious heart condition. As pet owners are doing their own research, one recommendation is that the company that develops their food employ one (and preferably a team) of highly-qualified people.
Definition of “nutritionist”. This term is thrown around so much I think we need to break down the qualifications
In fact, just finding out how one company abused the term prompted me to stay up late and write this post.
Advanced nutrition degrees are Veterinary Nutritionist and PhD Animal Nutritionist. (they could also have post-doc specialty areas or areas they emphasize due to research).
*A Veterinary Nutritionist is a veterinarian who has spent an additional 3 years training and then testing to become a board-certified member of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. (do not confuse this with the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition which is a useful group for encouraging nutritional learning, but only requires “membership” not special training)
ACVN board-certified members can be found here: (and minor point is that someone who has done everything but the board-cert test would be called “board-eligible”)
*A PhD animal nutritionist is a doctorate degree in animal nutrition. If your company has only one of these, it might be fair to ask their emphasis on companion animal (rather than livestock or equine background)
*An MS nutritionist has a masters degree in animal nutrition (as with the PhD, training and experience in companion animal issues matters)
*A BS in animal nutrition is a 4 yr college degree
Who is not one of these but might be called a “nutritionist’ by their company or by others:
-Someone with some other degree
-Someone who claims to have nutritional knowledge, or worked for a pet store or a veterinarian or read a book
-A veterinarian who has an interest in nutrition and talks about it on the internet
There may be a few cases where someone does not have the appropriate “animal nutrition” degree and is still a valuable part of diet formulation such as someone who started with a human nutrition degree, a veterinary degree, or an animal science degree, and then took more courses plus added experience and became pretty darn knowledgeable. Such a person might be a valuable PART of a team formulating diets. I say “part” because companies that do real nutrition research and understand formulation have both veterinary AND PhD nutritionists plus dozens of these other scientists.
If a company employs only 1 or 2 people with advanced nutrition degrees and is making a boatload of formulas, I question their ability to offer a diet claimed to be nutritionally adequate. If their ONLY nutritionist is someone who doesn’t have those advanced degrees and is winging it on their own, please RUN AWAY.
Read carefully, because the way some companies try to make their formulators sound like they have advanced nutrition degrees is like reading The Onion. Here is some examples of good entertainment.
-One company calls their owner a “companion animal nutritionist”. This person’s degree is in Equine and Business Studies. This person supposedly leads the marketing team as well as formulates the diets.
-Another company spends a full paragraph describing how their diet formulator used to work for a very well known veterinarian/researcher at another company but the actual degree of THIS formulator is a bachelors in animal science (note NOT animal nutrition) and an MBA.
-A very common tactic is to say “our veterinarian who is our nutritionist” or “our nutritionist veterinarian”. I wonder if they are hoping you will cough while you read that so that you might hear “veterinary nutritionist” and be all happy???
I don’t want to see you paying companies who are just mastering the various ways of getting a piece of the $29 billion pet food industry without offering you the expertise that should go with that. A company doing research and making incremental, proven changes in pet diets employs multiple professionals that work together. If you want to give your money to a tiny company that can’t employ “multiples” I hope you at least ask them to have 1 expert, limit their formulas to 1 or 2 diets they can research and then pay for more expertise and research as they grow.
Even a company with 1 % market share has 29 million in revenue to work with. Don’t excuse substandard nutritional work.
The short answer: Those feeding diets labeled as “grain-free” should consider their dog might be at risk for heart disease. Also consider a change if your dog is fed a “boutique brand” which I define as novel ingredients with no specific medical reason, and usually from food that was not subject to feeding trials.
Other highlights: There is no suggestion that dogs specifically “need” to eat certain grains. There is however a growing correlation with heart disease and grain-free diets and possibly with exotic-ingredient diets. While the specifics of that are studied and explored it would be best to avoid them altogether. There is no documented benefit of feeding “grain free” dog food.
More explanation: Cardiologists began to notice increasing heart disease, specifically dilated cardiomyopathy, in breeds that are not normally prone to this condition. They then further noticed that many of these dogs are on diets labeled as being grain-free. The FDA and cardiologists, along with nutritionists and laboratories. are further exploring this correlation in trying to find the underlying cause. Some of the dogs with this cardiomyopathy are deficient in the amino acid taurine.
Taurine is an important amino acid (building block of proteins). Dogs normally can make their own taurine; it should not need to be supplemented. But they do require other nutrients to be able to synthesize taurine. Thus, the theory is that some component or combination in some grain-free diets may be interfering with taurine production OR perhaps not containing enough of the quality proteins to allow the dog to make its own taurine. One suspicion is that a high pea, legume, or potato content can be a culprit. It is too early, however, to verify the specifics.
Why did grain free become popular to begin with? I can’t say for certain. It appears to me it may be because we as a society have came to realize we were eating a lot of carbohydrates, especially grain products . Some folks decided to cut back on grains or are perhaps even sensitive to them. The idea of “grain free” for a dog sounded premium and attractive. These owners did nothing wrong; they were trying to do the best thing for their pet.
I will add that in my medical and nutritional experience, I have learned to be suspicious of the “latest and greatest”. When a new product comes out for pets, I don’t usually stock it in my clinic. I wait a few years, unless this product presents something that meets an immediate and unfulfilled need. Products are tested before they come to market, but not all foods are. Even amongst companies that do feeding trials, that is limited to a certain number of dogs. Sometimes only after hundreds or thousands of animals receive the same product, do we fully discover the ramifications. Thus I think we should also resist diets built on ingredients we have less experience with, as is common with some of the so-called boutique brands. So far, the offending diets have all came from companies that do not have research centers or employ full-time veterinary nutritionists.
What should pet owners do if currently feeding a grain-free diet?
-Please call us before you change anything. We will discuss the possibility of whether or not you may want to do a blood test for taurine. This blood test can indirectly help determine if your dog’s muscles (and in turn the heart) are taurine-deficient. If so, careful diagnosis and treatment is warranted.
-Are you worried your pet could already have problems from grain-free food? So far we only know of dilated cardiomyopathy as being a problem with grain-free diets. If you think your pet could have any symptoms of heart disease (respiratory, exercise problems, cough) or any other problems please schedule an exam. It is possible to have blood taurine levels tested and supplemented if needed. **For dogs with heart disease, do NOT immediately change diet. It will be important to see if your dog’s taurine levels are low on your current diet to better determine the underlying cause and plan lifetime feeding and supplementation.
-If you are one of our clients and we have seen your pet in the past 6 months for a preventative care exam, give us a call or drop us an email. We will give you a list of up to 3 foods that we recommend for your dog based on its breed, age, medical history etc. You may also indicate preferences you have such as “food must be convenient for me to pick up anywhere” or “I think my dog reacts to chicken” etc. If you want a more detailed discussion, we can of course schedule a nutritional consultation.
-If you think your pet reacts to grains, you could be right. While grains are no more likely to cause allergies than other ingredients, there are certainly a few pets who are allergic to some grains. This may be one of those cases that requires a more detailed consultation.
Pet food choices are confusing because the labels are as much about legality and marketing as they are about nutritional content. We’ll save the discussion of pet food marketing for another day and will now refer you to this article from Tufts University on how to choose a pet food: Questions to ask about your pet’s food
Central Indiana is forecast to have temps down to -13 F with windchills of -30F for New Years day. For most of our dogs and cats that can live indoors, this should not present a serious problem. If you own a sensitive dog, you might find yourself shoveling a patch of snow in order to convince them to go outside to potty If, on the other hand, you own a cold-loving breed you might find yourself bundling up so you can stay outside as long as your Husky wants to play in the snow. But for a few individuals, there are some challenges that go beyond these inconveniences.
You may see some full-time outdoor dogs, and feel concerned for them. Some local farmers are getting continuously harassed because well-meaning passers-by do not understand that there are dogs well-equipped to live in these conditions, just as livestock and wild animals do. I have 2 of these dogs, the Maremmas in the photo below. This was taken at daybreak this morning, while they were patrolling and romping. They have doghouses with straw bedding, but they aren’t really interested in using them. Their breed originated in the Italian mountains, and they have double coats to protect them from cold weather.
So if you see a dog that just might be appropriate for the weather (long hair, looking content in the snow or cold, access to a barn nearby, etc) please don’t harass the owners and be thoughtful before you call law enforcement. If you own one of these outdoor dogs, do take extra precaution during this most severe weather to be sure they can get shelter from the northwest wind, have dry bedding, and thawed water. Checking their ear tips and toes is also wise. Jan Dohner has written an article on Winter Care for Working Farm Dogs
Some of the real problems the next few days may be for poultry that live in small chicken coops, of which we have many in Indianapolis. While it is true that a good wind shelter and bedding is enough to protect chickens in MOST cases, let’s make sure your coop is indeed set up for temperatures below zero and wind chills of minus 20F. A tiny coop is more easily affected by cold winds, and a smaller number of chickens can’t produce as much heat/protection as a larger group huddling together. The risks to the chickens are frostbitten combs or feet, dehydration, and death.
– Straw, straw, and more straw. Straw is a good insulator and easier to keep dry and fluffy than some types of bedding. If you don’t have some, pick up extra NOW from a farm supply store. Avoid storing straw where loose bits may blow around fuel sources and start a fire. You can, however, store it outside in a large lawn and leaf bag and still easily access it. Straw in the coop may freeze somewhat once it gets condensation on it from the animal activity. So pile on more straw once or twice daily. Also make it thicker on any side of the coop where the cold wind is likely to blow.
If you have never used straw before: take a small slab of it off the bale, and pull it apart so it lays down “fluffy”.
If your chickens will come out of the buildings (they probably won’t in this severe weather), put a path of scattered straw on the snow/ice for them to walk on.
–Get your small coops sheltered from the wind. The severe cold winds usually come from the northwest. If your coop is mobile, move it to a location southeast of a larger building or trees, for a wind break. Face any openings to the southeast.
If you can buy several bales of straw, you could also stack them up unopened against the north and west sides of the coop. This is probably one of the best ways to quickly insulate an outdoor building. The straw won’t go to waste. If it gets too wet to use as bedding, you can at least use it for garden mulch next spring.
-Cover large openings. It is always a conundrum to allow ventilation but not drafts. It’s true that if your coop is closed up tight the freezing condensation will be a negative for your birds. However, any large openings will leave the coop at such a low temp your birds simply can’t stay warm enough. If your hen door opening does not close at night, find something to block it off manually for the night during these sub-zero temps.
–Are food and water truly accessible? Few chickens will walk in the snow; even fewer will leave the building in frigid temps. Small coops usually aren’t set up for inside food and water. For the next few days, you may need to put some food and water inside the coop. You may need to check/change the water 2-3 times daily as it will freeze quickly. Animals not well-hydrated are more prone to frostbite. Use your judgment on this. If you put some straw down on the ramp and your birds still don’t come out to eat/drink , then you need to take food and water into them.
-Don’t be tempted to use unsafe heating methods that may cause fires. Heat lamps get far too hot to be used around bedding and wooden structures. They often cause coop fires. Do NOT use them. If you think your coop needs additional heat, there are products that get just a bit warm but not likely to take bedding to the combustible level. If you have electricity in your coop, there are some heating mats or similar products. I have also used a Snuggle Safe, which is a microwaveable disc the size of a frisbee. You can warm up a couple of those and put them against the wall to provide one more layer of protection for the most severe cold. You may be able to get some of these at farm supply stores or pet stores. Again, heat is NOT needed in most coops but may be needed if other circumstances are less than ideal.
Do read the instructions on any heating devices, even for heated water. Some of the heated waterers only work down to about 15F so won’t be adequate the next couple of days. The metal-base water heaters work well up on a cement block in a large coop, but should not be used out in the snow/ice where the heating base itself could get wet and become an electrical hazard. Thus, in tiny coops where your chickens normally eat/drink outside you may have no option but to place smaller food/water containers inside as mentioned above.
-Emergency procedures if your coop just isn’t adequate for this weather. Below is a photo of a coop from some new chicken owners. I saw this coop for the first time a few months ago. The door opening has no cover and faces north. The owners put a fence and netting outside the coop (presumably to protect the chickens from raptors). The fence and netting have collapsed from the snow. Now this tiny coop is exposed to north wind, and also wide open for any predators such as coyotes that may come by for a meal. Using this coop this way for chickens, would be like me putting my Maremmas in small doghouses, facing them north, and giving them no room to find better shelter. Even they would be unsafe with the north wind constantly blowing at them.
If you find yourself stuck with similar circumstances or you already have a chicken showing signs of frostbite, you can make a temporary home in a garage or other structure. If your coop is too large to bring in the garage, use a pet carrier with bedding and enough room to get food and water in twice daily. If it’s a taller carrier like a large wire dog kennel, you might even be able to get in a stick or broom handle to serve as a perch. Chickens should not go for long periods without being able to perch.
This is also true for chickens already frostbitten: take them to a slightly warmer place but do not heat them up too quickly with heaters or blow dryers. Heating the frostbitten area quickly may cause further tissue damage. If frostbite occurs, leave the wound alone initially. That damaged area cannot be fixed and meanwhile may protect the deeper tissues. After a few days when it starts to slough, THEN it can be treated as a necrotic wound and you can assess the damage underneath. Your veterinarian can help with pain medication or other treatment as needed.
When discussing pet behavior, I often use the phrase “It works far better to teach an animal what to do, than what not to do”.
In light of that, I would like to share this fun article about a reindeer who was being a pest at feeding time at the zoo. The trainer gave him something better to do.
Please enjoy “Reinder Games” from Karen Pryor’s clicker training website:
We have received word that a new product has been approved for noise aversion in dogs; SILEO is expected to be available within a few weeks.
Having a label for “noise aversion” is new. This is a distinction from some sedatives which can actually increase noise sensitivity.