Imagine walking into your doctor’s office and seeing shelves full of ultra-processed packaged food for sale to patients like you.
Now imagine the entire medical field, from physicians to dietitians, promoting the consumption of ultra-processed packaged food as the “healthiest” and “most balanced” way to eat.
And finally, imagine the nutritional experts in the medical community actually warning people of the “risks” of cooking fresh, home-made meals for themselves.
Sounds absurd, doesn’t it?
Except that’s exactly where we are when it comes to the feeding of pets and the veterinary community.
This has been going on for so long that we actually think it’s normal.
On Food, Human Medicine and Veterinary Medicine Diverge
In a blog post last November, I explained that putting our diabetic dogs like Daisy on a home-prepared, low-carb diet led us to transition the entire pack on to the same diet, much to their evident delight every meal time.
While we were exploring the world of nutrition science as we made that decision, we realized that human medicine has moved in one direction, and veterinary medicine has gone in the other direction. Specifically, the entire human medical community now warns about the health dangers of processed and ultra-processed food, and urges people to eat fresh, whole, unprocessed foods … preferably cooked at home.
Yet over the past 50 years or so, the veterinary community in general has come to embrace the idea that packaged commercial pet food, i.e., dry kibble and canned food, with their “complete and balanced” formulations, is the best option for feeding dogs and cats. Pet owners have certainly embraced commercial pet food, too — it’s super convenient, cheap, and you can be assured by that “complete and balanced” certification. But it is, by definition, the ultimate in ultra-processed food.
It’s also a huge business. One industry association estimated that Americans spent $44 billion for pet food alone in 2021.
Where Do Veterinary Nutritionists Stand?
The veterinary community’s whole-hearted endorsement of ultra-processed packaged food as the best choice for our pets starts at the top, with board-certified veterinary nutritionists. These are highly trained professionals who have a four-year veterinary degree plus two more years of specialized education and residency training in nutrition, as well as Master’s degrees and in some cases, PhDs.
We have immense respect for their talent, skills, and devotion to what they believe is the best nutritional outcomes for animals. We have consulted with veterinary nutritionists in the past — just last year we had one specialist review the low-carb diet we wanted to put our diabetic dogs on, and this expert determined the nutritional profile, adjusted the ingredients, and gave us the appropriate amounts to feed. We absolutely recommend consulting with a veterinary nutritionist if you want to feed a home-cooked diet for your pet.
What does trouble us, however, is that veterinary nutritionists in general encourage the feeding of packaged ultra-processed pet food and discourage fresh, home-prepared meals. (But they will help you do that if you really want to.)
Let me give you a few examples.
At Tufts University’s Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, the veterinary nutritionists there maintain a long-standing, comprehensive blog called “Petfoodology.” Their blog posts have included:
— “Stop Reading Your Pet Food Ingredient List!” (No, really!)
— “The Role of Carbohydrates in Pet Foods” (In which they claim “There is little evidence that even high amounts of carbohydrate in high quality, complete and balanced pet foods pose any health risks to pets,” despite the fact that the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimates that 60% of cats and 56% of dogs are overweight or obese.)
— “What’s the Best Diet for My Dog with Diabetes?” (In which they specifically minimize the role of carbohydrates in the diet — despite the fact that carbohydrates spike insulin, which diabetic dogs can’t produce. And in this post they also insist “home-cooking is not recommended,” urging instead the commercial ultra-processed “therapeutic diets” for diabetics. Those diets in fact are loaded with carbohydrates. Hill’s glucose management diet food, W/D dry, is 45% carbohydrates and has wheat as the very first ingredient!)
You can see the implicit and explicit bias here towards commercial pet food.
I was reminded of these Petfoodology posts when I read in the December 2021 issue of dvm360 magazine, a veterinary trade journal, that one of the Tufts nutritionists had recently spoken to a veterinary conference where she warned of the dangers of home-prepared diets:
“According to Linder, despite anecdotal stories surrounding the benefits of home-prepared diets for cats and dogs, there is no evidence in findings from peer-reviewed clinical trials to support these claims — especially when it comes to home-prepared diets being healthier than commercial diets in general.” [Note: I have not been able to find those studies she is citing here. I’d sure like to see them if they exist to understand how they were conducted and who funded them.]
She was also quoted as saying, “Unlike commercial foods, which undergo thorough quality control testing, digestibility trials, and feeding trials to assess for bioavailability and nutrient adequacy, home-cooked diets do not undergo any form of safety and nutritional testing.” (How would she explain all the commercial pet food recalls that occur almost every month for salmonella, aflatoxin, and other contaminants?)
And in a final warning, she “recommended that pets eating home-cooked diets have routine veterinary visits and laboratory tests (i.e., blood work and urine testing), more so than those eating commercial diets.”
Get the message?
Can you imagine your own physician telling you that you’ll need more doctor’s visits and more lab tests if you choose to cook for yourself, rather than eat ultra-processed food?
To give credit where credit is due, the Tufts nutritionists are absolutely transparent. They list a disclosure statement on every page of their Petfoodology blog, which clearly describes their extensive financial and professional relationships with the pet food industry. Many of the leading pet food manufacturers, including the ones making those “therapeutic diets,” have paid these nutritionists for conducting research, speaking at industry events, and for providing other “professional services.” One of them even received funding for her residency training.
But There’s More. Much More.
These kinds of pet food industry links with the veterinary community go even deeper.
For example, the leading veterinary nutrition textbook — Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, now in it’s 5th edition, with 6th edition on the way — was co-authored by Dr. Mark Morris, Jr. (through its 4th edition) and is published by the Mark Morris Institute, named for both Mark Morris Jr. and his father, Dr. Mark Morris, Sr. Who were they? The father founded Hill’s Pet Nutrition, and the son later ran Hill’s and expanded the product line. Dr. Morris, Jr., was also one of the founding members of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.
Who funds the Mark Morris Institute? Hill’s Pet Nutrition, of course, to the tune of $550,000 a year (as of 2019). Hill’s is the primary funder of the institute. Hill’s is the manufacturer of the Science Diet and Prescription Diet (i.e., therapeutic) brands of pet food.
What else does the Mark Morris Institute do? It offers no-cost veterinary nutrition courses to veterinary colleges around the world, including the “faculty” to teach them. That’s not all. The Institute says, “In addition to course-oriented learning activities, in-person MMI university visits may include continuing education lectures for house officers and faculty, attending clinical rounds, individual clinical case consultations, and suggestions for the nutritional components of veterinary curricula. The Mark Morris Institute is pleased to offer these courses and services free of charge to Colleges and Schools of Veterinary Medicine….”
Who is on the faculty of the Mark Morris Institute? Veterinary nutritionists who have been hired to teach these courses, including two from Tufts. Who is the Executive Director/Chief Academic Officer of the Mark Morris Institute? One of the Tufts veterinary nutritionists.
Its mission statement says “The Mark Morris Institute is dedicated to being the leading resource in nutritional education for the veterinary profession with the goal of promoting optimal companion animal health.” It carries out this mission by providing “pet nutrition education for veterinarians and students of veterinary medicine around the world through publications and university veterinary nutrition courses.”
This is as if one of the largest human processed food manufacturers, say Nestlé or Kraft-Heinz or General Mills, set out to become “the leading resource in nutritional education for the medical profession,” and provided “human nutrition education for physicians and students of medicine around the world through publications and university medical nutrition courses.” A main theme of this nutritional education for physicians was that any processed food that came out of one of their factories was better, and safer, for you than anything you could cook at home … and cooking at home is tricky, complicated, and could put your family’s health at risk unless you were super careful. Would anyone find that acceptable?
What’s In The Book?
There actually is a chapter in Small Animal Clinical Nutrition (5th edition) on “Making Pet Foods At Home,” but chapter sections include:
— Common Problems With Homemade Foods
— Common Nutrient Problems In Homemade Foods
— Common Ingredient Problems In Homemade Foods
There are also statements like:
— “Formulations for homemade foods should not be assumed to be complete or balanced for any canine or feline lifestage until sufficiently tested (feeding tests, nutrient analysis, etc.)”
— “Even formulations that are initially complete and balanced put pets at risk (my emphasis) when pet owners make their own food substitutions, omit ingredients because of personal preferences or convenience or make preparation errors.”
— “Clients may elect to feed a homemade food to avoid all types of contaminants. However, ingredients in homemade foods may also contain contaminants. Therefore, making a food at home does not ensure against unintentional contaminants.”
But the most striking bias comes in the very last paragraph of the chapter:
— “Veterinarians should always: 1) offer to have a homemade recipe evaluated by a nutritionist and 2) recommend the feeding of a consistent complete and balanced commercial product as often as possible. (My emphasis)
Yes, that’s the take-home message from the chapter on “Making Pet Foods At Home.”
They All Do It
So here is one of the largest pet food manufacturers a) publishing the leading veterinary nutrition textbook in the field, b) providing free veterinary nutrition courses to colleges of veterinary medicine, c) putting veterinary nutritionists from private practice and academia on their payroll to teach those same courses, and d) even telling veterinary schools what should be in their nutrition curricula.
This looks bad, but it’s not just Hill’s.
All of the major pet food manufacturers offer financial support and “partnerships” for a wide variety of veterinary activities, whether research funding, grants to veterinary organizations, endowed professorships, discounted pet food for veterinary students, and even underwriting projects like the American Animal Hospital Association’s “2021 AAHA Nutrition and Weight Management Guidelines,” a comprehensive document that is considered the “gold standard” in nutrition advice for veterinary clinics. The AAHA website notes: “These guidelines are supported by generous educational grants from Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Inc., Purina® Pro Plan® Veterinary Diets, and Royal Canin®.”
The American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition is sponsored by Royal Canin, Hill’s, and Purina.
I reference a study below that showed dogs naturally selected a very low-carb diet in feeding trials. To discredit those findings, a study came out in 2018 in the Journal of Experimental Biology purporting to show that actually, dogs preferred carbohydrates over protein, and amazingly, so did cats, who are obligate carnivores! How did they do that? By masking the palatability of the foods. At the bottom of the paper, you find: “Work was funded by and performed at the Pet Nutrition Center, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Inc., Topeka, Kansas, USA,” and that Hill’s paid the salaries of three of the four researchers.
In a 2019 paper in the AVMA Journal, “The Role of Carbohydrates in the Health of Dogs,” the researchers dismissed any concerns about the high levels of carbohydrates in commercial pet food, including for diabetic dogs. Of the three study authors, one received a grant from a pet food company, the second was an employee of the same pet food company, and the third “is the Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Endowed Chair in Canine and Feline Clinical Nutrition at the Ontario Veterinary College.”
You just can’t make this stuff up.
To an outside observer, this kind of pervasive financial relationship between the pet food industry and the veterinary community raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions. Yet it’s been going on for decades, and apparently is considered perfectly above board.
But doesn’t it make you wonder why the veterinary community came to embrace ultra-processed pet food as the preferred method for feeding our dogs and cats?
The Prevailing Opinion
I don’t mean to pick on this one group of veterinary nutritionists at Tufts, or to single them out. It’s just because they are so public with their views that it made it easy to use their statements to illustrate the points I made at the beginning of this post. And their prominent ties to the pet food industry help to underscore those points, too.
To be fair, there are important exceptions in the field of veterinary nutrition — see below about the websites BalanceIt.com and PetDiets.com. And I know there are some veterinarians (usually “holistic” ones) who promote fresh, real food over ultra-processed pet food. A few, like Dr. Karen Becker, have written books on the subject.
But in general, it’s safe to say the Tufts team are among the best known nutrition experts in the veterinary world, and reflect the prevailing consensus opinion.
If the leaders in veterinary nutrition take this basic position — “commercial pet diets are good, home-prepared diets are risky” — and veterinary college nutrition courses hammer that message home, you can certainly understand why most veterinarians take that view.
The end result, though, is what I pointed out above: While the human medical community urges people to avoid ultra-processed food because it’s known to be bad for your health, the veterinary community promotes ultra-processed food for pets, and even suggests that offering your pet fresh, home-cooked food could endanger his or her health.
You can’t have two more diametrically opposing viewpoints when it comes to food.
So if you want to talk with your veterinarian about feeding a home-prepared diet to your dog, just realize that this is the Hill’s you may have to climb. 🙂
The Turning Point For Us
Longtime blog readers may recall that we’ve wrestled with what to feed our dogs over the years. We’ve fed “super-premium” commercial foods, did home-cooked-from-scratch meals, and fed organic-certified kibble and canned food.
When Alayne and I were living and working at our corporate jobs in Seattle back in the 1990s, we were feeding our dogs Pedigree kibble. We didn’t know any better. We didn’t read the ingredient list, and even if we had, we wouldn’t have known what some of those ingredients actually meant (like “by-products”).
After twists and turns along the way, a few years ago we finally decided to switch to an organic brand of dog food, supplemented with home-cooked ground beef. The turning point came when we opened a new bag of that kibble and suddenly smelled something overpowering. It was hard to describe, but distinctly unpleasant. The kibble itself looked fine, but smelled awful. We opened another bag. The same smell. Then another bag. All the same terrible smell.
We called the company to alert them, and they asked us to take a sample back to the store and have the retailer mail it to them. The grocery manager opened our sample bag, took one whiff, and recoiled. He said, “Eww, smells like a pesticide of some sort.”
A couple of weeks later the company told us, to our astonishment, that they couldn’t find anything wrong with the food (!) but would be happy to reimburse the retailer for their refund to us.
That’s when we realized that if an organic-certified dog food could smell that bad and yet be given the all-clear by the manufacturer, we really had to do something different.
Where We Are Today
When this happened, we were already transitioning our diabetic dogs to a home-prepared low-carb diet, using Dr. Harvey’s Paradigm veggie pre-mix with cooked ground beef. This is the formulation we asked the veterinary nutritionist to review and adjust as necessary.
We noticed that all the other dogs were always looking over at Allie Mae and Daisy at meal time, and would rush over to lick their bowls as soon as they had finished eating. Hmm.
At the same time, we came across peer-reviewed, published veterinary research on feeding trials showing that dogs, left to their own choices, selected a very low-carb diet (carbs at just 3% to 7% of calories!). So we thought, why not let all the dogs enjoy the same home-prepared, low-carb diet Allie Mae and Daisy are on?
The difference was remarkable, as I noted in an earlier post. The once finicky eaters now are eager to eat, cleaning up their bowls. The ones who might skip breakfast never miss a meal. Jake, our Chihuahua cancer patient, squeaks and barks in anticipation at meal time. Allie Mae, despite her rickety old legs, jumps up and down as I’m preparing her bowl. Tanner, who often left food behind, now leaves a spotless dish.
Remember, they had been getting cooked ground beef with their organic kibble, so it wasn’t the beef that made the difference. I think it was because the entire meal was now warm, fresh, well-hydrated, with a soft texture and inviting smell. They clearly enjoyed the veggies. In other words, the whole meal was fundamentally different.
It’s Really Not Hard
We found that using a veggie pre-mix like Dr. Harvey’s made home-prepared meals really easy, even for as many dogs as we have. We simply add hot water to the dehydrated veggies, let sit for several minutes, and then mix in the cooked ground beef. We add fish oil, walnut oil (recommended by the veterinary nutritionist), and also the “carnivore blend” version of the BalanceIt vitamin and mineral supplement, per the nutritionist’s instructions. Stir and serve.
It’s that easy.
Another company, Honest Kitchen, also makes high-quality “pre-mixes” like Dr. Harvey’s, though it looks like Honest Kitchen is experiencing inventory outages at the moment. I’m sure there are others, too.
(Disclosure: We have no relationship with either one other than purchasing the product. Dr. Harvey’s does give us a nonprofit discount.)
Using a pre-mix as the base is just one way to offer a real food diet. For example, quite a few people have adopted a “raw” diet for their pets.
Fortunately, if you want to cook from scratch, there are veterinary nutritionists who have made it simple and safe to do so with websites that will create custom recipes for you, based on your choice of protein, oil/fat, carbohydrate, vegetables and fruits. One is BalanceIt.com, and the other is PetDiets.com. Both require the use of a supplement to ensure the recipes are complete and balanced. The veterinary nutritionists at PetDiets.com also offer nutritional consultations with pet owners.
The Tufts veterinary nutritionists I’ve cited above make it sound as if cooking home-prepared meals may not only endanger your pet’s health, but will be a complicated, tedious, time-consuming affair. Yet here are two websites developed by other veterinary nutritionists that make home-cooking simple and yes, complete and balanced. Why don’t they promote these resources as much as they do commercial, ultra-processed pet food?
One thing we agree with the team at Tufts on: It is best to consult with a veterinary nutritionist when offering your pets a home-cooked diet, unless you’re using one of the custom recipes generated by BalanceIt.com or PetDiets.com. You can find a board-certified veterinary nutritionist here. There aren’t many of them, unfortunately, so you may have to wait to get a consultation, but it’s definitely worth doing.
Commercial ultra-processed pet food will always have a role to play. If you’re on a limited income, for example, this is the most affordable way to feed a pet. There’s also the sheer convenience of simply opening a bag or can for instant feeding.
But isn’t it time we started questioning the prevailing “wisdom” that ultra-processed food is the best choice for our pets?
Isn’t it time we realized that if real food is best for humans, the same must be true for our pets?
Now imagine walking into your veterinary clinic one day and instead of seeing shelves of Science Diet, you saw posters promoting real food diets and resources like BalanceIt.com and PetDiets.com, as well as other home-prepared options like Dr. Harvey’s and Honest Kitchen.
That’s what I’d like to see the veterinary community doing.