Getting Serious About Pet Nutrition

This blog post is for pet owners that really want to get serious about their pets’ nutrition, and the first step of getting serious is letting go of fad or fashionable diets, sensational and unfounded ideas about pet nutrition that are touted on internet chats forums, or by non-medically trained people in the pet industry that try to pass themselves off as nutrition experts (groomers, breeders, etc.).  Getting serious begins with trusting your veterinarian first and foremost to advise you in your pets’ nutrition rather than a person with no veterinary medical training that somehow came to believe that veterinarians do not receive any real nutritional training in veterinary school, that corn in pet food is the root of most disease, that dogs are physiologically identical to wolves and should thus be fed a wolf diet, and that since cats are pure carnivores they should never be fed carbohydrates or other non-protein nutrients.  These notions may make for great internet chat forum threads, but they are just not true.  Although they are not true, however, they have become deeply embedded in pet culture nonetheless, to the point that before I embark on writing about novel approaches to optimal canine and feline nutrition, I am compelled to first dispel the popular misinformation percolating pet culture.

Myth number 1: Veterinarians are not taught nutrition as a part of their veterinary education.

Animal nutrition was actually one of the first courses I completed in in my veterinary curriculum.  What’s more, nutrition is taught in the context of other course work that lays the foundation for how the body works from the cellular,  tissue, and organ level (physiological chemistry, physiology, anatomy and histology), enabling us to clearly see how optimal nutrition can support body systems, while observing how poor nutrition can adversely affect body systems.  Nutrition education is further expanded in later course work in the form of clinical nutrition, such as surgery, medicine, and dentistry, and the role nutrition can play in wellness and disease management.  Finally, in the course of regularly engaging in required continuing education, veterinarians are constantly kept abreast of the latest research and innovations in animal nutrition.

Myth number 2: Corn is the root of a lot of the diseases seen in dogs and cats and is a sinister ingredient in commercial pet foods.

The abject fear or corn being fed as a common pet food ingredient to dogs and cats has earned the industry term: “cornphobia.”  In truth, cornphobia has no justification or basis in fact. Not only is corn not harmful to the vast majority of dogs and cats, it is in fact an inexpensive and  invaluable source of nutrients (just ask the pilgrims who were saved from disease and starvation simply because their Native American neighbors showed them how to grow corn!). Corn contains amino acids, carbohydrates, fiber, beta carotenes, b-complex vitamins, and other antioxidants.  Those who claim that corn causes a high incidence of food allergy in dogs and cats would know far differently if they took the time to look at any number of published studies that put corn anywhere from 25 – 32 on the food allergy list. 

Myth number 3: Dogs are the same as wolves and should therefore eat a wolf diet.

While dogs originally diverged from the wolf genetically as humans domesticated and selectively bred exceptionally tame wolf offspring to live among them, over the course of 100,000 plus years, dogs have become a species of their own.  The domestic dog’s closest wolf cousin today is the grey wolf, who’s DNA differs from the domestic dog by 0.8%.  While this may not seem like a big difference, if one considers that human DNA differs from its closest cousin the chimpanzee by only about 1%, one can truly appreciate the physiological contrast that a 0.8% difference in DNA can place between species.

Also bear in mind that wolves are the ongoing product of natural selection, a process by which weaker individuals do not survive to breed; a process that eliminates genetically weaker individuals from a breeding population and over time creating a stronger species.  In sharp contrast, domestic dogs are selectively bred for breed differentiation whether for certain tasks or for desired physical characteristics.  Selective breeding always brings with it unwanted genetic baggage that hitches a ride with the genes responsible for the breed traits we desire.  This is made worse when unethical breeders do not engage in any genetic screening, breed dogs with known genetic disease, and even inbreed to maximize their profit.  In essence, humans have genetically weakened the domestic dog and continue to do so.

Notable differences between dogs and wolves include: wolves have a significantly more acidic stomach pH that more effectively breaks down bone and kills harmful raw meat bacteria and parasites, greater resistance to the development of gum and dental disease, greater resistance to the development of osteoarthritis, greater resistance to heartworm infection and other parasitic infestations, and a physiology that supports a much higher protein percentage of the overall diet.

Thus, feeding a dog raw meat carries the risk of food poisoning or parasitic infestation, feeding protein levels representing more than 22% of the overall diet stresses the liver, kidneys, and gastrointestinal systems over time, and the feeding of meat bones can lead to life threatening obstructions and perforations of the gut.

Myth number 4: Cats are pure carnivores and we thus do them harm by feeding carbohydrates and other non-protein nutrients.

It is true that cats are pure carnivores, meaning that they can survive and even thrive on an all protein diet.  Physiologically, cats can manufacture any nutrient from protein, including glucose.  However, that does not mean that cats may not benefit from complex carbohydrates like fiber.
In fact, fiber is so beneficial to the feline gastrointestinal tract that many feral cats will instinctually graze on certain grasses and eat the plant matter out of their herbivorous prey.  Cats also reap great benefit from anti-oxidants and omega-3-fatty acids, as well as well as ideal mineral intake that supports a healthy urinary tract and kidneys.

Now that I have discussed and cleared up some of the most common areas of misinformation in canine and feline nutrition, in my next post, I will be discussing a novel approach to canine and feline nutrition: disease preventive nutrition.  Stay tuned. 

Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital and CEO/Chief Editor of the veterinary information and blog online community, Web-DVM. 

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