Is pet food good for your animals? After the deaths of 15 cats and one dog from commercial products that had been contaminated by rat poison, some pet owners wondered whether any store-bought food is really safe. NEWSWEEK’s Alexandra Gekas spoke with Dr. Tony Buffington, Professor of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at Ohio State University and spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association about whether animal lovers should give up on kibble for good. Excerpts:
Should people stop feeding store-bought food to their pet?
I think that the safety of the pet food supply is as good as the human food supply. That's like saying that because there was E. coli in the spinach, we’re never going to eat vegetables again. You start feeding 300 million people and 150 million dogs and cats, and something’s going to happen. I don’t mean to excuse anything, but in my view that’s the way the world works. I’m not going to stop feeding my animal the way I do. I think that companies have an absolute commitment to making the best food they can. So I think they’re doing their absolute best but even at that, mistakes are made. This is a disastrous event, but the formulations of pet foods are better than the formulations of human food because an experienced professional who is a PhD nutritionist formulated all those foods. So not withstanding the sort of wrenching emotional issues surrounding this, I think pet foods are at least as safe as human foods are.
Until this all blows over, what should people be wary of?
We’re really only talking about two forms of food. One is a small pouch and the other is small pull top cans. And if a person isn’t feeding that to his or her pet, the food is just as good as it ever was. Even so, I’ve literally been in stores here in Columbus that have taken all of the canned and dried food off the shelves. But I’m not aware of any reason for concern about any food that does not have one of those lot numbers on it.
If people want to feed ‘human’ food to their animals is that safe?
When one says ‘human' food all you have to do is walk down the street to see what it has done to humans, although the obesity epidemic is as bad in pets as it is in people. There are experts who will formulate diets for folks who want to feed homemade food to their animals. But feeding an adult dog whatever a person eats is much easier than an adult cat. So if people want to prepare foods for their animals we can make recommendations. Petdiets.com, which is run by my former professor, is done by a board certified nutritionist and people can be comfortable that they’re having someone who knows what they’re doing look at the diet. In my experience, most clients will think it’s a really good idea, find out it's just one more thing to do and then they’ll come back for something else.
Is there anything you absolutely shouldn’t feed your pet?
Most dogs can eat just about anything, except large amounts of cocoa, garlic and onions. The problem is that everyone wants to say this or that doesn’t work because people do things that don’t work out. But is it as safe as feeding ourselves? Sure looks like it. The worst thing that happens to most animals is that they throw up or have diarrhea. Cats are obligate carnivores, so you can put your salad down and it won’t eat it or you can put your steak down and it will. So small amounts most of the time are not a problem but it’s not something I recommend for long-term use, without someone educating you about it more. There are books on home-prepared dog and cat diets with good chapters on what the issues are of feeding dogs and cats and how to address those if you want to create a diet. I grew up on a cattle ranch and what dogs would eat would nauseate most people. But on the other side you’ll see someone who put some food down and the dog died of pancreacitis, but its more likely it unmasked it. Every sick animal I have seen was eating before it got sick, but that doesn’t tell you it was the food that made it sick.
Is there any truth to the rumor that euthanized pet and horse meat are used in store-bought pet food?
What I’m aware of is that all the horse meat is shipped out of this country for human consumption and I don’t know what they do with the byproducts, but as far as euthanized pet animals, I am sure that pet food manufacturers make every possible effort to make sure that does not happen because they know what would happen if it ended up in the newspapers. They have every reason to avoid that and no reason to do it because there’s no shortage of animal parts for pet food. That’s not to say that it is impossible or that it couldn't happen, but they would be aghast at it as much as anybody else and maybe even more so because it would affect their business more than anybody else.
Have you heard of the Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (BARF) diet where you only feed your dog raw, unprocessed food?
I think that it is the emotional response of some people who are very concerned about their lives, their animals and their world. Most people are just trying to do their best but you’ve got some vets who say you’re all going to kill your dogs because of all that bacteria contamination, so I’m sort of in the middle. I think there are properly formulated BARF diets that you could feed a dog for years and it would do great. [People who] feed their dog BARF. are treating them like animals, which is a good thing and if they want to attribute it to the BARF diet that’s fine. But if you’re feeding a young puppy I don’t think it’s a good idea because we just don’t know enough.
Is the BARF diet healthier than store-bought food?
I think that the whole argument is completely misplaced because nobody’s looking at the health of the animals. I’ve seen too many animals live to be very old on commercial diets to believe that it’s all toxic waste. If somebody wants to do it, because it makes them feel good to cook for their dogs, please have at it. It’s all a religious argument as far as I can tell as long as the animal isn’t at risk, and they aren’t very often.
So which diet do you think is the best?
Any of those diets can work. As long as you formulate a diet that is as safe and as nutritious as possible then it’s a matter of preference and there are resources available on the web and in books to help people do that.