Sunday, January 24, 2010

Changing Assumptions About Pets' Diets

What if people's education about food began with the assumption that all food comes in cardboard packages and cans.  Assume that all edibles are cooked, processed, and preserved with various chemicals and additives.  Suppose that people were warned never to eat uncooked fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, for fear of germs that could be contained in and on them.  More processing makes better foods, such as white bread and canned peas, rather than whole grains and fresh vegetables.  Further, imagine people were told to choose one or two foods and to eat them at every meal, for fear of digestive upsets and allergies.  Suppose that people's dietary education began with these assumptions.

Veterinary education about pet diets begins with the assumption that all pet foods come in bags and cans.  They are taught that commercial pet foods provide a "100% complete and balanced" diet that is upset by the addition of any table scraps or other foods.  Pets' digestive systems are so delicate that they need to be fed the same food daily, for fear of intestinal upsets, allergic responses, or other illnesses.  Vets are taught to guide their clients to choose a single kibble or canned food and to feed it daily for the pet's lifetime.

Pet nutrition, as taught in veterinary schools, begins with the assumption that raw foods are dangerous and that commercial pet foods are the answer to pet health.  Pet nutrition courses proceed, then, to analyze ingredients in commercial pet foods and to teach vets how to prescribe more limited diets for pets with allergic responses to ingredients in ordinary pet foods.  When pets develop chronic diseases and auto-immune disorders from the monotonous, inappropriate diet, vets are taught to treat the symptoms of these disorders with antihistamines and germ-fighting remedies.  It does not occur to them that commercial pet foods are making pets ill, because foods for pets comes in bags and cans.

Vet students are given commercial pet foods for their own pets and to sell to raise funds for student activities.  Some students are directly funded by pet-food scholarships and research grants.  The assumption that pet-food companies know exactly how to feed companion animals goes unchallenged  in veterinary education.

Suppose that veterinary education began with an examination of the evolutionary history of companion animals.  Imagine that a pet nutrition course began with the question, "What did dogs and cats evolve to eat?"  A course segment on wolves and wild cats would expose students to information about whole prey, which are the principal diet of wolves and wild cats.  Whole prey, such as deer and elk, rabbits and grouse, are exceeding complex, living organisms that have not been duplicated in any pet-food laboratory.  So, what would contemporary pet owners be best advised to feed their domesticated wolves and cats?  Most owners cannot provide whole prey, but they can provide the major constituents in whole prey -- muscle meats, organ meats, and meaty bones -- that are easily available in every grocery store.

If veterinarians were educated to understand pets' real dietary needs, they would advise owners to feed raw-meaty-bones.  Cats cannot even digest many starches found in commercial pet foods.  These foods irritate cats' bowels and cause intestinal distress.  Carbohydrate-heavy diets sicken cats, give them urinary-tract stones and other fatal disorders.  Cats are exclusive carnivores that require a diet of animal nutrients to be healthy.  Dogs, like wolves, can subsist on starchy diets in times of famine, but they need diets of proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins from animal sources to have long, healthy lives.  If veterinarians understood dogs' and cats' evolutionary history, they would understand their dietary needs.

Veterinary education makes sure that students begin with the assumption that commercial pet foods are the only foods pets should be fed -- ever. To justify this inappropriate diet, pet nutrition courses begin with the false assumption that dogs/wolves are omnivores, like people, who can be fed a starch-heavy diet.  There is no evidence whatever that dogs/wolves are omnivores.  In fact, the evolutionary and genetic evidence is overwhelming that dog/wolves are "opportunistic carnivores", who kill and eat whole prey, scavenge other carnivores' kills, and subsist for brief periods on vegetative matter, when no prey are available.  Diets of feral dogs reinforce the truth about dogs' carnivorous nature; their guts are full of small prey, not starches.

Justifying a starchy diet for cats is even more difficult.  Cats, vets admit, are "obligate carnivores", who require meats and meaty bones to be healthy.  Yet, dry cat foods they recommend contain large percentages of starches that are required to extrude kibble from machines.  Commercial cat foods contain more proteins and fats than dog foods, but not all of these ingredients are from animal sources.  Oh well, vets are taught that pet owners are so lazy they will not feed anything that requires more effort than pouring kibble from a bag, so they may as well recommend commercial pet foods for cats and treat the resulting illnesses with canned mush and prescription medicines. 

I do not agree that pet owners knowingly feed their pets inadequate diets that make them ill and shorten their lives.  .If veterinarians advised clients to feed dogs and cats raw meats and meaty bones, educated them to select an appropriate variety of raw-meaty-bones for their pets, and to handle raw foods carefully (for their own safety more than the pets'), I believe most pet owners would choose to feed beloved pets raw diets -- or they'd choose to keep rodents or birds as pets.  Pets are family members in most households today.  Owners want them to live long, healthy lives.  Feeding them raw-meaty-bones is the only way to assure them long, healthy lives.

If veterinary education began with assumptions about the relevance of pets' evolutionary history to their contemporary dietary needs, pets' lives and owner's purses would benefit enormously.  Losers would be kibble-makers and canned mush providers, and the vets who treat the illnesses these diets create.  The fact that pet-food manufacturers control small animal medicine, and its teaching, makes this outcome unlikely in the short run, but inevitable.

More and more pet owners are wising up to the massive pet food fraud.  Eventually, pet food manufacturers will have offer a closer approximation to raw meats and bones, and vet education will have to be modified to support a new "reality".  Pet owners, meanwhile, can understand how inadequate is the advice they are likely to get from their vets, whose assumptions about pet foods begin with cans of cooked mush and bags of extruded kibble.

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