Controversies in Small Animal Nutrition: Pet Food Safety

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Veterinarians are the most commonly cited source of nutrition information for owners of dogs and cats. Hence, veterinarians have an important responsibility to be knowledgeable about foods and feeding of pets. More than 90% of pets in the United States and other developed countries consume commercial pet foods for a large portion of their daily intake. Due in part to recent recalls of both pet and human foods, there has been an increase in concern about the safety of foods for pets. This has caused some owners to turn to their veterinarians for assurance about food safety, while other owners have opted to feed less commercial food and more homemade diets. This issue of Topics in Companion Animal Medicine was created to provide veterinarians with information to help them deal with the current concerns about food safety as well as to help them be more confident with making appropriate dietary recommendations for their canine and feline patients. Food safety is about more than avoidance of toxic contaminants. Since the purpose of food is to provide nutrition, foods that are intended as the sole source of nutrition must provide complete and balanced nutrition. Thus, food safety requires that foods are made with wholesome ingredients, that the processing of food is such that any natural contaminants (eg, bacteria) are destroyed, and that the nutrients are rendered or remain bioavailable. To assure each patient is receiving complete nutrition, foods must be formulated with consideration to the wide range in energy and other nutrient requirements brought on by variations in age, gender, breed, life stage, lifestyle, and genetics or individual metabolism. Safe food not only provides sufficient quantities of essential nutrients but avoids toxic excesses. Thus, food safety involves considerations for nutritional balance. To evaluate commercial pet foods and pet food labels, veterinarians need to understand the regulations governing the pet food industry. When pets are fed homemade diets, veterinarians need the tools and knowledge to evaluate these diets, and to know where to get help when needed. They also need to be aware of differences between “minimum” requirements, “recommended” levels, and “optimum” and “toxic” levels of nutrients. Information on these, and other, topics is included in this issue. Many agencies are involved in the regulation of pet foods. In the first portion of this issue, Dr. David Dzanis, a former employee of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Veterinary Medicine, provides an overview of pertinent regulations and regulatory bodies overseeing commercial pet foods. This article helps to clarify common misunderstandings about the role of U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Association of American Feed Control Officials, and other organizations. Dr. Steven Zicker describes the process of pet food manufacturing, as well as an overview of steps taken to assure that commercial pet foods are wholesome and safe. Dr. Angele Thompson’s useful interpretations of the Association of American Feed Control Officials guidelines regarding ingredients used in pet foods, a common source of confusion, will be of value to many veterinarians. Veterinarians play a key role in detecting and reporting pet food-borne illness. In “Anatomy of a Recall,” Dr. Dzanis provides an overview of the recall process, including resources and contact information, which may be useful to veterinarians in the event of adverse reactions to pet foods. When clients choose to feed homemade diets instead of commercial foods, many veterinarians feel unprepared to provide guidance. Dr. Rebecca Remillard’s article on homemade diets includes guidelines for screening homemade diets, as well as contact information to find help for evaluating and formulating balanced homemade diet recipes. Before recommending any dietary change, veterinarians should be aware of how the patient is currently being fed. Client compliance with dietary recommendations depends on excellent communications skills, as described by Dr. Sarah Abood in “Effectively Communicating with Your Clients.” Tips also are included to help collect a complete diet history in an efficient and effective manner. Safe food not only provides essential nutrients but avoids harmful excesses. Two articles in this issue address specific nutrients, sodium and protein, for which concern about potential harm from excess in pet foods has been raised. These articles provide an overview of the evidence regarding any adverse effects from excessively high or low amounts of these nutrients in the diet. Every patient seen by every veterinarian needs to eat. It is anticipated that this issue of Topics in Companion Animal Medicine will allow veterinarians to feel more confident in their ability to address dietary issues with their clients. With the contact information and resources provided, it also should be a useful reference for some time to come. I am grateful to each of the authors and thank them for contributing their time and expertise in preparing this issue.