Why Pet Nutrition Experts Disagree: Who is “Right”?

by Nicole Decrisantis
October 17, 2019

When it comes to pet (or human) health, headlines that don’t tell the truth frustrate me beyond belief. These click-bait articles tend to create irrational fears and/or a false sense of comfort – all because many companies and media outlets have determined that web-traffic or readership is more important than quality, and trusted information. These are predatory practices by people who are usually completely and utterly unqualified to be writing about these topics (let’s just be honest).  This leaves my beloved clients worried about threats or dangers to their pets – mostly from oversimplified or just plain bad information. Only once in a great while, do we see information about pet nutrition well written, researched and distributed legitimately.

I do my best to write well-researched blogs and whitepapers — an evolving process for any academic. I always seek peer-reviewed papers from well-respected and established journals to not only defend my positions but also explain my thought process.  The problem with companion animal nutrition is that there’s a dearth of adequate research, into what is actually appropriate. Sure, we have countless studies from well-known, large pet food companies, but what do they actually say? If you were to meta-analyze the majority of these papers, you’d find some interesting tokens of information:

  • Most canine nutrition research is conducted with beagles as a proxy for all breeds, which leaves us with significant knowledge gaps for other breeds.
  • Pet foods are formulated to meet nutritional minimums for those required nutrients. This does not satisfy optimal nutrient levels because, in a general sense, we don’t know what optimal levels are.
  • Most trials and studies are limited and don’t include lifetime data. In fact, most canine food trials are very short.
  • More concerningly, some pet foods don’t even conduct trials at all. These companies leave nutrient detection to computer algorithms without testing to see if canine (or feline) bodies actually absorb and metabolize the required nutrients correctly.
  • Formulations are designed to meet general population needs; they don’t account for any pet’s unique situation. 
  • Most pet foods lack something (nutrients, or balance), leaving many pets open to a nutritional deficit or overabundance of certain nutrients.

To an extent, this lowers the pet owner’s awareness regarding nutritional information. This has led the pet food industry down a dangerous path. With significant knowledge gaps within the pet nutrition field, it’s safe to say we don’t have enough reliable information about what happens to nutrients within some foods when they are processed beyond a recognizable state. Additionally, there is scarce data to determine what happens to those nutrients, when they are fed to a dog or cat over the course of a lifetime.

These are difficult concepts to ponder because animal trials are a troublesome subject. No one wants to jeopardize animal health, nutrition, and quality of life. However, if companies are not running nutritional trials and safety testing, the argument can be made that our pets are actually being experimented on. Most of the big companies that do run feeding trials are also the ones, who are sourcing ingredients that have high levels of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. While nutrients are important, the quality and source of ingredients are just as critically important for the health and well-being of pets. We know this is true for humans, and the bar certainly needs to be raised for “traditional” pet food ingredients to offering whole ingredients that are well-sourced, safe, and meet optimal, not minimum, nutrition requirements. Since all types of pet food have valid risks, the pet owner’s perception of what brand or type of food is the lesser of all evils is what an owner chooses to feed their pets. 

I don’t think the answer to any of these problems is easy, but I also don’t think they will get better until we start discussing them more openly and honestly. “Big pet food” and little companies have their fair share of problems: and I don’t think there is one food company that believes they have all the boxes checked. We have a serious health crisis for both pets and people – and simply feeding or eating one food, or diet, simply because someone, professional or not, told you is not going to yield the best results. It may be a difficult fact to swallow, but bad skin, allergies, “dog smell”, constant GI issues, chronic ear problems and shortening life expectancy is NOT normal – it’s a sign of an unhealthy pet – and the most common culprit is inappropriate nutrition that is not meeting the individualized needs of the animal.

Part of the problem is many people are simply stuck in the way they used to do things because change is scary from all perspectives: scientific, business, employment, etc. Regardless, I still believe most have our pets’ best interests in mind – even though there are differing opinions. Despite the differing opinions, I believe everyone has something to bring to the table; because I find it hard to believe any pet food company’s goal is to harm pets. It is also apparent that most pet food companies are focused on finding that one right path. After all, wouldn’t it be marvelous to find the cure or answer to a lifelong problem? Sure, but the current climate is resulting in closed-minded practices that are roadblocking knowledge sharing, collaboration, and advancement in the field. Most of the big companies are just trying to advance the field or solve problems on their own which is terribly inefficient, expensive and obviously not producing any noteworthy results.

While in school I was taught that half of what I was learning would be proven wrong – the problem is that we did not, and still don’t know what half is wrong. Even so, the more education I receive and the more brilliant scientists and researchers I meet from around the world, the more I realize we know very little about the world we live in and the sciences that drive it. It’s up to us to keep asking questions, keep exploring and keep challenging everything.

When I founded North Point Pets, I created a space for collaboration, critical thinking, and research. My team has helped me realize that dream, and we’ve grown to be more than a “pet store.” In fact, we are a resource center. We’re always looking for relevant research, and digging in a lot deeper than a headline, and each time we pull resources (especially those used within my work) we archive them, make copies and place them in our library for you to view.

My team and I have embraced this in our Education & Research Corner and we invite you to come in, sit and stay awhile, and indulge in scholarly research articles, published white-papers and other literature.  We invite you to bring your questions — and your pets! — and engage in conversation with others. You might come to different conclusions, you may disagree –and I wholeheartedly respect and celebrate that … but the best part is that we both will learn something new.

My conclusion to many of the problems facing pet nutrition is that the answer is different for every pet. Individualized medicine and nutrition fields are exploding, and there is excellent evidence pointing to why. Some people believe that science is constant, but it actually evolves. Experts in the same field often disagree with the science supporting both sides — which can be confusing — but collaboration and respect for each other drives new research and new knowledge. It’s not about “who’s right and who’s wrong.” It’s about perspective, raising the bar and discovering new information. Everyone can bring something to the table – because everyone brings unique experience, education, interpretation, and critical thinking skills. I enjoy challenging the status quo, and current norms within the industry.  This is why I believe we’re so successful.

Collaboration with animal experts is a priority. You’ll often find events and seminars hosted by well-known and respected veterinarians, researchers, specialized practitioners, dog trainers, and behaviorists.