Dr. Mercola Talks with Dr. Becker about the Pet Food Industry
October 13, 2012
By Dr. Mercola
I recently interviewed Dr. Karen Becker, who has been in charge of our Healthy Pets site for the past four years.
If you have a dog, cat, or some other type of furry or feathered companion, and you haven't yet visited Dr. Becker's site, be sure to sign up for the Healthy Pets newsletter. I think you'll find it an invaluable resource to help you change your pet's life for the better.
Just as we're trying to improve health for humans here with the Mercola.com newsletter, Dr. Becker is doing the same for pets.
In our interview above, we talk about an important topic that's every bit as vital for animals as it is for humans, and that is the food your pet eats.
And just as there's massive deception, fraud, and misinformation in the human food industry, there's an equal if not greater amount of misinformation and deception in the pet food industry.
90 Percent of Pet Foods May Cause Disease in Your Pet
As you might suspect, the driving force behind the pet food industry is not to create a nourishing, species-appropriate diet for your pets; the focus is on making a profit, unfortunately often at the expense of your dog's or cat's health.
Dr. Becker explains:
" … 90 percent of pet foods out there contain totally inappropriate ingredients that are not nourishing and actually create low-grade inflammatory processes, diabetes and obesity. All the same health issues occurring in the pet world are occurring in the human realm in terms of overall health. But additionally, these pet foods are rendered, [which means]… not approved for human consumption. On top of the inappropriate ingredients in pet food, if people really knew the quality of food they are feeding their pets, they would be totally appalled."
For example, the scrap meat that is deemed unfit for human consumption (because it contains tumors, abscesses, diseased tissues, etc.) is often rendered and used as "protein" in pet food.
Bottom line – if you feed a mass marketed commercial pet food, your dog or cat is typically getting a low grade concoction of rendered, leftover animal parts (including not only diseased tissues but can often include beaks, feathers, snouts and feet) and other inappropriate ingredients like genetically modified (GM) corn or soy, as well as wheat and rice.
Your Dog or Cat Wasn't Meant to Eat All Those Carbs
Another biologically inappropriate ingredient found in plentiful supply in the vast majority of commercial pet foods are grain-based carbohydrates.
"Dogs and cats are by nature carnivores. Kitties are obligate carnivores. Dogs are scavenging carnivores. These two carnivore species don't even have a carbohydrate requirement. We are putting into their bodies a bunch of foods that are metabolically unnecessary, that are setting up the same degenerative processes that are occurring in human bodies," Dr. Becker said.
If you've ever wondered why dog and cat foods contain so many grains if they're not nutritionally necessary, it comes down to profits once again. Grains are cheap fillers, and this is why they're added to most pet foods – not because they have any nutritional benefit for your dog or cat. To create a truly meat-based food costs more, and it is far less expensive, and easier, for pet food manufacturers to load their foods with corn, rice and wheat than it would be to figure out how to make a competitively priced food that would actually be species-appropriate.
"Grain-Free" Doesn't Mean Carb-Free
Even many of the higher end pet foods marketed as "grain-free" contain carbohydrate fillers like potato or pea fiber. And adding to the problem is the fact that many veterinarians will tell you these and other carb fillers are "good sources of energy," which could not be further from the truth.
Dr. Becker continued:
"It's interesting that veterinarians have started marketing some of these carbohydrates as a good source of energy. But absolutely, we know that dogs and cats are not requiring any of these grains – they break down into sugar.
Sugar, of course, causes an insulin release. Insulin then causes blood sugar to drop. Cortisol is then released to rebalance blood sugar. So dogs and cats are dealing with this whole cycle of carbohydrate ingestion, insulin release, and cortisol release. The metabolic syndrome that's occurring in people – leptin resistance – is absolutely occurring in pets as well. We're seeing diabetes in dogs and cats, most certainly, and obesity that leads to musculoskeletal issues and secondary organ degeneration. The whole cycle is occurring in pets."
Your Vet Probably Doesn't Know Much About Dog and Cat Nutrition
Shocking? Yes. But true nonetheless. Many nutrition courses offered at U.S. veterinary schools are not taught by nutritionists… they're taught by representatives of major pet food companies. It's obviously a major conflict of interest, and as a result most veterinarians graduate without having any unbiased nutrition information.
The "education" being offered by pet food companies can quite blatantly promote their products. Dr. Becker remembers being given a laminated chart in veterinary school that listed nationally known dog and cat food brands as the "prescription solutions" to various pet conditions like liver failure or kidney failure. Vet students weren't taught what to look for in terms of nutrients to support health and healing… they were taught to "prescribe" a certain brand of food.
"Veterinarians are graduating totally incompetent and unable to effectively talk about foods outside of what they learned from pet food manufacturers. If they did receive any nutritional counseling, it was archaic…" They are graduating not only with a lack of knowledge about pet nutrition, but also with a skewed perception of what whole nutrition really means."
This could explain why your veterinarian may have told you to only feed your pet a certain grain-heavy "prescription" diet, or to avoid offering "people food" (even if it's healthy, species-appropriate food for your pet). And if you've ever tried to discuss thinking "outside the box" regarding your pet's diet, as in providing fresh, whole foods instead of highly processed kibbles or canned varieties, there's a good chance your vet was not impressed.
"Veterinarians, oftentimes, become pretty defensive – as do medical doctors – when they're confronted with these issues, because they don't have enough knowledge to be able to confidently defend their position. They weren't given a whole lot of nutrition training," Dr. Becker said.
A Homemade Diet is Best – IF You Do it Right
Your veterinarian may try to discourage you from cooking whole foods for your pet, or feeding raw foods, but if done properly, this is almost always the healthiest way to nourish your pet (just as it's the healthiest food for you, too). The whole debate about feeding pets raw food (and many veterinarians will discourage you from feeding raw) doesn't make a lot of sense considering dogs and cats have consumed living, raw meats for thousands of years; it's what they're designed for.
"I'm a big proponent of people home cooking or home preparing food for their pets," Dr. Becker said. "And really, homemade food's the best and worst food you could possibly feed your pet."
What Dr. Becker means by best AND worst is… you must remember that simply feeding your pet some raw beef or chicken will in no way meet his nutritional requirements. And if that's all you feed him, it can be even more dangerous than offering an inexpensive commercial pet food.
Skeletal issues, organ degeneration and endocrine abnormalities are just a few examples of what can occur due to dietary deficiencies of essential fatty acids, calcium, trace minerals and other nutrients from an improperly prepared homemade diet. Well-meaning pet parents are trying to feed species-appropriate food to their dogs and cats, but what many are missing is the need for nutritional balance.In the wild, animals do not just eat the muscle meat of their prey – they consume organs, glands, bones and other body parts that provide for their nutritional needs.
According to Dr. Becker:
"Wild dogs – wolves, coyotes, dingoes, and African wild dogs – have all been documented to sample their environment. They may eat some berries and some grasses. Kitties, certainly, will occasionally nibble on grasses. But hands down, 95 percent of their diet is whole prey. That means skin and fur for fiber; tendons, muscles, and ligaments for additional fiber; whole protein in terms of muscle for energy source.
The contents of the GI tract of prey provides predigested vegetable sources, as well as an abundant source of gastric juices, plus vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
But also remember the head is consumed… They eat the pineal gland, pituitary, liver, spleen, heart, and kidneys. All of those glands provide a whole food source that makes a perfect nutritional package for that particular species. Canis lupus, the wolf, is 99.9 percent genetically identical to the domestic dog. There really is no genetic differentiation between a wild wolf and a domestic dog… That gives us some idea how we should be nourishing our pets."
If you're interested in preparing a homemade diet for your pets, see Dr. Becker's cookbook Real Food for Healthy Dogs and Cats. Based on the ancestral diets of canines and felines, this book provides a rotational feeding plan and recipes for a meat-based diet that includes appropriate levels of vegetables, fruits, and supplements to complete the diet, analyzed to ensure nutritional needs are met. It will closely mimic what your dog or cat would be eating in the wild, if given the choice, but using ingredients that are easy to source and prepare in your own kitchen.
For example, to mimic the gut contents of prey animals, Dr. Becker recommends adding a mixture of pureed vegetables and probiotics to your dog's or cat's meals. This mixture provides highly beneficial antioxidants, enzymes, vitamins and phytonutrients not found in muscle meats. There are actually four main categories of balanced nutrition for pets. These are:
- Meat, including organs
- Veggie and fruit puree
- Homemade vitamin and mineral mix
- Beneficial additions such as probiotics, enzymes, super green foods that aren't required to balance the diet, but can enhance the vitality of your pet
Dr. Becker's recipes for dogs are based on 75 percent meat/organs/bone and 25 percent vegetables/fruits. For cats it's 88 percent meat/organs/bone and 12 percent veggies. These are the ratios that seem to work well for most healthy pets. That said, if you decide to use a commercial pet food, Dr. Becker offers some helpful guidelines for selecting a quality food, such as avoiding the toxic preservatives ethoxyquin, BHA and BHT. In addition she notes:
"Home cooking is the best thing you can do. Second best is to know the company you're purchasing from really well so you're able to discern that the ingredients it uses are U.S.-sourced, human-grade, preferably organic, and of course, species-appropriate – meaning, carbohydrate-free.
These are usually very small companies. The majority of commercially prepared pet foods I can truly wholeheartedly recommend are brands no one has ever heard of. You will never find them at the grocery store. You will not find them at big-box stores like Petco or any of the PetSmarts around.
…Needless to say, you've got to really read the labels very, very well. My rule of thumb is this: when you read the label on a dog or cat food, if you can't pronounce an ingredient or wonder what it is, if you're not able to clearly discern exactly what it is, don't put it in your pet's mouth."
Should You Let Your Indoor Kitty Out?
Aside from diet, exercise and emotional health are two of the other cornerstones of good health for your pet, and Dr. Becker believes that all living creatures deserve to get outside in the sunshine, breathe fresh air and move their bodies. Unfortunately, letting cats outdoors poses a number of risks, including exposure to disease and human and animal predators, not to mention outdoor cats who hunt have been linked to diminishing songbird populations.
Is there a happy medium?
Cats with free access to the outdoors are much more likely to be exposed to viruses and other disease-causing agents... not to mention poisons, predators, and speeding traffic. So while keeping your cat a primarily indoor kitty, you can still give her the outdoor adventures that are so essential for her physical and emotional health.
This means taking your cat outside, supervised, on a harness (yes, you can take your cat for a walk), on an enclosed porch, or using outdoor caging.
"Oftentimes, pets in the U.S. end up overweight, super bored, and even – I think – borderline depressed, because they're just kind of held captive in our homes," Dr. Becker said.
"Now, I'm not advocating that all house cats be released to the outside, but we do advocate taking kitties outside in harnesses or outdoor caging. There are some neat and really inventive ways that you can help kitties get indoor-outdoor exercise without putting them at risk for disease or predation. Responsibly allowing your kitty outside means you stay with your pet – who is of course spayed or neutered so as not to add to the overpopulation issue – and protect her from any potential danger."
Supporting the Efforts of the Holistic and Integrative Veterinary Community
The Healthy Pets site has partnered with the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association Foundation (AHVMA), a non-profit organization. The foundation's main focus is helping set up integrative veterinary departments within traditional veterinary schools, giving students the opportunity to learn how to incorporate alternative healing therapies into their medical knowledge base. This effort includes providing an independent animal nutrition curriculum that is not influenced by pet food companies.
The Healthy Pets site raised over $400,000 for the AHVMA Foundation for a multitude of excellent projects, including the Rabies Challenge Fund to help demonstrate that annual rabies revaccinations are totally unnecessary. According to Dr. Becker:
"The AHVMA Foundation is also focusing on helping set up educational systems within established veterinary communities to give students the opportunity to get the type of integrative veterinary medicine education they would not have access to otherwise. I'm very excited to be able to support this effort on behalf of the Healthy Pets site."
Every day at Mercola Healthy Pets, Dr. Becker shares her passion for the benefits of proactive, integrative, and wellness-oriented pet healthcare, and the value of alternative therapies that are rarely, if ever, discussed in the conventional veterinary community. Now countless animal lovers across the globe are learning about the foundations of pet health and becoming empowered to take the best possible care of their pets. If you haven't yet joined them, what are you waiting for?