Is pet food poisoning our dogs?

  • Posted: March 18, 2012 
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An interesting newspaper article from the UK titled ‘Is pet food poisoning our dogs?’
Rebecca Hosking decided to turn detective when her collie fell ill. What the woman who led Britain’s first campaign to ban plastic bags discovered will alarm every animal lover.

It was early spring this year and my other half, Tim, and I were down in one of the lower meadows on our Devon farm, coppicing willow while keeping half an eye on our ten-month-old border collie, Dave, as he indulged in his favourite pastime: moth hunting. Not that we knew it then, but that was the last time in months we would all be worry-free.

Half an hour later, as we sat down for tea back at the house, we heard a horrible thumping sound from outside.

The following seconds are still a blur. I don’t remember getting to the kennel, I just recall pulling Dave into the recovery position and putting a blanket under his head. He was convulsing violently,legs wildly paddling, frothing at the mouth.

Dave, we would later discover, was having a grand mal seizure and that thumping sound was his head uncontrollably banging on the kennel floor. It was a sound we would come to dread and one we would sadly hear all too often.

The vets told us that dogs can have seizures for many reasons and that there are only so many tests you can run. If, as in Dave’s case, the specific cause cannot be identified, the diagnosis of ‘idiopathic epilepsy’ is made. That translates as: ‘He’s having seizures and we don’t know why.’

Dave was prescribed anti-convulsant medication but the seizures continued. They were particularly severe and we knew that any one could be lethal.

Full of life: Dave’s health vastly improved when he was fed a raw diet

Vets tell you: ‘Live with canine epilepsy, not for it.’ Good advice, but much easier said than done. We went entirely the other way and buried ourselves in research, starting on a journey that would take us far beyond canine epilepsy.

A concerted internet trawl through scientific journals, veterinary publications and pet-owner forums revealed a huge and growing incidence of dogs with diseases of the joints, internal organs, immune system, eyes, ears, skin, teeth and nervous system; not to mention cancers, behavioural disorders and, yes, epilepsy. And, this being the internet, the suggested treatments encompassed everything from fancy pharmaceuticals to collective prayer.

There was one piece of advice, however, that cropped up far too often to ignore – ‘get your dog off commercial pet food’.

At the time we were feeding Dave what we thought was a high-quality dried food or ‘kibble’. According to the description on the side of the packaging, it was ‘rich in meat’ with ‘wholesome ingredients’ and ‘100 per cent complete and balanced’.

But the ‘ingredients’ section on most petfood packaging is notoriously vague and misleading. Manufacturers don’t really want you to know what’s in there. After some serious delving, I could understand why.

In all probability we had been feeding Dave the waste by-products of industrial grain processing, vegetable pulp (and possibly woodchip), a grounddown mix of non-nutritious animal parts, along with used fats and oils, possibly from restaurant fryers and industrial food-processing units. This mixture is preserved with powerful antioxidants banned in the UK for human consumption and linked to liver and kidney damage, stomach tumours and cancer.

The vets I talked to agreed that a diet of processed food was linked to many chronic ailments and degenerative conditions

Like so many pet owners, I just didn’t think to question my dog’s food until something went wrong. But when I did, I stumbled upon a battlefield, with commercial petfood manufacturers on one side and those who advocate a more natural diet for pets on the other.

Pet-food makers say processed pet food is safe and nutritious; natural feeders argue that commercial food, being mainly composed of cooked cereal grains, is inappropriate for animals that evolved to eat raw meat and bones.

I simply wanted to know what I should be feeding my dog. Asking vets seemed a sensible approach but many were reluctant to be drawn on the issue.

Roger Meacock, however, was one vet who was happy to talk at length. He was also unashamedly in the natural diet camp: ‘You only need to look at David Attenborough programmes to know that wild dogs eat carcasses. They catch live animals or scavenge carrion; they don’t attack wheat fields, they don’t dig up potatoes, they don’t cook, they don’t add preservatives or flavour enhancers . . . if it doesn’t happen in the wild we shouldn’t be doing it for them.’

If it’s that obvious, why the confusion? Meacock says: ‘Pet-food manufacturers would have us believe dogs are not carnivores but omnivores. This deliberate misclassification flies in the face of all the scientific evidence.’

Carrier bag crusade

While filming wildlife in the Pacific for a BBC documentary in 2007, Camerawoman Rebecca was horrified by the devastation wrought by the discarded plastic washed up on a remote island. On returning to her home in Modbury, Devon, she persuaded retailers in the town to replace plastic bags with reusable cloth bags.

Modbury became the first town in Britain to eliminate plastic bags for good.

Rebecca’s account of her experiences for The Mail on Sunday sparked a national debate and led to major retailers changing their policies on free plastic bags. Rebecca has now taken over the family farm and runs it on sustainable lines.

The pet-food industry is dominated by a handful of multinational corporations and is estimated globally to be worth £30 billion a year. Profits are maintained by using the cheapest possible ingredients that regulations will allow.

In North America, ‘mammalian meat and bone meal’, a key animal component in pet food, has been shown to include the ground-up remains of euthanised cats and dogs – flea collars, name tags, microchips and all.

Pet-food manufacturers like to point out that our pets are living longer than ever, and argue this is because of improved nutrition.

Meacock has little time for this claim: ‘Human beings today are living longer than ever but if KFC and Burger King tried to take the credit they’d be met with utter disbelief.’ He believes huge advances in veterinary care, particularly in immunisation, have extended animals’ lives despite their processed diets.

The vets I talked to agreed that a diet of processed food was linked to many chronic ailments and degenerative conditions.

‘I tend to see a lot of dogs with cancer or arthritis or allergies,’ said Meacock. ‘The main part of what I do is taking them off a commercial diet and putting them on to a raw diet, and that is where I see the biggest difference. I’ve had dogs which have been expected to die and they’ve left me with a clean bill of health simply because I’ve put them on the raw diet.’

Pete Coleshaw is a recently retired vet with decades of experience from his practice in Staffordshire. He sees the cereal content of many commercial pet foods as the problem: ‘Dogs and cats are not meant to eat large amounts of highly fermentable starch. They have not struggled to survive for millions of years on a diet of meat and bones; they have thrived.’

A month or so after Dave’s seizures started we noticed his physical condition was deteriorating. His coat had become ragged, his gums were pale and he had recurring diarrhoea, persistent rashes and skin irritations. I felt I had nothing to lose by trying Dave on a more natural diet.

There are enough scare stories out there – about bacteria and choking on bones, for instance – to make changing to a raw diet a very anxious time. The majority of these stories can be traced back to people or companies selling processed pet food.

The idea of Dave choking on a bone played on my mind but vet Richard Allport commented: ‘Nothing is risk-free in life but I think the risk of not feeding raw bones is far higher than the risk of feeding raw bones.’

News Article from the Daily Mail, Sept 2010 <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1315145/Is-pet-food-poisoning-dogs.html?mid=57>