Separating Fact from Fiction: Nutritional Advice on the Internet

Separating Fact from Fiction: Nutritional Advice on the Internet

by Ashley Christine, DVM, MPH

We have all seen the internet videos, the blogger websites and the dog food rating platforms, including one that is written by a human dentist. Many pet owners have also experienced being swayed in pet food choices by store employees and well-meaning acquaintances.

How did we get to this place where these sources have more credibility than your pet’s own veterinarian?

How we got here was pretty easy

We all want the best for our pets and these sources are true masters in using creative wording to trigger emotional responses in us as they recite their opinions on pet food. They elaborate on how certain ingredients in pet food are “fillers,” “junk” and “garbage” to make you feel guilty and scared about what you feed or are about to choose for your beloved pet. When you are told what a good job you are doing by choosing food that does not contain “fillers” and “garbage,” the reward centers of your brain light up like a Christmas tree.

So, yes, real scientists – veterinarians and board-certified veterinary nutritionists – understand exactly how we got here. After all, the science behind good nutrition isn’t nearly as exciting or easy to understand as the myths perpetuated by so many sources.

Well, now we are in a jam with the growing incidence of nutritionally mediated (diet-induced) dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs, a deadly heart disease. Consumers have spent so many years demanding pet foods with only the most “natural,” “organic,” “holistic” and “non-GMO” ingredients that many manufacturers no longer needed to understand the ingredients they use to create pet foods.

Who told us to only focus on ingredient labels and disregard proper diet research and formulation? The opinion givers, that is who. As scientists, we know now that we need to get pet owners more tuned in to the science behind nutritionally balanced pet food, rather than the pseudoscience that has become so prominent in the decision-making process when selecting food – and which has led to the growing nutritional crisis in dogs.

What is pseudoscience and how does it pertain to pet food?

Pseudoscience looks a lot like science, except it is not scientifically based. Where scientists have failed the general public is in helping them understand the difference between the two. For example, pseudoscience is when the ancients believed the sun revolved around the earth. Common sense seemed to dictate that it must be so, but science showed us the opposite. Pseudoscience also told us that bats are blind and the earth is flat. Science has long since demonstrated these beliefs are wrong.

It is the same with pet food ingredients. Common sense might lead us to believe ingredients that sound right or good for us must also be the best for our pets, and anything that sounds processed or cannot easily be pronounced must be harmful – because someone on the internet or in a store told us so.

This is not how nutrition works! So why are we still listening to pseudoscience today? It may seem these sources and platforms giving ‘the truth’ behind pet food are coming from a place of good intentions, but the reality is they are profiting from consumer misinformation. Their use of trigger words and appealing visuals lead pet owners to buy subscriptions to their ratings reports, and pet foods through their websites and expensive food products carried in their stores. 

The truth is these sources are putting pets in harm’s way.

How are they harming our pets, you ask?

Nutrition sounds much simpler than it actually is. Mixing together wholesome-sounding ingredients while using adjectives like “filler” and “garbage” to describe traditional ingredients may sound appealing. But here’s more truth…

Dogs and cats do not need INGREDIENTS. Their bodies do not have a minimum need for apples, sweet potatoes, blueberries, pomegranate or artichoke hearts. Some pet foods have these in there for show because they look good on labels and appeal to humans. But do these ingredients provide any real nutrition to our pets? Are they used in a quantity to even have an effect on our pets’ health and well-being? The answer is no.

Dogs and cats DO need NUTRIENTS. Their bodies require protein, fat, essential amino acids, amino acid precursors, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals to prevent nutritional deficiencies, along with deriving the bulk of their caloric energy and fiber from carbohydrates. Their bodies do not care what ingredients are used to supply these nutrients as long as they are bioavailable. Bioavailable means the body is able to break down, absorb and utilize the nutritional benefits of these ingredients. This is where science comes into play in proper nutrition.

Most anyone can formulate a recipe for a canine diet by calculating ingredients and nutrients based on a set of guidelines. But it takes far more than a calculator to ensure the nutrient value of the diet as a whole and whether those nutrients are available to the body when it needs them. To do this takes precise knowledge – not only of how ingredients interact with one another, but also how they are broken down and absorbed to create a nutritionally balanced diet.

Does formulating a diet from a calculator without feeding trials – or using new, uncommon ingredients impact the diet’s overall nutrient availability? That is not known at this time, but it is certainly concerning that we don’t have the decades of research supporting the bioavailability of new ingredients in dogs and cats that we do for grains, such as corn, wheat, rice and soy. 

Intriguing ingredients do not translate to a healthy diet

How did we end up feeding grain-free food to our pets when there is no evidence that such diets are beneficial or necessary? The credit here will likely go to the many online sources claiming that a diet cannot possibly be better than the sum of its ingredients. There is a small kernel of truth in there, because good quality raw materials do make for a more digestible diet. However, online sources often base their opinions on a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes for high quality raw ingredients.

Corn, wheat, soy and rice can be great sources of the NUTRIENTS our pets require. They just don’t sound very fancy. High quality by-products are typically nutrient-dense organ meats considered delicacies in some parts of the world, and meat meals are essentially dehydrated and ground-up meat. Neither of these sound fancy or intriguing on an ingredient label, either. Sadly, many opinion-based sources tell us to avoid these nutrient-dense ingredients altogether.

Fancy and intriguing-sounding ingredients are not what make for a healthy diet or healthy pet! Actual science goes far beyond a simple calculation when evaluating the safety and nutritional outcome of a diet. Manufacturers without fancy ingredients have been producing healthy, nutritionally beneficial and balanced diets for decades. Their bags might not appeal to your desire for the “highest quality” products; however, the expertise and science-based formulations that go into these time-tested brands are what count the most.

Feeding trials, for example, are where a diet is fed to an animal of a specific species in a controlled environment over an extended period of time. During feeding trials, samples such as blood, stool and urine are collected on a routine basis to evaluate how the diet is fueling the body. This gives the manufacturer actual data to form a conclusion on whether a diet formulation is healthy and safe for our pets.

All feeding trials are not equal

Some manufacturers say they perform feeding trials in which they check to see if animals like their food, but this does not tell us anything about a diet’s nutritional value. The bare minimum of feeding trials that can be performed to test nutritional adequacy are those done by AAFCO standards. However, AAFCO feeding trials require only 26 weeks to be conducted on a particular diet. While these trials can catch some nutritional deficiencies, 26 weeks is not nearly long enough to reveal results on how well a diet supports an animal over time.

Ideally, a manufacturer should conduct long-term feeding trials in a controlled setting over the course of years – not weeks. This is one of the many reasons that global nutrition guidelines established by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) are so valuable for pet food manufacturers to follow. Rather than setting a minimum standard for feeding trials to be conducted, manufacturers are encouraged to invest in quality nutritional research, which in turn creates the need for longer feeding trials to be performed.

Who really ends up ‘Pet Fooled’?

The answer is simple in context yet difficult for many pet owners to accept because we are surrounded by strong opinions, pretty pictures and slick videos intended to sway mindsets on what makes a quality pet food. It is crucial to look into the credentials of the person making claims about pet food.

Is the information coming from a member of a human medical field? Is it from a self-proclaimed connoisseur or ‘animal nutrition expert’ who hosts a blog or online platform? Frankly, none of these sources have the experience, knowledge or credentials to correctly evaluate any ingredient in animal nutrition, much less a formula or diet as a whole.

There is often the argument that an individual is intelligent enough to self teach canine nutrition or complete an online nutrition course or two so they can ‘properly’ evaluate diets or guide pet owners on home-prepared methods. Some of these individuals are veterinarians themselves, who will tell you that your vet knows nothing about nutrition, but they do and are happy to provide online nutrition consults – for a price. 

Don’t be fooled by bloggers, website owners or opinion givers without formal education or expertise in nutrition, and who sell products and subscriptions along with their advice.

So, who is trustworthy in pet food nutrition?

When it comes to the health and wellness of our beloved pets, board-certified veterinary nutritionists are the real experts – professionals with doctorates in veterinary medicine and board certifications in animal nutrition. They have devoted their lives to studying small animal nutrition. They understand nutrients go far beyond an ingredient label in the overall measure of a quality diet. They have devoted their careers to studying the nutritional composition of ingredients and the nutritional value of a diet as a whole.

Beyond their in-depth knowledge of nutritional value, they also understand how to create diet formulations based on the age, condition, breed, behavior and medical history of the pet for whom a diet is intended. Most important, these specialists understand how crucial it is that a diet provide all of the nutrients a dog or cat requires, and that there may be nutrient-to-nutrient interactions that must be accounted for when formulating a diet. Believe it or not, this barely scratches the surface on the depth of what they know.

Buyer beware

There are lots of claims about pet food on the internet. Before jumping on board with the information that is presented to you, research the source of the advice you are given. Your pet’s health and life depend on it.

Explore this website to learn more about canine nutrition, and join 100,000 dog owners worldwide in our Facebook group dedicated to learning more about nutritional DCM in dogs: