As consumers educate themselves about potential contaminants and toxic ingredients in products, they are not only choosing a healthier lifestyle for themselves, but also for their families, which include their beloved pets. To ensure their four-legged family members are living longer, healthier and happy lives, pet parents are taking the plunge into humanization mode; purchasing for their pets what they would purchase for themselves. This, of course, means that pet dollars can still be captured by natural retailers—as long as products offerings are safe, healthy and suit the dietary and hygienic needs of the new-age pet.
Top Concern: Safety
Packaged Facts’s 2015 Pet Treats and Chews in the U.S. report indicates that the majority of pet owners are concerned about the safety of the treats they purchase for their pets (1). After the mid-March 2007 nationwide pet food recall, when suspected melamine-tainted wheat gluten obtained from a supplier in China affected more than 150 brands and lead to the deaths of cats and dogs (2), 56% of dog owners and 44% of cat owners agreed that fear of contamination/product safety is a key consideration when purchasing pet foods (1).
Amid incidents of pet deaths caused by treats, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a set of rules in 2013 to make pet food and animal feed safer. The rules, which stem from a food safety law passed by Congress, require manufacturing facilities to follow good manufacturing practices to address issues like sanitation and have plans in place to correct any problems. Deadlines for compliance to the FSMA Final Rule for Preventive Controls for Animal Food begin in September 2016.
But with the latest stream of pet products recalls, due to a lack of sterility, salmonella and mold, Packaged Facts states in another report, Pet Food in the U.S., 11th Edition, that pet owners and also retailers are still cautious about the origin of pet food ingredients (1). Pet owners and retailers alike are not just demanding products that are made in the U.S. and/or locally sourced, but a Packaged Facts May/April 2014 Pet Owner Survey also found that 41% of pet owners consider natural and organic pet foods to be safer than regular pet foods (1).
When consumers are shopping, key words and phrases on labels attract them to products with hopes of specific benefits. Since FDA regulates the labeling of pet food, strict definitions and guidelines are in place to ensure accuracy. Unfortunately, words such as holistic, premium, gourmet and fresh, which consumers commonly look for, do not have a standard FDA definition and, therefore, are not the best guidelines for helping shoppers find the most nutritious products for their furry friends.
Because of this confusion, shoppers should rely on a simple rule to choose food for their pets: the first ingredient rule. This means that the first ingredient in the list should be a meat or fish, since ingredients are presented in the order of quantity and meat “is a protein source pets would have eaten in the wild,” says Kate Shanley, media relations manager and pet health consultant for Vibrant Health, Canaan, CT. “Protein from animals, unlike proteins from plants, contains balanced amino acids and a complete range of protein-type nutrients, including taurine and carnitine.”
For pet parents looking for a fresher diet with more nutritional benefits for their children, alternative formats such as frozen and refrigerated foods may be first on their shopping list. “Frozen diets may be of good quality, but most are kept in cold storage for long periods of time before they get to your animal’s bowl,” states Shanley. “Shipping of frozen foods is [also] tricky and the quality of the food sometimes suffers.” Shanley instead prefers fresh food due to their ability to be easier digested and assimilated.
Of course, one growing segment of the pet food market is the raw food diet, of which there are two major types; commercial (fresh or frozen) and home-prepared. Shanley notes that while some frozen raw pet foods are truly excellent and “made by careful people who have given a lot of thought to the product, others are poorly formulated with the same sort of ingredient manipulation seen in other pet food products (bony carcasses instead of muscle meat, higher fat ingredients instead of more appropriate lean ones).”
Shoppers looking for frozen raw pet food should also know that “the number one ingredient in almost all commercial raw diets is ground meats, which have a fairly short shelf life. According to the USDA, ground meats that are frozen and considered to be a good quality have a three- to four-month shelf life,” states Shanley.
“A [home-prepared] raw food diet, which is sourced by shopping for, and preparing, rather than a commercial frozen raw pet food is the way to go for many pet owners,” says Shanley. “Raw meat is a good source of amino acids taurine and carnitine, which are largely removed by processing. Some companies are now adding carnitine to entice people to buy their foods but it’s a Band-Aid approach. Taurine and carnitine are two of probably hundreds of amino acid-type nutrients found in fresh raw meats.”
By opting for a raw food diet, shoppers can feel relieved that raw food found in stores must be approved for human consumption, but it also has the benefits of saving the shoppers money and consumers can “control the quality of the ingredients, plus fresh food tastes better.”
Some additional benefits that are enticing pet parents to make the transition to a raw diet for their pets, are cleaner teeth and gums, an overall improvement in health, a healthy shiny coat, less shedding, improved energy levels, stronger immune system, less odor and improved breath (3).
But not everyone is sold on a raw food diet for pets. Several veterinary and human health organizations, such as the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), discourage owners from feeding their pets a raw food diet.
AAHA notes that studies on both commercially available and homemade raw protein diets have found that 30–50% of them are contaminated with pathogenic organisms, and up to 30% of the dogs that are fed such diets may shed pathogenic organisms in their stool (4). Some of the commonly known pathogens that can be present in meat include Salmonella, E. coli, and Campylobacter. Other pathogens that may contaminate raw meat include Toxoplasma gondii (the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis), Cryptosporidium, Echinococcus, Clostridium, Neospora and Sarcocystis (5).
Due to concerns over whether therapy animals may be fed a raw diet, AVMA approved a policy on raw or undercooked animal-source protein in dog and cats diets in August 2012, in which the CDC provided a statement against feeding raw food to dogs and cats. In addition to the risk of illness is the nutritional concern of feeding a pet a raw food diet. It can be time consuming and difficult to balance raw or homemade diets, and nutritional deficiencies, especially in vitamins and minerals, are a significant possibility (6). Some nutritional deficiencies take many months to show up and you may not see the problems with feeding a particular diet until the animal has been eating it for months or years (6).
The lesson is that you should be selective about any raw pet foods brought into you store and talk to suppliers about how they ensure a safe product throughout the supply and delivery chain.
Why Go Grain Free?
Just like the popular Paleo diet for humans, protein-based and grain-free pet foods are opening shoppers up to a way they can avoid potential allergens and mimic a canine’s “ancestral” diet. “Cats and dogs are not designed to cope with large quantities of grains without long-term metabolic consequences, chronic illness and dysfunction, specifically unregulated inflammation,” says Shanley.
Once a pet consumes a grain, the “pancreas (begins) to secrete larger amounts of amylase, the enzyme necessary to process carbs, and insulin, the hormone necessary to balance the elevated blood sugar resulting from the metabolism of grains, “ Shanley adds. Because pets cannot secrete enough amylase to process carbohydrates effectively, insulin is released and blood sugar drops. When blood sugar drops, the adrenal gland is signaled to release cortisol, which can lead to a multitude of problems such as elevated blood sugar (leading to diabetes) or elevated blood pressure, which can result in cardiovascular disease, thinning of the skin and coat, decreased muscle and bone mass, and a increased risk of infection (7).
Others, however, believe having some grains in the diet can provide important nutrients. Tell owners to talk with a vet before making the switch.
Should Pets Take Supplements?
Just like their humans caretakers, a well-balanced diet may not be enough for a pet to live a long and healthy life. Because all pets are different, some may need the help of an additional product to provide the essential nutrition they may be lacking, with the okay of a veterinarian. “Supplements are specially formulated not only to promote overall health, but also to target specific conditions that your pet may suffer such as hip and joint concerns, behavioral issues, skin conditions and imbalanced digestive and immune functions,” says Montse Almena, director of animal product development at Pet Naturals of Vermont, Essex Junction, VT.
Take care with the language you use in your store when talking about this category. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine regulates products as either food or drugs. Depending on the use, a pet food supplement product is either categorized as a food or drug.
Green foods. Additional fiber and antioxidants are some reasons why pet parents are turning to green foods. Shanley notes, “many dogs and cats naturally crave the chlorophyll in grass, which is often why we find them eating it.” Adding a green food product to their diet can help curb this craving, which means less gagging and less possible exposure to pesticides.
She believes green foods support many aspects of pet health including digestion, eye health, circulation, blood health, free radical scavenging and fresh breath.
Joint health. Almena says that “due to improved veterinary care and dietary habits, pets are living longer now then they have before. As a result, the pet, its owner and veterinarians are faced with a whole new set of age-related conditions and joint concerns are one of the most commonly occurring.”
In addition, certain breeds are prone to joint problems, and the situation often worsens with age. Susan Weiss founder and CEO of Ark Naturals, Naples, FL, says, “you need to think about your breed and their ‘DNA lifestyle.’ Particularly, breeds whose native DNA tells them to run, jump and have high energy, those guys are going to be affected more. It’s the human’s job to take all that into consideration.”
Regardless of breed, Shanley adds that a pet’s age plays a big role in whether their joints will move freely or not: “Collagen breaks down in the body and joints become less stable, muscles and connective tissue weaken, and joint disorders such as arthritis and tendonitis tend to occur, as well as injuries.”
Of course, age is not the only factor that causes decreased joint mobility; a pet’s weight and activity level may also cause discomfort. And while a nutrient cannot cure a pet’s joint issue, many can support and provide comfort. Alena points out, over time, glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) production slows, “which can result in joint stress and the breakdown of connective tissue.” Glucosamine and chondroitin may support GAG production.
Weiss also supports the idea of glucosamine for joint support. She states, “Serious double blind studies have proven its effectiveness.”
But, she warns shoppers and retailers to avoid foods that just offer a dusting of the ingredient. “It’s really tricking the human intothinking that is the answer,” Weiss explains. “Firstly, most times the amount of glucosamine is insufficient and secondly, if it is added to the food in the food mixture—when the product is baked, heated or whatever—the amount of glucosamine will be less than the amount needed to sufficiently help the animal.”
Companies may also formulate with MSM, eggshell membrane and other joint-support ingredients to support healthy, fluid joints.
Weight management. A related issue that Pet Parents need to consider is weight management, as excess weight puts too much stress on joints, says Weiss.
In a March 2015 National Pet Obesity Awareness Day Survey, it was estimated 52.7% of U.S. dogs and 57.9% of U.S. cats are overweight or obese. Whether large or small, excess weight on pets can “increase the severity of hip problems,” says Sandra Carter, founder of Canine Matrix, Carlsbad, CA.
Not only that but, every pound can lead to the development of diabetes mellitus and “increase the torque and pressure on each leg joint,” states Regina Flight, pet brand manager at NOW Foods, Bloomingdale, IL. Of course, the obvious solution for getting one’s pet back into shape are fun physical activities, but due to age or the severity of obesity, activities may be limited.
According to the NOW Foods website, natural ingredients such as L-Carnitine, an amino-acid that supports normal weight management, and chromium, helps support blood sugar levels already within normal range, are just two ingredients that can help support a healthy weight and appetite.
Coat and skin. The health of a shopper’s beloved pet can be reflected in the health of its skin and coat. And while consumers may rush for a topical product to help, they should take a moment to “look at the overall health of the skin itself, which can be affected by both internal and external factors,” states Almena. “Numerous veterinary clinical trials have shown the significant skin benefits of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, due to their structural role on the skin barrier and anti-inflammatory properties.”
If shoppers are looking for additional remedies to target skin health, Almena recommends selenium, zinc, vitamin C, vitamin A, biotin and niacin.
Of course, the health of a pet’s digestive tract can also play a role in maintaining skin health. Almena states, “Recent clinical studies indicate that probiotics have special direct or indirect effects on skin’s health and that probiotic therapy can have great potential in managing skin diseases including eczema, atopic dermatitis, acne and allergic inflammation.”
Yes, allergies can also play a role in how a pet’s skin and coat appear. Various allergies and flea dermatitis can cause itching and discomfort, making their coat less lustrous, similar to a human, says Carter. By using natural repellents and shampoos that “don’t contain known toxins drugs and synthetic chemicals to protect your pet from dangerous substances,” says Almena, shoppers can protect their pets.
Flight also notes that an “Omega-3, which has a fatty acid profile, can improve [the] hair and coat [of pets]” and if shoppers see a flare in their pet’s skin allergy during the changing season, the NOW Foods website states an omega-3 product can support a pet with a normal immune response typically challenges.
While it may be true that a dog’s mouth is cleaner a human’s, a pet, can develop life-threatening problems that can affect their kidneys, liver and heart. “Both cats’ and dogs’ health can be seriously compromised if dental health is not supported. When plaque breaks off, [it can] enter the animal’s bloodstream and essentially attack vital organs,” says Weiss.
To avoid plaque buildup and gum disease, shoppers should brush their pet’s teeth daily. Pyrophosphate, hydrogen peroxide and baking soda are three ingredients that manufacturers of natural pet toothpastes have included in their products.
Chewable and dissolvable products are also available to support dental hygiene and lessen plaque build-up. “These products are designed to make it easy for humans to help support their pets’ dental health,” states Weiss.
Shoppers want ways to keep their pets with them for as long as possible, which is why with a little help from a well-stocked pet section, the four-legged members of the family can enjoy a happy and healthier life. WF
Published in WholeFoods Magazine March 2016
1. Packaged Facts, “Pet Food Recalls Return Spotlight to Pet Product Safety,” Jul 14, 2015, www.packagedfacts.com/about/release.asp?id=3792, accessed Feb. 1, 2016.
2. Humane Society, “Menu Foods’ Tainted Pet Food Spurs Congressional and FDA Reforms,” May 15, 2013, www.humanesociety.org/animals/resources/facts/menu_foods_recall.html, accessed Feb. 1, 2016.
3. “The Natural Dog. A Guide to Raw Diet and Health the Natural Way,” www.rawfeddogs.org/benefits.html, accessed Feb. 1, 2016.
4. “Raw vs. Commercially Processed: What’s the Best Food for Your Pet?” Nov. 5, 2014, www.aaha.org/blog/petsmatter/post/2014/11/05/516155/Raw-vs-commercially-processed-Whats-the-best-food-for-your-pet.aspx, accessed Feb. 1, 2016.
5. American Animal Hospital Association, “Raw Pet Foods and the AVMA’s Policy: FAQ,”
www.avma.org/KB/Resources/FAQs/Pages/Raw-Pet-Foods-and-the-AVMA-Policy-FAQ.aspx, accessed Feb. 1, 2016.
6. Animal Hospital of North Asheville, “Deciphering Pet Food Labels,” www.ahna.net/deciphering-pet-food-labels, accessed Feb. 1, 2016.
7. “Cushing’s Disease: The Incurable Disease Your Vet is Likely to Miss,” Sept. 21, 2010, http://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2010/09/21/cushings-disease-caused-by-pet-stress.aspx, accessed Feb. 1, 2016.