The Pet Food Dilemma

Kris Johnson, DVM

Contributed by Dr. Kris Johnson

There’s no doubt about it, people are passionate about pet food! Opinions on feeding strategies get as heated as some political or religious discussions. This is because people love their pets and desperately want what’s best for them. It is also because there is a LOT of information out there, and wading through it all can be difficult and confusing. With this article I hope to shed some light on this topic.

I recently went to a local store that sells pet supplies to peruse the aisles of dog and cat food. I was amazed by the number of different brands available, and also by the claims made on each and every bag: “human grade”…”holistic”…”organic”…”grain free”…”hypoallergenic”! What can we believe? Are these claims real? Are the abilities to make these claims regulated by any agency? Let’s explore these terms:

  • Human Grade- There is no legal definition for this term. Nutritionally speaking, this phrase is meaningless.
  • Holistic- According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, holistic is defined as, “relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts”. By that definition, all food is holistic since a pet’s whole body benefits from the food it eats.
  • Organic- Unlike human food, the word “organic” can be placed on a pet food label whether it is truly organic or not. Only if there is a seal from a USDA approved auditor can we be sure the food in the bag is truly organic by the official standards.
  • Grain Free- “Grain” commonly refers to wheat, corn, barley, rice, and oats. The popularity of “grain free” dog and cat food has soared in recent years. In part I think this is due to the human trend of “gluten free” diets. It may also stem from frustration about the common problem of skin diseases in dogs and cats and the possibility food plays a role in this.

Research indicates beef and dairy products are more likely to cause food allergies than wheat; corn was #8 on the list, behind proteins such as chicken, egg, and soy. In addition, the allergies many people think dogs have to grain may actually be allergies to the storage mites (such as Tyrophagus putrescentiae) found only in bags of food containing grains. So “grain free” diets are beneficial because they do not contain storage mites; however, they can be nutritionally unbalanced as a result of unusually high fat contents, which can put pets at risk for obesity and diabetes.

One pet food label I came across during my excursion completely surprised me. The first sentence on the back of an extremely popular new pet food claimed, “All dogs are evolved as carnivores”. It seemed to be a statement meant to justify the extremely high protein content of that pet food. However, this statement is false. Dogs are omnivores, like us, not carnivores. Researchers at the University of Sweden and Harvard, among others, recently published an article in the international science journal, Nature (Jan. 2013), which proved dogs adapted tens of thousands of years ago to thrive on starch in food. This adaptation was a direct result of living with humans during a time that we as a species shifted primarily to agriculture for food production. These scientists found that dogs have numerous genes involved in starch metabolism, something that wolves do not have. The dogs’ long history as companions to humans has caused them to evolve into efficient carbohydrate utilizers as compared to wolves.

So, you may ask, if dogs get food allergies, and the allergy is to a protein in the food and not a grain, then what’s wrong with picking a “hypoallergenic” diet off the shelf at the local pet store? These are diets that commonly contain unique proteins such as lamb, fish, venison, duck, and even buffalo. One theory is that since dogs are most likely allergic to beef, soy, and chicken, then feeding a “novel” protein will not elicit an allergic response in the pet’s intestines and skin. The theory is correct, but the problem is again one of “truth in labeling” and deficient manufacturing standardization protocols. I was shocked to discover that in one bag of “lamb and rice” dog food, although lamb was the first ingredient listed, rice was NOT the second – barley was. The real shocker was the 4th ingredient was egg and the 5th chicken! For a dog allergic to chicken, this would have been an awful diet! The same was true for a “whitefish and rice” diet; barley was the 2nd ingredient and turkey the 4th. Rice was way down the list at number 6. This diet also contained “chicken fat” so, again, a very bad diet for a dog allergic to chicken. Outside of these issues the other real concern with these over the counter (OTC) “hypoallergenic” diets versus prescription hypoallergenic diets is that OTC diets have lax manufacturing standards and batch inconsistency, which allows various food products to be manufactured on the same equipment, resulting in cross-contamination. Anyone with a peanut allergy knows that a small amount of allergen residue is enough to set off an allergic reaction and the same goes for a pet with a true food allergy!

Numerous studies have demonstrated just this problem. 3 out of 4 OTC “venison” diets tested positive for soy, poultry, and beef, but none of the prescription venison diets did. In another study, 3 out of 4 OTC dog foods labeled to contain no soy, tested positive for soy antigen. The most shocking revelation of all was when a prominent OTC dog food was reprimanded by the FDA when it’s “lamb diet” was found to contain NO lamb (it was beef) and it’s “duck diet” contained NO duck!

The bottom line is no one pet food is perfect for all pets. Nutrition is a complex subject, and there is surprisingly little regulation of either the marketing claims made by manufacturers, or the quality of the food produced. I get frustrated when I see a pet whose illness may be food-related, and I have not been consulted about its best diet. Local pet supply stores sell many excellent food products, but when their staff doesn’t recommend a Veterinarian as the best source for deciding what your pet should be fed, be wary! We as Veterinarians have your pet’s BEST interest at heart. Our recommendations come from years of studying animal nutrition, animal diseases, and the way nutrition influences those diseases. We are uniquely qualified to help you find the best food for your pet. Sometimes finding the perfect food takes time, and patience, but it is absolutely a goal we share with you, and will work together with you to unravel The Pet Food Dilemma.


Shmalberg, Justin, DVM, Dipl. ACVN. “Novel Trends in Small Animal Nutrition: A Practical Guide.” Today’s Veterinary Practice Jan/Feb 2013 Volume 3, Issue 1: 38-42

Jeromin, Alice M., RPh, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM. “FAQs About House Dust and Storage Mite Allergies” DVM Newsmagazine Mar. 1, 2013: 5-6

Axelsson, Erik, et al. “The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet.” Nature 495, March 21, 2013: 360-364

Dr. Kimberly Coyner, RPh, DVM, DACVD, Veterinary Information Network Consultant