THIS BOOK is about what dogs and cats eat—and should eat—to keep them at peak health for as long as they live. It is also about the food products available for feeding companion animals, the ingredients in those foods, the sources of those ingredients, the industry that makes the products, and what is and is not known about the best ways to feed these animals.* In this book, we provide dog and cat owners with the information they need to know about what their pets eat and why.
We are professors in the human nutrition departments at New York University (Marion Nestle) and Cornell University (Malden Nesheim). Both of us have had long careers in human nutrition and Malden Nesheim received much of his early training and experience in animal nutrition. But how we came to write a book about pet food and feeding is a story best told by Marion Nestle because Feed Your Pet Right
evolved from What to Eat
, a book she wrote in 2006 about food for people. What to Eat
is not really a how-to book; it is a book about how to think
about what to eat. Similarly, Feed Your Pet Right
is about how to decide for yourself what’s best for your pet to eat and how to feel more confident about your choices. MARION NESTLE EXPLAINS
For much of 2005 and 2006, I was spending every minute I could in supermarkets researching the topics I wrote about in What to Eat
. That book, which started out as a guide to supermarkets, ended up as a reference work on the enormous range of issues—from basic nutrition to international politics—that confront anyone faced with food choices these days. As I wandered through supermarket aisles, I kept running across pet foods. In some stores, they occupied entire aisles, six shelves high. By the time I began paying attention to these products in a more serious way, I knew that food companies paid “slotting” fees (bribes, for all practical purposes) to many supermarkets for every inch of prime retail shelf space. It seemed obvious that pet foods must be a lively and profitable business for all concerned.
When I looked at the cans, pouches, and bags on those shelves, I was surprised by their labels. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has strict rules for what can and cannot go on the labels of foods for humans, but for historical reasons (which we explain later on) it regulates pet foods in an entirely different manner—as animal feed. The FDA requires the labels on feed for farm animals to list ingredients, but does not officially permit statements about benefits for special health conditions. Yet here were foods marketed for dogs and cats bearing claims that ingredients in the products could help reduce the risk of heart disease or diabetes, stimulate immune function, treat skin or joint disorders, or alleviate the infirmities of aging. The shelves were full of products advertised for dogs of different sizes and breeds, for puppies and kittens, for cats kept indoors, and for those fed vegetarian or all-meat diets.
But my initial look at the ingredient lists gave an entirely different impression: the products seemed much alike. Could it be possible that foods advertised for specific ages, breeds, lifestyles, and health conditions all contained virtually identical ingredients? If distinctions existed, they were not obvious at first glance. I also wondered about the health claims. Health claims on human foods are well known to confuse and mislead consumers but to strongly encourage sales. Indeed, manufacturers of human foods deliberately add nutrients—vitamins, omega-3 fats, antioxidants—to products so companies can make health claims for those ingredients. Health claims usually have much more to do with marketing than health. I wondered if health claims on pet food labels had the same confusing effects on pet owners (or guardians, as some prefer).*
If for no other reason than to satisfy curiosity, I thought it would be a good idea to add a chapter to What to Eat
about pet food choices. But by that time, the manuscript had expanded to more than six hundred pages and I was eager (desperate is more like it) to bring it to a close. Even though I suspected that pet owners were just as curious as I was, and just as interested in reliable information about what to feed their cats and dogs, I reluctantly abandoned the idea of including that chapter.
As soon as the book appeared, it was obvious that I had missed an opportunity. When giving talks about What to Eat
, I began to hear about what I now think of as “the pet food gap.” People asked, “Why can’t you do the same for pet food? I don’t have a clue what to feed my dog.” “My cat will only eat this one brand and she hisses if I try anything else. How do I know if what I am feeding her is okay?” and “My veterinarian says one thing but books say another—and they say opposite things. Whose information should I trust?”
These questions were so similar to the ones that had started me working on What to Eat
that I was curious to pursue them further. I began by asking pet owners whether they felt they knew what to feed their cats or dogs. The answer: a resounding NO! Invariably, a deluge of questions followed, many of them highly specific. While some were easy to answer, some were not. The questions ended up guiding our research and this book deals with all of them. For example:
Is commercial pet food any good? Can I trust it? (that’s what this book is about.)
Which is better—canned or dry dog food—or does it make any difference? (We deal with these questions in chapter 6.)
Why are pet food labels so hard to understand? What do they mean? (chapters 7 and 10)
Are premium brands better? What does “all-natural” mean, and is it better? should I give my pet organic foods? (chapter 12)
Do I have to do anything special for my puppy or kitten? For my older pet? (chapter 13)
Can I believe health claims on pet food labels? (chapter 14)
How can I tell how much my pet should be eating? (chapter 15)
Is it ok to give treats? What kind? What about tap water? (chapter 16)
Should I give my pet vitamins or other nutritional supplements? (chapters 17 and 18)
Is it ok to feed my pet a vegetarian diet? how about a vegan diet? What about grains? (chapter 19)
Are raw-food diets ok? are they really superior? (chapter 20)
Is it okay to cook my own food for my pet? (chapter 21)
Should I believe my veterinarian’s advice about what foods to buy? (chapter 24)
From such questions, it was obvious that the matter of what to feed pets was just as important and just as confusing to owners as what to feed themselves and their families. Indeed, as I soon discovered, the question of what to feed pets can be far more important to people than what they feed themselves. If you have a pet, you are likely to adore your animal. You love pleasing your pet and food is an easy and satisfying way to express your love. You and other pet owners want to feed your animals properly, but the pet food marketplace is just as complicated, misleading, and confusing as the human food marketplace—and sometimes more so.
I thought it would be interesting and useful to answer such questions and to help clarify some of the choices involved in pet feeding and I convinced Malden Nesheim to join me in this project. The subsequent “we” represents both of us and reflects our joint perspective on the issues we cover in this book.
As we quickly learned, our particular perspective is unusual in this field. We approached this project out of genuine curiosity, with few preconceptions about what we might learn and without any specific goals in mind. Neither of us had any ties to the pet food industry, and we still do not. This book is the result of our attempt to bring as much objectivity as we could to examination of the pet food issues we discuss here. WHO WE ARE
Neither of us lives with a pet at the moment. We travel too often and for too many days at a time to be able to give a dog or cat the attention and companionship it needs. But at various times in our lives, we owned, cared for, and sometimes bred dogs and cats, as well as our own or our children’s hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, mice, parakeets, parrots, rabbits, rats, snakes, frogs, turtles, goldfish, aquarium fish, and on one occasion, a tarantula. At times in our family or professional life, one or both of us has raised or worked with mice, chickens, rabbits, pigs, cows, sheep, and horses. We like and get along well with animals, we love visiting our friends’ and children’s animals—together we boast of three grand-dogs and five grand-cats. We have enjoyed every minute of reading, writing, and thinking about these animals as we worked on this book. And now for more formal introductions: Marion Nestle
is a city girl. She was born in New York City, grew up in Los Angeles, but returned to Manhattan in 1988 and has been there ever since. She earned a doctorate in molecular biology and a master’s in public health nutrition from the University of California at Berkeley, and has held jobs teaching and writing about human nutrition for more than thirty years at Brandeis University, the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco, and, since 1988, at New York University. Her farm experience began in a childhood summer camp in Vermont where she took care of a dozen free-range Rhode Island Reds, but is otherwise limited to occasional farm visits. While working on this book, she was a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released its final report in 2008. She is the author of three prize-winning books about human food is...