["To me, the title of the book does very little to explain its contents.", "I would characterize these concerns as mainly constructive rather than inflammatory. "]

I met Drs. Marion Nestle and Malden C. Nesheim, the authors of Feed Your Pet Right (Free Press, 2010), at Petfood Forum 2010. Admittedly, prior to their presentation, I was quite skeptical about what I was going to hear, as both authors were self-proclaimed outsiders to the petfood arena. However, upon hearing their views, I became interested in their perspectives on the many issues facing consumers, the industry and regulators today, which prompted me to buy the book to learn more.

To me, the title of the book does very little to explain its contents. There are a number of similarly named books on the market that promise health, vitality and longevity of dogs and cats through nutritional means. Most of these condemn commercial petfoods as inadequate, if not dangerous.

These books make it a point to disparage many of the commonly used petfood ingredients while espousing the virtues of alternative feeding systems and/or specified ingredients (many of which are atypical, if not unapproved for use in commercial petfood). Only through strict adherence to the recommendations of the authors can your pet’s health be assured.

This book, on  the other hand, makes only a few, rather general, recommendations. It concludes that commercial petfoods and their ingredients are generally adequate and appropriate but that no one type of food is best for all animals. To that end, it also finds raw, homemade and other alternative feeding systems acceptable, so in conclusion, “It’s OK to do what works best for you.” I do not necessarily disagree with that advice, but to me it hardly reflects the impression given by the book’s title.

If not specific advice, what does the book cover, then? Basically, it’s an explanation of petfoods from the authors’ perspective. It is not their intent to tell consumers what they must feed but rather to provide sufficient information so pet owners may form their own opinions about what they should be feeding their dogs and cats. Topics include:

  • History of petfoods and petfood regulation;
  • Explanation of some major ingredients;
  • Marketing of petfoods;
  • Products for special needs;
  • Treats, chews, supplements, bottled waters;
  • Alternative diets and feeding systems;
  • Some of the controversial issues regarding petfoods; and
  • Recommendations to the industry, regulators, vet schools and consumers.

Compared to other books  I’ve seen over the years, Feed Your Pet Right is refreshingly candid but strives to be balanced and fair. Much of the information from the reportedly “consumer advocate” viewpoint that I’ve read in books on websites and elsewhere is considerably biased, often grossly disparaging the nutritive value and safety of commercial petfoods. These sources usually consider the petfood industry to be corrupt and uncaring, if not downright evil, while its regulators are either apathetic about the consumer’s plight or wholly inept in correcting the wrongs perpetrated by the industry.

This book takes a decidedly different turn from the usual fodder. For example, it by and large supports the use of by-products and rendered meals in commercial petfoods, if for no other reason than as a safe, ecologically sound and efficient means to utilize these materials that would otherwise go to waste. Grains are also OK for pets, the authors say.

That is not to say  this book has no criticism of the industry and regulatory bodies. Rather, it sees need for improvement on many fronts. However, I would characterize these concerns as mainly constructive rather than inflammatory.

I am in wholehearted agreement with some of the book’s conclusions and recommendations, rather tepid about others and flatly disagree with even more. After spending 20-plus years involved in petfood regulation, I respect that the authors’ perspective is going to be different from my own. However, there are a number of statements where I thought the research was lacking.

For example, the claim that “the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] does not bother  to do anything about [feline urinary tract health]” statements is factually inaccurate. In fact, companies that wish to make such a claim must submit the results of rigorous studies to show safety and utility prior to marketing or face high risk of enforcement action as an adulterated drug (see Guidance for Industry #55).

While the specifics in the guidance protocol are not legally binding, in practice it would be extremely difficult for the submitter to stray from these data requirements. As a result, only a handful of companies have ever been granted permission to make “reduces urinary pH” claims on cat food labels. Granted, I’m sure these claims are out there on many non-label materials, but that’s an issue of the government’s inability to effectively monitor these venues rather than enforcement discretion per se.

In conclusion,  I would recommend that people in the petfood industry read this book. While you may not agree with it all it says, it provides fresh insight that may be helpful to many in the industry, hopefully without provoking the knee-jerk defensive posture common with many consumer-directed reading materials on the topic.