Pet Nutrition

The Basis of Good Health

By Dr. Cliff Faver

As a doctor of veterinary medicine, I believe nutrition is the most important daily medical decision pet owners can make for their pets.

The sad fact is that very few pet owners or veterinarians have the knowledge to make informed decisions about pet nutrition. The majority of our purchasing decisions are based on emotional responses to the manufacturer’s marketing campaigns designed to convince the public and uninformed veterinarians that their products are the best.

What if I told you that one of the fastest growing, most expensive diets on the market hasn’t done feeding trials to back up their claims, yet they claim their food is healthy for your pets? Surprised? That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to deception in the pet food market.

Because the industry is widely unregulated, it is difficult to stop the flow of misinformation and hold the sources accountable. However, as a groomer, you may be held accountable if you are making feeding recommendations. Make sure you know your state’s laws. In some states, a feeding recommendation, especially if it is in response to a disease or skin condition, could be construed as a medical recommendation. My goal here is to bring awareness to some of these issues so that you can help your clients make informed decisions.

When reading labels, most people focus on the ingredient list. The problem with this is there are very few “fixed formula” diets out there; most are considered “variable formulas.” Alarmingly, by law, manufacturers can change the food ingredients and are not required to change the label for up to six months. It is completely legal for them to change the diet for six months, go back to the original label ingredients for a month, and then change it again for another six months. Why would they do that? Pet food is big business. The American Pet Product Association (APPA) estimated that $21.26 billion would be spent in the U.S. on pet food in 2013. Compare this to an estimated $4.5 billion that Americans would spend on grooming and boarding. Pet food manufacturers play the commodity market. If corn is cheap, there is more corn in the diet. If chicken is cheap, there is more chicken in the diet.

So what good is reading the label? Actually, part of the label is a legal requirement, and that is the Association of Animal Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement. You can find this statement on all pet food labels unless that food is not intended to be a complete diet (e.g. treats). We learn two things from the AAFCO statement. The first is how the diet came about. If the diet is “formulated,” someone could have simply written a recipe for it. With formulated diets, the ingredients don’t even have to be digestible. (Someone once developed a diet of coal, motor oil, newspaper, and boot leather, and it met the requirements!)

The best method of developing a pet food recipe is through feeding trials. In a “feeding trial,” the proposed recipe must be fed to multiple pets for six months to prove that the ingredients in the diet are bio-available, digestible, and healthy. Most companies do not do feeding trials because of the associated high cost. Further, most consumers are not even aware of the need for the criteria.

The second item in the AAFCO statement is the “life stage” the pet food is meant for. At this time, there are only two life stages: (a) puppies and pregnant bitches and (b) adults. (Although research shows that the needs of a “senior” pet differ from those of an “adult,” there is presently no legal AAFCO definition for a senior life stage.)

Many companies use the term “All Life Stages.” I don’t know about you, but when I am 90, I don’t expect to eat the same as I did when I was 12. That is precisely how these companies want us to feed our pets. To be for “All Life Stages,” the food has to meet the nutritional guidelines for puppies and pregnant bitches. This means that some of the nutrient (e.g. fat and protein) levels may be excessive and possibly harmful for adult and older pets! You could unwittingly be feeding your old dog with kidney issues puppy food. No wonder we have so many obese pets. (Current national data shows 53% of dogs and 55% of cats are overweight.)

Of the marketing terms “holistic,” “human-grade,” or “natural,” the only one with a legal definition is “natural,” which means it came from nature at one time. Motor oil, toxins, and wood fiber would all fit that definition. “Holistic” and “human-grade” may sound good but mean nothing in the pet food industry!

“Organic” is another confusing term. There are strict criteria that must be met before a manufacturer can label a food “organic.” If this is important to you, make sure it has the USDA-certified organic seal on the bag.

To use the label “100% Organic,” the manufacturer must ensure the following:

All ingredients are certified organic.

Any processing aids are organic.
Product labels state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel.

Be aware that any “organic” labeled product other than those labeled “100% organic” will have non-organic ingredients in it—anywhere from 5 to 30%.

Other legal ingredient definitions you should know include:

Meat by-products – the non-rendered clean parts other than meat derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes but is not limited to lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth, and hoofs. It shall be suitable for use in animal food (2014 AAFCO Publication, p. 356)

Poultry by-product meal – the ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcass of slaughtered poultry, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs, and intestines, exclusive of feathers, except in such amounts as might occur unavoidably in good processing practices (2014 AAFCO Publication, p. 356).

Poultry by-products – non-rendered clean parts of carcasses of slaughtered poultry such as heads, feet, viscera, free from fecal content and foreign matter except in such trace amounts as might occur unavoidably in good factory practice (2014 AAFCO Publication, p. 357).

Poultry Meal – the clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts or whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet, and entrails (2014 AAFCO Publication, p. 359).

Poultry – the dry rendered product from a combination of clean flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone, derived from the parts of whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet, and entrails (2014 AAFCO Publication, p. 361).

The ingredients listed above are often used by pet owners to eliminate diets from their list of possibilities. I would caution you that there are huge variations among manufacturers with regard to these ingredients and how they are used. One company may use by-products as a way of adding cheap filler while another company may use them as rich nutritional sources for therapeutic nutrition. Most people recognize the positive nutritional properties of certain organ meats. By-products may be considered good or bad based on the ingredient quality, the manufacturer’s philosophy, and scientific research. It is important to note that these definitions set out by AAFCO specifically ban feathers, hair, horns, teeth, and hooves. Those making derogatory comments about a diet will often falsely state that the food includes these items.

Skin Problems Associated with Food

A common myth I hear across the country is that “all skin conditions are caused by food allergies.” In fact only 15% of allergies are even associated with a food allergy. Perpetuated for years, another myth is that corn is a primary culprit for allergies. In reality corn is responsible for only 4% of all food allergies. The most common pet food allergens are as follows in order of prevalence (some variation in order in some studies):

Beef (up to 58% of allergy cases)









The latest fad is to blame gluten and grains as the source of problem allergies. As you can see, they play a small factor. This marketing tactic is very misleading for the owner and their allergic pet! Most pet foods have fish, chicken, lamb, or beef as their main ingredient. You be the judge after seeing the above list.

Dogs are omnivores (meat and plant eaters) and cats are carnivores (mainly meat). Advertisements are designed to convince you otherwise. Domesticated for thousands of years, dogs have adapted to live with our eating habits. Feeding a dog too much protein may result in kidney issues because, like us, their bodies do not store excess protein. Unused protein must be metabolized where it is converted into a toxin, screened through the kidneys, and eliminated.

This is a basic overview and is not meant to be complete. Other issues, controversies, and more in-depth discussions will be covered in future issues. For more information, please visit our clinic website at



  1. Lorraine says:

    I just don’t know what to feed my dogs anymore. Nothing that is on the market is good for them. With two dogs that have allergies, I am lost as to what I feed them.

  2. sarah says:

    Great article! It’s a shame that animal food manufacturers market the way the way they do.

    I have two Cocker Spaniels. I feed my dogs no-grain dry kibble and it has worked wonders for us! It maybe expensive, but saves me $$ in the long run as the dogs always get a clean bill of health at their annual vet exams.

    I’m not surprised to read that beef is the cause of “up to 58% of food allergies” as my “girly” is allergic to beef (found that out by trial and error) I know “they” say to switch up brands/flavors of dry kibble due to nutritional differences among brands, but with a dog that has bad allergies I found a food (Costco’s Nature Domain) that works for me, so I’m sticking to it!

  3. Doug says:

    It looks like, based on this article, that these are organic dog foods that are USDA Certified:

  4. Colleen says:

    As a dog groomer for the last 14 years, I have seen more than my share of allergies in dogs. I have always told my clients to check their pets food and/or treats first for any offending ingredients. Try a “hypo-allergenic” diet for 7 days before you try any new food. This diet, written by a vet, is Cottage Cheese, backed or sweet potato, green beans and/or carrots. When you start a new food, if there is going to be a problem, you should find out in about 24 – 48 hours. Then stop and start over again. If nothing changes, then you have a pet with inhalant allergies. So track what time of year they are the worst and try to remember to wipe off your pets feet when they come in from outside. If they lick their feet, now they have ingested the pollen and made things worse. Using a high quality, probably grain free or single source protein, usually helps. And bathe more often with a gentle shampoo. This article is great information. Wish all “vets” would supply better food information. And remember, just because your vet sells the food, doesn’t mean it is good!

    • Dr Cliff Faver says:

      Colleen I would like to address a couple of things that you stated that may be helpful in your discussions with your clients.
      First, food allergies are very complex issues. Your comment to try for 24-48 hours might rule out severe allergies but most short term reactions of that nature are due to changing of the diet too quickly. Most digestion occurs via bacteria in the digestive system and if you make a rapid change it almost always will give them vomiting or diarrhea. This is true even if you go from a bad diet to the best diet on the market. Second food allergies can take up to 6-8 weeks to manifest themselves. So this is often a slow process before you know if you are on a good diet.
      When it comes to grain free actually most meats are more allergenic than the grains. That is more marketing and from the human side than from true research.
      There is really no such thing as a hypo-allergenic diet out there because each dog is an individual and can be allergic to anything. In fact, we don’t recommend casually switching from diet to diet because often we “sensitize” these pets to multiple protein or allergen sources which limits what we can use in the future. A big issue right now are the diets that offer multiple protein sources in the same diet. This may cause an allergic dog to become allergic to more proteins quicker.
      Another important thing to remember is rarely are these dogs just allergic to one thing. Often they have inhalant allergies as well as food allergies. When exposed to enough of these allergens then they show clinical signs. So some of these pets are allergic to food but not until they are exposed the inhalant allergens do they become clinical.
      The big picture is allergies are very complex and need to be approached systematically. Unfortunately to do it correctly is costly (see what they charge on the human side) and takes dedication of both the vet and the owner so often veterinarians and clients decide to “try” things that may or may not work and in reality often complicate things.

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