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Food for thought: what you need to know about pet food 

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In 2007, the world saw an international pet food crisis that resulted in the deaths of cats and dogs. Many animals who survived experienced massive, expensive-to-treat kidney failures. The culprit? According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, several brands of pet food had contaminants in certain vegetable proteins imported into the United States from China.

  According to Patrick Mahaney, a holistic veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist, any poor-quality ingredient — vegetable or not — can produce disastrous results when it's mixed with Fido's food.

  Mahaney says that's because pet food manufacturers attempt to create a less expensive product by using ingredients that cause companion animals to suffer a "life-threatening toxicity." Pet owners and pet food companies currently are dealing with a comparable crisis stemming from the toxic effects of China-made chicken jerky treats.

  For Mahaney, the solution is clear: feed pets only high-quality nutrients, with whole-food-based diets that meet the same standards as human diets.

  "By providing their pets with commercially available dry and moist foods and treats, owners are lulled into a false sense of security that their pet's best health is being served," he writes on his blog at "Cumulatively, consumption of highly processed foods and excess calories has led pets to suffer from a variety of health problems having potentially irreversible consequences, including obesity, arthritis, periodontal disease, diabetes, and cancer."

  But what about pet owners who don't have the time to create catered, whole-food-based diets for their furry friends? Prepackaged pet foods are safe, as long as people know exactly what ingredients are acceptable and which are dangerous.

  According to Adrianna Smith, a veterinarian who works in the community clinic at the Louisiana SPCA, some prepackaged food can be beneficial to dogs or cats.That's partly because there are several foods designed for specific stages of life, she says. Puppies or kittens and geriatric dogs and cats have foods made with specific formulas, for instance, while other foods provide hypoallergenic nutrition or have ingredients that help control specific health conditions like heart or kidney disease.

  In terms of allergies, Smith says "nine times out of 10" the product that causes problems for dogs is a protein — which means that buying food with no corn or wheat often won't help the situation.

  Smith suggests trying a prescription diet for dogs with allergies, and also trying different options for proteins to pinpoint the source of the problem.

  "When we change it, we try to pick something completely new and different," Smith says. "If a dog is allergic to chicken now, you can't pick duck as something new, because that's poultry. Anything beef, venison and buffalo is close [to cause a problem in dogs who have a beef allergy], too."

  Avoiding human food can help prevent problems like obesity or allergic reactions, Smith says, adding that the advice is "usually lost on most people."

  "Ideally we don't give [pets] anything [in terms of human food]," Smith says. "But I can appreciate that's an ideal fantasy that's never going to happen."

  Never give pets certain human foods. Among the most dangerous are sugar substitutes that can be found in a variety of products, including peanut butter. Also on the "no" list are grapes, onions, garlic, chocolate, almonds and raisins.

  Regardless of pets' special needs, or warnings about human food, the overall gist is simple, Smith says: Like humans, animals need a certain combination of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and water every day in order to function normally.

  For animals, each of those proteins, fats and other ingredients play a vital role in animals' health. Dogs need glucose in the diet for energy, and both dogs and cats need protein to build muscle mass. They need good fats and omega-3 fatty acids for good skin coats and to "have a nice balanced health body," she says. Cats are carnivores and need to be on higher protein diets.

  Too much fat in a diet can cause animals to store excess fat and have a buildup of cholesterol in the body, which can break down joints, cause diseases like diabetes and poor organ function," she says.

  "Too much of anything in excess is not good," Smith says. "If we can feed good, healthy diets, we can avoid diseases in our pets, just like with us."


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