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Pet food: what does the label tell you, and how much does it matter to your pet?

Do you ever wonder what actually goes into pet food? Everyone with a pet has to provide food for them every day, but most of us are unaware of the background to what we are feeding. That's not to say that we don't care about it: pet food manufacturers know that we want to do the best for our pets, so labelling and packaging tends to give a sense of wholesome ingredients and tastiness. But what's going on behind the scenes? There's an anti-corporate trend in the modern online world, with an underlying emotion of distrust in big companies. While this may sometimes be justified, the truth is that most companies are just bigger versions of small businesses, doing their best to provide products and services in an efficient, effective way. Pet food companies are no different: while some pet owners may dislike the idea of mass produced pet food, it's still the method that most pet owners use to feed their pets, and for the most part, it works very well. Pet food production is regulated by law to ensure that it's safe and nutritious. Recent research showed that 70% of owners and 85% of vets agreed that commercially prepared pet food provides optimum nutrition. Almost 60% of owners and 95% vets would go as far as to say pets are living longer as a result of advanced nutrition. Of course there are individual animals that have special nutritional needs, just as some humans do. But for most pets, commercial pet food does a good job. Pet food manufacturers produce products in line guidelines that are regularly reviewed by independent nutrition experts. There is also strict legislation governing what ingredients can be used, laid down by European law, but also applicable to imported commercially prepared pet foods. So what actually goes into commercial pet food? 'Ingredients' is the general term used for raw materials and additives in pet foods. Typical pet food ingredients include protein sources such as poultry, beef and fish plus vegetables, cereals, vitamins and minerals, all combined according to recipes designed by veterinary nutritionists to create a balanced diet. Many supermarket type pet foods seem to have ingredients that are easy to criticise: the classic example is "meat and animal derivatives". This may sound like a vague term, but it's actually precisely and legally defined in the Animal Feed Regulations 2010. Manufacturers are legally obliged to use this term because it accurately describes what goes into the food. In reality, the term refers to by-products of the human food industry that come from animals slaughtered under veterinary supervision e.g. heart, lung, or muscle meat, which may not be traditionally eaten by people in this country. The ingredients have been inspected and passed as suitable for human consumption, so there's nothing "low quality" about them. The term "ash" is also often criticised: after all, who would like a sprinkling of ashes from the fire mixed up in their food? In fact, again, this term is legally defined: it refers to the mineral content of the food and is determined chemically by the burning of the product. It is a legal requirement to include the ash content on a pet food label. What about more expensive pet food, sometimes called "premium" or "super-premium"? How is this different, and are these diets worth paying for? Such terms are not legally defined, and so they are more of a marketing term than a technical description. Factors include type of ingredients used, quality of ingredients and investment in innovation in the product. "Super premium" diets tend to include specific ingredients, such as particular types of meat, antioxidants for immune support and glucosamine for joint care. If you read the ingredients label yourself, you should be able to see what you are paying for. What about home-prepared diets? Many people do cook food for their own pets, but you need to be careful: it can be difficult to be sure that you are providing the right balance of nutrients without having a recipe checked by a qualified nutritionist. A simple rule of thumb is that 90% of a pet's diet should be commercially prepared, with just 10% as extras or treats. This will ensure that your pet does not suffer from any unexpected nutritional deficiencies. So what's the ideal food for pets? The answer, as for humans, is that it depends on the individual. Many pets fed on grocery-supplied standard pet food are in excellent health. Others thrive on premium type pet food, sold through pet shops and vet clinics. And some pets do well on a more "natural" type diet, such as home-prepared or "raw" diets. It takes up to six weeks for the effect of a diet to become visible in an animal: if your pets enjoy their daily meals, and have bright eyes, a shiny coat and a muscular, sleek body, then you can be sure that you are feeding a diet that suits them well.
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Murder mystery after Crufts: what to do when malicious poisoning is suspected as the cause of death

It's rare for the death of a dog to make international headlines. Jagger was a good-looking three year old Irish Setter who died in Belgium, the day after returning from Crufts, where he had won a prize for being second in his class. The reason for the interest from the mass media was this: Jagger's owner claimed that his death was caused by deliberate poisoning.

Jagger died soon after returning from Crufts

The day after competing in Crufts in Birmingham on Thursday, Jagger had travelled back to his home in Belgium by train, arriving around midnight on Friday. His owner then prepared food for him, but when she called him, he collapsed and started shaking, before going into a coma, then dying. She called her vet immediately, and an autopsy was carried out. It was reported that the dog's stomach contained "cubes of meat - some sort of beef-like steak - that had been sewn up with poison inside". At the time, the suggestion has been made that the dog had been fed the poison bait on Thursday, in a formulation designed to be released slowly. Samples were sent to the toxicology laboratory for analysis, and two poisons were identified - carbofuran and aldicarb. These are fast acting agricultural toxins, illegal in the EU, which would cause severe clinical symptoms to occur within half an hour to three hours, meaning that it was not possible that the poison bait had been eaten the previous day.

Poisoning is common in daily veterinary practice

As a vet in practice, I've often been called to assist in episodes of suspected malicious poisoning. There are three types of incident which fall into this category.

Unexplained sudden deaths

First, the unexplained sudden severe illness and death of a dog, where a grief-stricken owner is desperately looking for a reason for their pet's demise, and perhaps someone to blame. There are many possible reasons for sudden death, from brain haemorrhage, to heart failure, to an acute viral infection, to an internal catastrophe such as the twisting of an abdominal organ. When an owner witnesses such a death, poison is often at the top of their personal list of likely causes, but in reality, it's exceptionally rare. The only way that it can be ruled in or out is by carrying out a detailed autopsy, but even this is often not conclusive. Many causes of sudden death (as listed above) leave surprisingly scanty physical evidence, and it isn't as easy as you'd think to carry out a "poison analysis" on samples from the digestive tract. Each poison needs to be searched for specifically, and there are dozens of possibilities. Each individual test costs money, so it would be easy to spend many hundreds of pounds fruitlessly checking for poisons. Many cases of sudden death remain a mystery, with no definitive answer.

Accidental poisoning

The second type of suspected malicious poisoning happens when a dog shows classical signs of poisoning rather than the vaguer signs of just "sudden severe illness then death". Examples include neurological signs (such as staggering, fitting and collapse), digestive signs (such as vomiting and diarrhoea), respiratory signs (such as difficulty breathing) or signs linked to poor blood clotting. Sometimes a clinical work up can be fairly definitive that a poison is the cause, and an owner's automatic response is often that it must be deliberate. In fact, most poisonings are accidental rather than planned: dogs investigate the world with their mouths. Many poisonous substances are left within a dog's reach (e.g. rat poison, slug bait, and weedkillers) and this is the most common reason for dogs to be poisoned.

Deliberate malicious poisoning

The third type of suspected malicious poisoning is the real thing: when somebody deliberately leaves out poison bait for a dog. In thirty years of vet practice, I have only come across this on a handful of occasions. In most cases, several dogs have been affected and often the owners have actually witnessed their dogs taking the bait. In one case, the owner brought the remainder of the bait with them to the vet: it was very obviously poison mixed with meat. The signs of poisoning usually start within minutes or hours of the poison being taken. A specific poison is usually suspected from the signs shown by the dog, so only one test needs to be done in the laboratory, making it easy to have the cause proven. In most cases, there was an obvious motive for the poisoning (e.g. history of dogs chasing sheep in a rural area, complaints about dogs barking in a neighbourhood). Such cases are exceptionally rare, thank goodness.

What was the cause of Jagger's death?

Jagger's death definitely fits into the third category: deliberate malicious poisoning, but there is still a mystery over how exactly this happened. The timing of it - over 24 hours after leaving Crufts - means that it cannot have happened at the dog show. It seems far more likely that the dog picked up the poison bait in his home country, during the two or three hours prior to developing signs of toxicity. Was it a bait left out specifically for this dog? Or was it a bait left out for foxes in the neighbourhood that Jagger picked up by accident? Perhaps we'll never know the final answer to this well-publicised mystery. If your dog shows sudden signs of illness and you're not sure what to do, use the VetHelpDirect symptom checker: the chances are that you will need to call your vet at once, but this quick-to-use guide may reassure you that you are taking the right course of action.
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Best UK Vets 2015

With only two weeks until the Best UK Vets Award 2015, we would like to encourage you to write a short review for your vet. Good honest reviews are an excellent way to help pet owners find the best local vet. They also show your vet what you value about their practice! Best UK Vet 2013 - VetHelpDirect On 10th February 2015, the Award organisers, VetHelpDirect.com, will evaluate the thousands of reviews left on all vet sites using their directory and the winning practice will be the most well reviewed practice over the last year. If your vet wins, not only will it be an amazing honour, but they will benefit from an award ceremony at the practice to thank them for all their hard work. There’s still plenty of time to help your practice win so get reviewing! To find your vet and leave a review search for the practice on our sister site Any-UK-Vet or here on VetHelpDirect
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Ebola seems to be dwindling, but look out: Avian Flu is back!

Just as the news headlines about Ebola have dampened down from boiling to a quiet simmer, Avian Flu has leapt back into the news. The Telegraph headline today sums up the media reporting: "Bird flu strain which can be passed to humans detected in Holland". Meanwhile, even closer to home, the BBC reports that a case of bird flu has been confirmed at a duck breeding farm in East Yorkshire. The ducks are being slaughtered and a 10km (6 mile) exclusion zone is in place. It all sounds as if an apocalypse along the lines of the "Contagious" movie has landed in Europe, but the truth is far less exciting. Avian Flu is a viral disease that is highly infectious between birds. This is the single fact that needs to be stressed more than anything else. It is a bird disease, and the risk to humans is minimal. The strain of avian flu that is in the news is similar as the one which was first seen in Hong Kong in 1997, and has been appearing spasmodically ever since. That one was known as H5N1(H-five-N-one), a name that describes the type of proteins on the virus particles. The Netherlands strain is the H5N8. The strain in Yorkshire has been identified as an H5 strain but further details are not yet available. It is true that humans can be infected by such strains of the virus, but the risk of this is so small as to be almost negligible. Hundreds of millions of birds have died because the disease spreads rapidly from bird to bird, and because authorities react to viral outbreaks by carrying out mass slaughtering of poultry flocks in an attempt to eliminate the virus. When humans have been infected, the virus has not spread from person to person. It has remained as a bird virus only, with humans only occasionally getting in the way, usually when they are working in close proximity to infected birds when they inhale viral particles. If Avian Flu reached the UK, everyone working with poultry would know to be ultra-careful about hygiene, so the risk of humans dying of bird flu would be minimal. There is no such thing as a human pandemic of bird flu. Readers may then wonder why there seems to be a type of hysteria around Avian Flu. The reason for this is the potential for a change in the virus which could indeed lead to a human pandemic. The avian virus could mutate into a new strain of virus that is highly infectious to humans. If this happened, the new Human Flu virus would spread across the world rapidly. This is what happened in 1918, when 50 million people worldwide died in a flu pandemic and the authorities are justifiably concerned about the risk of a repeat of this. Mutation of the virus is only likely to happen if a human who is already suffering from a normal, harmless human flu virus infection picked up an Avian Flu virus at the same time. If the two viruses were active in the same human body at the same time, they may exchange genetic material. The result could be a new mutated virus that was a combination of the harmless human flu and the dangerous bird flu. If this new virus spread from the first victim to other people, it could signal the start of a new global human pandemic similar to 1918. Modern high volume, low-cost international travel would mean that the new virus could spread very rapidly indeed. This is why the authorities take outbreaks of Avian Flu so seriously. In Hong Kong originally in 1997, 1.5 million birds were slaughtered. The pattern has been repeated elsewhere – whenever the virus, or similar ones, are discovered, the poultry population is slaughtered. These strict control measures are very effective in stopping the spread of the disease amongst birds. Despite such radical efforts to control the virus, it does continue to spread. Migrating wild birds – waterfowl such as ducks, geese and swans - are partly to blame, but infected poultry products – such as untreated manure - may also contribute when they are moved out of infected areas. International trade in poultry can also be significant, and the mass intensification of poultry meat production means that when outbreaks occur, hundreds of thousands of birds can rapidly be affected. The public in the UK do not need to worry too much about these latest outbreaks in the Netherlands, but people should be aware that if they do come across sick or dead wild waterfowl (such as swans), they should let the authorities know at once. To find out more about the UK government's response to the bird flu vet, see this link. It's a helpful government website: no frightening headlines, no nonsense: just the simple facts.
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The unnecessary death of the Ebola dog

Ebola virus hysteria is taking hold of the northern hemisphere. The latest victim was a cross-bred dog called Excalibur, who was euthanased by the Spanish authorities even though he showed no signs of being infected with the virus, and despite the fact that there is no evidence that dogs can transmit Ebola to humans. The twelve year old rescued dog had the misfortune to belong to a Spanish nurse who became the first person to become infected with Ebola in Europe after nursing a Spanish missionary priest who had been repatriated from Sierra Leone to Madrid for intensive treatment. The priest died of the virus on September 25th,, and the nurse is thought to have picked up the virus after touching her face with a contaminated glove as she removed her protective suit after finishing her shift. Excalibur was a much loved pet in perfect health, and after Madrid's regional government obtained a court order to euthanase him, the nurse's husband put out a call for his life to be saved. An online  petition rapidly gathered over 400000 signatures, and crowds of angry animal-loving protestors had to be restrained by police outside the apartment where the dog lived. Despite the protests, Excalibur was euthanased. The deed has been done. But was it really necessary? Did the animal present a risk, or was he just a scapegoat sacrificed to give the authorities a sense that they were doing something? There is scanty evidence to support killing a dog in a situation like this. Bats are thought to be the natural reservoir for the Ebola virus in central Africa, carrying the virus without showing signs of illness. Monkeys and apes become infected and fall seriously ill, like humans. But despite extensive research, there's been almost no evidence of other animals becoming infected or carrying the virus. There is one study that casts a cloud over the innocence of dogs: researchers investigating the 2001-2002 outbreak of Ebola in Gabon found low levels of antibodies in blood samples from dogs in areas where there had been cases of Ebola in humans and apes. This confirmed that the dogs had been infected with the virus, but it was impossible to know the source of their contact: from bats, apes, or from humans? It was also not possible to determine whether the dogs could have been infectious to humans at some point. In theory, the fact that they had been infected with the virus implies that at some point they may have shed the virus in their secretions, in the same way as infected humans pass on the infection. Some researchers believe that it would have been wiser to have kept Excalibur alive, not for sentimental reasons, but to learn more about the spread of the disease. If he had been kept in quarantine, serial blood samples could have been taken, monitoring his immune status. The question of whether or not dogs need to be included in Ebola virus control schemes could have been definitively answered in a safe environment. And if he had been clear of any sign of the virus after several months, he could have been released from quarantine to resume a normal happy doggy life. Sorry, Excalibur: the precautionary principle and the political need for action seized the initiative: we still don't know much about Ebola in dogs, and you'll never enjoy another happy walk with your owners.
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