Pet Doctor: Oops ... they did it again

Jon Klingborg

Eleven years ago, the February 1998 Consumer Reports magazine tested and ranked various pet foods, and found a number of premium brands to be deficient in necessary nutrients, while giving a superior rating to several grocery store and budget brands.

The May 1998 issue of Consumer Reports issued a retraction for the February rankings and advised owners to ignore its recommendations on pet foods -- "for now." This was only the second "oops" in Consumer Reports magazine's history. Veterinarians weren't as surprised by the retraction as we were by the original rankings, because CR found that budget dog foods like Wal-Mart's Ol' Roy were equivalent to more expensive brands (such as Nutro, Science Diet and Iams.)

Now, we fast-forward to the March 2009 issue of Consumer Reports. The magazine has asked eight veterinary experts for their opinions in the article "Q&A: Vets weigh in on Fido's food."

Unfortunately, the article reached a familiar and troubling conclusion that "there's no scientific evidence that any food is better than the next." This quote was attributed to veterinarian and clinical nutritionist Dr. Joseph Wakshlag.

I couldn't disagree more with that statement. Anyone who sees a lot of different pets on daily basis will tell you that there are obvious improvements in hair coat and quality, reduced shedding, decreased vulnerability to skin problems and increased vitality in pets that eat higher quality foods.

There are also intangible benefits that come with feeding a better food. More expensive pet diets tend to be more concentrated, and this means that you feed a smaller overall volume to deliver the same amount of nutrition (which is more cost-effective) and your pet eliminates smaller amounts of feces. If you're the poop-scooper in the family, this is a difference that you appreciate.

Furthermore, cheap dog foods seem to cause increased flatulence in pets -- we can always tell which pets in the clinic are eating the food that was "on sale" that week, because they are passing a lot of stinky gas!

I was so surprised by Dr. Wakshlag's quote that I contacted him personally. He responded "that's not exactly what I said . . . I was never given a proof of the article before it went to press, (which was)quite unprofessional of Consumer Reports and I will never do an interview for them again."

The article does state that "a higher price could mean better ingredients and better quality control during and after manufacturing," however it discounts this by adding "but you might also be paying for pretty packaging, marketing, or a fancy name." The reality is that the pet food industry is highly competitive, and the cost per bag has a lot more to do with the quality of the ingredients and the research behind the food than the marketing of the product.

I also exchanged e-mails with another veterinary expert quoted in the article, Dr. Sarah Abood. She wrote while most pet food manufacturers can demonstrate that their product is complete and balanced, as consumers we must ask other questions such as "Will my pet eat the food? Will she thrive? Will she enjoy eating it? These questions have nothing to do with the appropriateness of the product."

Dr. Abood really gets to the crux of the issue when she uses the word "thrive." People can function on a diet of fast food hamburgers, soda and french fries. In fact, such a diet may provide us with all of the nutrients that we need. But, will we be vigorous and healthy (e.g. thrive) on such a diet?

Like me, the veterinary experts in the Consumer Reports article feed their beloved pets the slightly more expensive foods found at some grocery stores and most pet stores or veterinary clinics. For those of you who want to feed the cheap stuff, I suggest that you keep a copy of the latest Consumer Reports handy -- you'll want to use it to fan your pet's stinky gas away!

Dr. Jon Klingborg is a veterinarian associated with Valley Animal Hospital in Merced. He can be reached at