When I looked at the cans, pouches, and bags on those shelves, I was surprised by their labels. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has strict rules for what can and cannot go on the labels of foods for humans, but for historical reasons (which we explain later on) it regulates pet foods in an entirely different manner -- as animal feed. The FDA requires the labels on feed for farm animals to list ingredients, but does not officially permit statements about benefits for special health conditions. Yet here were foods marketed for dogs and cats bearing claims that ingredients in the products could help reduce the risk of heart disease or diabetes, stimulate immune function, treat skin or joint disorders, or alleviate the infirmities of aging. The shelves were full of products advertised for dogs of different sizes and breeds, for puppies and kittens, for cats kept indoors, and for those fed vegetarian or all-meat diets.
But my initial look at the ingredient lists gave an entirely different impression: the products seemed much alike. Could it be possible that foods advertised for specific ages, breeds, lifestyles, and health conditions all contained virtually identical ingredients? If distinctions existed, they were not obvious at first glance. I also wondered about the health claims. Health claims on human foods are well known to confuse and mislead consumers but to strongly encourage sales. Indeed, manufacturers of human foods deliberately add nutrients -- vitamins, omega-3 fats, antioxidants -- to products so companies can make health claims for those ingredients. Health claims usually have much more to do with marketing than health. I wondered if health claims on pet food labels had the same confusing effects on pet owners (or guardians, as some prefer).*
If for no other reason than to satisfy curiosity, I thought it would be a good idea to add a chapter to What to Eat about pet food choices. But by that time, the manuscript had expanded to more than six hundred pages and I was eager (desperate is more like it) to bring it to a close. Even though I suspected that pet owners were just as curious as I was, and just as interested in reliable information about what to feed their cats and dogs, I reluctantly abandoned the idea of including that chapter.
As soon as the book appeared, it was obvious that I had missed an opportunity. When giving talks about What to Eat, I began to hear about what I now think of as "the pet food gap." People asked, "Why can't you do the same for pet food? I don't have a clue what to feed my dog." "My cat will only eat this one brand and she hisses if I try anything else. How do I know if what I am feeding her is okay?" and "My veterinarian says one thing but books say another -- and they say opposite things. Whose information should I trust?"
These questions were so similar to the ones that had started me working on What to Eat that I was curious to pursue them further. I began by asking pet owners whether they felt they knew what to feed their cats or dogs. The answer: a resounding NO! Invariably, a deluge of questions followed, many of them highly specific. While some were easy to answer, some were not. The questions ended up guiding our research and this book deals with all of them. For example:
Is commercial pet food any good? Can I trust it? (That's what this book is about.)