Misleading Advertising for Raw Pet Food (again)

H.G. Wells is credited with saying, “Advertising is legalized lying,” though I cannot imagine he is the first person to have thought so. Of course, the difficulty with identifying actual lying in advertising is that it is impossible to know whether the person making false claims actually believes their statements are true. When talking about inaccurate advertising of alternative medicine, supplements, unconventional diets, or even conventional therapies such as stem cell injections, I try to make the safer and more charitable assumption that the advertiser believes what they are saying, however egregiously implausible and inaccurate it may be.

Unfortunately, whether inaccurate claims made to sell a product are genuine misconceptions or deliberate deception, the truthfulness of the claims is often not something the consumer can judge, so false claims sell just as effectively as the truth. And because of the undeniable effectiveness of science as a means of identifying the truth, claims of “scientifically proven” benefits are often made in advertising healthcare products and services, which creates an undeserved and false appearance of legitimacy to unsupported, pseudoscientific ideas.

The latest example I have run across of this phenomenon, and a particularly brazen one, is the advertising of Souly’s Raw Pet Food. I’ve written in detail about raw diets before, and the bottom line is that there is no reliable research to indicate any benefits at all to feeding our pets raw food. The theories behind these diets are a mixture of reasonable supposition and nonsense, but there is no sound evidence to support any of them. There is, however, abundant evidence that cooked food is more nutritious than raw food, and that raw diets come with serious risks, including nutritional inadequacy and contamination with harmful bacteria. Despite this lack of any real reason to believe raw diets are good for our pets, manufacturers and promoters of these diets are not shy of making aggressive claims.

A press release from the makers of Souly’s sounds like a report on a new scientific study, but a close reading finds no evidence of any research at all, merely unsupported opinion and error.

Soul’y Raw Pet Food Discovers that Switching Your Pet to a 100% Handmade Raw Food Diet has been Successful as an Alternative Treatment for Coprophagia

The most common cause [of coprophagia] is usually a dog that is lacking a diet that provides him with sufficient vitamins and minerals to quell the desire to seek out other food sources to make up for the deficiency….Soul’y Raw Pet Food in San Marcos CA has noticed that the practice of dogs consuming their own feces or that of other dogs has all together stopped in their loveable following of furry friends when transitioned to their high quality raw food diet. One could say that this simple breakthrough in successfully deterring pets from seeking out feces as an alternative food source is just what the Doctor ordered.

To begin with, the consensus among veterinary nutritionists is that medical and nutritional causes of coprophagia are quite rare. It is usually behavioral in origin and can be a normal activity for healthy dogs and cats. The claim that it is the result of a nutritional deficiency is not supported by any evidence, and the implication that a raw diet would prevent such a deficiency better than conventional commercial diets is even more preposterous. And in this case, the “evidence” appears to be nothing more than the opinions and observations of the diet manufacturer and their friends, which hardly merits a press release announcing a scientific “breakthrough.”

But further reading clearly illustrates that the folks at Soul’y Raw Pet Diets do not understand nutritional science and care little about what scientific evidence supports or doesn’t support.

Soul’y Raw Pet Food does not chemically alter any of our ingredients by cooking or any other manufacturing process. Research has shown that most pet food allergies are derived from denaturing the ingredients and their bodies are not able to recognize them as a protein and their bodies will try to fight off the foreign body which creates the chronic allergic reactions.

This explanation is, in fact, the exact opposite of the true nature of dietary allergies. Whole proteins are the primary trigger for allergies in animals predisposed to have them. And when there is a malfunction in the GI tract such that it fails to break proteins down into small enough pieces, this can make allergies more likely. Finally, one of the most effective treatments for food allergies is to feed hydrolyzed protein diets, diets in which the proteins are chemically processed (gasp!) into small enough pieces that they cannot trigger an allergy reaction.

I certainly don’t expect lay people to be experts in the mechanics of digestion and food allergies, but this level of ignorance is frightening and inexcusable in a manufacturer of a pet food. It also indicates the blatant disregard for scientific fact so often seen in the marketing and promotion of raw and other unconventional pet diets.

The company’s web site contains many other examples of unproven or simply incorrect assertions. Their diet is claimed to be “PROVEN” to control allergies, though there is no research to support this. The company also claims eating their diet will prevent lawn staining, reduce vet bills through the ever-popular “strengthening the immune system” nonsense, and even prevent flea infestation! These are all implausible claims presented with no real evidence.

Finally,  the terms “human grade” and “restaurant grade” are frequently used for the ingredients despite the fact that these are not legally defined terms or part of the USDA meat grading system. Use of such meaningless terms cannot be anything but misleading and deceptive since they appear to indicate an official judgment on the quality of the food’s ingredients when the manufacturers must know that no such judgment has been made by anyone but them.

My purpose is not to pick on a single manufacturer, though the advertising by this company is certainly inaccurate and misleading. The unfortunate truth is that advertising full of unproven claims and inaccuracies is widespread in the marketing of veterinary health products. A blithe disregard for the meaning of the term “scientifically proven,” as shown by using this term and others like “research proves” and “studies show” without citing any actual published scientific studies, is a warning sign for the consumer. Such terms are meaningless at best and a signs of active deception at worst.

The best chance for us to identify what is truly beneficial for our pets is not to rely on advertising but to demand claims be supported by actual scientific evidence. Where such evidence doesn’t exist, claims that the benefits of a product are “proven” should be regarded as deceptive. The most that should be said in the absence of true scientific evidence  is that a product might have benefits and that some people believe they have seen it work. The same, of course, has been said of every health practice ever invented, whether it worked or not, so this is not a very reliable guide to the truth of such claims, but at least it is not actively misleading.


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11 Responses to Misleading Advertising for Raw Pet Food (again)

  1. zyrcona says:

    I think there is some interesting potential in low carbohydrate/ raw animal food diets for both people and animals, and I would love to see some more research on this. As it stands, there is a small, but slowly growing, amount of evidence in favour of the human diets, and as yet no evidence I am aware of for the animal diets. Evidence for heterocyclic amines in cooked meats and for acrylamide in cooked starchy foods, for example, can be found with a search engine. I admit a medical condition I have, which medicine has been unable to help me with, has improved significantly since I started eating more towards a RAF/paleo diet. I do also feed my dog low-risk raw meat products from the same sources as I acquire meat for my own consumption, although I admit that my dog got gastroenteritis after I rather foolishly allowed someone to give her raw pork. The dog enjoys them and the stuff with cartilage and soft bones in seems to improve her oral health, but I certainly wouldn’t claim there is any proven benefit, and I would neither suggest anyone feed their dog an entirely homemade diet because of the risk of incomplete nutrition. The variety in my dog’s food also did not prevent her from on one occasion stealing rancid butter out of the kitchen bin (which caused her to projectile vomit all over herself and my bedroom) or on another occasion stealing a digestive biscuit base from a cheesecake.

    But I am so very tired of seeing these claims made about ‘scientifically proven’ and ‘research’ that are nothing of the sort. I am sick to death of seeing people drag out that old argument that things that are ‘natural’ are better than ones that are artificial. I am tired of listening to people claim that a dog is the same as a wolf, and that exposure to small amounts of bacteria is ‘immunisation’ against food poisoning, and I have had enough of seeing diagrams and lists that ‘prove’ a dog is a ‘carnivore’, or a human is an ‘herbivore’/ ‘omnivore’/ ‘carnivore’.

    And more often than not the people who support these ideas are irrational and rude and have no idea how to debate. When someone posts in a forum etc. in an attempt to explain the nature of genuine science and research, the person is subjected to abuse and ad hominem attacks casting aspersions on their intelligence/ ancestry/ education. A rational person will provide evidence to back up their beliefs while admitting they aren’t perfect, but an irrational person will hash out the same old arguments while denying any fault to their philosophy, claiming it is a wonderful panacea that will help everyone.

    The most ridiculous case against the philosophy I’ve yet seen so far is this website http://www.ukrmb.co.uk/ which is ironically intended as an advertisement for the ‘Raw Meaty Bones (TM)’ crusade, headed by apopleptic and highly unprofessional disgraced vet Tom Lonsdale. The site is full of idiotic conspiracy theories and claims that feeding dogs commercial food is ‘animal abuse’ (a disgraceful suggestion I feel belittles all the animals who are genuinely being abused) and features several very lucid letters from rather kind and patient vets that the site owner seems to be harrying about. A shame when there probably is something worth investigating behind the idea.

  2. skeptvet says:

    All great points. In the absence of real research evidence, the only basis for discussion is personal experiences and theoretical considerations, which leave lots of room for diagreement since they aren’t really proof of anything. I certainly don’t object to people saying “Here’s wat I think” or “Here’s what happened to me,” it’s just that unfortunately we all tend to put too much faith into our theories and experiences and too little into objective research. I would be pleased to recommend raw diets if real evidence of benefits greater than the risks were available. While I doubt such benefits exist based on the rationales usually offered, the state of the evidence currently doesn’t allow us any convincing conclusions. But when folks like Dr. Lonsdale go well beyond any reasonable theory or evidence and then invent conspiracies to explain skepticism, we’re in the realm of pseudoscience and nonsense. Such passion would be better directed at controlled research to either demonstrate, or disprove, the claims being made.

  3. rita says:

    I think there’s some interesting potential in people thinking ethically instead of faddishly both about their own diets and what they give to the nonhumans for whom they are responsible, but then I would, wouldn’t I?

  4. skeptvet says:

    I certainly agree. I believe that ethics and values, which are predicated on feelings and beliefs, are the primary driving forces behind our decisions. My concern, of course, is that facts must be included in the chain of reasoning somewhere or the output is often absurd. While I’m not convinced objective ethical or moral facts exist as such (I’m a bit of a relativist in that regard), I think facts about the physical world do exist and can be determined through science to a high degree of probability. So I think we can only make appropriate and sound ethical judgements if they are based on an understanding of the world that is factually as correct as possible. Most of my objections to claims and arguments made in favor of unconventional diets is that regardless of the ethics and values behind them, they often have their facts wrong or simply don’t care what the facts are.

  5. zyrcona says:

    “I think there’s some interesting potential in people thinking ethically instead of faddishly both about their own diets and what they give to the nonhumans for whom they are responsible”

    I feed all my aliens on game meat, local meat I consider to have been ethically farmed and slaughtered, fish that was wild and free, and prepared products I consider to use ethical ingredients, the same as I do myself and my dog. I don’t eat the unborn embryos of wheat plants because I think it’s inhumane and disgusting to destroy another species’ future genetic potential like that.

  6. Pingback: Raw Diets for Pets | The SkeptVet

  7. Me says:

    I’m an animal behavior professional and I’ve actually run into a high occurrence of raw fed dogs engaging in Coprophagia. Wild predators will regularly recycle their feces to extract nutrients missed the first time, it’s common practice. And while domestic dogs aren’t wolves, they would also excrete a lot of missed nutrients
    Proper cooking, of course, would make more of the nutrients available the first time around and the fecal matter less appetizing.

  8. Kenneth Flook says:

    2017 How It’s Made focused on the raw product manufacturer mentioned and still made the “fit for humans” claim about their chicken. I looked for the company and read considerable now. I’ll continue with Iams for now.

  9. Alesia Bowen says:

    All I know is that I have 20 years of feeding Raw to 5 different dogs one I still have with me she is 18 and the other German Shepherd passed away at 19 healthy and running around up to the very end… the benefits are so numerous I cannot mention them all here…. I will never feed kibble again

  10. Haze says:

    I am experiencing some terribly conflicting information while watching my shepherd fade away. He has diarrhea, and has a cycle of not wanting food, then starving, eating his own feces (when there is any), vomiting, then returning to eating hydrolyzed food. Then approximately 3 days later will become quiet and stop eating for about 1.5 days. This cycle is horrifying me. He is so thin. He’s had several blood panels done, been wormed (he is not neutered yet: 1.5 years old). It is really sad to converse with vets that immediately say that an exploratory is the next step. He’s been x-ray’d, had ultrasound, and was put on the hydrolyzed diet along with Vitamin B12, Fomotadine and Metroclopramide. Cerenia is used when he becomes nauseous. He mostly acts like the happiest puppy. We play a lot, and he has acres to run like the wind. Are all these vets (3 different ones so far) out of their minds, or is my heart driving me to be out of my mind. What are the appropriate tests that should be done for food allergies?

  11. skeptvet says:

    I’m sorry you and your pup are going through this. Of course, I can’t give specific recommendations or diagnoses for patients online, and the best option would be to find a vet you have confidence run who can communicate well with you and have a long discussion about the possible causes, what has been excluded and what remains to be investigated.

    It sounds like the evaluation has been pretty reasonable so far, and I’m going to assume pancreatic insufficiency has bene ruled out since that is a common one in young GSDs. A strict hydrolyzed protein diet trial over 2-8 weeks will pretty effectively rule out a diet-responsive problem, and most of the “food allergy tests” on the market are not scientifically valid. If biopsies are the next logical step, have you looked for a board-certified internist and discussed endoscopy? that can be a bit less invasive than surgery, though of course not as thorough.

    Good luck!

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