More Nonsense from Holistic Vets about Commercial Therapeutic Diets

One of the subjects that holistic vets and other advocates of alternative practices get really passionate about is the evils of commercial and conventional diets. They promote a laundry list of myths about pet food, many of which I’ve addressed before:

  1. Raw is better than cooked-

Raw Diets for Pets

2.Vets know nothing about nutrition-

This is particularly hypocritical given that the claims made about the evils of commercial food and the virtues of alternative diets are generally made by—yup vets!— and these folks have no more training or expertise than the rest of us. In fact, the most reliable source of expertise on pet food are board-certified veterinary nutritionists, veterinarians with extensive training in nutrition. However, their claims are casually dismissed with innuendos or accusations about financial bias by vets who themselves make their living selling the stuff they advocate for.

What do Vets Know about Nutrition?

3. You can tell the quality of a food from reading the ingredients on the label-

Sorry, you can’t. Partly this is the fault of regulators, who don’t require truly important information to be put on pet food labels in a clear and understandable way. And partly the uselessness of labels as a measure of food quality comes from the meaningless vagueness of the concept of “quality” and all the myths and misconceptions about specific ingredients promoted by these vets.

Pet Food Nutrition Myths
Nutrition Resources for Pet Owners
Dog Food Logic

A recent article from the ever-unreliable Dogs Naturally Magazine gave some alternative vets a platform for repeating some myths and misconceptions about what are often called “prescription diets,” though this is technically incorrect. These are better referred to as “therapeutic diets” because they are intended to be useful in treating or preventing specific medical problems, not simply provide good overall nutrition, but they do not actually require a prescription, merely oversight from a qualified veterinarian.

The evidence for these diets varies from strong (e.g. kidney diets for cats with kidney disease) to weak (e.g. some of the diets for cognitive dysfunction in older dogs), but while there are some good arguments against some of these foods, none of the ones made in this article are worth taking seriously.

The article begins by asking a bunch of holistic vets to rank a few foods based only on the ingredient lists, with one food being a prescription diet. Not surprisingly, the vets tended to rank this diet quite low, based on these sorts of arguments:

Dr Marty Goldstein, author of The Nature of Animal Healing [said] Food #3 ranked last, based on the use of corn for its first ingredient, followed by by-product meal.

Dr Jodie Gruenstern: “This food was the lowest quality in the list. It contains GMO corn, soy (lots of it!), which is a common allergen, synthetic vitamins/minerals, shavings (if you didn’t know, the ingredient cellulose is literally sawdust), natural flavors, which usually mean MSG.”

Dr Jean Dodds: “Poor quality food: the first ingredients are corn, which is often GMO, and chicken by-product meal rather than whole chicken. Flax and soy are phytoestrogens.”

Dr Judy Morgan: “This is a Pet Store Food. Corn is the first ingredient, no muscle meat used, only by-product meal, synthetic vitamin/mineral supplement, corn and soybean are GMO, waste fillers are abundant. Overpriced in my opinion, considering the poor quality, cheap ingredients used).”

Dr Dee Blanco: “This one starts with corn to increase inflammation, then adds lighter fluid to it with soybean products and poor quality protein. Then it tries to make up for the poor quality foundational ingredients by adding synthetic supplements of the poorest quality, such as calcium carbonate, folic acid, ‘generic Vit E supplement’, etc. Looks like they added l-tryptophan to calm the nervous system down after putting the body into overdrive inflammation. Natural flavors?? Could be an entire cadre of carcinogens, allergens and toxins. Argh!”

So we have a long list of villainous ingredients supposed to cause inflammation and other health problems. Any truth in this fear mongering?

Corn and Soy are Evil

Obviously, this sort of simplistic characterization of foods as inherently good or evil is not scientific in tone, and in the case of the particular claims she makes about these ingredients they are not consistent with mainstream opinion or the evidence. Veterinary nutritionists agree that particular sources of protein and carbohydrate in canine diets are not intrinsically harmful or beneficial and that the health effects of diet are a complex set of interactions between many factors. Duck and bison are no more nor less likely to trigger food intolerance than chicken or beef, and tapioca or potatoes or green peas are no better nor no worse than corn and wheat and soy as carbohydrate and protein sources.

GMOs are Evil

This is a hot-button issue these days, and while it is complex, the evidence to date does not support the sort of hysteria about GMOs these vets promote. This is, of course, a topic which deserves multiple posts on its own. Dr. Dodds and others regularly list GMO ingredients as unhealthy, promoting inflammation and food intolerance, and there is no evidence to support this. While there is always the potential that particular modifications of food crops and animals could lead to health risks, the anxiety about genetically modified organisms is generally ideological and based on misconceptions or poor understanding of the relevant science. It is part and parcel of the Appeal to Nature Fallacy, and the existing evidence does not support most of the hysterical fears about GMO. Dr. Dodd’s claims are not based on research from nutrigenomics but are simply part of her own beliefs and prejudices, and she provides no compelling scientific evidence to support her claims. Relevant discussion of this issue and the evidence can be found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

By-Products are Evil

Here’s what one nutritionist I’ve talked to has say about by-products:

A by-product only means that it was not the intended main product of the industry. It gives no indication on nutrient profile, digestibility and bioavailability, etc. Many people who dislike by-products will happily buy wheat bran (a by-product of the baking industry). Moreover, by-products vary according to country and culture. Liver, an excellent source of nutrition, is considered a by-product in the US because skeletal meat is the primary product of slaughtering an animal and many people do not eat organs any more. By-products can be excellent ingredients in pet food and it would be wasteful (and terribly self-centered) to not use it to nourish humans or animals.

The concept is meaningless, and used to demonize foods that people think of as “icky” without any reference to their real nutritional value.

Let’s look at some of the other claims. he idea that corn is a major cause of inflammatory diseases is an unproven hypothesis. The claim that phytoestrogens in soy used in pet foods have negative effects on health is an unproven theory. Both of these are presented as facts when they are just personal beliefs.

“Natural flavors” usually means hydrolyzed animal tissues, not MSG, so this is just false. And “synthetic” vitamins are identical to those extracted from plants, so the idea that they are somehow less useful or more harmful is just the Naturalistic Fallacy in action.

The bit about “sawdust is particularly silly. Cellulose is a natural part of the wall of plant cells. Sure, it is present in wood, but it is also present in all the fruits and vegetables that these vets would laud as healthy for our pets. The usual source of cellulose as a dietary fiber in pet foods is the bran from cereals such as wheat, not “sawdust.” Such hyperbole is clear evidence of a preference for ideology over facts.

The article also uses a bit of drama to suggest that therapeutic diets are poor-quality or identical to over-the-counter diets and the designation only serves to justify charging more.

Now, a 30lb bag of the regular food is $47.99 at Petsmart. The prescription diet dog food can also be purchased at Petsmart for $84.95 for a 27.5lb bag. It’s twice as expensive!

Now, you might be thinking this is because the prescription diet was formulated and tested with a specific condition in mind. This is completely false.

While an over-the-counter food with a health claim (such as controls weight) is subject to FDA regulations and enforcement, the FDA practices “enforcement discretion” when it comes to veterinary diets. Put another way, this means the FDA has not reviewed or verified the health claims on any veterinary diet. Did you catch that? There are very few ingredients in veterinary diets that aren’t also in other regular diets.

In the example above, I’d say the pet store brand is a better quality food, wouldn’t you? The prescription diet contains by-product meal (which comes straight from the rendering plant), lots of soybean and corn products (a cheap replacement for animal protein) while the regular food contains more expensive, higher quality ingredients.

Again, here’s the response of a nutritionist who actually knows something about veterinary diets to this claim:

This is a misrepresentation. Veterinary diet claims do have to be substantiated as well. The FDA did have some leniency regarding veterinary diets regarding the extent of their health claims because they are usually used under the guidance of a veterinarian to improve the life of the pets. However, the FDA is concerned about many so called therapeutic diets now marketed directly to the consumer, so they might start enforcing legislation if they are not used properly, i.e. under veterinary involvement

Regarding price, good companies invest in research, that goes into designing the food, sometimes funding basic research that would further our knowledge on particular diseases (without an immediate product to market and sell) plus trials in healthy and diseased pets, etc. So, I understand why a veterinary diet from a responsible company costs more money, not because the ingredients are more expensive, but due to the knowledge invested behind it.

These holistic vets are so ideologically biased against commercial diets that they even claim that ingredients they routinely recommend as beneficial for many health conditions magically become harmful when included in such foods:

And fish oil is a terrible addition to pet foods. It’s much too fragile to be added to processed foods and as soon as the bag is opened, it will oxidate and cause inflammation in your dog. Ironic isn’t it, when the food is supposed to be treating inflammation in the first place?

Actually, it’s not ironic, it’s just a bit of ignorance and prejudice masquerading as an informed opinion. Fish oils can be added to foods in a manner that has all the same health benefits of giving them separately, if this is done properly by a company with real nutrition experts who know what they are doing.

Bottom Line
I usually write brief summary of my conclusions for these posts, but in this case I could not write anything that makes the point better than the following, again from a nutritionist knowledgeable about these issues:

All these arguments are just guilt trips and not based on reliable science and assume the quality of a final product depends solely on certain random criteria form the individual ingredients rather than in deep knowledge of the current state of nutritional science, excellent quality control during formulation, reception of ingredients, extrusion, and storage conditions.

What we have here is unsubstantiated belief presented as fact. And this kind of fear mongering has real dangers. There is, for example, very good evidence that feeding commercial diets for cats with kidney disease can reduce suffering and prolong life. Yet I have seen clients feeding unbalanced and completely inappropriate homemade concoctions instead because they have been frightened and misled by this kind of propaganda and are unwilling to feed diets with proven benefits.

As I’ve said many times, no one knows the perfect diet for any given patient, and I am open to the possibility that there are benefits to feeding alternatives to the usual canned and dry commercial diets. But these benefits must be proven, not simply invented out of whole cloth or wrung out of twisted misrepresentations of nutrition science.

This entry was posted in Nutrition. Bookmark the permalink.

139 Responses to More Nonsense from Holistic Vets about Commercial Therapeutic Diets

  1. Michael Fine says:

    Wouldn’t the enzymes (or most of them) in Power Pro Plus be denatured in the stomach before they could carry out their functions in the small intestine?

  2. Mary Anne Brown says:

    This is the best dog food article that I have ever read. The comments too. Thank you, SkepVet.

  3. ron says:

    Is canned commercial food bad for a cat since it is cooked and the ingredients like taurine are diminished?

  4. skeptvet says:

    No. The essential nutrient levels are calculated and measured with the effects of cooking taken into account, so a properly formulated commercial canned food should be nutritionally complete.

  5. David says:

    I totally agree! All this nonsense about commercial dog food is ridiculous. It’s not rocket science. Dogs eat meat, fish and various other foods found in nature. They require little more. Don’t beat your head against the wall trying to understand all this BS. Give your dog a good quality commercial food (just use a well known brand that doesn’t have lots of chemicals listed as ingredients) and supplement with raw red meat and fish. Give them whatever fruit and vegetables they will eat as well. An omega supplement is good for them too such as linoleic acid. Make them bone broth once in a while and your animals will be healthy and happy…..

  6. Daniel McFarland says:

    I have a dog weather liver count of 400 Alt for the last 4 months it was 800 Alt when I took her in 6 months ago the vet said she had elevated liver and slow slow heartbeat what should I feed my dog she is on denamarin I was wondering if I should give her Dr Marty’s propower on top of the denamarin or what else would you recommend for her liver and heart

  7. skeptvet says:

    I would recommend finding out what the problem is through appropriate diagnostic tests rather than using unproven supplements without knowing what they are supposed to be treating. If your regular vet is stumped, consider seeing an internal medicine specialist.

    Good luck!

  8. jerry bennett says:

    I love your comments. I have no idea to the facts that you speak but just like everybody; if you make sense then you are right. Thanks for your input though

  9. Elizabeth F says:

    I saw Dr. Marty Goldstein’s advertisement for cat food today and it didn’t sit right with me, leading me to Google search to check reviews, recalls, etc. That search led me to this site. I found it very informative and I appreciate that the author cites their sources and the author’s rhetoric is logical, using facts and figures instead of emotional appeals in these articles and in responses to comments.

    I will likely return to this site frequently in the future, I hope this will be a valuable resource in being a responsible pet owner and so will make this request: I am currently only a cat owner and would appreciate a filter or search perimeter on the site to locate articles specific to cats, dogs, and other species of pets.

    I do hope Ms. Adair returns with another update. If it helps, my finicky cat developed a vomiting problem last year that was resolved by several modifications to her diet: she no longer has free access to dry food and has access to small portions of dry food every 2 hrs excepting the two hrs before and after a small portion of wet food (we bought an automatic portion feeder), we mash her wet food over a larger surface and set a clean heavy ball in the dish to prevent her from gulping, and we buy multiple flavors from the same brand, rotating the flavor once she finishes the previous can. The brand we buy offers a discount on a box set of several flavors and the nutritional value doesn’t fluctuate greatly between the flavors (about +/- 100kcal). Now the only time we have issues with vomiting is when she naps through a portion and the next portion is dispensed before she goes back to eat. By the way, if anyone knows of a feeder that can dispense a portion of food on a timer basis and won’t dispense more food if there is already a portion in the dish that would be appreciated!

  10. Deborah Cicconi says:

    I was looking at Dr. Marty Nature’s Feast and while it sounds great, 1 pouch of 12oz freeze dried food that converts into 6 cups of food when water is added will last ONLY 6 days. It cost $35 a pack. I would have to buy 5 packs a month which is $175 per cat, per month. I have 3 cats which would cost me $525 per month.

    I think Dr. Marty is on the right track but the price is way out of my budget. Does Skekptvet recommend any good cat foods that are high in protein and meet the cats needs without the extra bad stuff they throw into most cat foods?

  11. skeptvet says:

    The idea that there is “extra bad stuff they throw into most cat foods” is simply a myth propagated by people like Dr. Marty who are selling some alternative ideas or products. The differences between brands are almost entirely marketing and not based on real evidence, so it is impossible to effectively evaluate most claims. Any food that meets AAFCO requirements and is produced by a company with board-certified veterinary nutritionists on staff and with an established track record is likely to be adequate. The food that achieves the best result for an individual cat will have to be determined by trying out such foods and monitoring important outcomes (weight and body condition, stool quality, coat quality, etc.). There is no magic rule of thumb that guarantees a food will work for an individual cat.

  12. Lori harley says:

    I fairly recently started giving my 2 eight year old cats raw kangaroo from pet stock store. They love it. However I read about toxoplasmosis which is prevalent in roo. What impact will this have?

  13. Robert says:

    Does this mean you do not recommend dr Marty’s probiotics or any probiotics at all for my dog, I have an 8 year old german Shepherd

  14. skeptvet says:

    Raw foods significantly increase the risk of parasites and infectious diseases, and since there is no demonstrated health benefits to them, I wouldn’t take the risk!

  15. skeptvet says:

    My analysis of the evidence concerning probiotics for pets can be read here. There is evidence to support some probiotics for some issues but it is complex, and many of the claims Marty makes are without real evidence.

  16. Kathy Long says:

    Mary Ellen Hartung, most dogs that are dropped off in the woods don’t go hunting for their food, they just starve while waiting for their human to come back. I have no problem with the idea of raw feeding but I don’t understand why people try to convince everyone that it’s because this is what all dogs are supposed to eat because they’re like wolves.

  17. Kathy says:

    Anyone can look up the list to see if
    your source is a certified veterinary nutritionist. There are around 100 of them. One is involved with nomnomnow. So why don’t you wish to disclose who she is?

  18. Susie Hesseldenz says:

    Thank you for this! My 13 year old dog has severe acid reflux and my vet started him on Royal Canine GI low fat canned food. So far it’s working ?. But you should hear how people bash this food online and it was making me nervous feeding this to him. Thank you for so much for this article!!

  19. skeptvet says:

    I asked a nutritionist for input and did not ask permission to use his/her name, and since the name is irrelevant to the information and the credentials, I’m not going to disclose it.

    The point of the quote was to challenge the myth that “by-product” means something is not nutritious or healthful in pet food. I can provide you with many comments from nutritionists to support this point, so if that is what you want then here you go:

    Tufts Veterinary Nutrition Service:
    Don’t be bothered by by-products

    Dr. Rebecca Remillard:
    Deciphering Pet Food Ingredients

    Angela Rollins:

    What about those by-products? Dr. Rollins explains why she doesn’t object to seeing by-products in an ingredient list. “AAFCO defines ‘poultry by-product meal’ as the ground, rendered clean parts of the carcass, such as the necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines,” she says. “It excludes feathers. ‘Meat by-products’ are the non-rendered clean parts, other than meat from slaughtered mammals. In the pet food industry, mammals are pretty much going to be beef, goat, sheep or pigs.” The meat is going to include parts such as lungs, spleen, kidney, brain, livers, bone, fatty tissue, stomachs and intestines. The stomachs, rumens and intestines are freed of their contents so they do not contain fecal matter. The by-products do not include hair, horn, teeth and hoofs. “A lot of these by-products are actually some of the most nutritious parts of a carcass,” she says. “There are a lot more vitamins and minerals in organ meat than there is in skeletal muscle meat.”

  20. Dogowner says:

    Susie, this is only an anecdote, but my elderly dog was kept going by the kibble version of that product. Her coat was shiny, she was happy and lively and loved her life. I’m still grateful both to those who developed that food and the other brand she could tolerate for giving me a good bit of extra tume with her.

  21. Vicky Adair says:

    Thanks for your reply v.t. I have not tried an ex diet, because I am not sure what that is. Is that a certain kind of food that I can purchase? Or is that something that a vet would have to prescribe?

  22. Tielynn M Pennington says:

    So, are you saying Dr. Marty is not the way to go as far as cat food?

  23. v.t. says:

    Vicky, do you mean “Rx”? An Rx diet is a veterinary prescribed diet.

    Yes, they are more expensive, but they are formulated to meet the needs of the pet with a specific health condition. It isn’t normal for a cat to vomit often, which is why I recommend talking to your vet about a prescription diet (either a novel protein/limited ingredient diet, or a gastrointestinal diet that is easily digestible) – you’ve tried several brands and types already, the true goal is for your kitty to not have any vomiting episodes at all (which right now, could indicate food sensitivity, to certain ingredients, to a certain protein, which in cats, is often a culprit).

    A veterinary prescribed hypoallergenic, or, limited ingredient diet, contains only one source of protein the cat has never been exposed to before, you feed it for a recommended amount of time, (up to 4-6 weeks, and if no progression of symptoms develops), and if favorable results are obtained, then feeding that diet permanently is preferred (or a suitable alternative with the same protein source, your vet can discuss this with you). Sometimes the vet will recommend re-introducing the previous diet after the trial hypoallergenic/limited ingredient diet, and if symptoms reoccur, then chances are, the cat is sensitive to that previous protein source and should be fed the prescription diet long-term.

    Please talk to your vet about this – I worry about a frequently vomiting cat without explanation beyond what diagnostics you’ve done thus far. Perhaps a change to a prescribed diet could help determine if it is a dietary sensitivity.

  24. Ellen Giesenschlag says:

    I think you are on the right track feeding your cat small meals throughout the day. And for dry food you can get bowls with deep ridges in them that were designed so that cats and dogs would eat slowly. They have to manipulate around the ridges to get small amounts of food. Cats will also use their paws to scoop some kibble out onto the floor and eat it a few pieces at a time. My daughter uses those bowls because her one cat throws up alot and has been checked out thoughly by her vet. Ask your nearest pet store about them. I hope that will help you. God bless you for caring so much about your furry companion that you put your needs second. I hope things will resolve themselves so that you can get back on your financial feet. It may pay for you to get a small amount of pet insurance to help you pay for any future medical emergencies. Some policies can be as low as $10 a month for pretty good coverage. Check it out with your vet. Some vets also have resourses so that you can charge your bill and pay it off gradually. There would be an interest fee but it would at least give you some breathing room and you could eat more than beans for weeks. All the best to you and you kitty!

  25. Anthony says:

    Is there any evidence, clinically or anecdotally, that cat food can affect the mood of your cat? Specifically, my cat which I had from a kitten, is quite friendly and cuddly at night, but downright skittish during the day. Virtually impossible to pick her up and hold her without squirming and running away. Can pet her but not for more than a few seconds. Ready to consider Prozac for cats!
    She’s two years old and spayed and the only pet in the house.
    Not a lot of visitors so no apparent reason for her to be unfriendly all day.
    I just feed her the same supermarket dry food, nothing else.

  26. skeptvet says:

    It is theoretically possible that some aspects of the diet could influence anxiety or other behavioral issues, but there is little reliable research on the subject, and diet is not near the top of the list for approaches to managing such problems. I would consult your vet or, if possible, a veterinary behavioral specialist in your area.

  27. v.t. says:

    Maybe she’s lonely (if you work all day away from the home), and needs her environment enriched (with a kitty tree, scratching posts, sunny spots with bed/blanket near safe windows, lots of toys, and of course, your interaction in playtime and activity when you’re home. Even leaving a radio or tv on low volume during the day can help.

  28. Jo Amsel says:

    The problem with some of the Prescription diets is this;
    1. Vets often take a short cut and prescribe these without making a full investigation of the cause.Intermittent diarrhoea, buy this very expensive diet.

    We have a boarding kennel and have far too many dogs with expensive prescription diets which simply needed things like a muzzle when exercising. Labradors take note!

    2, You can buy very similar foods much more cheaply.

  29. skeptvet says:

    I’m afraid that #2 is simply not true. While some vets may not use therapeutic diets properly (though I suspect most do), there are no alternatives that have the formulation or research evidence to support their effects. Therapeutic diets are regulated because they make medical claims and they have to prove these are accurate. While I understand everybody wants pet food (and everything else) to be less expensive, there is a reason therapeutic diets are different, and more costly, from other foods.

  30. Jo Amsel says:

    I cannot agree. Since so many vets have been taken over by corporates, we have noticed a huge increase in dogs arriving with prescription diets. A bit like monthly flea treatments ! We have done a pretty careful analysis of the ingredients of some of them. Unfortunately in the U.K. the labelling isn’t great hence H—— ID diet starts with cereals, meats and meat derivatives. It takes some research to find out what those are. That company( Proctor and Gamble ) used to sponsor my show dog team. I never used the food. I works estimate that at least 80% of dogs that come here with the ID diet don’t need it and indeed they don’t. Most dogs don’t like it but that’s another story.

  31. skeptvet says:

    Unfortunately, all of that bis anecdotal, as is my own experience at a non-corporate hospital with 30 vets in which therapeutic diets are used appropriately. Without some kind of objective evidence, we can’t say for sure if these diets are being commonly misused or not, so any arguments based on claims about that are tentative at best.

  32. Rick says:

    Yup! I think u correct sir!

  33. v.t. says:

    Jo, you keep posting as if you have some authority/special knowledge but you’re not a veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist. Another someone might do the same exact work that you do with the same number of animals and have completely different results, experiences and opinions. Theirs too, would only be anecdotal.

    Prescription diets wouldn’t be available today if they didn’t work for a huge number of pets. Urinary tract issues, GI tract issues, and weight management are probably the most common health issues for which these diets are successful (although it ALSO requires commitment from the owner).

  34. Maurie says:

    Will someone explain why my Labrador (and all my previous dogs) love to munch on long, green crab grass every summer? Is this good for them? It seems to come out much as it was when it went in.

  35. skeptvet says:

    No one really knows, but it is common in both domestic and wild canids, and it has not been consistently linked to any health problems as either a cause or a treatment. More info

  36. Katalina says:

    Reading all this i’m afraid to get another kittie – he said/she said. Just lost my kittie due to cancer. I miss her.

  37. PJ says:

    Thanks for taking an evidence based approach. It’s difficult to be an informed dog owner when you don’t know what sources to trust. Assuming facts not in evidence seems to be an epidemic these days.

  38. MONA MAE says:

    When did Americans leave their brains beside the roadside? They’re DOGS and CATS, people! Amazing how they successfully survived for thousands of years without anything more than meats, fish, grains, veggies and clean water! It’s not rocket science! What happened to America? People will listen to the yardman before their own physicians! We deserve to lose what we have, imo. We’ve gotten TOO DUMB to deserve what we have!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.