Baby boomers grew up seeing their dogs eat Calo, a cheap canned food. Dogs also often ate table scraps, because people had a difficult enough time feeding their kids, let alone the pets. Cats often fended for themselves.
So when it comes to pet nutrition, boomers have lagged a little. But Clara Stevens, a veterinary technician at Casco Bay Veterinary Hospital on Brighton Avenue in Portland, says they’re coming around.
“The higher-quality food is being used more by the younger generation, for sure,” Stevens said. “But a lot of people in that generation are taking the leads of their children. We see a lot more baby boomers coming in and asking for information on nutrition.”
Even if they are behind the curve on pet nutrition, Stevens said, it wasn’t that long ago that everyone was feeding their pets low-quality food.
“Dietary nutrition stuff for animals is kind of new in the last decade,” she said. “Our usual recommendation is to go to a pet store rather than a grocery store.”
The Association for Pet Obesity reports that obesity is the No. 1 nutritional disorder for dogs and cats, citing a study that found 54 percent of cats and 55 percent of dogs were overweight or obese in 2011. The same factors making people fat and boosting human health insurance costs are at work for pets – too little exercise and too much food. Many pet owners remain in denial – 22 percent of dog owners and 15 percent of cat owners said their pets were normal weight, when the dogs and cats were actually overweight or obese, the study says.
Carolyn Radding, a veterinarian at Freeport Veterinary Hospital, says that baby boomers no longer have ground to gain when it comes to feeding their pets well.
“I think we’re there,” Radding said in her office. “They are following the trends. They were at the forefront of feeding themselves right, and they’re doing that with their pets.”
Stevens and Radding differ, however, when it comes to feeding pets food that contains grains.
Radding, who spent six years in the pet food industry, said that grain-free food for pets is a “fad,” just as is the gluten-free trend for humans.
“Pet nutrition is somewhat based on human nutrition,” Radding said. “I consulted with veterinarians who are experts on this, and four of them responded to me. There’s no scientific basis for grain-free in animals. It’s a trend. Everyone’s jumped on the bandwagon, because it’s selling.”
Stevens has another take on it.
“Grain-free is the big hype right now, and that’s certainly better for animals,” she said. “Their bodies aren’t suited to digest carbs as we do, especially cats. Potatoes instead of grain is OK for dogs. With cats, it should be a smaller amount of potatoes, or none.”
The main ingredient in pet food should be protein and vegetables, she said.
“It improves the quality of the protein not to have grains in it,” Stevens said.
Corn is a big no-no, she said.
“There was a lot of supplemental corn in the country once, and that started the pet food industry,” Stevens said. “In the last 20 years, we’re getting away from it. All meats are good, but some animals have allergies. We thought it was grain, but now we know it’s more likely to be the protein source. We tell people to read the labels.”
Liver also might seem to be a thing of the past, but Stevens said liver is good for animals.
“The first ingredient should be a protein source,” she said.
Stevens said that the giant pet food companies such as Purina are “getting better” when it comes to making healthier pet food, but smaller companies have done more research.
As for cats, canned food might be better, she said, because it has more water content, and can help prevent renal disease. Cats sometimes don’t drink enough water, she said.
Radding said that a few of her clients have begun feeding raw meat to their pets. Their animals seem healthy, she said, but there’s the risk of bacteria.
“Most nutritionists are not big fans of raw diets,” she said.
Contrary to popular opinion, perhaps, Radding said that it’s “almost impossible” to evaluate a pet food by looking at the label.
“The guaranteed analysis gives you a minimum and a maximum,” she said, “but it doesn’t tell you exactly how much protein. Also, you can’t put the quality of the ingredients on the label. An example is chicken. Byproducts could mean beaks and heads, but not necessarily. Organ meat is good for pets. That’s a byproduct. You have to know the companies.”
Radding conceded that low-grain foods are better for cats, which are more carnivorous than dogs.
But corn is no worse than any other grain, she said.
“It’s just another starch,” she said. “It’s just a villain in the marketplace.”
Radding said she sees more and more overweight animals coming into her office, and she knows why.
Boomers, especially “empty-nesters,” can be softies, she said.
“Food equals love in our culture,” Radding said. “People often share their food with their pets. Pets have also learned that if they give their owners ‘that look,’ their owners feed them.”
Sam Hunneman, 64, of Freeport is doing her generation proud. Not only does Hunneman own rescue dogs, she also is trying to provide them with healthier food. Hunneman concedes that it’s expensive.
“I’ve moved on from Purina to grain-free and limited-ingredient stuff because of my coon hounds’ ear issues,” Hunneman said. “It gets real pricey real quick.”
Both dogs – Woodrow and Maggie – are rescues from the South “and came with their own special issues,” Hunneman said. “Maggie came down with parvo (canine parvovirus, an acute, highly contagious disease) the day before she was scheduled to be shipped north to us. Thank God the timing was as it was, or she likely would have died in the back of the transport, and infected some of the other dogs, too.”
Woodrow tested positive for tick disease and hookworm – “easy stuff to take care of, but dog ownership is a different ball game in the South, especially with so-called ‘hunting dogs,’ which have no protection whatsoever in North Carolina and other states where they are specifically excluded from animal cruelty laws,” Hunneman said.
As for Woodrow, he keeps his dietary options open.
“Woodrow decided on his own to expand his diet to include a very tasty skunk last Friday evening,” Hunneman said. “This act was not without repercussions.”
Larry Grard is a staff writer at Current Publishing.
A CLOSER LOOK
Correct storage of pet food is extremely important to keep it fresh and to ensure the well-being of your pet. Here’s how:
• Start by choosing a high quality pet food for your dog or cat.
• Store kibble in a cool, dry location. Avoid areas like basements or open containers where condensation or temperature changes can encourage mold growth. Canned food should be covered and can be kept in the refrigerator for three to five days. It also can be frozen, but move it into ice cube trays or another freezable container first.
• Avoid storing pet food in reusable plastic containers, unless the food is left in the bag. Plastic containers may not be airtight and the material itself can absorb fat and oils, increasing the risk of food becoming rancid.
• Refrigerate or discard any uneaten canned food immediately.
• Store pet food away from young children and from pets themselves. Don’t allow pets near an open or empty bag of food, which can be a safety concern.
• Check best-before dates on pet food, which are sometimes found on the back of the bag or on the bottom of the can.