Pet Cuisine; Feeding Galloping Gourmets

Article excerpt

Will your dog really be better off if you buy the 70-cent-per-can "gourmet" dog food instead of the ordinary half-dollar brand?

Will your finicky cat thrive, yet lose weight, if you switch to an expensive "diet" dinner? Finding the right answer for your pet can be important to its health and to your pocketbook.

Feed for pets is more than a $6 billion industry, with almost 5.7 billion devoted to dogs and cats. According to the Pet Food Institute, a trade association, there are 54.5 million dogs and 63.2 million cats in the United States.

After the first dog biscuits were sold in 1860, change came slowly. Canned horsemeat joined dry dog foods in the 1920s, with dry meat meals and the first cat foods appearing in the 1930s. Commercial variations flourished in the 1960s. The Human's Dilemma

If you stroll down the supermarket pet food aisle today, you may find some 100 varieties of dog food.

Most common are "low-calorie" products to help Rover lose weight. Prominent, too, are brands with nutrients suited to dogs of different ages. Some victuals claim benefits purely cosmetic, such as alleviating canine "bad breath'-a condition more likely to trouble the master than the mastiff. Amid such a profusion of products, how is one to choose?

Specialized pet foods, sometimes called "prescription" feeds or diets, have been marketed primarily through veterinarians or kennel clubs, and intended as part of a comprehensive health regimen. Recently, however, they've begun showing up on supermarket shelves.

"We are opposed to the sale of prescription' diets in supermarkets," says George Graber, Ph.D., director of FDA's division of animal feeds in the Center for Veterinary Medicine. He explains that feeding a pet such foods without the advice of a veterinarian could harm the pet.

The regular dog and cat foods on the market provide a "complete and balanced diet" for pets, and clearly show this in their package labeling. While some products may claim to taste better-and large manufacturers maintain kennels with the happy mission of testing such claims-all foods so labeled are adequate nutritionally for healthy animals. FDA insists that pet food be as safe for animals as human food is for people. Labels list ingredients in order of preponderance, along with a chemical analysis. Even a product's name may not be misleading as to content or nutritional properties.

FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine works closely with the states through the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to insure the safety of animal feeds. Manufacturers must provide scientific support to justify nutritional claims, including the assertion that a product constitutes a "complete and balanced" diet, either throughout an animal's life or during a specified part of its life cycle. Who's the Gourmet?

Whether or not a pet becomes a demanding "gourmet" depends on its owner. In choosing varied, "gourmet" diets for our pets (diets to which they may become quickly and expensively accustomed), we fall into an anthropomorphic fallacy, a tendency to attribute human characteristics to animals.

Dogs and cats are creatures of habit. A pup or kitten raised on an ordinary feed will grow to like it, sometimes shunning rarer delicacies in favor of "the usual." Though Fido may clamor for your steak while his own chow waits in his bowl, he'll ordinarily go for his regular meal if other temptations don't compete. Variety is not so important to him as it may seem to you.

Some "gourmet" pet foods (and especially pet "treats") are designed to appeal more to the human purchaser than the animal consumer. Color-blind canines are indifferent to the pastel hues that beckon the buyer of dog candies, just as kittens value the cute shapes less than the content of their bonbons. We pay extra for such gimmicks because we consciously or unconsciously equate human tastes and needs with those of our pets. …