Archive for The Science Spot

The Objectives of Organic

To celebrate Organic September, and our exciting new involvement with Yarrah Organic pet food, we are publishing a series of detailed blogs about the in’s-and-out’s of Organic food production. The blog series will follow closely the structure of Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007 - the European Union regulations on organic food production. We aim to bring this rule-book to life, with examples, videos and ideas to show just how important the Organic Food revolution is – and to make you proud to be a part of it. This week, in part one, we will discuss the Objectives of Organic.

The Objectives of Organic

The European Union regulations on organic food production form the basis of all organic certifications, (for example, The Soil Association Certification). They set out the three main objectives of Organic Production. The first of these is to “establish a sustainable management system for agriculture
that:

  • (i) respects nature’s systems and cycles and sustains and enhances the health of soil, water, plants and animals and the balance between them;
  • (ii) contributes to a high level of biological diversity;
  • (iii) makes responsible use of energy and the natural resources, such as water, soil, organic matter and air;
  • (iv) respects high animal welfare standards and in particular meets animals’ species-specific behavioural needs;

The second objective is to “aim at producing products of high quality” and the third objective is to “aim at producing a wide variety of foods and other agricultural products that respond to consumers demand for goods produced by the use of processes that do not harm the environment, human health, plant health or animal health and welfare.”

As part of our Organic September celebrations, we have put together some interesting examples for you, as to why these objectives are so important.

Respecting Natures Systems - soil erosion, water quality and marine life.

According to The National Research Council (USA), referenced on Wikipedia, “Unsustainable agricultural practices are the single greatest contributor to the global increase in erosion rates” [1].You would think that the most devastating impact of soil erosion would be on the farmland itself – which has often lead me to wonder why the farmers don’t do more to prevent it. However, apparently this is untrue. It is the impact on water quality that is the most shocking. One major problem is Nitrogen washing out of heavily damaged soil: “of the 93.6 million acres of corn planed in 2007, it is estimated that 117 million kg of nitrogen were deposited into national waterways.” [2] This has devastating consequences on the environment. For example, In the Gulf of Mexico.

Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico

“Hypoxia, or low oxygen, is an environmental phenomenon where the concentration of dissolved oxygen in the water column decreases to a level that can no longer support living aquatic organisms.” [3] The low oxygen levels are caused by a chain reaction which begins with soil erosion causing nitrogen (and pesticide) run-off from farms. As the nitrogen content in the water soars, the algae multiply like crazy. They use up large quantities of Dissolved Oxygen in the water and eventually start to die from lack of oxygen – as they degrade, even more Dissolved Oxygen is consumed, and eventually, fish and other aquatic organisms suffocate. According to research, 65% of the Nitrogen in the Gulf of Mexico comes from intensive farming. [4] The “Dead Zone” caused by this is now about 17,000 km2 (to compare, Northern Ireland is only 13,843 km2!).

This damage has impacted the wider environment too, for example, by causing interruption to the reproduction cycles of fish which migrate, such as trout and salmon and food loss for predator species [5]. Also, food source disruption to birds, such as Herons, and mammals, for example Otters, who live mostly on fish. [6]

As you can see, the problems caused by intensive farming are not isolated. They affect all of “nature’s systems and cycles”  and what is harmful to one part of the cycle can be devastating to another.

Organic farmers do not merely avoid the over use of nitrogen fertilisers, but actively seek to keep soil healthy and stop erosion. Healthy soil holds it’s nitrogen and so it does does not get washed away into the water supply! So, by taking care of their land Organic farmers are taking care of the whole eco-system!

Biological diversitythe birds and the bees.

Organic farming must contribute “to a high level of biological diversity” – this means the farm should provide a hospitable environment for the birds and the bees! The emergence of Colony Collapse Disorder has been of grave concern for several years, and the scale of the destruction of bee colonies has dismayed and dumbfounded scientists, consumers and politicians alike. While a proven cause or list of causes has not yet been established, many of the theories focus on farming – in fact 8 of the 10 theory categories listed on Wikipedia relate directly to farming or farming practices, and covers everything from bee-rental to genetic diversity loss from selective bee breeding. [7] And of course, recently the European Union voted for a two-year restriction on neonicotinoid insecticides.

In Organic Farming, not only are such insecticides totally banned, but the aim is specially to encourage bees and other insects to come and live on the farm. Here is what the soil association has to say

“The focus on natural ecosystems and native species, as well as the lack of pesticides used in organic farming, make it a haven for the bee. Organic farms also provide the wild spaces at field margins and in hedgerows, providing a diversity of flowers and habitats for bees to nest and shelter. Thus, by supporting their place in the delicate natural balance of plants and insects that are all mutually dependent on one another, Organic farming is both supporting biodiversity and the bee.” [8]

Bee’s are so vital to our survival and to the functioning of our wonderful planet – their pollination skills are responsible for one in every three mouthfuls of food that we eat [9]. Organic farming, by its nature, keeps bee health at its core – therefore, Organic farming is vital to our survival too!

Animal welfare – letting animals do what they natural do, including having tails.

Organic farming “respects high animal welfare standards and in particular meets animals’ species-specific behavioural needs.” This is an often overlooked aspect of Organic farming, as, while many people care deeply about animal welfare, Organic is often associated purely with human health concerns.

Also, the details of the welfare improvements draw attention to the details of the all-to-horrific treatment of non-organic farm animals – perhaps another reason why the topic is often avoided. After all, for every Organic piglet that gets to keep her cute curly tail, there are many non-organic piglets who have them cut off (without anaesthetic) [10]

As you can see, however, animal welfare is not a secondary goal or bi-product of Organic farming. It is listed as one of it’s main objectives.

 Quality and variety – as demanded by you!

The remaining objectives focus on quality and diversity of produce. I think it is fantastic that these are seen as core objectives – it really highlights why organic farming exists. It exists because we, the eaters of food, demanded it be so. I am truly proud to be part of a movement which is saving fish, and birds, and bees and piglets tails – aren’t you?

Coming Soon – The Principles of Organic

 

How green is your carbon tyre print?

science spot logoOne of our favourite books, How Bad are Bananas? By Mike Berners-Lee, has some sensational cycling facts. This month, subscribers to our newsletter get the chance to win a copy! You need to sign up for your chance to enter. When you get your newsletter, there will be a question in it, simply reply with the answer, and winners will be picked out of the hat! :) Good luck!

Eco Facts

Our favourite fact is that it would be greener to drive a hummer than to cycle after eating air freighted asparagus! Checkout our cool graph below comparing a few bike fuels (food) to some other forms of transport.

Cycling to work

Another interesting fact is that a congested commute in an average car comes in at 2200g CO2e per mile. This is much much worse than normal driving – almost as bad as your air freighted asparagus mile. So, the lesson is that cycling to work is a serious planet saver… so long as you don’t eat asparagus out of season for breakfast!

Food and Carbon Footprints

The carbon footprint of food is always interesting to us at Ethical Pets, with folk claiming we should eat our pets to save the planet, we think its important to show pets can be green too.

In the graph you can see that veg isn’t always greener, but that in general, meat is much more carbon heavy that veg. The same trend is clear in the rest of the book, for example, we learned that a 4 ounce steak makes more carbon than a 6.5 kg bag of carrots! Or, for the same carbon as a 2 kg leg of lamb, you could eat milky porridge every day for 4 whole months. Oats, wheat and even naughty old rice are much lower in carbon than any meat.

Pet Food: good and green!

We know that veggie pet food can be healthy, but apparently is very green too! So, if your dog or cat were going to cycle, a little Yarrah or Benevo would be the ideal fuel to choose!

A Dogs Day (at the office)

science spot logoWe are starting to bring pets into hospitals and nursing homes because we know that they make us happier and healthier (1). So, why not bring pets to work? Barker et al (2012) (2) have done some preliminary research to see what happens when the dog comes to the office.

Purpose

The study aimed to examine levels of stress during the work day and job satisfaction. They compared between dog owners who brought their dog to work, dog owners who didn’t and people who had no pet at all.

Who gets to take their dog to work?!!

The study took place at Replacements Ltd who have allowed dogs to come work for over 15 years.

Method

The study used three groups, with about 30 participants in each group. One group bought their dogs to work, one did not, and the last group had no pets. To be extra clever, they also measured what happened to the dog group on a day when they didn’t bring the dog to work. Last of all, they took a saliva sample each morning from all the participants, to check for the stress hormone cortisol.

Results

The dogs had no effect on “how valued” by the company the employee felt, however, the group with the dogs reported much lower levels of stress. The group who had no pet reported the next highest levels of stress, and the group who had a dog, but left it at home, were the most stung out of the lot.

The people with no pets, and the people who took their dog to work had a consistent amount of stress throughout the day (be it lower or higher). The people who left their dog at home, however, became more and more stressed as the day went on. Interestingly, on the days that the dog-group left the dog at home… they got more stressed as the day went on too!

The cortisol test showed that the group without a pet were more stressed at the start of the day than the two groups who had pets – however, there were too many other complicating factors to be sure of a correlation.

Analysis

The most interesting thing we see in this study is the effect of having a pet, but not bringing it to work. The stress levels start off low, but get higher and higher as the day goes on – and they end up even higher than those who have no pets. Why is this? Is the stress-busting effect of the pet wearing off? Do people pine for their pets and worry more for them as the day goes on?

Also – while the dogs didn’t effect how valued the employee felt by the company, this may be because the company makes all their employees feel valued already – perhaps just being allowed to bring a pet to work (even if you don’t have one) can make you feel appreciated.

Don’t the dogs get in the way?

The study also looked at this – and found that most people had a neutral response to the dog. Then, about 20% felt that the dogs made them more productive, and about 20% felt they harmed productivity. Despite this, many positive comments were made by people in this 20%: it seems a lot of concern revolves around poor behaviour, hygiene and allergies rather than a dislike of the dogs.

What next?

This is the first study of its kind – and it was quite small. Future studies would include larger numbers of participants. Also, they could measure more things. Do dogs make us late? Do they make us more or less productive? Also, a comparison between pet owners who work from home and pet owners who commute with their pet, could be really interesting.

References

(1) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-20807641

(2) Preliminary investigation of employee’s dog presence on stress and organizational perceptions, by Barker, Knisely, Barker, Cobb and Schubert. From International Journal of Workplace Health Management, vol5. No1. 2012 page 15-30.

Harmony and sustainability could be closer than you think

Why did Europeans have all the “cargo” – axes, umbrellas, factories and shops, when other cultures, such as those of the Native American Tribes, maintained more traditional lifestyles. How much could this disparity have to do with Animals, and what can we learn from it.

Summarizing 15 years his research about “all of human history” into once sentence, Jared Diamond says: “The differences among the histories of people on different continents is not due to biological differences between the people themselves, but instead down to differences in the continental environments: especially differences in the wild plants and animals that could be domesticated.” He believes that this one sentence summarizes human history.

One example of the effect of geography on development is that, despite California having the lushest farmland in the world, Native Americans never cultivated it – and so never had the benefits of “early and productive agriculture.”

Diamond claims the reason for this is that the native animals in California were Deer and Grizzly Bears – animals not prone to domestication. The vegetation did not lend itself well to domestication either – and so California was never farmed until plants and animals were “imported” from Europe.

While his ideas are disputed, even considered to be unsophisticated, I think is a wonderful lesson for us in what Diamond says.

I have read many times about how tribes from Papua New Guinea and per-colonial America lived in harmony with Nature – without mass farming, a sustainable lifestyle was vital. If Diamonds theory is correct, then it wasn’t genes, religion or lack of imagination that prompted this wonderful way of life: they lived sustainably because they needed to. Their survival depended on it.

Perhaps this shows that we are just as capable of living sustainably – in harmony with the natural world – when our survival depends on it. And it does so now!

______________________________________________________________________________

Listen to Radio 4’s “The Life Scientific” from 4th Dec 2012 for the full interview

“Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamonds, is available on-line from Foyles (who pay their taxes!!)

Is Vegan Pet Food Healthy?

Here is my talk from the West Midlands Vegan Fair, 2012. Enjoy :)

Is vegan pet food healthy? from EthicalPets on Vimeo.

Please sign our petition to Yarrah, asking them to make a Vegan cat food.

References

Vegan Pet Food: Fishy Business? – by Andrew Knight, from Lifescape Magazine.

From wild animals to domesticview of domestication pets, an evolutionary view of domestication

FEDIAF Nutritional Guidelines

Nation of Animal Lovers? – Report on pet food from Ethical Consumer Magazine, with references.

An experimental meat-free diet maintained haematological characteristics in sprint-racing sled dogs – The study by Dr Wendy Brown.

Evaluation of cats fed vegetarian diets and attitudes of their caregivers – An interesting cat study

An example of of lab nutritional cert. – from Yarrah veggie dog food.

Article for Discussion - The importance of animal proteins in dog foods, by Iams.

A New Era Dawns In Animal Research?

In the past few weeks two very different organisations have reached something which feels like a consensus. An ethics journal and a testing lab have both stated that: specific details about animal tests should be released to the public.

The Journal of Animal Ethics, who hold “that all sentient beings have intrinsic value and should be treated with respect” have called for full disclosure on animal testing. They say that when you are prescribed/buy a drug, you should be told in plain language if it was tested on animals, how, on how many, and how many died/suffered and how badly. If this were the case, you could actively support humane research as a consumer, just as we do with cosmetics at the moment.

Meanwhile, The Leicester Central Research Facility, a new centre who test on mice, rats and frogs, have vowed to be open and honest about what they do. They propose that other testing facilities should follow suit. They say that they respect those opposed to animal testing, and that the general public should know more about what their work entails.

At Ethical Pets, none of our foods or medicines are “tested” on animals in labs (we try out our products on our own menagerie of course though!). We propose that the level of openness suggested by The Journal of Animal Ethics should be demanded by pet owners too: if our pets are offered a prescription diet or medicine from our vet, or if we want to buy a product of the shelf, we should be told exactly how it has been tested so we can make an informed choice.

“Your pets and you: a winning team”

Health Enhancement and Companion Animal Ownership

Today is the last day of National Pet Month 2012, so we are running a special edition of our Science Spot blog about how animals improve our lives and health. This edition features a review of scientific papers, entitled “Health enhancement and companion animal ownership,” published in 1996. The writers were Alan M Beck and Marshall Meyers.

Summary

Beck and Meyers said: “Pet ownership is neither rare nor random: it is an integral part of society” – they therefore question why most research, in science and medicine, focuses only on the possible harms caused by companion animals, for example, allergies, bites and diseases. Research into the positive effects, they say, is under funded and infrequent: this represents a golden opportunity missed, because “interacting with companion animals may well be one of our more successful strategies for survival.”

Animals and Children

Beck and Meyers describe research into the effect of animal interaction on children’s learning and behaviour: for example, a 1993 study by Katcher & Wilkins, found that the use of animal contact in educational programmes for children with ADHD produced a significant reduction in levels of antisocial and violent behaviour. The studies described in this review span about 30 years and, when taken together, dramatically highlight the importance of animals for the healthy emotional and social development of children.

Children can, for example, learn important values and attitudes from animals – often at times where their interest would otherwise be diminished: young children learn about the role of mummy animal as carer for baby animal during a time when their interest human babies is developmentally lower. Boys in particular may learn a lot about nurturing behaviour from animals, when, perhaps, there are fewer human examples aimed at them. Also, while only half of adults “confide” in their pet, nearly 70% of children do so: a companion-animal can be best friend as well as teacher.

Animals and Violence

Aggression against living creatures is shown to be generalised: people who are aggressive towards non-human animals are likely to be aggressive towards humans too. This is something which Freud was insistent upon – though it apparently took another 80 years for cruelty towards animals to be added to the Diagnostic Manual for Mental Health. I feel that this is typical of a culture within science which is slow to see the life of a non-human animal as equivalent to the life of a human.

The contrary effect is also apparent: one study found that children who are exposed to humane education programmes, where they learn to be kind to animals, also show more empathy towards humans too (compared with children not educated this way). Animals can teach us to be peaceful people.

Animals and Adults

For older people “animals may replace children who have grown and moved away, or perhaps those who were never born. They may afford opportunities for an increase of human-to-human social interaction and, finally, they may permit older adults to live alone without being lonely.”

Animals can be especially important for adults who are marginalised in some way; pet ownership can be helpful for homeless people and also, interestingly, for wheelchair users – who are more likely to find positive social interaction when accompanied by a doggy friend. Bizarrely, having a pet has been shown to make politicians seem more attractive – so Obama’s new puppy was a clever move politically! (Let alone Cameron’s Cat!) The social component of human-animal friendships is powerful: it has long been accepted that, like the research monkey rocking in his cage, humans deprived of contact do not thrive well. This contact can be found in a companion-animal.

Animals and Health

Animals improve your health directly, by affecting physical functions (for example lowering your blood pressure) or indirectly, by influencing your psychological well being (by improving mood and lessening risky behaviours). These effects don’t just relate to companion animals however, those who feel a general attachment to Nature, for example, to the countryside or gardening, also seem to have a lessened risk of disease. Beck and Meyers believe that “Preserving the bonds between people and their animals, like encouraging good nutrition and exercise, appears to be in the best interests of those concerned with public health.”

  • Cardiovascular disease: prevention and healing

Not only are pets shown to keep us generally more healthy – pet owners also have reduced risk factors for cardiovascular disease too – even in pet-people who eat takeaway/junk food regularly, the correlation is strong. Also, when talking to animals, your blood pressure is likely to fall: while this dip in blood pressure is partly due the use of a calm and relaxed voice, this isn’t the full story. Even passing by a stranger’s dog, for example has been shown to have a soothing influence. Animals have also been shown to effect a 2-3% improvement in survival/recovery after a heart attack: while 2-3% seems small in common terms, medically, it’s pretty impressive – and cost effective! Companion animals: they keep you healthy and help you recover.

  • Mental health

It’s not just talking to “responsive” mammals which can calm you down: the iconic fish tank in a dentist’s waiting room is designed to soothe – and it works! Birds have also been shown to relax patients, specifically in group therapy settings. Animals in therapy is a growing area of interest – both in “outpatient”  and institutional settings. Pet ownership has also shown to help university students by alleviating anxiety: this is quite important as anxiety and even suicide can be a problem for this group of people – who are mostly either forbidden or unable to keep pets during their studies.

Animals in Research

We are all well aware of the ongoing plight of animals used in medical research. One of the reasons animals are used in this type of research, aside from an apparent social belief in their inferiority, is that animal disease has a “shorter latency” than human disease. This means that, after exposure to a harmful environmental factor, animals can become ill much quicker than humans.

Beck and Meyers believe that animals in the home could, like the canary in the coal mine, be used to detect health threats to humans. There have been stories about pets “saving the lives” of humans when suffering from, for example, carbon monoxide poisoning, by alerting the owner to danger and giving them vital extra time to seek medical treatment from themselves. According to Beck and Meyers, the veterinary community should be part of the human research team, feeding information back to the medical community and helping to pinpoint unknown and known threats to human health. It seems, however, that while many vets are willing, there is little interest medically – therefore “Companion animals are an unrecognised alternative to study many of the health problems facing people today.”

Conclusion

“Interacting with companion animals may well be one of our more successful strategies for survival” – and yet, typically, medical research talks of infections, bites, allergies and zoonotic diseases. It’s time to recognise that companion animals are not only cute and fun, but good for us: mind, body and soul. Despite all of the evidence above, there is still a lack of funding and research – perhaps our scientists and clinicians can’t face the thought that an animal could be worth much much more to medicine than a subject for lab tests. Laughter and humour are now recognised medical interventions – and what could bring us more joy, or more laughter, than our wonderful animal friends.

Competition

Send us a photo of your pet doing something which makes you laugh and win a free cat or dog treat! (to the right is a photo of our cat Ivy sitting in a post bag! teehee! Perhaps she wants to get sent out to a customer!)

The Perfect Pussies?

Is vegan cat food natural, safe or healthy?

In 2003 Tina M Gray sent a sample of two American vegan cat food brands to a lab. She found that both were deficient in some of the specified/required levels of nutrients. She concluded that these specific foods “could not be recommended as a sole source of nutrition for cats.” [1] Andrew Knight argued that the results were caused by poor quality control during feed manufacture, but that cats can still be vegan safely [1b]. Three years later, Wakefield, Shofer and Michel took blood and plasma samples from several American vegan cats to look for likely deficiencies. They found most had normal results, a few had poorer than normal results but none were critically deficient [2].

These two studies represent the bulk of research into the effects of vegan cat food, therefore a) decisive answers are impossible and b) debate amongst scientists is polarized and based more on opinion than data. Because of this, the pop-science web chatter is often oversimplified, assumptive or inaccurate. This article will address some of the assumptions about both meat and vegan cat foods.

First of all, are the brands you sell “nutritionally complete?”

Yes

So what does that actually mean?

The term nutritionally complete generally means “does the food fulfil the criteria recommended by the appropriate authority.” Something to consider about this: some, possibly most, of the data used to set these recommendations will have been gathered in an unethical manner. I actually started looking into this by following up references from the Gray 2003 study, but quickly decided I couldn’t face the horror after the first thing I read was “Scott and Thompson (1969) found that the vitamin A concentration in the diet of the [mother cat] influenced the concentration of vitamin A in the liver and kidneys of the unsuckled newborn kitten.” [3]

Please see the tables below for an overview of recommendations and levels across various foods. Diet A and Diet B, refer to the nutritionally incomplete foods discussed in the Gray study; the results for the Benevo vegan food are from a lab analysis [4].

Thats a lot of variance, how do we know what’s best? For example, what do cats eat naturally?

Dr Andrew Knight, a vegan Veterinary Biologist, makes some interesting (and humorous) comments in his 2008 article in LifeScapeMag about about which foods are commonly considered to be natural for cats. He asks if we have ever seen cats “swim 10-20 miles out into the ocean, hunting blue-fin tuna weighing up to half a ton, which they engage in underwater battles to the death” or feral cats in Africa “stalking and hunting large game, notably cows, sheep and pigs.” [5]. Put in this light, even the simple premise “cats eat meat” is not so simple after all; vegan cat food may seem unnatural, but then again, cats certainly wouldn’t naturally “garnish their meals with… species such as salmon, prawns and whitebait.”

The Campaign for Real Pet Food suggests that “good quality natural pet foods only use identifiable, named meats, such as chicken, fish and lamb” and that they should be “free from artificial additives such as colours, preservatives and flavours.” [6] While this great campaign calls for honest labelling, education and the removal of chemicals (all important and worthy aspirations) I am not especially convinced that the cat products certified by them are are “real” or “natural” in any biological or behavioural sense: for example, they contain ingredients such as salmon, prawn, herring, chicken, egg, rice, oats, barley, lactose reduced milk and pork digest [7]. The very fact that they need to reduce the lactose in the milk, for example, suggests it is not a natural food for the cat.

Then we have the Pork Digest: Dr Kight talks about “digest” in a particularly scathing manner, claiming that it is a disgusting result of industry greed and that the word is a “euphemism for a soup of partially dissolved intestines, livers, lungs and miscellaneous viscera of chickens (primarily) and other animals, produced using various enzymes and acids” [8] – the specific recipe being a “closely guarded trade secret.” It’s the thing that makes dry cat food smell that special way when you open the bag.

Suggested and actual protein levels.

“Natural” isn’t just about the ingredients either, even the way we feed our cat is totally unnatural – constant access to dry food and identically sized portions of meat delivered at the same times every day. So, the idea that “commercial meat-based diets allow greater expression of natural behaviour” is also a fallacy. [8]

I have been quickly convinced that the world “natural” is close to meaningless when it comes to food for the domesticated cat; in fact, I will go as far as to say it would probably be cruel to try and feed them in a truly natural way and on what would truly be their natural diet.

But surely meat is still better than no meat?

Not always, and this is where the situation gets a little grim really: both Dr Knight and the Campaign for Real Pet Food (CRPF) would agree – there are often all sorts of nasties in pet foods. CRPF focus mostly on the ingredients disguised with phrases like “EC permitted additives” and derivatives of vegetable origin” whereas Dr Night talks about contaminates too. Meat-based pet foods have been known include, most shockingly, the euthanasia solution Sodium Pentobarbital, which is specifically designed to kill dogs and cats [9]. This was found in 43 randomly selected brands and product lines of (American) dry dog food: the FDA suggests this is because dogs and cats killed in animal sanctuaries were/(are??) “rendered and used in pet food.” [10]

Thats sick…. but cats are obligate carnivores right?

Yes, cats are categorized as obligate carnivores.

So if they didn’t eat meat they would die?

Actually, that’s not what the term obligate carnivore means. In the (very critical) paper by Gray, there are a lot of quite complex factors cited to explain this term. These factors range from a “shorter gastrointestinal tract length” and “fewer premolars and molars” to the need for ready made Lycine, Taurine and Arginine in the diet [1].

So what does this biology tell us?

These biological/biochemical factors tell us that cats are a) more physically suited for the consumption of meat, relative to omnivores and b) dependent, in the long term, upon nutrients needed in concentrations or ratios most likely to occur in meat, rather than in concentrations or ratios most likely to occur in plants. However, this does not therefore mean that a cat requires meat to survive, it means that the cat requires specific nutrients to survive: this can be said of all species.

“For cats, as for all other species, they key requirement is that their diets be nutritionally complete and balanced.” [11] In “the wild” a cat who ate only grass and berries would be unlikely to survive in the long term: it would become very ill, and could die from those illnesses.

But my cat isn’t in “the wild” right?

Exactly! And vegan cat food does not consist of grass and berries either!

If being an obligate carnivore doesn’t even mean that meat is obligatory, are the associated biological features even relevant in a domesticated cat?

Yes, this information is still very important. Take the example of “fewer premolars and molars” – with molar coming from “mola” which is Latin for “millstone.” These types of teeth are important for chewing/grinding food – because a cats have fewer of these they will find it harder to eat fibrous plant material: and so we can prepare the food accordingly.

Another important aspect of “obligate carnivore” is the well cited Taurine issue: humans and dogs, for example, can use Taurine OR glycine to make bile salts (which are later used to emulsify fats). Cats, however, can only use Taurine for this, and because they synthesize Taurine in the liver “at a relatively low rate”, it is important that they attain Taurine from their food. Because Taurine “occurs at low levels in non-animal tissue”, cat food made using only plant ingredients must be supplemented with artificial Taurine. However, meat pet food is very definitely supplemented with artificial Taurine too [12], presumably because meat foods are also often plant based anyway and because Taurine is lost during meat processing [13]. It’s important that the nutritional needs of your cat are met, no matter what kind of food you buy.

It’s all so complicated!

I know! Scientists will be sporadically discussing the relevance of “obligate carnivore” to vegan domestic cats for a long time to come, however, even those who are opposed to vegan cat food cannot find a concrete scientific basis for dismissing vegan cat food entirely. In Gray’s (frankly rather antagonistically written) paper, the most definitive statement made is “When animal tissue is eliminated from the diet of an obligate carnivore, the potential for nutritional deficiencies increases. Various nutrients essential to cats are of potential concern in a vegan diet due to their scarcity in plant material.” [14] Potential. Potential! We should be careful, but not afraid.

So what is the conclusion?

Personally, I am resolutely convinced of only one thing: no more animals should suffer for research in animal nutrition. We all love our pets, and want to give them the perfect diet, but brutalizing other animals in search of the best recipe is just not on. As for the rest? We should all calm down a little bit really – if you feel that the moral and health issues surrounding meat warrant a trial of vegan foods, have a go, take it slowly and see how your cat responds. If your cat is happy on a vegan diet then you will be saving the lives of many other animals and reducing your carbon footprint in the process – I would suggest that it is worth a try… but that is only my opinion. What is yours?

References

[1] Nutritional adequacy of two vegan diets for cats, by Christina M. Gray, DVM Rance K. Sellon, DVM, PhD, DACVIM Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVN from The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2004, Vol. 225, No. 11, Pages 1670-1675. I have only read an unpublished version of this paper; there is a good summary here.

[1b] As above and also, see [11]

[2] (2006) Evaluation of cats fed vegetarian diets and attitudes of their caregivers, by Lorelei A. Wakefield, Frances S. Shofer, Kathryn E. Michel from The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2006. 229:1, 70-73 Freely available to download here.

[3] The Gray paper states that “kittens fed a taurine-deficient diet exhibit poor growth” – referenced as 7. I searched for this reference (“National Research Council. Nutrient requirements of cats. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1986.”) and then searched within the book for references to Taurine and kittens. This was the first study which I read about; the kittens were killed before they had even taken milk.

[4] The Benevo levels were sent to me by email on request, the Yarrah levels are available here.  Due to the low level of Taurine described, I rang them to ask some questions; the levels described are what are added into the food, so there will be more occurring naturally in the meat. AFFCO, diet A and diet B levels are from the Gray 2003 paper, FEDIAF are available here and Purina told me the ProPlan levels when I called them on their hot-line, but would not disclose the go cat levels. Yarah were very help full, but I found both Benevo and Purina to be stubborn about disclosing some of the information. I suspect there is some kind of “common knowledge” in pet food manufacture that a) levels will fluctuate from batch to batch and vary depending on storage and b) most foods are supplemented with similar/identical premix. That is my deduction anyway. Also, please note that I removed two very large levels from diet a/b to make the graph easier to read. The graph isn’t really very valid scientifically, please look at the original data for the best information.

[5] Article from Lifesapemag.com, May 2008: available to download here. Well worth a read.

[6] http://www.crpf.org.uk/index.php?section=538

[7] I looked at the linking sites from the page about certified brands.

[8] Article from Lifesapemag.com, marked page 74, third column): available to download here.

[9] http://www.vegepets.info/pages/meat_based_commercial_diets.htm

[10] I found the original article by the FDA here, which is where I got the quote.

[11] From Knight, A. In defense of vegetarian cat food. J. Amer. Vet. Medical. Assoc. 2005, 15 Feb.; Vol. 226 No. 4 pp. 512-513. – available here.

[12] I have head this but not seen it referenced. However, According to a well researched wikipedia article “In 1993, approximately 5/6000 tons of taurine were produced for commercial purposes; 50% [of which is] for pet food manufacture” – the AAFCO required level stated in the Gray study is only 0.1% of each meal… that’s 0.05g of a 50g serving… so sixty thousand million (or 60 Billion in USA speak) 50g pet meals are supplemented a year. That’s certainly not just the vegan foods!! Yarrah have explained that their foods have a supplement added, but I bet you would find it hard to get most companies to even admit this: this really just continues the myth that cats get everything they need from meat based foods.

[13] This is again only from my own understanding and from the non-referenced sources I have read.

[14] From page five of ref [1]

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The Healthy Huskies

A summary of a scientific study into vegetarian animal nutrition.

What’s the short version?

In 2004, two teams of Huskies raced across Australia. One side of each team had been fed a veggie diet, while the other side ate meat. They did not run in circles (or die).

Cool! So tell me more….

This study, lead by Dr Wendy Brown, was deigned to see if hard-working dogs would become anaemic or ill if they ate only plant based food. Sled-racing presents a great opportunity for nutritional research because the dogs run in pairs – i.e. at the same speed, for the same distance, pulling the same weight. This level of experimental “control” is hard to achieve, and desire for it has lead to unethical practices in many types of research. What’s really great about this study is that the dogs were just “borrowed” – they are pets; not “lab-animals.”

Dr Brown explains initially that the difference between meat and veggie food is bigger conceptually than it is nutritionally. Both non-meat and with-meat foods are usually made mostly of grain [8]. She says: “It is only a small step from some of the popular cereal-based dry dog foods to one that contains no meat at all.” [1]

The difference between meat and veggie food is bigger conceptually than it is nutritionally.

So, what happened in the experiment?

In this experiment, 12 Siberian huskies were divided into racing pairs based on ability. One of the dogs in each pair was fed on Pedigree Advantage, a food containing meat, made by Mars Petcare – who test on animals and use battery/barn eggs [2]. The other dog in the pair was fed on a vegetarian food, also developed by Mars Petcare Australia (especially for the experiment). [3] Take a look at Table One for a comparison of the ingredients – note how similar the foods are to each other. Both foods exceeded nutritional requirements/suggestions for dog food [4].

Table1

The racing season lasted 16 weeks, including training and recovery, and the dogs stayed in their usual environment and routine throughout. They were checked by a vet before hand, and then again in weeks 8 and 16. They had a blood test beforehand and then again in weeks 3, 8 and 16. The dog pairs raced in packs of 6 or 4, running 12 or 9 km races respectively.

What were the results?

In the race, the 6 dog team came in 4th place out of 29 packs, and the 4 dog team came in 7th place, from 36 packs….

No, not the race results! What were the blood test results?!

All the blood tests and vet checks showed normal results, for all of the dogs through all 16 weeks.

All the blood tests and vet checks showed normal results.

So, dogs can get enough protein from a veggie diet?

Yes, though scientists actually already knew this. Dr Brown suggests that, when taken in combination with data from previous studies, the results of this experiment highlight “the importance of providing sufficient dietary protein for exercising dogs, irrespective of whether the protein is of plant or animal origin.”

Does this mean that Vegetarian dog food is scientifically proven to be totally safe and complete?

No. It shows that veggie dog food can fulfill all the required “nutritional standards” in chemical terms [4]. It also shows that for short periods of time dogs wont suffer ill effects from eating a vegetarian diet – even if they are under considerable physical strain. This level of evidence, in my understanding, greatly surpasses that provided by most non-veggie pet food retailers, certainly most ethically minded ones anyway – yet it will probably not be considered enough evidence by many dog-lovers who find the concept of veggie dog food strange. For science to “decide” if vegetarian dog food is nutritionally equivalent to meat dog food, it will take many more investors, tests (perhaps inhumane) and dogs (perhaps in labs) – and much more time.

This level of evidence greatly surpasses that provided by most non-veggie pet food retailers.

So… why do Vegetarian pet foods say they are “nutritionally complete” on them?

It all comes down to methods and money. Dr Brown says: “Dog foods are tested for their nutritional adequacy in the first instance by means of chemical analysis. However, not all of the nutrients present in the dog food will necessarily be available to the dog.” In essence, when you grind up dog food, put it in a machine and look at the molecules it’s made from, vegetarian ingredients and meat ingredients are either the same or similar. However, that doesn’t mean that your dog is guaranteed to digest, absorb or use them in identical ways.

The foods can also be tested in a “feeding protocol” for more information – Dr Browns experiment is a very good and ethical example of such a test, however, normally such tests involve lab dogs. Also, these tests are expensive – out of reach for small, interested parties and not an attractive use of funds for large and disinterested parties.

So, if we decide to wait for categorical proof, how much meat will we feed to our dogs in the meantime?

I did a little nerd-calculation - if the average dog eats about 164 kg of meat a year [5]; the average cow weighs about 700kg, and there are 74 million dogs in Europe [6] – meat to the “equivalent” of around 17 million cows will be farmed and killed every year to feed the dogs of Europe. What if it takes another 10, 15 or 20 years for science to reach a verdict? Should we feed the equivalent of another 240 million cows to our dogs in the meantime? Each year these 17 million cows would eat over 200 billion kilograms of vegetable protein [7]… and none of this takes into account the carbon footprint made by all that meat… nor the rain-forests cleared for the feed production… nor all the extra people who could have food if the west produced less meat…

Logically, perhaps we should consider feeding our dogs on a plant-based diet until/unless science can tell us the food is nutritionally-incomplete!

Meat to the “equivalent” of 17 million cows is farmed and killed every year to feed the dogs of Europe.

And the conclusion?

Dr Brown says “[This] is the first study to demonstrate using a short feeding trail that a meat-free diet can be nutritionally adequate for exercising dogs. Whilst longer-term trials are necessary to prove this claim, nutritional adequacy was shown by chemical analysis, and this was further demonstrated by feeding the diet, in a controlled experiment, to actively exercising dogs…… these findings pave the way for commercial pet food manufactures to produce nutritionally adequate meat-free diets for dogs.”

We say… here here!!

I’m convinced! Where can I buy vegetarian food for my dog?

I know a great little place on-line… I think it’s called “Ethical Pets” ; )

 

 

References

[1] This quote is from the first page of the article, which is numbered page 102. You can download the full study here.

[2] Sources for my claim that Mars conduct animal testing:

1) Ethical Consumer Magazine’s report into pet food, page 17/48. 2)  Uncaged – unsure how reliable this source is as there are no references. 3) Mars Candy Kills – a glossy campaign with emotionally manipulative features and no references. This website states “Not one of Mars’ experiments on animals is required by law.” 4) The Mars Website says testing is meet legal requirements and that they “only conduct such animal research when non-animal alternatives are not feasible. Info from document entitled “Mars’ Position on Animal Welfare” dated 08/Sep/2011 accessed Feb 2012. Document is unnecessarily difficult to link to! 5) The Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition, owned by Mars. Glossy site, unclear language. Language and imagery seem manipulative, for example they call their test subjects “pets” and have subtle happy pet pictures in the background of their website.

[3] There was a feeding trial done, using the collection of dog faeces to establish “digestibility coefficients” at the university using dogs in their “Quarantine Approved Premises.”  I assume in good faith this is not a lab, but a facility for animals which have been moved into the country as pets and require a legal examination etc. I await confirmation of this as I can find no exact information.

[4] In this case the standards set by the “National Research Council” were vastly exceeded by both foods. I (roughly) checked them against the current European equivalent at FEDIAF; they also surpassed this standard. Also note that it is likely these nutritional requirements have been discovered in experiments using vivisection.

[5] According to New Scientist, from Ethical Consumer Magazine’s report into pet food, page 17/48

[6] According to The European Pet Food Industry Federation: Facts and Figures, 2010

[7] As for each kg of beef produced, the cow needs to eat 17kg of vegetable protein From “saving the world with your knife and fork” by Juliet Gellatley in Resurgence, March/April 2012.

[8] From my understanding, these cereal-based foods need a high grain content for the “extrusion” process which shapes and cooks the biscuits/pellets. According to wikipedia, vitamin A is lost through extrusion – and potentially inadequate Vitamin A provision is one of the criticisms of specifically vegetarian pet food. Is meat pet food supplemented anyway, due to loss in this extrusion process?

Images:

By User Damast on sv.wikipedia (Photo by Damast) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.

By Jjron (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.