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Dispelling Conspiracy Theories About Veterinarians

Dr. google, really??

Dispelling conspiracy theories about veterinarians
By: Ask Dr. Watts - Dr. Michael Watts | Culpeper Star Exponent

Published: April 30, 2012
» 2 Comments | Post a Comment

I recently had an extended e-mail conversation with a friend of mine. I thoroughly enjoyed the exchange and think readers will, too. I have edited only to reduce length and remove specific product names. The exchange was long enough that it will take several columns to complete. Here’s the first installment:

Q: I think there’s a big "conspiracy" out there among vets or maybe the newbies get brainwashed in vet school with all that corporate money. I think my cat might have food allergies (losing a ton of hair, itchy) but took him to the vet anyway to rule out fleas, mites, fungus. We ended up with a newer vet and he was saying we might have to put him on a big brand prescription diet — the hypoallergenic one. He was shocked when I told him I’d never feed my cats that junk food. The first ingredients always seem to be "chicken by-products" and fillers like corn. They’ve been on a natural “wilderness salmon” food for a handful of months and I may start an elimination diet for them using other proteins like duck. He told me the natural food I’m using might sneak in other ingredients that aren’t on the food label. It makes me sad to think of all these people out there listening to this vet and using big corporation food when they can just feed their pets a high quality, good protein diet.

A: It sounds like someone’s been spending too much time on the Internet! Before discussing the specifics of food allergy management in cats, I want to combat a few misconceptions in your question.

First, if a free Frisbee in vet school and an occasional pizza lunch for his staff can buy off a veterinarian, I have yet to see it. Veterinarians who sell food make very little money doing so — typically only a dollar or so of profit per bag, if any. When I analyzed my practice, I was actually losing money! As a result many of us have stopped selling food or moved to mail order services for our patients. Large companies are simply better at being sure veterinarians have the most up to date information on their diets, so that might be your "conspiracy.” In addition, many veterinary therapeutic diets are actually superior for treating specific conditions than anything that can be found over the counter. However, the ingredient lists are formulated by board-certified veterinary nutritionists and other scientists – not the marketing department.

Second, corn really does get a bad rap. It really isn’t that common of an allergy. Studies have shown beef, chicken, wheat, soy, lamb, milk, and even egg to be the cause of more allergies in pets than corn. (I always have a little chuckle when someone is spending extra money on a "hypoallergenic" lamb diet to avoid that “evil” corn.) Cooked ground corn is a highly digestible source of carbohydrates, protein, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids. Unfortunately, the niche market pet foods have demonized it to a point that I don’t even waste my breath with clients anymore. Either a client will take my educated recommendation or they will ignore me, listening to “Dr. Google” or propaganda from specialty pet food manufacturers. (Some will imply that I am the one blindly listening to a pet food company and I would know how bad corn is if I had not wasted so much time in veterinary school and had paid closer attention to the Internet.) I rest comfortably knowing the clients who follow my recommendations more often than not end up satisfied.

Poultry by-product is also unfairly maligned. If you butchered a whole, de-feathered, farm-fresh turkey and ground it up together with the giblets (and any eggs) inside, you would have to label it as "poultry by-product." The only way you can call it turkey is to take the meat off the bone, separately grind the bones into bone meal, and discard most of the organ and egg tissue. This not only wastes quality protein from the bird, but it costs more for someone to take the turkey apart and then basically put it back together.

(Next week I will continue my answer to my friend’s question. Stay tuned.)

Dr. Watts is a companion animal general practitioner and owner of Clevengers Corner Veterinary Care. He can be reached through ClevengersCorner.com or by calling 428-1000.


This week is the second installment of an extended e-mail conversation with a friend regarding the best food to feed her cat. Last week’s column started by looking at corn and poultry-byproducts and explaining the nutritional value that each provides. This week picks up where I left off:

The other thing to know about many niche diets is that your pet is literally the first one to eat it. It balances on paper, but most don’t do animal feeding trials to measure actual nutrition performance. A few organic brands of have gone through animal feeding trials for some of their formulas, but most have been presumed balanced based solely on book values. When choosing a food, look at the food’s AAFCO statement for these words: animal feeding tests substantiate this food is complete and balanced. If the words animal feeding tests are missing, the tests haven’t been done.

With that being said, let’s discuss what to feed your kitty who may have a food allergy. First, be patient. If you are able to find a true novel protein diet, it may take up to eight weeks to see a convincing response. One study in Europe showed that it may take as many as three consecutive diet trials to catch 95% of food allergic patients!

It is difficult to find a truly novel protein for cats because ordinary cat foods contain so many similar flavors and ingredients. Duck, for instance, often cross reacts with turkey and chicken. Beef often cross reacts with venison, bison, etc. Add to that the difficulty that many OTC formulas that say "soy free" or "grain free" have been shown to have significant enough levels of these ingredients to aggravate a truly allergic cat. It’s not so much they’re “sneaking it in” as there is inadvertent contamination. Feed mills are dusty places and it’s easy to have cross contamination of production lots.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that there are very few good quality, reliably protein-restricted novel protein foods manufactured specifically for cats. The dog food market has a few that use kangaroo or rabbit and pass the" no soy… really, for real… no soy" tests. However, those diets just aren’t there for cats. There are a very few over the counter diets that have proteins limited to salmon, chicken, duck, and venison and also live up to their “no soy” claims. Again, realize that none of those proteins are completely novel for all cats. This is probably why your vet just finds it easy to reach for the prescription hydrolyzed protein diet. Hydrolyzed protein diets break down the protein into small enough units that the cat’s immune system cannot see it – at least, in theory.

For pet owners who really want to be sure they are using a novel protein that has no contaminates and they want to avoid commercial manufacturers, I like the web site balanceit.com. They sell supplements that make a homemade diet complete and balanced (at least on paper). It was designed by board-certified veterinary nutritionists. You basically can make your own diet out of your own protein source and their supplement will make it balanced. They also have some free recipes using human supplements, but I think the custom formulas are better for cats.

Also, you should know that many food allergic cats also have some degree of gastrointestinal involvement. They are also much less likely than dogs to manifest food allergies as solely skin symptoms. Since you mention only skin symptoms, be sure your veterinarian has thoroughly explored all the dermatologic angles and has run general blood work before placing too many eggs in the food allergy basket.

These past two columns are just the beginning. Return next week to read my friend’s response and more answers to her questions.

Dr. Watts is a companion animal general practitioner and owner of Clevengers Corner Veterinary Care. He can be reached through ClevengersCorner.com or by calling 428-1000.

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