Pet Heatlh

Pet Food Part III: Natural/Premium/Organic Pet Foods

In our third article on veterinary nutrition, we’re going to address some of the other terms found on pet food labels that don’t quite fit on the AAFCO feeding statement or ingredient list.

There are a number of terms that are used as part of marketing but really do very little to give us additional information about the ingredients or quality of the food. The United States Food & Drug Administration regulates pet food labels and has specific regulations regarding proper product identification, net quantity statement, name and place of business of the manufacturer or distributor, and proper listing of all the ingredients in the product based on weight (ordered most to least).

Products labeled as “premium” or “gourmet” are not required to contain any different or higher quality ingredients, nor are they held up to any higher nutritional standards than are any other complete and balanced products.

The term “natural” does not have an official definition either, though AAFCO has developed a feed term definition for what types of ingredients can be considered “natural” and “Guidelines for Natural Claims” for pet foods. For the most part, “natural” can be considered as a lack of artificial flavors, artificial colors, or artificial preservatives in the product. For high-fat dry products, some form of preservative must be used to prevent rancidity. Natural-source preservatives, such as mixed tocopherols (a source of vitamin E), can be used in place of artificial preservatives. However, they may not be as effective.

“Natural” is not the same as “organic.” The latter term refers to the conditions under which the plants were grown or animals were raised and currently only has a regulatory definition in human food. The United States Department of Agriculture is working to develop regulations dictating what types of synthetic additives, such as vitamins and purified amino acids, may be used in pet foods labeled as organic.

Health claims on pet foods are enforced by discretion of the FDA, but there are few health claims that pet foods companies can legally make. Claims that food can reduce, prevent or treat a disease are only permitted on veterinary medical diets, and even then, these foods are only allowed to convey the information on the relationship of a diet and disease in veterinary-directed literature to help veterinarians treat their patients appropriately (otherwise the diet would be considered a drug and have to be approved as such). The labels, including product names, cannot include names of diseases; this is why many of these veterinary medical foods are named with initials or numbers.

A great resource for owners and veterinarians regarding pet foods is the Pet Nutrition Alliance. And in a couple weeks, we’ll round out our nutrition series with a breakdown of the “guaranteed analysis” of pet food labels.

Pets, Ticks & Tick-Borne Disease

Ticks are one of the most common ectoparasites (on the skin) found on pets.

They are of particular concern because they can transmit potentially serious diseases to both humans and their pets. While it is fortunately very unlikely for a tick to transmit a particular disease directly from a dog to a human, or vice versa, our pets can act as important sentinels of disease in our environment — i.e. if a dog has tested positive for exposure to the causative organism of Lyme disease, it indicates an environmental risk to the human parents as well.

The four most common ticks found in this part of the U.S. and the diseases they can carry and transmit are:

(Side-by-side pictures of the ticks described above can be found here and here)

According to the Companion Animal Parasite Council, 1 in 35 dogs in Arlington County has tested positive for exposure to Ehrlichia species, 1 in 18 has tested positive for exposure to the organism that causes Lyme disease (Borrelia burdgorferi), and 1 in 458 has tested positive for exposure to Anaplasma.

Many of the tick-borne diseases, including Lyme, Ehrlichiosis, Anaplasmosis, and RMSF, can cause abnormalities in the white blood cells, red blood cells, and/or platelets, as well as fever, enlarged lymph nodes, enlarged spleen, joint pain, and/or general malaise.

Tick paralysis is a potentially serious condition caused by a neurotoxin from the saliva of certain ticks, typically after they have been attached for at least several days. Symptoms start with weakness and can progress to paralysis and even death if the dog is unable to breath. Removal or death/detachment of the tick will result in a quick improvement of symptoms, often within hours.

Cats seem to be uniquely resistant to many of the tick-borne diseases, with the exception of Cytauxzoonosis, and Mycoplasma haemofelis. Cytauxzoonosis a severe and typically life-threatening disease transmitted by the Lone Star tick. This condition is more common in southeastern and south-central states, but fortunately quite rare in northern Virginia.

Mycoplasma haemofelis is a cause of feline infectious anemia – and is an organism that lives within red blood cells, causing them to be destroyed, leading to a an often severe decrease in red blood cell numbers (anemia). It can be transmitted by any blood-sucking arthropod (mostly fleas but ticks can and do transmit it) – and we do see it in this geographic region. Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis have been poorly characterized in cats but few reports do exist and generally the symptoms are nonspecific and general-malaise in nature. And while Borrelia is capable of infecting cats, Lyme has not been reported in a cat outside of a laboratory setting.

Of all the diseases described above, there is only a vaccination available for the prevention of Lyme disease. In many cases, ticks need to be attached for 12-48 hours to transmit diseases which means that the most effective way to prevent tick borne diseases is to prevent tick exposure, remove ticks when they are found and the use of year-round tick prevention (to quickly kill them when they do get on your pet). When choosing a tick prevention medication recognize that many products that are safe to use in dogs are NOT safe to use in cats and that many of the “over the counter” flea/tick medications do not carry the same safety and efficacy profiles and guarantees that prescription medications do.

Talk to your veterinarian about tick prevention strategies that best suit you and your pets to keep all your fur-kids happy, healthy and tick-free.

Seasonal & Environmental Allergies

Spring allergy season is already in full-force, with many of us experiencing the runny eyes, stuffy noses, and congestion typical of seasonal environmental allergies. Our pets, too, can experience environmental allergies, though in addition to the runny eyes and sneezing that we experience, they typically manifest their seasonal allergies through itchy skin and/or ears. Itchiness may manifest itself through scratching, biting, chewing, licking, and/or rubbing.

Allergies themselves cause itching and redness but in our pets, it is often the secondary infections that make matters even worse. Bacteria and yeast are part of the normal healthy flora of the skin of both dogs and cats. With an underlying allergy, the skin’s barrier function is affected, and these organisms are able to “set up shop,” leading to further itchiness and inflammation of the skin. As such, chronic/recurrent yeast infections are often a hallmark of allergic skin disease in our pets.

Unfortunately, diagnosing an environmental allergy is not always cut-and-dry. Many other things can cause similar symptoms — other types of allergies (fleas, food, contact), metabolic or autoimmune conditions, and other skin diseases can sometimes mimic the symptoms of environmental allergies. Your veterinarian will likely ask a number of questions related to the history involving your pet’s symptoms.

One of the strongest support factors for an environmental allergy is a seasonal component to the symptoms — most dogs with environmental allergies will be significantly less symptomatic during the late fall and winter months. Additionally, environmental allergies can often get worse with age, or may be worse in certain environments (unfortunately, the D.C./Northern Virginia area is one of the worst for allergies).

Intradermal skin testing is the gold standard for diagnosing environmental allergies. This is typically done by a veterinary dermatologist. However, in recent years some of the available blood testings for environmental allergies have become more reliable and provide another means of more definitive diagnosis that can be done with your regular veterinarian.

When it comes to “treating” environmental allergies, the most important thing to realize is that allergies are never cured, but are instead managed. A multimodal approach is most often the most successful. Potential therapeutic options include: medications, supplements, bathing and allergy “shots.”

Medications that we often reach for include antihistamines (though their action is not nearly as reliable in cats and dogs as we’d like), corticosteroids (to help decrease the inflammatory/allergic responses), immunomodulatory drugs such as cyclosporine/Atopica or Apoquel, and often antibiotics or antifungals to address the secondary infections. Fish oil supplements are often recommended to patients with allergies as higher doses of omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties and they can improve the overall health of the skin and fur.

Frequent bathing with a medicated shampoo to cut down on the number of allergens, yeast, and bacteria on the skin often allows us to use less drugs to keep a pet comfortable (though is often more feasible in dogs than cats!). And, finally, non-pharmacologic methods with immunotherapy (allergy “shots”/vaccinations) can be very helpful with chronic management of environmental allergies, to reduce the haywire response of the immune system to a normal stimulus.

We recommend talking with your veterinarian at the first sign of excessive itching/scratching in your pet.  Fortunately, the options for managing environmental allergies are improving all the time, but it still remains a very frustrating condition since it can never be cured.  Some patience and understanding of the underlying condition can go a long way in making the condition more approachable and manageable.