A Call For Calorie Counts On Pet Food Labels

Posted: Oct. 15, 2012, 8:10 p.m. EDT



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Dr. Khuly contends pet owners need pet food calorie information to help them make good feeding decisions on behalf of their pets.

If your exam room observations are anything like mine you’ll have noticed the girth of your patients gradually expand over the past couple of decades. It didn’t happen overnight, and yet it sometimes seems there must be something new in the water for our pets to have plumped up so impressively.

So what have we done to address it? Fight fires, mostly. Though we may put our scales, tape measures and body conditioning score know-how to work, getting pet owners to smell the coffee is a losing proposition more often than not. Our overstuffed culture has a way of besting us at every turn.

In fact, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll cop to the notion that NSAIDs and insulin are our tools of choice for combating the problem of excess poundage in our patient populations. So even when we do manage to eke out some wins, it’s painfully evident we’re still the big losers in this war.

Hence, why so many of us have stopped trying to run in place on the back end of this issue. Prevention, we now claim, holds the key to weight management. Because once they’ve gone glutton, tanked up and porked out, the odds are way skewed against comebacks.

Training the Owners

Trouble is, keeping pets from going there is all about keeping pet owners from screwing up. And because everything in our culture is geared toward erring on the side of excess, it turns out they screw up a lot. When I examined the commonalities between my biggest losers, it turns out screwing up can be largely mitigated by teaching pet owners to do what tends to work for humans: paying attention to caloric intake.

Which brings me (meanderingly) to the subject of this column: stalking the ever-elusive calorie count on commercial pet food labels...and their role in pet obesity prevention. If there’s an issue that riles me up in the already frustrating realm of animal nutrition, it’s the calorie counts on the side of a bag, can or pouch of pet food.

Calories Count

Despite the fact that more than 50 percent of dogs and cats in the United States are considered overweight or obese, only a small handful of pet food manufacturers offer calorie counts for their foods. That’s because the FDA doesn’t require that pet food manufacturers publish this information on the side of the packaging, their website, or anywhere else, for that matter.

This policy comes at the vigorous behest of the Pet Food Institute (the industry’s leading trade group), which actively heaps scorn on the ostensibly onerous requirement for a simple “calorie-per-cup/can” line item on the label.

Of course, this seems not only at odds with the pet food industry’s claims to serve pet health above all, but somewhat self-serving, as well. It’s even more so when you consider the commonly super-sized feeding recommendations on the back of the bag or can.

Now, I know they don’t pull those feeding reccs out of a hat, but one-size-fits-all is not the way to feed anything, much less the already obese. Shouldn’t they at least warn pet owners to reduce the volume if their pets blimp up?

But then, that would be asking too much of an industry that, by all accounts, seems way cozy with excess pet poundage. Indeed, they’ve not just road-blocked calorie labeling, they’ve also made a near national sport of obesity by building out whole lines of pet food brands designed to address weight loss (largely ineffectually, in my experience).

But back to the calorie counts, which became a significant issue in 2008. That’s when Congress ordered the FDA to work with state regulators and the industry to develop national standards for pet food processing and labeling (this was in the wake of 2007’s massive pet food recalls).

At the time, the AVMA was the lone entity calling for calorie counts on pet food labels. Given a dearth of non-economically invested voices, industry won out and calorie counts never made the list of requisite label items.

Trick or Treat

Sad thing is, according to nutritionists like Cornell’s Marion Nestle, it’s the increasingly higher calorie counts our pet foods are carrying per cup—along with the still-growing trend toward “treat”-ing pets—that are largely responsible for weight gains.

Sure, pets are more sedentary than ever, but that’s nothing too new. Rather, what’s changed dramatically over the past decade or two of spiking pet obesity rates has been the proliferation of low-residue, high-calorie pet foods (designed largely for smaller stools and grain-free status) along with all those irresistible little treats clients can pick up almost anywhere and feed 32 of before they’ve even served breakfast.

Case in point: A recent review of the calorie counts per cup of dog food (a survey undertaken by myself and a couple of interns I hired for the job) revealed that the highest calories-per-cup count (among more than 500 dry dog food formulas) came in at 586, the lowest at 275 (not even a weight loss diet!).

So it is that an unsuspecting pet owner could easily find himself feeding foods with twice the calories as the brand he used to feed and never know it until the ballooning thing happens (and it would).

Pet food manufacturers argue that feeding recommendations listed on the packaging forestall such disasters. Calorie counts would therefore be an unnecessarily expensive redundancy they shouldn’t be forced to endure. Yet feeding recommendations—even if they did precisely predict an animal’s needed caloric intake (a rarity, I’d say)—are voluntary, too.

OK so our pets may not absolutely require calorie counts on the side of the bag, can or pouch. But their people do! Pet owners need this information to help them make good feeding decisions on behalf of their pets. Without it, we’re all at the mercy of the pet food industry’s marketing savvy, sway with the FDA, and self-policed stats.

The lack of transparency on this subject is deplorable. Much more so given the epidemic of obesity our pets are suffering. If this industry were truly committed to, as the Pet Food Institute claims on its website, “promoting the overall care and well-being of pets,” it would’ve offered calorie counts on labels long ago.

As the industry’s collective degree of reticence on this point reveals, they have little to gain from helping pets shed pounds. But here’s where I’ll counter: They have everything to lose should the public finally connect their stingy way with their labels’ real estate with the pain and suffering of overweight and obese pets everywhere. And we, as veterinarians, have a duty to aggressively elicit this awareness if we can’t otherwise persuade the pet food industry to do what’s right for our patients. 

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