Pets get picky about protein in veterinary study

Dr. Emily Kalenius’ yellow lab Ari reacts as staff member mentions treats at Willamette Veterinary Hospital. (Zoie Gentry)

Dr. Jean Hall knows animal nutrition inside and out. She hears many misconceptions from pet owners about what their dog or cat should be eating. Sometimes the comments come from strangers on airplanes who catch a glimpse of her work.

“They’re telling me their opinions,” she said, “so it’s difficult for me to convince them otherwise.”

Hall, a veterinarian and professor at Oregon State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, spends her time researching pet nutrition.

The results of her newest study challenged what most pet food companies prioritize in their kibble and might affect what goes into Fido’s bowl throughout his lifetime.

Although most big pet food brands emphasize both their food’s taste and protein content, Hall’s study suggest dogs’ and cats’ instincts lead them to carbohydrates and fats as well. Given more options, pets will follow their needs to a better overall diet.

Companies could use her insights, she said, to formulate pet food to keep dogs and cats healthier as they age.

Hall and her team offered groups of dogs and cats three bowls of food every day for 28 days. Each contained a different main nutrient: protein, carbohydrates or fat. They also offered a fourth bowl with all three. The scientists controlled for bowl position, meal time and taste, which is the strongest influence in cats’ and dogs’ short-term food preferences.

The animals indicated clear leanings: while the younger cats and dogs did prefer protein, older cats and dogs were drawn to nutrients that better fit their changing physical needs.

For example, older cats can develop kidney disease if they eat too much protein because their bodies can’t process it as well. When taste was removed as a factor, older cats naturally monitored their own protein intake over the course of Hall’s study.

The results suggest that in the long term, pets might prefer what’s best for their physiological needs at the time. Those insights will likely interest pet food makers looking to improve the healthfulness of their product.

Hall said similar research has prompted quick changes from pet food companies.

“They don’t want to be tripped up down the line,” she said. “You don’t want to have a bad reputation with your products because then people won’t buy them.”

Drs. Emily Kalenius and Josiah Moses, veterinarians at Corvallis’ Willamette Veterinary Hospital, said pet owners are often confused about what food might be healthiest for their dog or cat.

“Even I walk into a pet store and it’s overwhelming with all the choices,” Moses said.

Marketing messages can cause further confusion. Hall, Moses and Kalenius all referenced commercials that compare domesticated dogs with wild wolves, for example. In reality, wolves’ raw-meat diet leads to much shorter lifespans than those of domesticated dogs.

“We have the luxury of manipulating what our pets eat,” Kalenius said.

When searching for appropriate pet food, both Moses and Kalenius recommended looking for products approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, which tests products against nutrient standards.

Hall said that she thinks most owners are concerned about their pets’ health and want to make the right decisions for their nutrition.

“We feel bad when we don’t take care of them,” she said. “We have control of what goes into our body. They don’t.”

— Zoie Gentry, St. Helens High School
— Josue Sanchez-Valencia, Newport High School