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Latest health and behavior news and advice from the veterinarians at Tufts University.

Features January 2013 Issue

Dog Food And The Internet

There’s an avalanche of information online about canine nutrition. Some of it is very helpful. A lot of it is just hype. Here’s how to tell the difference.

Even though the whole notion of surfing the Internet for information is only about 20 years old, so many answers are now just a click away that it would be hard to imagine life without the Information Superhighway. For dog owners, the Internet provides vast amounts of material on everything from lists of hotels across the country that accept canine guests to listings of veterinarians by county.

One topic related to pets for which there are literally thousands of websites is nutrition. Just a slight finger movement will bring up recommendations for “holistic” foods, recommendations for diets that “prevent” or “cure” diseases, advertisements for products that will supposedly keep your dog in the prime of health, even get-rich pyramid schemes involving the sale of nutritional supplements.

The hitch is that the quality of the nutrition sites ranges from excellent to pure quackery, with misinformation much more common than facts backed up by true scientific research. Making life more complicated still is that it can be exceedingly difficult to separate what’s valid from what’s a claim without proof.

“It’s easy for people to think that every website is on the same level when it comes to evidence,” says Lisa Freeman, DVM, PhD, a board-certified nutritionist at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. But there’s quite a varying degree. People have to be good consumers; look at things more skeptically.”

In order to do just that and act on your dog’s behalf with credible information, Dr. Freeman recommends the following eight steps in employing the Internet as a source of advice. These steps don’t just apply to making sure you feed your dog the best diet. They apply in all areas of her health and well-being.

Always discuss the information with your veterinarian. No matter how reputable a website, the information it provides should enhance or be used in conjunction with what your dog’s doctor tells you. It shouldn’t replace it. Your vet, who has extensive training, will be able to help you evaluate what you read.

Try to ascertain the author of the information. You’re looking for credentials here. Is the author a pet owner, a veterinarian, a PhD in animal nutrition, or a board-certified veterinary nutritionist? A “pet nutritionist” or “certified nutritionist” does not cut it; there is no standardization of training for those titles. In fact, you can call yourself a veterinary nutritionist; it is perfectly legal.

Only veterinarians board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) or the European College of Veterinary Comparative Nutrition (ECVCN) are guaranteed to have undergone several years of rigorous post-veterinary school training in approved residency programs and to have passed the ACVN or ECVCN’s certifying examination.

Another way to assess authorship is to look at the website address. Those ending in .edu are from educational institutions. If it’s a veterinary school, that’s certainly a good bet. Websites ending in .org come from non-profit organizations, which to some degree lends them credibility because they do not have a vested interest in the information they provide. Then there are the sites whose addresses end in .com, meaning they have commercial interests. That in itself does not mean they are necessarily unreliable, but it does raise a red flag. (Blogs in general are written by animal owners and are not usually reliable sources of information.)

Note that large food companies, whose sites end in .com, often provide excellent nutrition information. The larger pet food firms like Hill’s, Iams, Nestlé Purina, and Royal Canin always have on staff multiple, full time board-certified veterinary nutritionists and PhDs in animal nutrition. And it is in their best interest to provide accurate information in order to sell food that keeps dogs healthy.

Find out the scientific source of the information. Does the site simply state that a product makes a dog’s coat shinier and healthier, or does it reference a study published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal? Peer review means that the study has been vetted by experts in the same field before being accepted for publication; many studies fail to pass peer review and do not get published in reputable journals.

Of course, even if a study referenced was published in a peer-reviewed journal, that doesn’t mean its conclusions justify the recommendations given on a website. For instance, research published on rats or humans, or in cells cultured in a laboratory, don’t necessarily predict what will happen inside the body of a dog. And many studies are too small to use as the basis for dietary recommendations. But at least peer-reviewed science is a start. “It’s better than someone making it up,” says Dr. Freeman.

Ask yourself, how timely is the information? Things change quickly in medicine, especially in the field of veterinary nutrition. What was recommended even as recently as two years ago may not be accepted practice today. Is the website you’re looking at updated frequently, or is it stale?

Beware anecdotal “proof.” Testimonials that a particular product “cured” a dog or otherwise improved his health or well being should be taken with less than a grain of salt. Individual declarations of a treatment’s efficacy can never take the place of rigorous scientific evaluation. So many arthritis “cures” are said to work, for instance, because they happen to coincide with a decrease in painful flare-ups of joint inflammation that come and go — not because they actually effected any changes in joint swelling or other parameters of the disease.

Remember the old adage: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If you read on the Internet that a certain supplement or diet “miraculously” eradicated a health problem overnight, your suspicion level should be raised sky high. If the scientific community found a quick and easy solution to a medical problem, you’d know about it. It wouldn’t be a secret that you happened to come across on a website. The bottom line: No, your dog will not burn more fat and lose weight quickly and easily with a nutritional supplement, nor will any of his ailments spontaneously disappear once you pay for the treatment advertised.

Don’t put stock in websites that rate dog foods. Rankings of pet foods are most often based on opinion or criteria, such as price, that do not ensure a good-quality food. To consider whether to feed a dog food to your pet, make sure it’s from a large, reputable company that has been in business for many years. Along with having board-certified veterinary nutritionists or PhDs in nutrition on staff, such companies conduct and publish peer-reviewed research and have stringent quality control standards. 

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