8 Questions to Ask Before Relying on a Nutrition Website
Plus the sites we find most reliable.
When you google “how to feed a dog with cancer” and come upon a website that says to buy your pet a supplement designed by the person running the site, your instinct to feel suspicious kicks in automatically. But when you click on a website that says not to feed your dog a diet with grains because dogs are not naturally grain eaters (and the site points out that you don’t see dogs grazing in grassy fields), whether to pay attention can get tougher. (For the record, dogs tolerate grains just fine, and many do like to sometimes munch on grass, which is not a grain, anyway.)
So just how do you pick a reputable site or sites for learning more about dog nutrition and what to think about when feeding your pet, separating the hype or quackery from tried-and-true scientifically backed information? After all, even though it has been only about 25 years since searching the Internet for information has even been a thing, there are now literally thousands of websites pertaining to pet nutrition, happy to tell you what to feed your pet, what foods will “cure” him, what ingredients to avoid, even get-rich schemes beckoning you to get in on selling nutrition supplements. It can be hard to separate the deceitful quackery from the well-meaning but misguided quackery from the truly useful information.
When assessing a website, ask yourself the following 8 questions. They will go a long way in helping you determine whether the information provided is legitimate. Considering these questions will aid in your figuring out not just the legitimacy of nutrition websites for dogs but also the legitimacy of websites devoted to canine health and behavior in general. They’ll even help you ascertain the validity of information contained in websites about health for people.
For those who want a cheat sheet on some of the best websites out there for dog nutrition, take a look on the page opposite for the list we compiled for you.
The 8 questions to ask
1 Who authored the information? The name of the game here is credentials. Is the person providing the information or advice a fellow pet owner or someone who “invented” something that she or he is now selling? Or is it a veterinarian, someone with a PhD in animal nutrition, or a board-certified veterinary nutritionist? A “pet nutritionist” or a “certified nutritionist” is not enough. Those terms have no legal meaning, as there is no standard training for either of those titles. In fact, you can hang out a shingle calling yourself a “veterinary nutritionist” even if you know nothing about dog food and still not run afoul of the law. Only veterinarians who have been 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 training in approved residency programs and also to have passed a certifying examination. And that’s after they have already graduated from veterinary school.
2 What is the end of the website address after the “dot?” A website ending in .edu is a good bet; it means the source is an educational institution. If it’s a veterinary school, so much the better. Websites that end in .org are operated by non-profit organizations. That lends a degree of credibility because they do not have a vested interest; if they recommend a food or other nutrition product, it’s not because they will make money off the sale. But that doesn’t guarantee the information is accurate or scientifically based. Websites that end in .com do have commercial interests, which raises a red flag. But just as not all .orgs are reliable sources of information, not all .coms should automatically be written off. Very large pet food manufacturers have sites that end in .com and often provide excellent nutrition information apart from their aim to steer you to their products. This is because they have board-certified veterinary nutritionists on staff and/or PhDs in animal nutrition.
3 Does the site “prescribe” a particular diet or list ingredients that should be included — or avoided — in a dog’s diet? Approach such sites with a healthy dose of skepticism. There is no single diet that can be prescribed for all dogs, nor is there a legitimate list of “good” and “bad” ingredients, unless you’re talking about toxic substances put in a list by a reputable organization like the ASPCA. If you read about foods that can “cure” or “ward off” illnesses like cancer or heart disease as well as foods dogs should “never” eat, something’s probably wrong. Ditto for “miracle” foods or supplements. No single food or food ingredient is a miracle. At best, it might be part of a healthful diet that contributes to improved health but does not in and of itself confer it. Another way of putting it: discussion of particular foods or ingredients should be sober considerations of how they fit into an overall eating plan, not rah rah pleas charged with emotion.
4 Is the “proof” on the website anecdotal? Testimonials from dog owners that a particular diet or food “did the trick” and made a pet all better — or all worse — should render your suspicion level red hot. Testimonials don’t count as evidence. Only conclusions reached by the scientific community through the course of rigorously conducted research that has been published in peer-reviewed journals does. No matter how convincing a testimonial sounds, it is not proof of anything. For instance, a dog who suddenly is free of arthritis symptoms after eating a particular food or ingredient might simply be experiencing a lessening of symptoms that comes with the ebb and flow of the disease. Treat anecdotes about a product’s efficacy like fairy tales.
5 Does the science validate the advice? This one is tricky. A lot of websites reference well-conducted studies that have undergone peer review and have been published in respected scientific journals. But some of those sites use the study results to justify specific dietary advice for dogs when those results do not pave the way for such advice. Consider, first of all, that one study does not a fact make. It takes a number of studies conducted by different people in the field, with results generally leading in the same direction, for the scientific community at large to conclude that the evidence is firm enough to use for making dietary recommendations. Second, too many sites list legitimate studies for the purpose of pushing their point of view, or the product they want to sell, rather than because those studies truly suggest the direction a dog’s diet should take.
It can be hard to recognize misleading mention of a study, but consider this: if the evidence is presented in such a way that you’re finding it hard to understand, that’s not a good sign. Trustworthy sites that make use of scientific information to inform the public take pains to explain the research in such a way that people will have an easy time understanding why the science supports the actual dietary advice. It doesn’t come across sounding like gobbledy gook.
6 How timely is the information? Things change quickly in the pet nutrition world. Even the calories and other nutrients in commercial pet foods change on a relatively frequent basis. Advice based on medical advances changes, too. What was legitimately recommended as recently as two years ago may not be the gold standard in advice today. Be certain the website you’re perusing is updated frequently rather than allowed to go stale.
7 Are the pet foods discussed ranked? 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, neither of which has anything to do with the true quality of the food. Besides, the best pet food for one dog might not be the best for another, depending on differences in their health status. To consider whether to feed a commercially prepared food to your dog, your best bet it to choose one from a large, reputable company that has been in business for many years.
8 Does it sound too good to be true? Things sound too good to be true for a reason — they’re not true. A certain spice cannot “cure” or ward off cancer; a certain dietary regimen cannot take care of heart disease; a particular supplement cannot suddenly stop an itchy dog from scratching. If they could, the scientific community at large would be happy to shout such findings from the rooftop. True researchers are not looking to keep advances in nutrition medicine from you, and you did not happen to come upon a huge “secret” that the website is sharing with you because the veterinary community will not. If a nutrition claim is made that has not been confirmed anywhere else, move on.