WASHINGTON (WJLA) - For millions of Americans, pets are family. They live in our homes, sleep on our beds, and help tell the story of our lives. And we do our best to care for them, spending more than $60 billion a year to keep them safe, healthy and well-fed.
But how well are we actually feeding them?
Veterinarian Karen Becker says you might be surprised.
“If pet owners knew what they were putting in their dog and cat’s bowls, they would be appalled," Becker said. "They just don’t know.”
Becker is an expert in disease and nutrition. She says it’s what you don’t see on the ingredient label that could be devastating to your pet’s health.
“Ninety-nine percent of the foods on the market I am incapable of recommending because of the level of disease I see in my patients,” Becker said. “One in two dogs will die of cancer. One in three kitties will die of cancer.”
Becker is part of a growing group of vets and scientists who believe there’s a connection between pet food and escalating disease.
Since 2010, the FDA has gotten more than 9,000 pet food complaints ranging from sickness to death.
Just last year, the non-profit “Clean Label Project” released an unprecedented study.
It tested roughly 1,100 pet foods for heavy metals, BPA, pesticides and other toxins linked to cancer.
They found contaminants in nearly every brand.
Most notably, dangerous heavy metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury — which are linked to cancer, respiratory and neurological disorders.
Scientist Dr. Sean Callan, was part of those tests.
“Our chemists first started getting this data off the machine they thought the machines were breaking because they were kicking out numbers a hundred-fold higher than anything we’ve ever seen," he said.
Callan is the Director of Operations and Quality at Ellipse Analytics, the specialized lab that tested the pet food.
“A lot of companies don’t do testing for this because unlike with human food, there’s no regulatory standards around this,” he said.
We hired Ellipse to re-test the 10 dog foods that were found to contain the most heavy metals in the Clean Label Project’s study, to see what, if anything, had changed.
We triple-tested each product and averaged the results.
After nearly 200 tests, almost no meaningful improvement.
In almost every case, any contaminant reduction in one area was off-set by increases in another.
For example, lead levels in Earthborn Holistic’s Ocean Fusion went up, but arsenic went down.
In Purina Pro-Plan’s Diet for Sensitive Skin and Stomach, arsenic went down, but cadmium and lead went up.
“I was absolutely stunned,” veterinarian Nicholas Dodman said.
Dr. Dodman is the Chief Scientific Officer for The Center for Canine Behavior Studies and former director of the animal behavior program at Tufts University.
While there’s nothing illegal about the heavy metals, because even the highest levels are within industry guidelines, there are no laws governing heavy metal concentration in pet foods, and very little research on the long-term effects of heavy metals in our pets.
This is of special interest to Dodman, who specializes in translational medicine – which essentially boils down to the question: If it’s bad for humans, is it probably bad for dogs?
“Without a doubt,” Dodman said. “From first principles, we know these things are toxic for people. They will therefore be toxic for dogs. They are classified as highly poisonous.”
To put our findings in context, we compared our results to the average level of heavy metals in a sampling of 1,100 human foods.
The heavy metal levels we found in pet food were between eight and 670-times higher than in human food, based on our sample. None was within a level considered safe for humans.
“Heavy metals tend to do the same thing, and a lot of them are carcinogenic which is interesting when you consider the fact that the cancer rate in dogs is twice the cancer rate in people,” Dodman said.
And to make matters worse, Dodman says because dogs and cats have less body mass than humans, and typically eat the same thing twice a day for their entire lives, the poisons can become more concentrated and their effects may appear faster and more fiercely.
Pet food companies are not required to test for these contaminants — and even if they did, they’re not required to tell you.
The data most of the industry points to is research compiled by the National Academy of Sciences from tests done decades ago. One cites no noticeable effect in adult dogs who consumed lead for 40 weeks.
Problem is, there are not studies on these toxins over the life of your pet. We asked Dodman if it is a correct conclusion on the part of industry to consider heavy metals safe for the life of your pet, given the extremely old and limited data, conducted over a short term.
“No,” Dodman said. “It’s not correct on the basis of a 40 week study to extrapolate out for five years. Especially when you know that some of the contaminants are cumulative."
It’s all legal. There are no federally mandated standards for heavy metals in pet food.
“I think it should be mandatory for companies to test for these things,” Dodman said. “If they’re going to continue selling these products they should at least be honest and put it on the label.”
We invited representatives of the six companies that make the 10 brands in our study to talk to us about our findings, why the industry has resisted more transparent labeling, and whether they thought these heavy metal levels were concerning – especially over the life of a pet.
None would talk to us on camera. Earthborn Holistic didn’t respond to our inquiries. And in a statement, Purina told us they are confident in the quality of their products and that “… we use science to make quality and safe pet foods and we employ more than 500 scientists, including nutritionists, veterinarians, toxicologists and quality control specialists.”
You’ll find the results of all the products we tested, and statements from the companies that responded, saying their products are safe and they adhere to industry guidelines for heavy metals HERE.
If you are interested in making your own pet food and treats at home, click HERE.