An old dog enjoying a stroller ride during a long walk
A week or so ago there was a nice sign waiting for me at my favourite winter walking place. It “reminded me” of what the rules were – no dogs off leash. I always knew this, which is part of the reason I go when there is no one else there. But now they’ve put a sign right where I park – I feel like it was left there just for me as I’m pretty sure I’m their biggest “customer” in the winter. There are rarely other tracks in the snow and it is even more rare for me to see someone else parked there. I think there has been 2 times this fall/winter where I had to use a different section of the park to avoid people. But with the sign there, it makes me feel guilty. AND I won’t be able to feign ignorance if I do get caught with my dogs off leash.
On really “yucky” days mid week, I still go to our usual park, but I’ve been going farther afield lately. When I have time, we’ve been heading out to Fort Macleod – a town about 30 minutes from here with a dog park that is very under used – so under used I don’t have any qualms about bringing Lacey. We are more likely to come across wildlife or someone on horseback than we are to run across another dog.
When I don’t have time to spend an hour driving, we’ve been doing walks in the neighbourhood. I’ve been trying to walk the girls on leash a little more regularly… It really isn’t nearly as much fun for any of us though. It’s kind of like eating your vegetables – you do it because it’s good for you.
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Meet Louise! A trained Seeing Eye Dog who failed her final test because she liked butterflies too much! Just got her today!
About one year after I graduated vet school, I took routine screening chest radiographs of my senior Golden, Mulan. I looked them over, frowning at a small, mottled spot near her sternum.
“She has cancer,” I thought. It’s not an unreasonable conclusion to come to with Golden Retrievers. Before I panicked, I asked my colleague to look at the x-ray, and she agreed it looked suspicious. I was devastated.
I took Mulan to the local specialty hospital, where an intern I knew from vet school patted me on the back while the resident internal medicine specialist pursed his lips sympathetically. He grabbed his ultrasound machine to prepare for a guided biopsy. Before starting, he asked the radiologist to stop by to give his thoughts as to what this strange radiographic feature might be.
“What are you looking at? That? That’s normal sternum,” he said, sipping his coffee with the mildest of eye rolls before strolling out of the now-silent room.
I knew just enough to be dangerous but not enough to actually come to the correct conclusion. Along the way I dragged two other very educated colleagues with me through sheer force of conviction. Mulan lived another 4 years, by the way.
Data and Interpretation
Lots of people have asked me about the controversial results from the Truth about Pet Food’s crowdsourced food safety study. I haven’t said anything, because I couldn’t think of anything to say. It’s the same response I have when people send me this picture over email and ask me what this lump is:
The correct answer is, “I need a lot more information before I can tell you that.” Which is about how I feel about the significance of this study.
As veterinary nutritionist Dr. Weeth points out in her excellent response, scientists kind of live to nitpick and poke holes in one another’s work. It’s necessary to allow criticism because there are so many ways one can go wrong with a project- from the way the study was designed, to the implementation, to the data interpretation. It was the persistent nagging of the science community that led to the eventual discrediting of Wakefield’s autism/vaccine research paper, the public health implications of which we are still dealing today, up to and including 19 people who were sickened with measles at The Happiest Place on Earth.
Without being allowed to evaluate the entire research process, we have no way of knowing how valid the results are. A pretty infographic does not science make. Nor does protesting “it’s not junk science” mean that it isn’t.
What We Know
I’m hopeful that the full set of data will be made public, including methodology. Until then, all we can do is go by what we have been told.
Dr. Gary Pusillo of INTI services, who has the misfortune of being out of the country while all of this debate is going down, was in charge of the testing process. Thixton writes that he is a board certified veterinary nutritionist, which in theory is fantastic because it means that he would have the background in both veterinary medicine and nutrition to not only perform the studies, but interpret the results. There’s only one problem: he’s not. (Nor does he in any way present himself as one, by the way.) A board certified veterinary nutritionist is a veterinarian who is also a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. You may think that’s irrelevant, it’s just semantics, but it’s not.
Credentials are a big deal, as I’m sure Dr. Pusillo himself would tell you were he around. I would really love for Dr. Pusillo and Dr. Purejav to have been available to answer questions while we’re all begging to know what the heck they did, and I’d love to hear more about how they determined “risk.” They may be the most qualified people in the world, but for right now, all I have is an infographic and a consumer advocate’s word that they’re the best.
Dr. Pusillo is a PhD who provides forensic science services, which actually sounds really cool and I would love to hear more about it. I have no reason to doubt that he is an excellent scientist. He probably knows tons and tons about how to test a food for specific substances. What he may or may not know is whether or not those substances matter clinically.
Data Collection vs. Interpretation
Let’s assume that the data collection was carried out perfectly. Data collection is only half of the equation- you still have to know what to do with it. You can have all the answers in front of you and still not know the question. The scientists Thixton contracted with are out of town at the moment, so who are we going to ask to help us interpret things?
Given who’s around right now, who could interpret the limited data we have through the filter of what matters?
A microbiologist with a background in food safety would be a good start, as someone who can tell you whether or not particular pathogens are actually of concern.
Or a board certified veterinary nutritionist, who can tell you about nutrient analyses and why dry matter comparisons without calorie content is useless. Both of them have some big reservations about this project.
They know more than I do about such things, which is why I defer to their interpretation. Little things mean a lot- for example, when you say “bacteria are present” what do you mean? Does that mean live bacteria were cultured using sterile handling procedures to eliminate environmental contamination? Or did the test just look for bacterial RNA, which could come from dead bacteria that were killed during processing and therefore prove that production works as advertised? I don’t know, but that would sure make a difference.
When the company you contract with to run your tests asks for their name to be dissociated from any press surrounding you, there’s one of two conclusions: 1. They were not happy about how their data was manipulated in the interpretation stage and didn’t want to be associated with bad science; 2. Big Pet Food Cabal. We may never know. *shrug*
A victory for food safety
I like to look at the bright side of things, and for reasons I can’t fathom, what I’ve found to be the biggest findings of the study are barely mentioned.
What are the three most common concerns I hear about pet food safety?
- pathogens of most dire human significance, specifically Salmonella and Campylobacter
- pentobarbital contamination (implying euthanized rendered carcasses in pet food.)
Why were these not mentioned in the risk report?
Because they weren’t found. They did look for all of these products. All twelve tested foods were clear of the three biggest worries in recent memory to pet food safety. That’s something, don’t you think?
I’m an optimist. Let’s look at the bright side of things, what do you say!
So let’s review here: I like asking questions. I have no problem questioning consumers, colleagues, my own professional leadership. I think concerned consumers are good consumers, and I applaud anyone who is invested enough to care about what goes into their pet, be it food, drug, or plant. I have chosen not to work in the employ of companies in the field specifically so I can feel free to say what I want without worry about my job or advertisers.
That being said, I think we also have to take the Occam’s razor approach to life and assume at some point that companies are telling the truth when they tell us they aren’t actively attempting to kill our pets. There are problems, some big and some small, and those are worthy of being addressed, but if you can’t accept at the end of the day that they are generally trying to do the right thing, then we may not ever be able to come to an understanding. As part of a profession that deals with this type of distrust on a regular basis, there comes a point where you have to say, “If you’re going to insist I’m out to harm you no matter what I say then I probably should just leave now.”
So let’s end on a high note: a toast, to those who care. I think everyone’s here arguing for that reason even if the conclusions are different. Salmonella free appetizers for all.
In the years I have been associated with Halo and had the pleasure of sharing my thoughts with you all, I have had the additional pleasure of becoming good friends with Dr. Donna Spector, Halo’s veterinary advisor. I have also had the privilege of learning from her right along with the audience on our pet talk radio show on the Radio pet Lady Network, THE EXPERT VET.
When my youngest Weimaraner Teddy became suddenly ill – and then sick to death – last year, Dr. Donna interrupted her one yearly horseback vacation without her beloved husband and three small kids to do everything she could to help me save Teddy’s life as he down-spiraled.
I wrote about that horrible journey on my blog and will never forget her kindness and generosity in trying to help, especially because I feel sure that if she (and my friend Dr. Sue Ettinger, and co-host on THE PET CANCER VET, had been able to get more directly involved, we could have saved Teddy, for at least awhile. From hearing her on our radio show I’m sure everyone wishes they had a vet like her, to calmly and firmly take charge of a medical situation and make sense of it, often giving brilliant insight and performing intervention to save the lives of dogs and cats.
It was with a sense of shock along with sadness that I learned that Dr. Donna lost her own dear small dog Morgan over the holidays. It reminded me that our vets cannot (always) perform miracles, even for their own four-legged family members. I think it is meaningful for us to remember that our doctors share our deep attachments to our dogs. The loss is just as profound no matter how full our home and the rest of our lives may be. Dr. Donna wrote this to me and said I might share it:
“Lost my bestie Morgan Spector on Saturday. 14 years old and terribly missed by all. We boarded her over Thanksgiving when we went on family vacation – she got kennel cough and from there went into a rapid decline. The antibiotics I had to use threw her chronic IBD/pancreatitis into an uproar…vomiting, diarrhea, no appetite. Then the medications I had to give her for that made her crazy and downright maniacal. My youngest child (who is inexplicably terribly afraid of dogs???) —was terrorized by Morgan’s personality change.
So poor Morgan was either maniacal with medications or without them she was lethargic with vomiting and no appetite. My kids kept asking why Morgan felt so terrible all of the time. I tried to give her every chance, and it was awful to watch her go through this. She ended up getting terrible bloody diarrhea and was so dehydrated and lethargic…I just knew she had had enough. What was I doing for Morgan?
Sometimes it takes the brutal honesty of a 5 year old to give you a wake- up call. I also had to take into consideration her many chronic problems—IBD, pancreatitis, liver cancer I diagnosed a year ago, heart disease, and chronic allergies. She would never get back to normal and normal wasn’t even so good anymore. When had I lost sight of her quality of life? So, together we thanked Morgan for blessing our lives and sent her on. My house is so silent and I miss the sounds of her breathing and her toenails clacking (why was I ever irritated by that? !) I am downright SAD. Tracie, send up a toast that Morgan be happy and healthy wherever she is : ).”
I’ll do that, Dr. Donna – in honor of all the “besties” we all have had, who gave us the gift of loving us through our lives, clickety toenails and all.
Tracie Hotchner is the author of THE DOG BIBLE: Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know and THE CAT BIBLE: Everything Your Cat Expects You to Know. She is also a renowned pet radio host and producer, having spent 7 years on the Martha Stewart Channel of Sirius/XM with CAT CHAT® and even longer with her award-winning NPR radio show DOG TALK® (and Kitties, Too!) that continues to broadcast in the Hamptons and the Berkshires. Her most recent accomplishment is the pet talk radio network she has created on the Internet called The Radio Pet Lady Network.
It was no choice
That set this course
The road abides
And through its length
‘Oh beauty burns
Your trail etern.
The silence of your roar
That swept me neath
No more. No more.’
YBD’s Notes1: The west coast walk was long and hard, harder than any stretch of the road we’ve been on before. But the much bigger lesson here is we’re in this together if we have a ghost of a chance to eradicate cancer in us and our companions in our lifetime, puppy up damnit
YBD’s Notes2: Happy XMAS
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