Concerns continue about the safety of pet foods, some of which have been contaminated with melamine, believed to be added as a fake protein through food supplements from China. American food safety regulators are now investigating food treatment facilities there. Its presence in any form of American food is illegal, but there has been no evidence of melamine in human food.
Q: How do I know which foods are safe to feed my cat and dog? The list of recalled foods keeps growing.
A: More than 100 companies are now on the "recalled" list, and that list should be checked daily. Two of the best sites that are keeping that list current are the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (www.fda.gov) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (www.avma.org).
People without computer access should consider asking their own veterinarian if their commercial pet food is on the recall list.
Q: Are any pet foods safe?
A: FDA officials have maintained throughout the pet food recall, which began on March 16, that only 1 percent of the U.S. pet foods are affected. The AVMA Web site is using the same figure, which means that 99 percent of pet foods have not been tainted with melamine, the industrial chemical used in the production of plastic utensils and other nonfood items.
Q: Which ingredients are suspect in the recall?
A: Wheat gluten, corn gluten and rice protein concentrate imported from China, according to the FDA. Those substances had traces of melamine. You could look for those ingredients on pet food containers and avoid the products, if you wish.
Q: What is the U.S. government doing to safeguard our food supply?
A: The FDA has said that 100 percent of wheat gluten, protein concentrate and corn gluten imported from China is now being tested. Federal officials are now also scrutinizing corn meal, rice bran and soy protein at U.S. plants that imported those products from China. Federal officials say they'll test as many plants as possible.
Q: Is the U.S. government banning food imports from China?
A: No. FDA officials said last week that all of the contaminated wheat gluten came from one plant in China and all of the contaminated rice protein concentrate came from one other plant in China. Our borders are not closed to all imports from China.
Q: People who have lost confidence in the safety of commercial pet food want to cook and serve "human" food. Is there a right way to do this?
A: The AVMA Web site includes a page with the title, "Tips on Cooking Fluffy and Fido a Home-Cooked Meal." They start with the premise that it's not recommended, because proper pet nutrition is "very complicated" and varies widely from species to species.
But if home-cooked pet meals are the way you want to go, they suggest you consult your veterinarian -- and look at books and Web sites recommended by AVMA. More on that below.
Q: Is there a wrong way to feed people food to pets?
A: "Table scraps should definitely not be a part of your pet's diet," said AVMA President Roger Mahr, who is a veterinarian. "Gravies, meat fats and poultry skin can readily cause stomach and intestinal upsets, and even lead to a life-threatening condition, in dogs, called pancreatitis. Bones will splinter when chewed and can not be digested by the animal's system."
Some people foods can be lethal to cats and dogs, including chocolate, grapes and raisins. Xylitol -- a common sweetener used in many baked goods -- "has been linked with liver failure and death in dogs," Dr. Mahr said.
Q: What's the right way to feed "people" food?
A: One of the best Web sites on home-cooked pet food is PetDIETS.com (www.petdiets.com), according to Dr. Tony Buffington, a veterinarian who also has a Ph.D. in nutrition. He's a professor at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Dr. Buffington, on the AVMA site, also recommends a cookbook for pets written by Dr. Donald Strombeck: "Home-Prepared Dog & Cat Diets: the Healthful Alternative."
Q: Can I get recipes from the PetDIETS site?
A: The site is run by veterinarians who are pet nutrition specialists, which means they undergo three to six years of additional training after four years in vet school. At no charge, there is information about cat and dog pet nutrition -- including the fact that a well-balanced diet needs a combination of meat, grain and vegetables plus supplements.
However, the cost for recipes is about $50, for feeding healthy cats and dogs. Fees go up for diets specially formulated for pets with health problems that require a special diet, and those fees include ongoing consultations with veterinary nutritionists.
Q: Can't I just talk to my own veterinarian about this?
A: Yes, but the average vet generally only takes one or two nutrition courses in vet school.
Q: How do I know who the veterinary nutrition specialists are?
A: More information about them can be found at www.acvn.org, which is the site of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.
Q: I've been hearing a lot about feeding "raw" diets to dogs and cats. Is this a good idea?
A: Raw diets have been around for a while, and they are very controversial. There have always been supporters and detractors.
"Raw" supporters -- especially companies that sell raw diet products -- are using current concerns about the safety of commercial pet food to push this agenda.
The FDA and AVMA do not support feeding raw diets to dogs and cats, citing many safety concerns, including high risk of salmonella, E. coli and other bacteria.
Dr. Rebecca L. Remillard, a veterinarian and a veterinary nutritionist, says, on the PetDIETS site, that "the public health risk appears to be a significant downside" to feeding raw diets, "with no nutritional upside."
Q: What's the public health risk in raw diets?
A: "Dogs and cats fed contaminated raw meat diets shed viable organisms in their feces," said Dr. Remillard. Meaning, pets fed raw diets contaminated with salmonella or other bacteria can pass that on to people and other pets in the household. Especially at risk would be people who clean cat litter boxes or pick up and dispose of dog feces and people who handle raw products intended for pets.
Dr. Remillard's five-page article on raw diets is on the Web site. It includes studies showing that raw pet food products had a high degree of salmonella, E. coli and other bacterial contamination.
Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3064.