Are you worried about feeding your dog or cat commercially-made pet food? You're not alone.
Many pet owners now question the safety of all commercial pet foods in the wake of Menu Foods' nationwide recall of dog and cat food tainted with rat poisoning.
But are those fears justified?
"I understand that people are scared," said Dr. Tony Buffington, DMV, Ph.D, a professor at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. "People are upset and I appreciate that.
"But there is no need to panic about buying commercially-made pet food. I don't think it makes any sense ... just because Menu Foods' products are contaminated doesn't mean that all pet foods are contaminated. And as far as I'm aware, there haven't been any reports of any problem with other pet foods."
Earlier this month, Menu Foods recalled 60 million cans and pouches of its "cuts and gravy" style cat and dog foods when pets across the country became sick -- or died -- after eating the products.
The Canadian-based company has confirmed at least 16 cats and dogs have died after eating its wet pet food. That number, however, is expected to rise.
Menu Foods says it doesn't know how the rat poisoning -- identified as aminopterin -- got into 95 different brands of dog and cat food it manufactures.
The FDA suspects the culprit is wheat gluten the company imports from China and uses in its pet food as a thickening agent and source of protein.
What To Do?
But what alternatives do pet owners have if they're still worried about feeding their dogs or cat commercial food?
One option is homemade pet food. But be careful.
Dr. Buffington and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) warn it's not easy to make a product that meets your dog or cat's specific nutritional needs.
"Pets have complex nutritional needs that are unique to their species, age and other factors," the AVMA cautioned in a prepared statement about alternatives to commercial pet foods. "And any changes to a pet's diet could cause intestinal upset, particularly a change as significant as switching from commercial to home-cooked food."
Dr. Buffington said cat owners must be particularly careful when making food for their pets.
"Cats have specific nutrient requirements that are different from dogs," he said. "Cats are obligate carnivores. That means most of their nutrition comes from animal sources.
"If you're going to make your own food for your cat, you definitely need to talk to your veterinarian."
Pet owners can find recipes specifically designed for their dogs and cats in several cookbooks on the market, Dr. Buffington said.
"These recipes are all generally fine, but certainly home-cooked diets are not created with the care that these commercial pet foods are," he said. "Commercial pet foods for dogs and cats are designed by Ph.D. nutritionists. There are very few humans that have diets that are designed by Ph.D. nutritionists."
Dr. Buffington suggested two resources for pet owners interested in preparing their own dog or cat food:
• The cookbook "Home-Prepared Dog & Cat Diets: the Healthful Alternative," by Donald R. Strombeck. "I'm familiar with this book because it's written by my former professor," Dr. Buffington's said.
• A Web site called Petdiets.com. For $200, pet owners can get a personalized nutritional consultation by a licensed veterinarian -- one who holds a doctorate degree in animal nutrition and is certified by the American College for Veterinary Nutrition. The fee covers the cost of product research, diet formulation, and reviewing the pet's medical information.
What about organic pet food?
Is that a safe alternative to commercial pet food?
"Organic dog and cat foods are also commercially prepared and have the same risks of things going wrong," Dr. Buffington said. "I don't see many animals that are fed organic food, but there's no reason it couldn't make a completely satisfactory diet."
When asked about feeding dogs or cats table scraps -- as another alternative to commercial pet food -- Dr. Buffington said: "It depends on what you mean by table scraps. What comes off your table might be different than what comes off mine.
"The safest thing to say is if you want to give your pet table scraps, talk to your veterinarian first."
The AVMA takes a more aggressive stance on feeding dogs and cats table scraps.
"It's just a bad idea," says AVMA spokesman Tom McPheron. "A great deal of them could be deadly to your animal. Human food is often too rich for dogs and cats have different -- and specific-- nutritional needs.
He adds: "There are just too many foods that we (humans) eat -- chocolate, onions, garlic -- that dogs and cats just shouldn't."
What about commercial pet food in the future? What impact will Menu Foods' recall have on the pet food industry-and the safety of its products?
"I can't imagine that people aren't going to make a strenuous effort to be sure this doesn't happen again," said Dr. Buffington, adding the industry is probably safer today than it was two weeks ago. "They see the devastation it causes when something like this happens.
"Nobody intended this to happen. There's no evidence that this was done with reckless abandonment. And I think everyone is doing their absolute level best to prevent it from happening in the future."