In the weeks since tainted pet food has killed at least 16 animals and sickened 12,000 others nationwide, pet owners have become increasingly vigilant about what they feed Fido. In fact, dinner in the doggy bowl is beginning to resemble the one on the family table. But since 2004, well before this latest food scare, the Essex Junction-based Pet Naturals - a division of Food Science Corp., which makes vitamins for people - has been humanizing pet health by producing such supplements as Digestive Support, Oral Health and Hip & Joint. For uniquely pet problems, the company also offers potions such as Lawn Rescue, which promises to prevent discoloration of grass; and Hairball Relief Plus, which comes in "a delicious chicken-flavored liquid that cats love."
Roger Kendall, the vice president of research and development for Pet Naturals, recently took a "paws" from his work to dish on dog-and-cat nutrition with Seven Days.
SEVEN DAYS: When did pet owners start giving their pets supplements?
ROGER KENDALL: It goes way back. Your big one was equine. You've got a big, expensive animal - you want to supplement the diet to make sure that animal's going to maintain good health. In 1974, for dogs and cats, Food Science introduced a basic vitamin and mineral supplement, some fatty acid products, and basic skin and coat type products. But the company had also been doing a lot of work in the area of immune response and joint support. Animals would start limping because of injury or arthritis, and we began to introduce products we had researched under the human domain. Lo and behold, animal owners would come back and say, "My dog has more energy and is able to cope with the stress of everyday living, and I can see I've got a healthier, happier animal."
Since then, more studies have been done with specific natural ingredients. People say, "Well if it's good for me, it's good for Suzy Q my cat," because they realized that, over time, their animals were beginning to suffer the same type of degenerative conditions that humans were - cardiovascular, arthritis, allergies, stress syndromes.
SD: Is a pet's life - napping, walking, eating, playing - really that stressful?
RK: Stress comes in many different forms, including overwork, sickness, injury, pollution, emotional distress, anxiety, aging, normal degeneration, physical extremes, poor diet and sleep problems, etc. No animal or person has a perfectly balanced life with no stress.
SD: You are a founding member of the National Animal Supplement Council - how did that get started?
RK: NASC started out of crisis, because about four-and-a-half, five years ago, there was a movement by AAFCO [the Association of American Feed Control Officials] to remove all products that contained ingredients which were not approved under their guidelines from the animal marketplace. Many ingredients that are approved for humans, such as glucosamine and amino acids, are not approved by AAFCO. Some engaged to establish that [supplements] have value and are looked upon by veterinarians as being safe and effective for their intended use.
SD: Are there different standards in place for supplements than for pet food?
RK: With NASC, we've established a manual . . . that deals with quality control, plant production, assessments, testing of raw materials, evaluating for contamination of microbiologicals and/or by organics . . . and keeping a clean, hygienic environment as well as consistent, high-quality, pure ingredients.
Every member of NASC must go through a detailed audit of evaluating their quality-control systems. If there's a complaint, we want to be able to track the product from its inception to its complete passage through the distribution network. In the case of [the recent pet food] toxin, we are very carefully assessing raw materials that go into our products. That's where it really counts.
SD: How might a toxin such as melamine get into pet food but be prevented from getting into pet supplements?
RK: As a rule, most companies wouldn't test their raw material for an off-the-wall chemical contaminant like melamine, nor for the other possible 50,000 toxins that could end up in a raw material from foreign import. Apparently, the producer may have used this chemical on the wheat crop as it was being grown. The only way you could be absolutely sure that melamine was not in your product is to test every batch, or to know with absolute certainty that this ingredient was not used in any way to produce the material. I'm not sure any of our NASC members would have caught this particular contaminant, because it is not routinely tested for. Keep in mind that nearly 98 percent of all food products imported into this country are not tested or checked by the FDA.
SD: How can a pet owner be sure that what he or she is buying is safe for animals?
RK: Buy from a reputable company that has an established quality-control system in place, and that goes through a risk assessment on all the ingredients and keeps an accurate account of all adverse events associated with their products. Companies that display the NASC seal have gone through stringent audits and must demonstrate a high level of product quality and safety.
SD: You've helped develop some pretty interesting supplements, such as Lawn Rescue. How have pet owners reacted?
RK: In terms of putting a product together, there is no absolute guarantee. So we rely on feedback, and it's too early for Lawn Rescue, which is new. But our Calming Formula has gotten very, very good feedback. Our joint-support products are second to none - dogs are doing better and owners are saying, "Yes! I can get them off the drugs and get them on a good natural program."
SD: There are a bunch of Hollywood celebrities - Leo DiCaprio, Jennifer Aniston, Pamela Anderson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zach Braff - using Pet Naturals.
RK: Let me say this. People in the movie industry are taking up the cause of animal health and they're looking for quality products that are science-based, with research behind them, and dealing with companies that are reputable. I'm more concerned about the end user, that he's getting the benefits, rather than getting a movie star up there. But when we can get spokespeople like that, it's certainly very positive.
SD: Has there been discussion of supplements for pets other than cats and dogs?
RK: Many of our products are being used by more exotic pets: hamsters and rodents and even zoological animals - elephants and zebras and giraffes.
SD: What future products might we see from Pet Naturals?
RK: The company is coming out with a series of new cat and dog, highly palatable, chewy, nutritional products that will make it easier for owners to administer supplements to their animals.
SD: What supplements do your pets take?
RK: I own a 6-year-old poodle, and we give her a joint-support product, a multivitamin/mineral with antioxidants, and DMG for immune and general health.