Cat Food & Feline Nutrition With Pet Nutritionist Dr. Martha Cline

May 17, 2014 · Updated May 17, 2014 · ·
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  1. Anne
    Earlier this month (May 2014) I talked to Dr. Martha Cline, DVM, Diplomate ACVN, about feline nutrition and the pet food industry. Dr. Cline shared a lot of valuable information with us at TCS and you can expect to see her name pop up in more nutrition-related articles right here on TheCatSite.com in the near future!

    Dr. Martha Cline is a veterinarian who specializes in pet nutrition. She went to veterinary school at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine and finished her internship in small animal medicine at Oradell Animal Hospital before returning to the University of Tennessee, this time for a two-year residency in small animal clinical nutrition. Dr. Cline currently works as a clinical veterinary nutritionist at the Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in Tinton Falls, NJ.

    Current Standards in the Pet Food Industry - Are They Good Enough?

    We started our talk by discussing current industry standards, as set forth by AAFCO (The Association of American Feed Control Officials). Considering AAFCO feeding trials only cover a few weeks in the animals’ lives, I asked Dr. Cline if she thinks these standards are enough to go by.

    “An AAFCO feeding trial is used to determine the nutritional adequacy of a diet”, she explained. “For adult maintenance, a minimum of 8 dogs or cats are used and the test diet must be fed for a minimum of 26 weeks. A veterinarian examines the animals at the beginning of a feed trial and at the end, and various medical data is collected during the trial.”

    Dr. Cline stressed that “it is important to know that your pet’s food is going to be well tolerated by cats or dogs before it is sold on the market. I believe [the AAFCO feeding trials] definitely have value to them because they may pick up on nutrient, digestibility, or palatability issues that would be missed if the diets were simply formulated and sold.”

    “A feeding trial does have its limitation, however, and will not guarantee the diet will provide adequate nutrition under all conditions,” she added. “A pet food can be sold without performing a feeding trial. Diets that are formulated to be complete and balanced will meet the levels specified by AAFCO either based on the recipe or on analytic testing of the finished product. If this is the case, a company should test nutrients after the food was manufactured to ensure that all of the nutrients that looked really good on paper are now actually in the food.”

    But what about the long-term effects commercial diets have on a pet’s health? According to Dr. Cline, lifetime studies are few and far between: “Long term, prospective studies assessing the impact of nutrition are rare in veterinary medicine. People should understand that doing a lifetime study can be very challenging in terms of the financial aspect and the time commitment.” Dr. Cline shared two examples of lifetime studies: One is a lifetime study that was done several years ago in Labrador retrievers that were followed for the entirety of their lives. This particular study found that dogs which were kept lean, lived longer and healthier lives compared to overweight dogs. The Morris Animal Foundation is currently conducting another lifetime study in golden retrievers looking at the effects of nutrition on the incidence of disease in this population of dogs. ”

    Dr. Cline said that considering the lack of lifetime studies, the AAFCO feeding trials provide us with a good starting point. “It’s a good system for what we have in place right now,” she stated. “Could we do better? We could always do better. Should a pet food company go beyond what is minimally required of them? Yes.”

    She remains optimistic about pet food studies, saying that “what we've learned in the past 50 years about cat and dog nutrition is really significant. It’s improving. Every year new data comes out where we know more and more about their nutrient requirements for health and disease.”

    As for the concerns about long-term effects of these diets on disease, such as cancer and diabetes, Dr. Cline says we cannot rule that out. However, when her clients suggest that pets are developing more diseases today due to their diets, she often questions back, asking, “Is it just the fact that our animals are at a higher plane of nutrition than they've ever been before causing them to live longer, and giving them the opportunity to have more diseases that we see in older animals?”

    Pet Food Packaging - Valuable Information or Marketing Tricks?

    I asked Dr. Cline about the various terms one sees on pet food packages. Premium, super premium, natural, holistic - should any of these affect our decision when buying cat food?

    “A lot of the terms on pet food labels or in advertising don’t have any legal definition”, she replied. “For example, premium, super premium, holistic and gourmet - none of those have any legal meaning. They’re really just something that can be put on pet food and have no regulatory oversight over them.”

    As for the term “natural”, Dr Cline says this does have a concrete legal meaning, but all it says is that the ingredients originally came from an animal, a plant or a mined source. “It doesn't have anything to do with the processing or the way that the animal was raised or the plants grown” she emphasized. “It really doesn't mean much except that it wasn't chemically synthesized.”

    Being “natural” does not mean an ingredient is necessarily safer or more wholesome compared to a lab-produced ingredient. Dr. Cline mentions vitamin E as an ingredient that is often synthesized, yet is completely safe and plays an important role in preserving pet food. At the same time, perfectly natural ingredients could potentially be toxic in their own right, or contaminated with fungus or bacteria.

    Supplementing A Cat’s Diet - A Good Idea?

    The question of nutritional supplements for cats often comes up in the forums so I asked Dr. Cline for her opinion on the benefits and potential risks of supplementation. Dr. Cline said that her practice deals mostly with nutritional cases, and therefore the supplements she prescribes the most are probiotics and fish oil.

    “I use probiotics all the time,” she said. “I find them to be very helpful in the management of GI disorders. In terms of risks associated with using probiotics, I haven’t seen anything specifically reported in cats.” As for which probiotics to use and which “bacterial formula” is best for cats, Dr. Cline has an interesting prediction. “There’s a lot of research now looking specifically at the gastrointestinal microbiomes of animals [i.e.,the bacteria in the intestines]. The microbiomes of humans, cats and dogs are all different. It will be interesting to see if we get more veterinary-specific products that are more compatible with the microbiome of cats.”

    Concerning fish oil, “Omega 3 fatty acids have a lot of health benefits for a lot of different disease processes like chronic kidney disease and osteoarthritis,” says Dr. Cline. She cautions against overdosing, since there have been reports of associated clotting issues. “I don’t recommend really high doses of fish oil in cats because it does have the potential of causing a problem. Again, fish oil is one where you want to follow standard dosing recommendations. My general dosing is 1000mg of fish oil for every 10lbs, basically 1 standard fish oil capsule per cat. It’s not something where more may be better.”

    Dr. Cline concluded with saying that clinical veterinary nutrition has become a leading field. “When I was in veterinary school, the massive pet food recall due to melamine and cyanuric acid, occurred. The pet food industry and pet owner’s perception of the industry has changed drastically since then. There are questions we deal with now that my mentors were not asked commonly before all this happened. We’re seeing some nutritional deficiencies and disorders that we haven’t seen in a really long time because now owners are home preparing food and their diets may not be complete and balanced. It’s a really interesting time for me to be a nutritionist and I hope I can be a resource for pet owners to make good nutritional choices.”

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  1. therese
    Thank you, Dr. Cline, for a great article.  We can never learn enough about the pet food industry and navigating our way thru these complicated issues. 
  2. zoneout
    Yes, but the problem is - as Dr. Cline pointed out - that directed studies are cost prohibitive and so will never occur.   Thus an easy way to get insight into a problem is to get the data and analyze it.   What is so hard about maintaining an excel spreadsheet of patients and the type of food they eat?   We have to at least ask the question... otherwise we will never find the answer.   I think at the very least its a starting point but also has the potential to shed light on some very troubling trends.
     
    Having Dr Cline on as a regular guest commentator would be very welcome.   One question I think I would ask is her opinion of the work of Dr. Lisa Pierson at catinfo.org
  3. Anne
    Thank you for your comment! I hope to "lure" Dr. Cline into hosting an expert forum with us one day, so hopefully she can address the questions. For myself, I believe studies need to be more specific than just tracking testimonials via a database. The type of kibble, or canned, could very well be of importance, for example. I'm sure there are other variables as well. To conduct a proper study, you have to focus on specific variables and isolate them properly. I'm not saying it's not doable, only that it's not necessarily as simple as tracking answers via a database. 
    As for humans, life expectancy in Asia isn't higher than in the West. Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore have life expectancy that is as long as those of western countries, yet China, where most of the population is, barely makes it into the top 100 list. I realize this doesn't really affect your argument, but it's a pet peeve of mine, so had to mention it ;) Proponents of Chinese medicine often claim that life expectancy in China is higher, supposedly thanks to Chinese medicine, but this is simply not the case. My apologies for derailing the discussion - just had to deal with the pet peeve...
  4. zoneout
    Thank you for having this critically important conversation.   Dr. Cline seems open-minded and not beholden to the billion-dollar pet food industry which is good to see.   However, I would respectfully ask Dr. Cline to rethink the position that we are seeing more disease because animals are living longer due to better nutrition which allows time for these diseases to develop.   If this were true then why are human cancer, diabetes, and heart disease rates lower in Asian countries than in Western nations while life expectancy is higher in Asia?   In other words, it is a fallacy to believe that disease is a natural outcome of living a long life.
     
    Furthermore, the explosion of diseases we currently see are not all happening to elderly pets.   Pets are developing these diseases at all stages of life.  How many stories of kittens with IBD/IBS do we see on these boards?   How many middle-age cats are we seeing develop kidney issues.   
     
    I would ask Dr. Cline to do something very simple in her practice or with the vets she works with to get a true picture of what is happening.    Simply ask the owners that come in with their pets what they are currently feeding them - and track it in a database.   After enough of a sample I would be willing to wager that the vets will see a clear pattern of cause and effect.   For instance a great majority of the cats that present with urinary blockages will be found to eat a diet of kibble.   
     
    At any rate, thank you again and looking forward to further discussion.
  5. jclark
    Great read. I suspect Dr. Cline will be a valuable asset to the TCS community.