Be wary: It’s a dog-eat-dog food world out there

by Shigeki Hiroe

Kyodo

Dogs in Japan were once raised on leftover rice mixed with miso soup and lived relatively short lives. Thanks to healthy pet foods they now live longer but are also starting to develop humanlike problems.

In the past, dogs lived relatively short lives, in part because they were fed a poor nutritional balance, according to Mitsuhiro Furuse, 51, who is researching dietetics of pets at the graduate school of Kyushu University.

It was customary for families to feed their dogs dinner scraps, pouring miso soup over a bowl of rice.

Pet food first appeared in the 1960s and since then dogs and cats have started to live longer — by more than three years on average for dogs to up to 11.9 years, and by nearly five years to 9.9 years for cats.

However, Furuse said, many pets now suffer from “lifestyle diseases” as a result of a changed diet.

Masayo Karasawa, 40, of Nagoya, buys meat and vegetables low in agrochemicals for her Bernese mountain dog.

“I myself don’t like additives and I don’t know what’s in dog food,” she said.

It costs her about ¥20,000 a month to feed Meikyo, a 4-year-old male, who has been with her since 2004. She takes him several times a week to a heated pool at the Dog Medical Fitness and Rehabilitation center, about 10 km from her home. The dog has a hip joint dysfunction.

She pays no heed to rehabilitation adviser Yoko Watanabe, 48, who said she should stop cooking for the dog because her food lacks nutritional balance.

Karasawa said she shook off a food allergy after eating organic vegetables she first purchased for her pet.

Fusae Kato, 55, of Kariya, Aichi Prefecture, often hears her daughter ask if she has given medicine to their 12-year-old golden retriever, Yuki. Weighing 35.6 kg, the dog is more than 5 kg heavier than other retrievers.

The dog gets drugs for a heart ailment and to lower her blood pressure. Kato said she tells her dog, “Let’s both of us take life slowly” when they go for a walk. Kato also has high blood pressure.

Researcher Furuse said pet foods are now roughly divided into general food, natural food without additives and food prescribed by veterinarians. In addition, there is home-cooked food prepared by people like Karasawa.

The Pet Food Manufacturers Association said shipments of pet food for dogs, cats and other animals totaled about ¥120 billion in 1989, but had doubled by 2006. It also said pet food is diversifying and now includes low-calorie products, items for animals with special dietary requirements and dishes for ill dogs.

In an era when consumer concerns about food safety extend to pet food as well, some manufacturers are offering natural products containing no additives. Among them is a company started by a man who became interested in additive-free pet food after his dog died and he was shocked to learn of the large amounts of chemicals in pet food.

Hosei University professor and pet owner Yuko Tanaka said: “Over the years we have had a number of dogs and cats in our home. The dogs ate the same things as the family. We started using pet food after some stray cats came to live with us. My father is gone and my mother is aged and my work keeps me very busy. I can’t feed my pets at a fixed time so I leave water and pet food out for them.”

But exactly what goes into pet food remains something of a mystery. The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry has just drawn up a bill requiring pet food manufacturers to display the ingredients of their products.

Proponents hope to see the bill clear the Diet by next spring.