What a trip! I don’t even know where to begin in describing to you the things I learned, saw and felt throughout this journey. As I mentioned in the first part of my September blog, both Diana (my practice manager) and I had the distinct honour of travelling with a
group of veterinarians and managers to Topeka Kansas to visit the Hill’s Pet Nutrition Center. In the past, we have heard from colleagues that the trip changes your perspective on nutrition but to experience it was really special.
There are three things that distinctly affect lifespan and quality of life in animals (humans included); Genetics, Environment and Nutrition. With respect to our pets, Genetics are non-negotiable, they are born a certain way and we cannot change that, Environment we have some control over (examples are what conditions they live and sleep in and how much risk we encounter through both behaviours and healthcare) but Nutrition… well, we can control almost everything our pets eat (I know, some are more challenging than others!!). In humans we see examples of the devastating effects nutrition can have on our health, both from the perspective of mal-nutrition and over-abundance. While I have dedicated my life to the overall well-being and health care of animals due to my respect for the human-animal bond, the people I met in Topeka have dedicated their lives to studying and improving our knowledge of nutrition as it relates to animal well-being and disease control and prevention driven by their respect for the human-animal bond. It was incredible.
Dr. Mark Morris Sr. was the founder of Hill’s Pet Nutrition, naming it after Burton Hill who kindly offered the assistance of his packing company to help with canning the pet food Dr. Morris was developing, creating and canning in his kitchen at the time! Dr. Morris first had the idea to create a pet food after being approached in 1939 by a blind man named Morris Frank who was touring the country with his dog Buddy, promoting the benefits of Seeing Eye dogs! Buddy had kidney failure and Dr. Morris was certain that a better diet would help with his symptoms and the progression of the disease. In this way, the first food ever created has evolved into what we now know as Hill’s canine k/d, a food for patients suffering from kidney disease. Dr. Morris Sr. was innovative beyond his time. In 1928 he opened what was only the second exclusively small animal veterinary hospital in the United States. He was the first President of the American Animal Hospital Association (through which Westway Animal Clinic is proud to be accredited) and in 1948 established The Morris Animal Foundation which is currently the largest non-profit foundation in the world for companion animal and wildlife health studies. He also led a committee convened to establish nutritional standards for pet foods – these standards would later be used to formulate what are now the standards of AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials).
Dr. Morris’ son, Dr. Mark Morris Jr. also became involved in the company and it was his idea to create a line of foods for healthy pets – high quality foods made with consistency. In 1968, Science Diet was born. In 1976, Hill’s Pet Nutrition was purchased by Colgate-Palmolive and the partnership has done nothing but promote and foster the mandate of Hill’s to create cutting-edge pet foods under the Prescription Diet and Science Diet lines.
I was amazed at the transparency of the company during our trip. Their environmentally conscious approach was stunning – everything is re-used and recycled – right down to the facility waste water which is repurposed to maintain the acres of property around their facility. They take part in a “Zero Waste to Landfill” program and have committed heavily in all aspects of the business to minimizing their footprint. The effort is commendable and we find ourselves feeling passionate about doing the same within our own practice.
All of these philanthropic, environmental and historical characteristics aside – the actual pet nutrition aspects were by far the most profound for us. At the Pet Nutrition Center it was clear that the veterinarians, some of whom are board-certified specialists in internal medicine and nutrition, work alongside dogs and cats – seeing them literally as “part of the team” – working together to develop foods with nutrients in combinations that can not only prevent disease, but also treat and in some cases cure disease… while tasting great! I dare say that one of the jobs I was most envious of at the facility was the veterinary technicians dedicated to the care, comfort and pleasure of the dogs and cats who live at the facility. The canine and feline facilities are state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar, architecturally advanced buildings. Each aspect designed from the eyes of the furry resident. The dogs have choice ranging from being inside, outside, warm, cool, with friends or by themselves. They have a “Bark Park” which is the epitome of an off-leash dog park and they are also allowed to hang out with their people throughout the facility – which means you will find them taking a nap under a desk or going for a stroll over a lunch hour. The level of enrichment puts us, as pet owners, to shame! They have more fun at work than I do and their “people” know them intimately as they do literally spend all day together. This is not at all what you would picture as a “research” facility – the animals all know their names and they live their lives out comfortably – loved and spoiled in every way except with food! I will admit I have never seen so many muscular, beagles with perfect body condition scores! They run, play, jump, wrestle and snooze, never realizing they are “at work!” As for the cats – I will never tell my own cats about this place because they will start making demands! Most of the cats live in colonies (usually littermates), designed for their age group; the younger ones in multi-level areas climbing and exploring, the older ones in areas designed for relaxing with loads of beds, nooks and other fun cat things. Some of the cats have shown a preference for living alone and so quarters have been created for this lifestyle as well. Either way, they have round-the-clock interaction with their people. I know my multi-cat household clients are probably wondering how cats can live together and be treated as individuals – especially when it comes to feeding. Well, the innovation at Hill’s never ceases to amaze. Each cat has information in their microchip that allows them to go to a feeder and have their food presented to them. In this way, the same feeder can store multiple types of foods so that cats who are bonded and used to living together can be housed together but fed different foods. It is amazing.
The science was a definite highlight for me. From the technology behind a classic favourite, t/d, where the main mechanism of (tooth cleaning) action is the proprietary structure of the kibble, to the nutrigenomics technology behind foods like b/d (for cognitive dysfunction) and j/d (for arthritis). Nutrigenomics is the study of how nutrients and food interact with specific genes to modify the risk of certain diseases. An example is looking at how turmeric suppresses genes that increase inflammation. It is intensive and requires a great deal of funding. This is where Hill’s spends the majority of its money. As you are likely aware, we do not see a lot of marketing from this company. They choose instead to allow the veterinarians to recommend them while investing instead in creating foods that will forever change the way our pets live based on what they eat.
There are strict quality assurance measures that actually extend to the suppliers from whom they source ingredients. Every batch of food is tested and a sample is kept on hand. Some of the testing even involves DNA analysis to ensure that, for example, a diet for food allergic patients has not been contaminated by any other proteins or carbohydrates that could potentially cause a problem for the animal eating it. They take great pride in the amount of quality measures in place, from the manufacturing processes to the feeding trials – done above and beyond the AAFCO protocols, Hill’s holds themselves to a very high standard. They do it with the highest attention paid to medical ethics, animal welfare and environmental consciousness – I couldn’t be more impressed.
As a veterinarian, this experience has only confirmed for me what I already knew. Nutrition is critical, properly formulated pet food is important, but the company who creates the pet food is ultimately key – if they are not committed to excellence, the variability from batch to batch, the safety of sourced ingredients, the innovation in how ingredients are mixed and cooked together, the concerns around packaging, storage and quality control… this is what keeps our pets safe. A company founded by a veterinarian, foods designed by veterinarians for veterinarians – it allows me to feel confident in the recommendations we make at Westway every day. Of course, not every pet wants to eat what is best for them and we will always have a second and third recommendation for picky eaters… just know that ALL of the companies we recommend have given us reason to do so. Pet food is an unregulated Industry and it is on the individual companies to make moral and ethical decisions when creating, manufacturing and marketing. The principles of any company are what allow us to stand behind them – it is our commitment as your pets’ veterinary hospital. If you would like to discuss your pets’ nutritional needs or if you want to hear more about our recent experiences please don’t hesitate to call or visit us at Westway Animal Clinic.
*A big thank you to Hill’s Pet Nutrition for supplying us with actual photos of their facility.