Meet “Kora,” the beautiful black Labrador Retriever whose picture you see at the right. I’d like to tell you a few things about her.
Kora was almost a Christmas baby – born just four days before Santa’s big day in 2008, and that makes her a Sagittarius. Like a lot of Labs, her favorite toys squeak, and the more a toy squeaks, the more she pounces, paws and pushes it around with her nose. The ultimate fate of one of Kora’s toys? To be carried around in her mouth everywhere she goes. EVERYWHERE she goes.
Oblivious of her size, Kora is fond of climbing onto the nearest available lap and rolling over for tummy rubs. She’s a complete sucker for sweet talking and melts into nothingness with every kind word. But should her admirer look away, Kora strikes like a Cobra: A big…..wet……sloppy…….kiss-on-the-face, maybe even the lips. Stealth. It’s a Sagittarius thing.
Kora’s best mate is another black Lab named “Nix.” They like to romp, play tug-of-war or “keep away” with the other toys in the toy box, but they also like to just “chill” in the yard. And when they go out for walks together, they get so excited in anticipation that they’ve become famous for their “happy dance.”
Of all the people in Kora’s life, Karen, whom you see with her at the left, is her favorite person in the world. Karen spoils Kora rotten and gushes over her shamelessly, and when Kora is happy, her rear end comes to life with a mind of its own, tail wagging furiously and paws waltzing around. Nevertheless, Kora knows there are times she needs to be a lady; She knows the cues for sit, down, stay, and come, and she knows to stand still when it comes time to attach a leash to her turquoise collar (preferred over pink or purple, turquoise is the new black). Lab owners all too familiar with how Labs feel about food would be especially impressed by Kora’s restraint and good manners while waiting for breakfast and dinner.
In short, Kora is a canine poster child: She has endearing traits, a gentle heart, doggie friends and a person who loves her.
Kora is also one of the 700 dogs and cats who test food for Eukanuba and Iams at the Pet Health & Nutrition Center at the Lewisburg Innovation Center in Ohio.
As I continue my report of the “Behind the Paw” summit, you may be surprised by a few other things I learned as one of the bloggers invited to tour the Eukanuba & Iams facilities.
In an earlier blog, I wrote of my tour through the Leipsis manufacturing plant where Eukanuba/Iams pet foods are made, but of all the scheduled stops during our tour, we were the most uneasy about visiting the pet food testing center. My fellow bloggers may have had presumptions similar to mine; We were about to see first hand a 170 acre facility owned by Procter and Gamble where food was tested on innocent cats and dogs who lived their lives in a colorless world devoid of stimulation, bereft of affection. I was on edge before I even got through the door, worried that the hollow eyes of the animals I would be seeing would haunt me the rest of my days.
Uneasy? You bet I was.
Eukanuba must have guessed as much for there were a few things they wanted us to know before we got much further than that front door. They wanted us to know the difference between what was mandated by federal law versus what we saw because of Eukanuba’s philosophical policies. Angela Morris, a self-described NASCAR loving, Harley riding dog-therapy “nut,” and Dr. Jessica Lockhart, DVM, a staff animal behaviorist, met with us to explain the realities around which no American pet food company can dance: Federal regulations and USDA certification requirements. The stark clinical rooms made of stainless steel and tile that we would be seeing were federally mandated, the puppy pools are not.
Another thing not required by law is an “AAALAC certification” (Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care) and as a conscientious pet owner, you should know about this if you buy any product involving animals. This private, nonprofit organization promotes the humane treatment of animals in science and bestows its seal of approval to companies that meet their criteria. Waltham Dog Food just got their AAALAC accreditation. Eukanuba got it ten years ago.
At this point, I know of no better way to proceed than to interject with the first question I had as we began our tour, and maybe you’re wondering it, too. In this day and age, why test on animals, at all? Since Eukanuba uses only human grade ingredients in the manufacture of their pet foods, it must be safe, it must be tasty. Why not rehome the cats, let humans test the dog food?
Quite aside from the fact that I actually DID eat the dog food during my tour of the Leipsis plant, the fact is that cats aren’t human, dogs have different nutritional needs, and both have tastes different from people. Eukanuba believes that every ingredient in a pet food has to have a reason for being there – a nutritional purpose. The value of an ingredient in a recipe can’t be evaluated unless it’s fed to a real cat or dog to provide data. Honestly, would you want to feed your cat or dog food that’s never been given to a pet before? Wouldn’t you want to know the impact of a particular ingredient on a dog with a health issue, or on an old dog or puppy?
That said, and despite what some animal rights groups would have you believe, Procter and Gamble will not induce disease in a pet to determine the efficacy of a diet; They rely on the data generated by in-home studies with hundreds of pet owning families in the Ohio area, as well as Canine Companions, to determine the response of old, sick or health challenged pets to a particular diet. Nor will Procter & Gamble perform terminal research or conduct a study on an animal if there’s a healthy human volunteer willing to step in. If a human doesn’t volunteer, P & G won’t do an equivalent study on an animal; Only when they’re required by law will they conduct such a study, the last one involving dogs done in 1996 to evaluate giant breed diets. P & G won’t even crop, dock or debark any dog in their care.
So what about that awful, incriminating video that hit You Tube some time back?
Before P & G built the $20 million facility we toured, animals used for Eukanuba & Iams food testing were housed at the Sinclair Research Center. The dogs there were happy enough, but Eukanuba/Iams wanted to ensure that they’d have the same kind of emotional life they would have as family pets, so professionals were hired to socialize and spend one-on-one time with each cat and dog, groom them and provide positive training. These people, regarded as the “front line” of care givers, were expected to report on the well being of the dogs, as well as offer any suggestions on how to improve the animals’ lives. One of the individuals hired in this capacity was a PETA operative who secretly took video she later edited in a fashion intended to be sensationally disturbing. The video contained dogs from studies not even run by P & G, and one of my fellow bloggers, a veterinarian, suspected that some scenes in the video were taken at a spay/neuter clinic where dogs coming out of anesthesia often howl. It was indeed disturbing footage, and utterly inaccurate in the context in which it was presented. But the damage had been done.
If you were asked, “Have you been beating your dog long?” answering “no” still suggests that you beat your dog at one time. Procter & Gamble found itself in much the same position when it tried to defend itself against accusations made by PETA. They, in turn, only added “lack of objectivity” to their charges. Procter & Gamble realized the importance of having independent, third parties “audits” of their facilities – and “Behind the Paw” summits were created. Bloggers with no vested interest other than to maintain credibility with their readers are periodically invited to tour Eukanuba/Iams facilities and report on what they see – which is how I came to eat freshly extruded dog food kibble at the Leipsis manufacturing plant last month.
Manufacturing dog food is one thing. Of greater interest to us as pet lovers, however, was to see the food-testing animals like “Kora” for ourselves. As an owner/breeder/ handler, I was also interested to know where Eukanuba’s 700 cats and dogs came from. Who bred Kora?
Because Kora will be adopted one day (part of the Eukanuba philosophy I’ll be delving into later), the privacy of her future owners prevent me from sharing that detail. It’s possible that Kora was bred on-site by Eukanuba vets, but it’s also possible that Kora comes from champion bloodlines and that her breeders are serious fanciers involved in conformation or field trials. The latter scenario shocked me.
I don’t fault Eukanuba for seeking to advance their knowledge base of how different breeds fare on their dog food. And to be honest with you, I, too, want to know that my dogs are eating food on which they’ll thrive, a diet that will promote good coats in my heavily coated breed. How is this to be determined if the food is never fed to an actual (fill in the breed). Yet I know of no breed club that doesn’t dispense serious consequences to a member who breeds and sells puppies to a commercial venture. It’s a dilemma for which I have no answer.
Whether Kora was bred by a breeder or an on-site vet, she was exposed to early neurological stimulation that’s been proven to create hardy adult dogs. At eight weeks old, she became part of the Eukanuba family and got a “life plan” that mapped out her life. She was given a name, microchipped, spayed at the appropriate time, and assigned her own “animal welfare specialist” whose sole function was to interact with her and expose her to the world through a modified exposure program tailored for puppies: Kora went to baseball games, Home Depot, kid-filled parks and walks in the woods on a leash. When Kora graduated from the 4-6 week program, she went into quarantine to insure robust health before moving on to food trials all the while attending puppy kindergarten;
We visited one of the kindergarten sessions and watched men and women who must have the world’s best job description: play with puppies. These “animal welfare specialists” don’t just amuse the dogs, they’re trained to reinforce a dog’s skills, look out for stereotypies (repetitive behavior that suggests boredom) and monitor the dog’s health and wellness.
On this day, “school” included yellow Lab puppies, a few terriers and a toy Poodle. Like Kora, each of these puppies had been assigned a play group and taught how to learn through the positive reinforcement of clicker training. The “demographics” of play groups change to keep each puppy stimulated and adaptable, and each puppy gets a lot of one-on-one time with their person. Sometimes, the dogs take walks with their person alone, and sometimes a canine “friend” comes along so that pups can learn to walk with another dog.
As dogs becomes older, they graduate to the kennels where they’re always paired with another dog for company. The kennels are awash in natural lighting, and the dogs always have access to a doggie door that opens onto a lush, bluegrass lawn. Each kennel, we learned, was built specifically with a clear line-of-sight so that every dog can see distances, and no wall measures higher than four feet because Eukanuba has found that it’s “homier” and more dog-friendly. As I toured the kennels, I kept expecting one of the larger dogs to easily leap over one of these short walls, but no one ever did. From their perspective, I doubt there’s ever been a reason to. From Irish Red & White setters to Dachshunds, the dogs I saw were happily playing with each other or with their toys. The presence of 15 new people didn’t warrant as much as a bark, and if a dog tired of us petting him, he popped out the dog door. As we strolled through the kennels, I could hear birds singing and the wind wafting through the trees. The grounds were lush and eye-hurting-green from all the recent rain, and under the canopy of the trees, dogs romped in the play yards over agility equipment. I realized then that to describe what I was seeing might stretch my credibility with my readers. Such an idyllic doggie nirvana couldn’t possibly exist as a research center. What can I tell you. At that moment, it did.
Cats live no less “large.” They attend “kitten kindergarten” and live amongst other cats in rooms the cat owners among us envied. Slings and hammocks seemed especially popular, but I confess, the multi-tiered “bowls” puzzled me. I had to be told that cats are very fond of curling up in these bowls for power naps. I’m not cat-savvy and relied on the cat owning bloggers to help me recognize contentment when I saw it; To my eye, every cat seemed rather pleased with itself.
As we left the cat facilities, we made our way through corridors en route to the “Home Environment Room” which every cat and dog visits regularly throughout their life at the facility. The room contains items found in an average home: flushing toilets, noisy appliances, assorted pieces of furniture, mirrors, rugs, ceiling fans and house plants. A television set was turned on; I think “Little Mermaid” was playing.
By now you might be wondering why Eukanuba would go to all this trouble for, essentially,” lab rats – animals that test food. It’s because Eukanuba doesn’t see their cats and dogs in this light and created “Companion Connection,” an adoption program for which each animal has been groomed since birth. Every year, Eukanuba spends $10,000 on each cat and dog to increase his or her chance at adoption (with 700 animals, do the math). They’re taught basic manners, exposed to a home environment, socialized, and taught how to be a loving pet. And those skills are reinforced daily. By the time an animal is available for adoption, around 6-9 years old for dogs and 8 years for cats, matching the right pet with the right family becomes easier because each cat and dog’s personality is known so thoroughly. P & G even offers a “Take the Lead” program that allows employees to take adoptable dogs out for walks because sometimes, the best “family” is right under its nose.
So while this is a research facility, it’s Procter & Gamble’s interpretation of a research facility. Figuratively speaking, the dogs and cats here eat for a living. They’re offered “split plate” meals to help Eukanuba learn which food tastes better and is most satisfying to them. Their urine and waste material is analyzed (collected through a “free catch” system, never a catheter) and blood work provides data for metabolism and bioassay tests.
But in what strikes me as a “pay it forward” philosophy, Eukanuba provides each cat and dog the best life it can while the animals are in their care, then sees to it that they become family pets. I believe in this program because I saw it. Each cat and dog had its own “staff:” people who play with them, train them, clean their teeth, groom them, poop scoop after them, walk with them and tell them what clever cats and dogs they are. I believe in it, too, because of the people involved in the company. Pet owners and fanciers, themselves, I can’t fathom one of them tolerating anything less for these animals.
I left the Pet Center with a hunch that was confirmed the next day when we met with directors,managers and division heads at our wrap up meeting. Procter and Gamble IS a huge company, but its pet food division resembles a small family business of pet owners who bring their dogs to work. I have little doubt that when it comes time for Kora to get her forever home, she’ll already know what a good girl she is. The people I met at Eukanuba will make sure her new home knows it too.
Coming up: The wrap up session, and a subject almost too big to write about: dog food nutrition.