In a study released a few years ago, sociologists were startled to learn that people were more comfortable talking about their sex lives than they were about their finances. I wasn’t surprised at all. Sexually speaking, we are who we are; if we get “jazzed” by the feel of silk scarves, prefer one gender over another, or relate to Gomez Addams as he dropped everything to plant kisses up the length of Morticia’s arm when she spoke French, I’m inclined to think that these are tastes over which we have little say. We are how we’re born.
But how we handle money, well now, that’s something over which we have some control. Fiscal conduct can be learned, unlearned or done better. Are we savers, do we squander, or are we too frugal? Social scientists discovered in the same study that we’re more embarrassed by managing money poorly, or even too well, than we are in admitting what it is that gets us hot and bothered.
I’ve come to decide that for a dog fancier, the equivalent of money is dog food. After 30 years in the sport, it seems to me that few things cause as much debate among owners, breeders and handlers as this topic, and I think I know why. What we feed our dogs reveals more about us than we might suspect – or at least we think it does.
Conformation and performance people tend to “tweek” their dogs’ food more than most, and blending or rotating brands is common. We look for results, of course, but human nature makes us vulnerable to the influence of our peers, a desire to gain a competitive edge, or get the edge a competitor’s dog seems to have. A little “psyche dumpster diving” might even reveal an underlying subliminal message to our food choices: I’m a good owner. I know what’s best. Look how much I love my dog (I can feel you watching me).
Are we willing to spend a lot for high quality food, and does that change if we are a multiple dog household? Do we go out of our way to pick up dog food at a specialty shop, or do we throw in a bag while at we’re at Walmart. Do we care if high protein, low protein, the source of protein, low carbs, whole grains, no grains, fish, poultry or kangaroo equate to a better performance? Is an all-natural ingredient panel better than a formulation boosted by scientifically proven supplements? Do we take the time to feed a BARF diet? Is our dog eating organically? Do we read ingredients? How many calories per cup is in that food we’re giving the dog, anyway? If we bought our pup from a breeder, are we unworthy of the dog if we can’t afford to feed what the breeder recommended? If you feed your dog more expensive food than I feed mine, are you the better owner? If I feed a raw diet, does it mean that I care more for my dog than someone who feeds their dog out of a bag? (How much do you love your dog – we’re watching you).
It’s heavy stuff.
And an oblique way to segue into my recent tour of the Natura Pet Products facility in Fremont, Nebraska. I mean this next part in a good way, but Natura, the manufacturer of high quality pet food recently purchased by Procter & Gamble, is one of the reasons why some folks (okay, me) are often bowled over when trying to make a decision about dog food. There are six brands under the Natura umbrella alone: California Natural, Karma, Innova, Evo, Healthwise and Mother Nature (a biscuit treat); Karma has but one formula right now, but between the other labels, there are over 50 options of dry, canned, adult and puppy dog food. How does one choose?
The last time I looked, there were over 120 manufacturers of dog food listed on a dog food review web site, each with at least 2 formulas. That’s over 240 food options from which to pick. How do we select one?
For the record, I’m less judgmental about dog food than some because I don’t believe in a “cookie cutter” approach. I don’t think a “one size fits all” dog food exists because like people, dogs are individuals and what works for one may not for another. When a dog is eating the right food for her, she is the picture of energy, vitality and well being – a vision of robust health. What I am particular about is that…..
- The food contains quality ingredients that can be quickly traced (and recalled, if necessary) in the event of a problem;
- The food has been tested on dogs in humane and ethical feeding trials before going to market so that its long term impact is known;
- The diet is formulated to be consistent with the most current and proven information known about canine nutrition;
- It’s a food a dog will eat, like, and on which he will thrive. Whether this food made commercially, or is a BARF recipe made in a blender at home, the proof is in the dog and that, in my opinion, trumps everything else.
That said, I’m writing about Natura today because I just toured their facility last week. Their recent acquisition by Procter & Gamble makes it fair to ask what the difference is between them and Eukanuba, another Procter & Gamble company. In fact, that same question was uppermost in my own mind as I started the tour.
Why was Procter & Gamble interested in Natura, a relatively small, 20 year old company with 150 employees whose fundamental philosophy was innovation (they were the first to make a grain-free dog food with “Evo”) and to make healthier food for pets (a radical idea 20 years ago)?
It may surprise you, but Natura was acquired because their values were compatible with the values of Eukanuba. This doesn’t surprise me at all, however, after having toured the Eukanuba facilities and met their staff last year. Procter & Gamble is an immense corporation often associated more with laundry detergents, prescription drugs and disposable nappies, but their pet food division struck me as a small family: “Gin,” owner of a new German Shepherd puppy and an Australian Shepherd, is the person who takes your phone calls. “Mason,” is a sighthound owner/breeder/handler who heads External Relations and is a fixture at the AKC Eukanuba National Dog Show. “Dev” community manager for Iams and “mom” to a Bichon Frise, is on a personal mission: “No more homeless pets.” “Nikki,” Eukanuba spokesperson and project manager is a professional handler. These are not their real names, but their dogs are real, as is their dedication to their pet food.
Natura, on the forefront of pet food innovation since their founding, gives P & G a reach into the holistic and natural pet food segment of the industry. In return, P & G’s deep pockets has enabled Natura to expand and enhance their pet nutrition center, participate in longer feeding studies, offer innovative tools on their web site, upgrade their Innova formula, and rework its packaging to be more reflective of its contents.
But I still wondered. What is the difference between their food?
Allow me to digress with a fictitious anecdote.
Peter and Ralph are talented athletes, but their approaches to nutrition differ. Peter is all about the science. He supplements his diet with vitamins, bulk and trace minerals, flaxseed and fish oil capsules, antioxidants and powdered whey. It must be working because Peter wins his races.
Ralph is also aware of the importance of the same nutrients that concern Peter, but he prefers to get them from whole grains, lean meat, fish, fresh fruits and vegetables. One can hardly fault Ralph for his approach – he wins his races, too.
Which one of them is right?
They both are. Peter and Ralph have preferences based on their individual life style and personal tastes, and it works for each of them.
This is, perhaps, a simplistic way to illustrate the difference between Eukanuba, which studies the science of nutrition to create nutritious, high quality, animal protein-based dog and cat food, and Natura,which uses the results of studies to create holistic, natural foods that are denser and offer more nutrition from less food.
Once one determines if their personal approach to dog food is closer to Peter’s or Ralph’s, it’s a matter of defining a dogs’ needs according to the dog’s age, lifestyle, and palate preferences. As much as I admire BARF feeders, this approach is impractical for my lifestyle and it has never occurred to me to feel guilty about it because my dogs eat really well. After studying their food charts, I’ve come to believe that Eukanuba and Natura have between them options that allow a dog’s diet to be almost “tailored.” Do you want your dog’s protein to come from turkey, kangaroo, salmon, lamb, chicken or venison? Do you want the dog’s grain to come from barley, sorghum, oats, rice, or rye? Do you want any grain at all? How about a formula that includes a prebiotic like Fructooligosaccharide to support a dog’s defenses? There’s a kibble that includes that, too.
Natura has a slick device on their web site, the food wizard, that makes it easy to compare their food with a competitor’s. I especially like their latest innovation launched just this past March, “See Beyond the Bag” which reveals not only how their food is made, but the source of the ingredients in any given formula. I happen to feed one of my dogs a blend that includes the Natura product, California Natural; I now know that the Rosemary Extract in it comes from Illinois and France, the Potassium Chloride from Utah, and the flaxseed from Canada. I suspect that other pet food companies will soon fall in line and offer the same transparency, but Natura started it. This affords peace of mind in the event of a recall, but Natura has never had one in the twenty years they’ve existed.
Other Natura “factoids” regarding food safety:
- At their own request, Natura asks for surprise inspections and audits which they feel keeps them “sharp.” All Natura manufacturing facilities have received “superior” ratings for eight consecutive years;
- They require a third party audit of their suppliers and insist on knowing where the suppliers get their supplies;
- Their food safety program is modeled after the Food Safety Consolidated Standards set by the American Institute of Baking;
- They verify raw ingredients before the ingredients are used;
Up until now, the aforementioned information was learned in a classroom setting. It was time to tour the facility. We donned our hair nets, ear plugs, hard hats, safety goggles and coats and with “Dennis” as our guide, we were shown every aspect of production, from packaging to visiting the refrigerator where fresh apples, carrots and blueberries were stored. We saw the laboratories, the mixers, and the extruder where new kibble came out fresh and hot. And yes, I sampled it; turkey and chicken with vegetables, I think. It tasted like boiled turkey, had the texture of raw polenta, and I gave it a palatability rating of 7 only because I was really in the mood for chocolate. Note to self: Wrangle an invite to the Godiva Chocolate Factory.
We next visited the Natura Health and Nutrition Center where 35 dogs and 24 cats are on-site to help determine palatability through non-invasive tests. Once a day, each dog (of assorted breeds) is given two bowls of food and technicians note which bowl of food is sniffed first, accepted and then eaten. Urine pH and stool samples are measured through free collection.
The cat rooms were homey and warm, and every feline that wasn’t napping or playing with a technician looked contented. I realize now, however, that I was so dazzled by the country club environment of the dog areas at Eukanuba’s Pet Nutrition Center that anything less was a let-down, and I confess that I was a bit disappointed by the dogs’ portion of the Center. Their indoor kennels were immaculate, and each kennel included doggie doors allowing access-at-will to the outside. But other than seeing two Smooth Collies playing in a yard of grass, tall fences limited our visibility of the other dogs and without seeing for myself, I can’t honestly say what they had – or didn’t have outside – that would enrich their days.
The ratio of four dogs to every animal care technician on staff likely ensures plenty of social time, and when the dogs are between seven and eight years old, they’re adopted through a lengthy and rigorous interview process. Often, they’re adopted by one of the technicians who has been caring for them. “Bark in the Park” is an annual reunion of the adopted pets and the walls of the Center are covered in photographs of these gatherings.
In December, 2012, there will be an expansion of the Center which will add two new cat rooms, a new play yard, additional open interior kennels which will allow more group housing, and enhancements to facilitate training, enrichment and socialization. Another advantage of acquisition by Procter & Gamble.
It wasn’t an easy acquisition, however, and employees who had been with Natura for years choked up as they shared the moment they learned they’d been bought by Procter and Gamble. Were they tearing up because of how sad they were at the news, I asked, or out of relief that in hindsight, they needn’t have worried. Small smiles emerged as they admitted that the answer to both questions was “yes.” For the workers at a “Mom and Pop” business, becoming part of a mega-corporation is tough, but when the employees of that business learn that the new relatives are on the same page and not that different from themselves, it’s a relief. The ability to improve, innovate and expand because of those rich relatives surely helped soften the landing.
It’s full speed ahead now for Natura, and they will continue to develop new ideas, such as removing rice and potatoes from their diets, and introducing green beans, parsnips, oats and pears to their recipes.
With all my questions answered, I left Nebraska feeling good about my choice to use California Natural for one of my dogs, and I’m tempted to try out the organic formula of Karma on the other. If I do, I’ll talk about it, but I stop there. You’ll never know the state of my checkbook or how I really feel about Clive Owen.