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Nutrition

Overview

Nutrition is foundational to providing animals with what they need to self-heal and maintain themselves. "You are what you eat" is a commonly heard phrase, and it is as true for our animals as it is for people.  As Hippocrates knew in ancient Greece, eating nutritious food not only keeps you healthy, but helps the body heal and repair itself if something goes wrong.  It was arguably easier in those days prior to processed foods, agrochemicals sprayed on crops and all the other common interferences and monoculture we often see today. Then, farming was extensive, mixed and rotated crops and animals in different fields to maintain soil health and nutrition levels in food. Thankfully, there is a drive to return to those practices in order to help restore the soil microbiome that plants rely on to make nutrients available, and thus increase nutrient density in the foods we eat now.  

The microbiome that lives in the digestive tract of all species has been much more widely recognised in recent years for its importance, not only within the digestive tract and how it helps digestion and tract health, but also in terms of mental health, immunity and overall health and wellness.  What we feed our animals is not just important for their gut microbiome and health too, but the cellular environment everywhere in the body is largely determined by diet too.

If the diet contains foods, chemicals and toxins it has not evolved to cope with then it puts an unnecessary burden on the liver for detoxification and on the organs for excretion too - primarily the kidneys, skin and lower bowel, and the lungs to a lesser extent. Problems with the digestive system and the primary organs of excretion are almost invariably linked to the diet in some way. If they are struggling to detoxify and eliminate properly then toxins can accumulate and can accumulate in the body. Other organs such as the cardiovascular system, reproductive organs and brain etc will function sub-optimally too. If the immune system is constantly compromised or over-stimulated it makes individuals susceptible to infections. There is a finite amount of energy and nutrient resources that must be partitioned into maintaining a balance of health throughout the body. When resources are low or over-stretched then there must be compromises and the body slips into dis-ease. Initially the body can compensate in a sub-clinical disease state, but with further deterioration clinical symptoms will manifest. You can see now that this stage hasn't just occurred when we start to notice things are wrong - they have been brewing for far longer. It is therefore important to get nutrition right as best as possible from as early as possible.

Nutrigenetics and nutrigenomics studies help us understand how genes within the DNA determine what foods the body can best utilise and also how certain foods can feed back and affect how the genes are expressed. As how every other aspect of cellular metabolism is determined by the cytoplasmic environment within which it takes place, so DNA function is influenced by its environment within the nucleus. This is not just dictated by the DNA coding itself but by epigenetic factors - these are inheritable influences that are not encoded in the DNA. Whilst what we feed our animals is hugely important to helping optimise their metabolism and health throughout their life, we must not forget the inherited factors. Influences on DNA and epigenetics go back to past generations, and it can take 3+generations of good practice to undo the harm caused (unintentionally of course) by 1 generation of bad practice. Roger considers that this explains why we are seeing more and more serious diseases in our pets at ever younger ages. We are seeing compounded degeneration and deterioration through the generations which is speeding up as the generation gaps sequentially shorten. It also explains why some individuals will still express diseases that wouldn't necessarily be expected even if they have been fed a great species-appropriate diet throughout their life. It may be an expression of the poorer diet of past generations.  There is research into the epigenetic effects of glyphosate that confirms this concept. Glyphosate is the main ingredient in Round-up and is probably the most frequently used weed killer on crops. It is sprayed onto grain crops shortly before harvest because it is a desiccant and so reduces wastage from mould. Consequently, it is a common contaminant of grain-based diets especially such as kibbles. Where it is sprayed on other crops used as ingredients, they will carry glyphosate into the diet too. Foods are not routinely tested for glyphosate which has been linked to increases in various diseases. Of course, there are factors other than nutrition that play their part in disease too, but its importance cannot be overstated.   

According to their Smithsonian categorisations, domestic cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they must eat other animals for proper nutrition, and domestic dogs, as a sub-species of the Grey Wolf, are facultative carnivores, meaning they can digest non-animal food sources to a limited degree, but they are primarily carnivores.

In both cases, feeding a carnivore diet is the healthiest and most species-appropriate diet for optimum health. What any animal can survive on in times of optimal diet scarcity is not equivalent to how they thrive on their optimal diet. For both cats and dogs, thriving results from feeding a raw meaty bones diet only, with the emphasis on meaty bones, rather than meaty bones. This includes organ meat and food scraps too. Anybody feeding or advocating feeding our pet carnivores a vegetarian/vegan diet is guilty of animal abuse in Roger's opinion, however well-intentioned.

To cover this subject totally would require a book, and there are numerous ones out there. Vet and friend, Tom Lonsdale first started bringing the raw feeding issue to the attention of the veterinary profession in 1991, leading to his well referenced book Raw Meaty Bones: Promote Health in 2001 that was primarily written with other veterinary colleagues and vet students in mind. This became a movement within the pet-owning public that became known as the RMB diet. Tom was persuaded to write a simplified version for owners as a handbook to help them feed their furry friends on a daily basis which culminated in Work Wonders: Feed your dog raw meaty bones that was published in 2005. Tom has recently published his latest book Multi-Billion Dollar Pet Food Fraud and a new website to bring us up to speed with what Tom has and is doing to highlight this feeding issue that has yet to be properly addressed after over 30 years of raising awareness. I shall no doubt blog about various different aspects of nutrition at various times, so keep checking back to read them.

Unfortunately, many commercial raw pet food companies have been set up to chase a piece of the billion ££/$$ pie. Pre-ground diets do not recognise the imperative to satisfy the physical benefits that arise from feeding the proper RMB diet. They are convenient for certain situations such as when travelling, weekends away in a guest situation and for some people who are physically disabled themselves for whatever reason and have become unable to feed the proper RMB diet. They should not be fed 365/life just because they're "convenient" for the owner. This isn't about you - it's about doing it right for the health of your pet.

The essential difference between what Tom and I advocate in the RMB diet, and what the vast majority of other feeding advocate vets recognise is summed up in what Tom wrote way back in 1991 as the Cybernetic Hypothesis of periodontal disease. What Tom recognised back then in terms of the relevance of periodontal disease and the importance of the diet to keep the tooth gum interface strong and healthy is now being recognised in human health too, as the following article with YouTube link on the FDI World Dental Federation website explains. The vast majority of the commercial raw feed product do not satisfy this dietary necessity.

If you've watched the video with Dr Graham Lloyd-Jones you'll realise that toothbrushing as advocated by many vets will not adequately address the damage at the gum-tooth interface below the gum line. It can help reduce the biofilm and plaque on the visible tooth surface which increases the damage below the gum line, but brushing your pet carnivore's teeth does nothing below the gum line. Frequently, the gum-tooth margin retains plaque and the biofilm and evidence of inflammation. It will likely be sensitive to the brushing too which means it won't be as well tolerated where it's needed. This is the crucial area that the proper RMB diet addresses that other raw diets don't.

To sum it up succinctly, optimum health is attained by feeding a species-appropriate diet that has been proven in nature over thousands of years rather than over a very short time in a laboratory or kitchen by those with a vested interest in what they're testing and making, paid for by pet food companies looking to use their least-cost/max-profit ingredient list. It's fair to say now that what was once regarded as objective science is no longer common. He who holds the purse strings determines the results it seems nowadays in many different branches of science. Pet foods are all about culpable deniability, yet its not hard to see the truth if you scratch lightly below the surface as Tom has done and documented for us. Vets' refusal to accept these truths means that the vast majority of our pet carnivores are not as healthy as they could and should be.

As a rule of thumb, if you don't see wild animals doing it on a natural history documentary, we don't need to be doing it for them. Dogs and cats don't attack wheat fields, or dig vegetables, or cook, or eat pre-ground (unless a puppy/kitten eating regurgitated food). They hunt, kill and scavenge other animals, steal eggs from nests and rarely eat plants unless there is no other option in the heart of winter in order to survive.

Many breeders are now recognising the important health benefits of raw feeding and have moved away from commercial feeds to Raw Meaty Bones (RMB). These breeders frequently have multiple dogs which undermines the argument that feeding RMB is too complicated and time-consuming. It isn't. Done correctly it is quick and easy! For the reasons set out above, in order to optimise the chance of the healthiest life possible, Roger recommends choosing a puppy from a breeder who has fed raw and used raw fed sires for generations behind both parents.

How to recognise a carnivore!

Dog carnivore digestive features

There are some definitive anatomical and physiological factors that tell us if an animal is a carnivore and best evolved to eat other animals.

  1. the jaw only moves up and down so cannot perform any sideways grinding action necessary to start physically breaking down plant cell walls that releases the nutrients within. This is important for crunching bones and shearing through meat.
  2. there are carnassial teeth that are designed for gripping and shearing flesh and crunching through bones. Enamel forms a very hard layer on the outside of the dentine, rather than layers of both like a herbivore's teeth.
  3. There is no salivary amylase, the enzyme that starts the digestion process of simple carbohydrates in the mouth for herbivores and omnivores.
  4. The liver has enzymes that generate energy directly from proteins so there is no dietary requirement for any additional carbohydrates other than those sugars and glycoproteins found in animal products.
  5. The digestive tract has no plant fermentation area, and food stays in the gut and passes through in a relatively short time.

Commercial pet food manufacturers try to counter this evidence by claiming that despite the recent re-classification as a sub-species of the Grey Wolf (they share 99.8% of their genome), dogs are not little wolves because they have evolved through living with humans into being able to eat grains and other inappropriate ingredients. It's a total lie of course. Although dogs have co-habited with people, early man did not cook for them and certainly didn't pour them a bowl of kibble! Mr Spratt only started making the first dog biscuits (the forerunner to kibble) in about 1860 so not even the blink of an eye ago in evolutionary terms. It is far more likely that early cave dweller domesticators brought home the kill for the tribe, took what they wanted for their own cooking pot and gave the carcass left-overs and raw scraps to the dogs. No doubt they may have got/stole some cooked left-over foods too, but this would be a small part of the overall diet. Dogs' physiology has not adapted to plant-based commercial junk food in the 150 years it has only been in existence.

Further proof, as if any more should be needed, is the change in the volume and consistency of the faeces that is produced when swapping from a primarily plant-based kibble to RMB. When RMB fed, dogs produce approximately 1/3 the volume they used to produce when fed on kibble, and it is considerably firmer. This is because raw animal products are more highly nutritious and considerably more bioavailable and are better absorbed. This proves that RMB is the highest quality food source for our carnivores. The action of defaecation also expresses the anal glands a bit because one of the functions of defaecation in the wild is to mark the boundaries of their territory. This helps prevent anal sac infections. It is also much easier to pick up the poo when out walking your pooch! Raw fed dog poo goes white and crumbles to dust if not picked up, unlike the undigestable insoluble fibre that constitutes the large volume kibble-fed poos that plague the parks when owners fail to pick them up. They do not break up and cannot be dissolved and washed away by rain either. Insects don't seem to want to break them down either.

There has been some research to show that domestic dogs have some genes that are not present in the wolf that enables them to utilise carbohydrates. Those with a vested interest would have us believe that this demonstrates that domestic dogs are now significantly different from wolves and are therefore omnivorous! What utter rubbish! What the research doesn't indicate is how many genes are different between a carnivore and an omnivore, so it is impossible to evaluate how little the shift towards being an omnivore has really occurred. Genes that enable some use of carbohydrates are a survival adaptation only and until the main fundamentals of anatomy and physiology have shifted away from the typical carnivore as listed above, Roger does not accept that a few extra genes has meaningful significance.

Another pathetic argument used to try to justify commercial pet foods is that dogs in the wild don't live as long as domestic dogs so the diet can't be as good as commercial feed. More utter rubbish! This statement does not take into consideration that wild dogs have to catch their prey whilst domestic dogs are given everything on a plate. Domestic dogs have the advantage of central heating and owners who protect them and remove virtually every hardship they would otherwise experience. Significant numbers of older domestic dogs are on medications that enable them to survive and function in a way that a wild counterpart with the same issues would not be able to cope with and would perish.

As a comparison, human ancestors frequently only used to live until their 20s and 30s. I think McDonalds and KFC know what response they'd get if they tried to claim that the reason the average age at death for people is now over 70 years old has nothing to do with our improved hygiene and standard of living, or medical advances(?!) but is solely due to fast food! We don't buy into that idea for ourselves, so let's not accept it for our carnivorous pets either.

Horses and ponies have primarily evolved to eat fibre and move around between grazing areas. Movement is an important part of digestion and metabolism. Too many horses spend too much time in stables, primarily often because there isn't enough grazing ground available, and it can easily get trashed in winter with stocking density requirements not allowing the ground and grass to recover for Spring and Summer. There isn't necessarily an easy solution to this, but it doesn't mean that lack of movement doesn't cause an issue.

The increasing reliance by horse owners on hard feed fuelled by magazine articles written by those with a vested interest in selling more feed is setting horses up for more bouts of colic, allergies and other diseases. Molasses and other inappropriate ingredients are added to everything to increase palatability which increases intake by up to 40% - great for feed sales income, but not so great for the welfare of the horses.

Unfortunately, equine nutrition is tending to go down the same route that pet food has already taken. Owners have largely abandoned the traditional practice of feeding straights in favour of compounded feeds and cubes etc that aren't in horses' and ponies' best interests. Manufacturers play on owners' fears that they don't know how to feed their horses properly unless it is compounded for them. I don't suppose it will be long before we see the advent of equine "Science Diets" designed to be fed at great expense to horses diagnosed with specific problems many of which will be attributable to the original feed but won't be recognised as such.

As a nation, the UK has a tendency to obesity both for ourselves and our animals. Many horses and ponies in the show ring are too fat and unfit. Judges should be sending them home as soon as they step in the ring so as not to encourage spectators who own horses and ponies into thinking that is how they should look.

In nature, there is a natural cycle of body condition whereby animals put on condition and fat in times of plenty - usually over late Spring and Summer - and burn it off during times of hardship - usually over late Autumn and Winter. Roger believes that this serves a function not widely recognised in that many toxins (both acquired in times of plenty and generated in the body through inefficient metabolic processes) are stored in the adipose tissue of the body (ie in the fat). During times of hardship when animals "live off their fat" and lose condition, the body will naturally detoxify the stored toxins as they are released when the adipose tissue is broken down. These toxins will then be neutralised and excreted. This cycle of storing and release of toxins helps spread the detoxification load on the liver as well providing for the energetic requirements of the individual.

With domestication and year round competition we have a tendency to keep our animals at a constant body condition that is probably too fat in the majority of cases. This creates a number of problems especially for animals on commercial feed with low-grade ingredients, as they tend to be made worse by processing. The first is that toxins are continually fed all year round. Of course, the body can detoxify some immediately and store the rest in adipose tissue. Without the annual cycle of living off their fat, these toxins are never released and dealt with, so must accumulate. Eventually adipose tissue must either be preferentially laid down in order to store the continual influx of toxins or else the existing adipose tissue becomes overloaded, and the toxicity must overspill to other areas of the body whilst putting extreme pressure on the liver. Animals kept continually lean will not have sufficient adipose storage thus creating continual burden on the liver. With a non-toxic diet as would mostly be represented by a natural wild diet, this isn't necessarily a problem but with excessive processed foods and grains that are often sprayed with glyphosate etc, the toxin delivery can potentially to overtake the capacity of the liver to deal with it. If the liver eventually becomes swamped, then chronic inflammation and degenerative diseases must result. An earlier than necessary death is then inevitable.

Digestive anatomy

In order to understand what we should be feeding our equine friends and why, we first need to understand the equine digestive system. Firstly, the mouth is designed with large grinding molars that start physically breaking down the plant cell walls. Incorrect dentistry can just as easily cause eating problems as good dentistry can solve them. The use of power tools for routine equine dentistry should be avoided at all costs. All too frequently, I come across situations where too much tooth has been taken off and the wrong angle created primarily on the lower dental arcades. Power tools run too hot and burn the enamel and cook the protein matrix of the tooth which denatures it and damages the integrity of the tooth and prevents the enamel growing back. This predisposes to the recent epidemic of dental caries and exposes the dentine which will begin to crumble. Pure physics tells us that heating 2 different materials at the same time will cause them to expand at different rates. When this happens in a horse's tooth the enamel and dentine behave in exactly this way which creates shear forces between the layers and predisposes them to slab fractures. The different layers will also cool down at different rates too. Your human dentist doesn't drill your teeth without using coolant that the dental nurse takes away using suction so why do some vets and EDTs think it's OK to use power tools in your horse's mouth without coolant? The answer is that it isn't.

The horse's stomach is relatively small - roughly the size of a rugby ball for a 16hh horse. If you are feeding more hard feed than the stomach can cope with in any one meal you are risking colic and other digestive disorders such as ulcers. Feed which is designed to undergo simple digestion in the stomach passes on undigested down the digestive tract where it ferments and upsets the flora of the intestines.

Horses are designed to eat lots of fibrous plant material pretty well on a continuous grazing basis. Acid is secreted into the stomach continually in contrast to our carnivorous pets where acid is secreted in response to the presence of food. Likewise, the horse has no Gallbladder because bile is continually produced and secreted. If you therefore feed a hard feed with insufficient fibre in the diet or with big gaps between feeds and forage, there is a greater risk of ulcers and incorrect intestinal pH that will upset the balance of fermenting bacteria.

Some vets have been quoted as saying that it isn't a question of whether horses have ulcers or not, but how many. This is a damning indictment of our ability to feed horses if this is true because they certainly didn't evolve to have them. Ulcers bestow no evolutionary advantages that would favour selection.

The potential dangers of commercial hard feeds

Whilst there is no doubt that fresh spring and summer grass contains natural sugars produced by the grass this is a far cry from the large amounts of refined and processed molasses and "sugar derivatives" included in commercial equine feeds to increase palatability. In some cases, this can amount to nearly 50% of the feed. So-called "lite" varieties still contain significant amounts of molasses and are completely contra-indicated for horses and ponies at risk of or suffering from laminitis. High molasses/sugar levels have 3 advantages for the manufacturer -

  1. Horses eat up to 40% more food = increased profits = poorer owner.
  2. It covers the taste of the low grade ingredients used to maximise profits.
  3. It creates hard food addicts. This creates repeat business.

If you don't believe this is addiction why else do all the horses on the yard kick the door at feed time even if there is forage available? Answer: They want their fix, and we know that sugar is more addictive than heroin.

Unfortunately, there are other downsides beyond your continuing expense on hard feed. Your horse/pony is likely to get fat as it will continue to eat more than it would do otherwise. This can put a strain on the liver, heart and other organs and will predispose to disease of these organs including laminitis, Cushing’s, bleeders, tying up and even diabetes.

If too much hard feed is fed too early in life (this includes during pregnancy as a developing foal in utero), growth can occur too quickly, and joints especially will struggle to cope and predispose to problems such as OsteoChondritis Dessicans (OCD) and Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD). This is more likely with geldings where early castration delays the closure of the growth plates of the bones so that they grow bigger than they would have been if left entire. Over-working young horses and ponies too early in life is a major contributor to OCD and DJD in Roger's opinion too.

NB: Although supposedly untreatable, Roger has successfully treated OCD in a yearling racehorse that made a full recovery and has gone into training.

OCD and normal joint comparison

Constant energy release best

Unlike ruminants such as sheep, cows and goats which have a 4-chambered stomach called a rumen where plant fermentation takes place, equines have a very large hind-gut - the large colon - where bacteria ferment the plant material in order to release plant nutrients. Even natural simple plant sugars are released slowly as cell walls need to be broken down to release it. This means that energy is usually released on a fairly continual basis. Horses are best suited to diets that provide for this process. In practice this ideally means

  • no simple refined sugars which are provided by molasses,
  • minimal grains and pulses, and
  • access to fibrous forage around the clock. This is sufficient to provide the bulk of energy requirements for most horses.

When the balance of the balance of the gut bacteria (the intestinal microbiome) is disrupted - called Dysbiosis, then metabolic disturbances can occur. Roger is increasingly convinced that this alongside toxin overload is the root cause of the increasingly diagnosed Equine Metabolic Syndrome.

The most successful old-school racing trainers used to feed soaked oats, alfalfa, linseed and good quality hay. Diets could be individually adjusted according to work and the trainer’s eye, and at today's prices costs a fraction of the expense of compounded feeds. With hugely increased fertiliser costs and grain shortages, owners may be forced to resort to feeding practices that are better for the horses!

Inappropriate ingredients

Most disturbingly, Roger I has heard that some pelleted (ie cubes etc) feeds include cement powder to help bind the ingredients together better! Chicken shit is included as an "acceptable extruded protein" source. Is it any wonder we see more impaction colics, salmonella infections, grass sickness and no doubt other conditions resulting too?

Other ingredients used to bulk up the feed with little or no nutritional value include "wood flour" (sawdust to you and me) wheat middlings (this is what is left after wheat is processed for human feed). If it isn't clear from reading the ingredients list what the ingredient really is then it is probably an imaginative name for something that would otherwise put you off buying it.

My advice would be to find an alternative such as Simple System Ltd, or get back to good old straights and feeding according to your eye as used to happen for centuries prior to compounded convenience feeds.

It is interesting in old horse feed textbooks that wheat is not regarded as a suitable feed substance for horses. Mind you it's not really suitable for humans or dogs/cats either given the effects the gluten has on many individuals - intolerances, allergies, IBS, diverticulitis etc!!

An attendee at a talk given by Roger told him that she had bought a bag of wheat straights for her horse. When she opened it, it contained ergot which can cause ergot poisoning and is the source of the recreational drug LSD. Maybe it was part a consignment of wheat that was "not fit for human consumption" but it makes you wonder if other compounded feeds where it would be impossible to spot such contamination are regularly sold and what impact it might have on health and behaviour?

Roger does not claim to be expert on rabbits by any means, but following his participation on a nutrition debate at Cambridge University organised by the Association of Veterinary Students in November 2007, he learned the following from an excellent speech (top speaker of the day) by Cambridge University vet Tom Harcourt-Brown MRCVS.

Roger decided to include this page for informational purposes for rabbit owners and to further demonstrate the lengths to which the pet food manufacturers will go to sell their products regardless of the impact on animal health. You can download and listen to Tom's speech by clicking on the MP3 logo.

Speech by Tom Harcourt-Brown on rabbit nutrition

Rabbits are designed to eat a relatively large quantity of poor quality fibrous food. It is for this reason that rabbits are coprophagic - ie they eat their green droppings produced when food passes through the digestive tract for the first time. They will then double-digest their food and produce the harder brown rabbit droppings we commonly see when walking our dogs in the countryside.

Rabbits are not designed to eat grain-based feeds as it is too rich from being nutrient-dense. Rabbit feeds produced as a mix (ie not pelleted) allow the rabbit to pick out the low grade fibrous elements, leaving the more nutrient-rich elements which contain those nutrients put back chemically to replace those destroyed by the original manufacturing process. This is researched fact that rabbits do this.

The alternative is to pellet all the ingredients together so that rabbits cannot pick and choose. The problem with this is that the resultant pellet is nutritionally too high quality and rabbits will tend to over-eat in order to get satisfaction from a stomach-fill volume perspective. This means they tend to get too fat. This is researched fact.

Both scenarios will inevitably result in dietary-related rabbit diseases which from what I could gather from Tom Harcourt-Brown MRCVS makes up the vast majority of rabbit cases he sees in veterinary practice.

The rabbit skull on the left is that of a wild adult rabbit that has spent a life eating grass and similar vegetation. See how the wild diet has kept the front incisors at a functional length. The rabbit skull on the right is that of a pet bunny fed on commercial feed with inadequate roughage. Notice the gross over-growth of the front incisor teeth which prevent them from being functional.

To be fair, the commercial rabbit food manufacturers have recognised this and so label the bags as not being suitable as a sole nutritional source. However, this is usually hidden away in small print so that it is unlikely that many rabbit owners are even aware of this being on the bag. Of course, if the rabbit food manufacturers had the best health of rabbits as priority, they wouldn't produce any commercial rabbit feed at all. If you think I'm being paranoid about the intentions of the manufacturers it might persuade you otherwise to know that the Pet Food Manufacturers Association tried to suppress the rabbit nutrition issue at the Cambridge debate, presumably so that the students as the future veterinary profession would not become aware of these issues. Now, who's interests do you think they really have at heart?

So, what is recommended as the ideal rabbit food I hear you ask? Well, there are no surprises for guessing that it's grass and other vegetation that can easily be picked for free on a daily basis. Even in cities there are parks and gardens that can be used as a source.

Roger doesn't know much about other small furry rodents either, so he suggests you do your own research from an unbiased source. Don't rely 100% on your local Vets unless they specialise in rabbits like Tom does, as most vets are unlikely to have been given the full picture either. Rabbits don't figure highly on general CPD courses which are most likely sponsored by a pet feed company. Vets don't have sufficient time to research every piece of information they are continually fed by reps and are unlikely to question the ins and outs of rabbit nutrition, especially if they are still pushing the kibbles for cats and dogs.

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