A new feeding trial protocol developed at Cal Poly Pomona in California may allow dog food manufacturers to qualify for the Association of American Food Control Officials “tested in feeding trials” label without using a colony of dogs living in an institutional setting.

The Cal Poly Animal and Veterinary Sciences Department developed the new protocol under the leadership of department chair Broc Sandelin, Ph.D., for dog food maker JustFoodForDogs in Newport Beach, Calif.

“We were contacted by JustFoodForDogs with the primary objective being the execution of AAFCO feeding trials without the use of ‘purpose-bred’ dogs or dogs that live permanently in a testing facility,” Sandelin says. “In their view the advantages of ‘real world data’ was second to their desire not to utilize purpose-bred dogs.”

Dog food doesn’t have to be tested on dogs to be on the market. It can also be tested in a laboratory to show that it has the needed nutrients to keep dogs healthy. However, many companies prefer to do feeding trials, and, in some circles, it is considered the gold standard for dog food testing. Most dog food manufacturers contract with institutions that keep colonies of dogs just for this purpose.

Twenty-seven dogs lived in their own homes while taking part in a new food trial protocol. Photo © Can Stock Photo.

The protocol was significantly more time-consuming than using an existing colony of test dogs. Discussions about the project took place over the summer of 2011, Sandelin says, and the four-month trial began in March 2012.

“Dogs had to be recruited for the study, screened, examinations scheduled and relationships built with the pet parents,” Sandelin explains. “Most of them were Cal Poly Pomona students and faculty; however it was still a lot of work to coordinate. We used social media and intranet [the internal college network] resources to get the word out, then screened interested participants to pick the ones we were confident would help us execute the trial effectively.”

The protocol came along with a certain amount of risk on the part of JustFoodForDogs, Sandelin says. “After all, utilizing owned dogs presents additional opportunities for things to go wrong during the feeding trials — downsides that do not exist when you hire a company that uses a colony of dogs that live in a facility for the sole purpose of testing. For example, in theory, several pet parents who were participating in the feeding trials could simply have moved away or decided not to continue participating. The reasons may have had nothing to do with the quality of the food or how the dog was tolerating the food, but the result would have been the same: The feeding trials would have been scrapped if enough of the dogs were disqualified.”

Despite the need for pre- and post-trial veterinary examinations, blood tests and a complete history of the dogs, many of the owners whose dogs completed the first trial “stuck with us for a second set of trials with new diets,” Sandelin says. Each month, owners signed an agreement saying that they would not feed their dogs anything but the trial diet – absolutely nothing other than the food being tested – including treats. They also took their dogs to the vet weekly for a weight check. Twenty-seven dogs completed the trial. For feeding trials, AAFCO requires a minimum of eight per group, with at least six completing, and allows 25 percent of the dogs in each group to drop out for any reason not related to nutritional deficiencies in the food, Sandelin explains.

Three of the company’s dog food recipes were tested, eight dogs per recipe, while the dogs continued with their normal lives at home with their families. The dogs were of various breeds and sizes, and from ages 1 to 5.

AAFCO requires testing of four blood parameters. This trial took it a step further and tested a complete blood cell count and comprehensive chemistry panel looking at more than 25 blood parameters.

“A typical AAFCO trial is required to measure parameters that look for anemia (low red blood cell count) and, indirectly, liver damage,” Sandelin explains. “Anemia is a potential end result of deficiencies that may occur if the food is severely deficient. In order to become anemic, the severe deficiencies must have been present for a significant amount of time because anemia is usually a secondary sign of a more serious underlying disease. That is to say, the deficient food has to first make the dog sick through malnutrition, then the dog has to become anemic in response to that illness, and all this must happen within the 26 weeks for the standard AAFCO protocol to catch it.

“The liver parameter AAFCO requires us to look at, ALP (alkaline phosphatase), is only one of many used by vets to evaluate the integrity of the liver, and could be normal even though there is insult to the liver.

“Vets agree that in many cases, using this protocol [limited blood tests] may not catch problems even though the disease or deficiencies may be present, or miss long-term problems that did not become evident by this limited testing in the 26-week period. Let’s put it this way: most veterinarians would never clear an older or fragile patient for anesthesia, for example, with only the results of the parameters required by AAFCO.

“By measuring full blood panels, we were able to look for evidence of diseases directly and see – truly see – if the food was making our dogs sick within the 26-week period. Our panels are the same comprehensive blood panels that are used in veterinary hospitals to make sure pets are healthy and that clear older or fragile pets for anesthetic procedures. Our panels allow us to look for problems or trends before they result in serious disease more effectively than the AAFCO panels,” Sandelin says.

Some of the tests whose results can indicate trouble are ALT or alanine aminotransferase and ALP or alkaline phosphatase for the liver; BUN – blood urea nitrogen – and CREA (creatinine) for the kidneys; GLU (glucose) for blood sugar; and ALB, or the amount of protein in the blood, according to Sandelin.

“During our trials, no dogs showed suspicious blood results for any disease when combined with their full physical exam and full history of the owner,”Sandelin says. “There were no health problems found in any of the dogs in the study.” This means that the feeding trial was a success and provides appropriate nutrients to adult dogs.

He says the college undertook the project because Cal Poly’s Animal Health Science Program is an “innovative and growing program. We saw this opportunity as an exciting challenge. Furthermore, Cal Poly Pomona is a learn-by-doing university, so this allowed our students the opportunity to do hands-on investigative research.”

Sandelin adds that he expects other dog food manufacturers to use the protocol in the future, rather than contracting with institutions with dog colonies kept for this purpose.

AAFCO did not respond to several requests for information about the JustFoodForDogs protocol.