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Friday, December 2, 2011

The Hill's Brand & Science Diet Media Tour: What'd I think?

Transparency,” a buzz word in political campaigns, has been finding its way into the competitive arena of pet food manufacturing. The concept has become not only a marketing strategy, but a public relations necessity as the Internet shrinks the world and human nature remains, well, human nature; Word of mouth, anecdotal evidence, and good old fashion rumor and misinformation still influence the opinions we form and decisions we make - only now we’re using a keyboard instead of chatting over a fence.

Dog Food companies are catching on. They know we have more pets than ever before. We’re going more places and doing more things with them than ever before. For some of us, our cats and dogs are our only companions; For most of us, they’re our best companions. We’d no more throw them a kitchen scrap for dinner than we would a human member of the family. We’re savvier than we used to be about what we feed our pets, and dare I say it, few more so than the dog fancier who not only loves her dog, but competes with him.

I’m about to make a few Hill’s executives gasp, but if you’re a dog fancier, you and I both know that Hills and Science Diet have not been the first foods of choice for our show dogs. I know this from my own 30 years in the sport, and I know YOU know it from the comments you made after I announced my invitation to tour their Pet Nutrition Center in Topeka. I suspect the Hills people knew it too when they brought in a dozen writers and bloggers, some of them veterinarians, not only in the interest of dispelling myths that hurt the entire industry, but to provide accurate information about their own program. In other words, transparency.

When it comes to dog food, ultimately, you’re going to believe what you want to believe. You may choose to believe your breeder, you may give greater credibility to “accepted wisdom” passed along at dog shows, or you can follow the advice of a store clerk when you’re looking for a new brand of dog food and the Hills or Science Diet comes up.

I’m asking you to believe me as I report on what I heard and saw.

Personally, I don’t feed either of those foods– though I did use Science Diet’s k/d formula on a dog in kidney distress a few years ago and he did well on it. The more salient point here is this one: After having toured the Hills facility and talked with their nutritionists and veterinarians, would I feed their food to my dogs now?

I’ll answer that a little bit later.

As I get into my report, I’m not going to rehash the mission statement or Hill’s history because you can read it for yourself at their web site. Nor am I going to discuss the basics of nutrition because the subject is simply too vast. I am, however, including some charts you might find interesting. I’m only going to write about what I thought was interesting or noteworthy (my blog, you know) and I’m going to answer the questions you suggested I ask the Hill’s folks.

A few points before moving on to those questions:

The labeling on a package of pet food is a legal document, interesting to me because the definitions some ingredients as defined by AAFCO’s 2” thick manual (Association of American Feed Control Officials) are somewhat vague. “Meat” for example, is defined as “the clean flesh of a slaughtered mammal.” Hill’s assured me that euthanized puppies, diseased cattle and hyenas are not used in their food. Less vague are the rules for categorizing a pet food. Check out the definition for “holistic” in the chart below and remember it when shopping for dog food.

Be suspicious when you’re considering a commercial food that says it’s “human grade.” For a dog food to legally call its ingredients “human grade,” the meat or poultry HAS to have come from a human grade slaughter house, the recipe has to have been made in a human grade manufacturing plant, and all of it has to have been packaged in a human packaging plant. There’s only one pet food currently being sold that meets that standards and it’s “Honest Kitchen.”

Also note that when a diet says it is “formulated,” it was made to appeal to a dog and is presumed to do so, but it was never actually tested on anything with a mouth. This doesn’t imply that it’s a bad food, it just means it was never tested on a dog. Yours would be the first.

When Dr. Bill Schoenherr, Hill’s principal nutritionist got up to speak to our group, he cut to the chase by addressing some of the ingredients that are problematic for many show fanciers, such as corn.

  • Hill’s recognizes that some consumers have issues with corn, but they stand by the ingredient because their tests and data indicate that from a nutritional standpoint, corn is a digestible carbohydrate.

  • Another controversial ingredient is chicken by-product, or chicken by-product meal. Critics point out that by-products are undesirable parts of a chicken left after prime pieces have been removed. In Hill’s view, however, dogs love organs (heart, liver, etc), while chicken feet and beaks are high in flavor and nutrition. By-product chicken meal, once it’s been finely ground, is a highly absorbed nutrient that differs from fresh chicken only in water content. It was also pointed out that chicken by-product is the “greenest” of ingredients because it uses the whole chicken with nothing gone to waste.

  • Some of you also wondered about “meat by-products,” an unfortunate ingredient name. Meat by-products are a good thing as they contain nearly 300% more protein that fresh chicken.

  • One of you asked that I inquire about the source of fat in Hill’s foods; It’s pork and some chicken fat.

  • Several of you asked about wheat gluten, and Hill’s says they do use it in some, but not all diets because it’s another high quality protein.

  • What about soybean meal? Hill’s told me – and the “foodies” I consulted on-line seem to agree - that soybean is a useful ingredient in dog food for its protein contribution.

  • Just about everyone wanted to know about the source of the ingredients Hill’s uses. Their lamb is from New Zealand and their beef is from the United States. Other ingredients are from countries where Hill “audits the quality control.”

Dr. Waynne Carter and friend
A before and after "heat map."
Our next speaker, Dr. Wayne Carter, spoke on a topic new to me, and it’s totally fascinating, if not the way of the future of nutrition for both man and beast. “Nutrigenomics” is the study of the effects of food and food components on gene expression. We were shown slides of “heat maps” (a way to visually represent numbers) where each column represents an individual animal, and each row, an individual gene. “Before” and “after” heat maps showed us what happened when altering, amending or enhancing a diet could “turn up” or “turn down” a gene expression, say, metabolism. You can see for yourself the dramatic results. The ramifications of this science are heady; Nutrigenomics has been associated with the concept of personalized nutrition based on genotype and some day, perhaps, it’ll lead to personalized dietary advice based our own (or our dogs’) genes.

Reading a Heap Map
As a purebred fancier, I wondered to myself if breed specific diets were around the corner – and voila! Dr. Carter produced the results of research on six different breeds (Cocker, Labrador, Beagle, Dachshund, Golden Retriever – and I’ve drawn a blank on the 6th) that suggest that there is no data to support the benefits of tailoring a diet to a specific breed. That’s not to say that certain conditions known to affect certain breeds (i.e., Bedlingtons and Copper Toxicosis) wouldn’t be impacted by “turning on” or “turning down” nutritional components to impact that gene expression, but again, the science is very new – and, to my mind, thrilling.

Dave Baloga explained to us the “science of taste” and how a Hill’s panel of “smell experts” works to create dog foods that are palatable and attractive smelling to cats and dogs. An entertaining portion of his talk was our own “smell test” in which each writer was asked to identify the scents in plain white bottles marked only by numbers. The bottle with the “fresh grass smell” was a smell dogs love, while the smell of “dirt” does nothing for them. The wonderful aroma of fresh oatmeal cookies was popular among the bloggers, but research shows that dogs aren’t interested it at all – a memo my own dogs missed when I’ve made Snickerdoodles at home.

Bark Park
I don’t mean to dismiss the other speakers, Dr. Dennis Jewell and Dr. Dan Aja who spoke on Nutrition and Nutrional Assessment, respectively, but as I mentioned before, the subject is too vast to tackle in a blog and much of the information can be found on the Internet.

After our lunch break, it was time to visit the cats and dogs whose job it is to test Hill’s food. There are around 400 cats, and 402 dogs – virtually all of them Beagles – who live in a series of modern buildings surrounding a pastoral green known as “Bark Park.” The dogs are all pair-housed, twenty dogs to a “pod.” Their building is modern, airy and light filled, and is constructed with noise-reduction materials. Each dog has a name which has been etched into a dog-shaped name plate over their own crate-sized “room” which adjoins a larger space. If they so choose, they can sleep on a Karumba bed. Rubber chew bones are strewn everywhere. The dogs come and go as they please through dog doors and hang out with whomever they please, but groups of dogs are rotated so that while one group enjoys “down time” napping, the other group is playing.

“Bark Park,” as you can see from the photographs, contains play equipment on real grass, though astroturf is the surface on which they tread most often. Once a day, the dogs “go to work” by eating. Each dog chooses its own “station” where most typically, s/he gets a split meal, meaning that the dog chooses which of two bowls from which to eat. The dog are acquired from “purpose-bred breeders” and live out their entire lives here. They get people time at the Bark Park or in the hallways.

Kitty Food Testers
Cats have similar housing but, of course, geared to cats. They seemed to me to have it made. After a certain age, they go into retirement where they sleep in the sun and look at birds at a feed station. I saw cats being brushed, cats being petted and played with.

One of the few non-Beagle
food testers
The dogs were bright eyed, alert and each appeared really healthy. I’ll concede that perhaps it was just poor timing that we appeared when we did in their daily schedule, but I would liked to have seen more dog/person interaction, or know that adoption is an option in their future. That being said, each dog looked happy to me. Tails were wagging, the dogs were busy and, being social Beagles, enjoyed the company of the other dogs.

Our day wrapped up with some closing remarks, including the company’s vision to add the question, “what do you feed your pet? to the list of routine checks made by a vet that currently include listening to a pet’s heart, checking her temperature and looking at his eyes.

I was able to ask CEO, Neil Thompson, candidly if it was true that in exchange for underwriting a vet’s education, vets reciprocate by selling Hill’s brand and Science Diet brand foods in their practice, or that for every bag or can of Hill’s brand food sold, the vet gets a portion of the sale. A weary smile appeared on Mr. Thompson’s face (I think he’d heard this before) and he answered.

“No,” he assured me. The arrangement between a veterinarian and Hill’s Products is a business one; The vet buys the food from Hill’s and sells it to his or her clients. No kickbacks, no “under the table” exchange of money. It’s a commercial relationship, pure and simple. Hill’s does not underwrite anyone’s education, however……………

A few years back, Dr. Elizabeth Stone of Ontario’s Veterinary College in Guelph, Ontario, approached Hill’s with the suggestion that more needed to be done to shore up a vet’s knowledge of nutrition. Hill’s provided the funding for a building in which veterinary students get 300 hours of nutritional training, and not the current six hours that most get elsewhere. The instruction is not given by Hill’s employees, and the education is about nutrition in general, not nutrition as Hill’s sees it.

Some of my best conversations were with Mr. Thompson, and yes, maybe his British accent did make for easy listening. But his approach to his company’s product lines reminded me a great deal of my own attitude when entering the show ring for group judging. If the judge likes my breed, well by golly, I’ve got a nice example of the breed to show him. If they don’t like my breed, they won’t like my dog. Mr. Thompson’s attitude is equally philosophical. If one recipe of Hill’s dog food causes a gastric upset in a dog, there are other recipes that may be a better option for the dog. And if, at the end of the day, a dog (or his owner) simply dislikes all the food, there’s a 100% money back guarantee. The Hill’s people are proud of the quality of their food, proud of the data that supports the wisdom of using the ingredients they use, and convinced that if you remove one ingredient only to appease critics, you alter the balance of what’s left behind.

So would I feed Hill’s brand dog foods to my dogs now?

Coming from the school of thought that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” my answer is no, but only because my Pulik are currently on diets that work for them. I saw no evidence that Hill’s makes a bad food, and the healthy coats and bright eyes I saw on the food testing cats and dogs bear that out. I know that some of you who HAVE tried the food reported greasy, unhealthy feeling coats - and for you, I have no answer beyond what Mr. Thompson maintains: try a different recipe, and if at the end of the day the brand doesn’t work for you, it’s simply not a good fit. I’m not persuaded that Hill’s is bad food. I am more inclined to believe that some foods work better on some dogs than others.

If my fellow bloggers have already written about the same tour I was on, I’ve made it a point not to read their blogs as I wanted to stay focused on my own impressions. I would encourage you, however, to visit those blogs for a more expanded view of the tour, and now that I’m done writing, I’m heading over to them, myself.

My fellow bloggers:


  1. What an excellent summary of our time at Hill's! I am impressed with your ability to pull this all together.

    I'm working on writing some complex articles about the specific questions on by-products, corn, grain free, etc. I'll let you know once they are done.

    Dr. Marie

  2. Excellent post, thanks for sharing. I've toured the Purina and Waltham (England) pet food centers and manufacturing plants but not Hill's. Much of what you've reported strikes a similar chord with my impressions of their facilities. I do wonder, though, about the large number of Beagles as opposed to other breeds. I've been told that Beagles and Labradors often skew results in comparison/taste tests LOL! loving nearly all kinds of food--but would be easy keepers and brilliant for digestibility, nutrigenomic (reducing diet, etc) and more? I'll share this post on my Monday Mentions blog, thanks!

  3. It was interesting that the term "species appropriate" never entered into the conversations.


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