There's the buzz Nestlé Purina gets as the official dog food sponsor of the annual Westminster Kennel Club All Breed Dog Show, and then there's the buzz its brand Beneful is getting on the Internet. Through social media, the blogosphere and other pet-related websites and online news channels, fears about the product have spread virally among pet owners concerned that the diet is killing pets.
A central focus for these concerns has been consumeraffairs.com, where pet owners have logged more than 400 comments—mostly complaints—about the dog food, prompting headlines asking if the brand is killing pets. Yet for all the expanding online chatter, there are veterinarians who say that blaming the food—for now—isn't beneficial.
Tony Buffington, DVM, MS, PhD, DACVN, professor at The Ohio State University Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, has read through the Consumer Affairs comments and complaints, which outline clinical signs from vomiting to excessive water consumption to lethargy to diarrhea and even death. But he says the common thread is actually grief.
"One theme I thought ran through the stories was the intensity of the bond between the writer and the pet," Buffington says. He says he can certainly understand the pain and confusion in their testimony. "Part of grief is blame—trying to find an understanding for the un-understandable in many cases."
Stephen Ettinger, DVM, DACVIM, a well-known small animal internist and cardiologist who also works with a number of animal health companies—including Nestlé Purina—responded to consumer complaints with his own post on dvm360.com. "When a pet is sick, pet owners often look first to the pet's food as the cause. However, it is rare that their food is responsible for the illness," Ettinger wrote.
Buffington, who is not associated with Purina, agrees. "Every animal I've ever seen was eating before they got sick," he says. "The problem is that the vague, nonspecific signs commonly reported could be due to something different in every case, and it would be quite easy to find many dogs with the same signs that were eating something else before they got sick."
In their responses to Ettinger's post, veterinarians appear to be less concerned about Beneful than they are about clients looking to "Dr. Google" instead of consulting with their veterinarians. Their consensus is that although the Internet can be a tremendous resource, it can also be a rabbit-hole of misinformation, as commenter "nydvm" put it. User "jlopez" says this is a growing problem in veterinary medicine, especially when clients begin using online sources to make their own, uninformed decisions on their pets' health. "We must strive to practice evidence-based medicine, and continue to address it by educating the public that veterinarians should be their primary source available to answer any questions or concerns," he writes.
Empathy and action
For clients who do bring Internet-associated concerns to their veterinarians, their feelings and needs may be very real even if their conclusions are not. Buffington says veterinarians may have to look past their words to hear what these clients are really saying: "This terrible thing happened to me and my pet and there has to be a reason." A veterinarian may not have any idea what caused a pet's illness or death—especially if a client doesn't want any tests run or an autopsy performed. He says it's sometimes easier just to say to clients in their grief, "Yeah, maybe it was the food."
He suggests empathizing with the client's concerns and encourages filing a report with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "If all those people [who complained online] filed reports, we would be a lot closer to knowing if anything is going on."
Ettinger emphasizes in his post that reporting concerns to the manufacturer is also important. "Any concerns with a particular product should immediately be brought to the attention of the manufacturer so that information can be collected and products appropriately monitored," he says. Purina spokesman Keith Schopp says Purina welcomes calls from consumers and offers a customer service phone number printed on every product package.
The task of calling a manufacturer or filing a report may seem daunting to some clients, especially if they're upset over a pet's illness or death, but it could also be a way to engage a client previously turning to the Internet for answers and to provide a valued service. "Once the moment is past, make an appointment to review the record and make a report for the FDA. I think it would be appropriate for a veterinarian to provide for that service and charge for it," Buffington says.
These cases may also call for samples as well as a record review. "Get a sample of the food yourself and freeze it, then you've got your own independent sample," Buffington says.
He also thinks it's appropriate for a veterinarian to advise a client that an autopsy may be a good idea. "A dead pet in one hand and a bag of food in the other doesn't really help anyone," Buffington says. But how a veterinarian chooses his or her words is crucial. "Never ask, 'Do you want an autopsy?'" Buffington says. "No one wants an autopsy. Say, 'You have the opportunity to put your mind at ease and know what happened.'"
Investigation and public perception
The FDA is currently investigating complaints against Beneful but has not arrived at any conclusions yet. "Our normal practice is to follow up on every complaint to try to determine whether an illness or other adverse event can be conclusively linked to a cause," says Siobhan DeLancey, RVT, MPH, a veterinary communications spokesperson for the FDA. "It's important to note that the existence of a complaint does not mean that the outcome was caused by the suspected product."
Prior to the media attention and Consumer Affairs complaints, two to four complaints per month were reported to FDA, though not all were linked to illness or adverse events, DeLancey says. There has been a jump in reports after the complaints gained more attention.
Schopp says the company stands by the quality and safety of the Beneful product. "We've talked with the FDA and we're not aware of any problems with the product," Schopp says.
On Beneful's website, veterinarians and pet owners can visit the frequently asked questions page to find Purina's statement that the mounting complaints are a result of social media-driven misinformation. "The incredible power of the Internet is sometimes used to spread false information," the statement reads. "Online postings often contain false, unsupported and misleading allegations that cause undue concern and confusion for our Beneful consumers."
Purina assures customers that Beneful is a high-quality, nutritious food they can continue to feed their pet with complete confidence. Buffington says if his animal were eating Beneful he would continue feeding it, but if a client were concerned about it, he would advise the client to switch. He says there are plenty of other foods available that are just as good. "If it was the only food, that would be different, but it's not," he says.
While it may seem like the Internet and social media produce more hysteria in clients than is sometimes warranted—whether it's worry over the latest recall or panic that a product is killing pets—Buffington says this is not necessarily a bad thing. He thinks the industry is more in tune with food safety and consumer demand as a result. "We're better about picking up what's going on in the real world. We would not be doing that if we didn't have the Internet," he says. "To me, that's good."
Beneful customer service line: 1-888-236-3385.