Grains Or No Grains: Addressing Pet Owner Concerns

Pet parents want to feed their dogs the best diet possible to keep their furry friends happy and healthy, but there are so many options on the market: prepackaged or home-cooked, wet food or dry, and grain-free.

Yellow dog eating food out of a dog bowlRecently, interest has arisen surrounding grain-free diets and their impact on canine health.

When searching for the right food for their dogs, pet owners often focus on corn and wheat; however, many other grains are used in pet foods that have great nutritional value, including rice, barley, oats, and millet.

“Much of the initial push for ‘grain-free’ diets for dogs came from folks who were drawn into the marketing strategy that dogs are carnivores and grains were unnatural,” said Dr. Deb Zoran, a professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM).

“Dogs are, in fact, omnivores; they are actually programmed metabolically and nutritionally to use the building blocks from both plants (grains) and animals to meet their requirements for essential nutrients and energy,” she said. “This is illustrated by wild dogs and wolves eating the ingesta—contents of the digestive tract that are largely plant material or grain—of large animal species they kill.”

Pet owners choose what diet to feed their dog based on word-of-mouth, online, marketing of pet stores, or veterinary recommendations, but according to Zoran, many owners tend to choose their pet’s diet based on pet food company marketing.

“The pet food industry is a very competitive place and many of the smaller companies and boutique foods do a fantastic job of marketing their products,” Zoran said. “Unfortunately, those same companies do not all have the same resources for research and development and quality assurance testing.

“A recipe for good food is one thing, but if you don’t test the product once it is made, processed, and packaged, you can’t be sure the food still contains what you intended, and that is where potential problems start,” Zoran said.

It is important for dogs to have a balanced diet in order to thrive, and Zoran said dog owners should know that “there are nutrients present in grains that are essential for a complete and balanced diet.”

“If grains are removed from a diet, they must be replaced by another food source that has those nutrients in sufficient quantities to balance the diet,” she said.

Some dog owners have switched their pets to a grain-free diet because of concern about possible wheat gluten allergies or intolerance, but, according to Zoran, these conditions are relatively uncommon in dogs compared to other types of food-related conditions.

“Many people have been convinced that their dogs have a ‘grain allergy,’ much like celiac disease or gluten disease in humans,” Zoran said. “However, true dietary allergies in dogs are caused by the protein, or meat, sources in a diet. It doesn’t mean that your dog can’t have an intolerance to wheat gluten or another food ingredient, but it is not the same as an allergy.

“The bottom line is, your dog’s skin, hair coat, or gastrointestinal (GI) function may sometimes improve on a grain-free diet, but it may simply have been the diet change itself and not the lack of grains, per se,” she said.

Zoran recommends that pet owners choose diets that have rigorous standards for research and quality testing; a well-developed reputation for providing complete and balanced foods; and back up their label claims with nutritional quality control testing. Additionally, owners should always seek advice from their veterinarian before changing their dog’s diet.

“If your dog seems to do better with diets without wheat or corn, consult a veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist for information about the safest diet options available on the market,” Zoran said. “They can provide commercial and homemade options that can meet your dog’s specific nutritional needs.”

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at Suggestions for future topics may be directed to

Bathing Our Furry Friends Can Reduce COVID-19 Transmission

The rapid and dynamic spread of COVID-19 necessitates that we all make changes to our lifestyles, including important measures such as social distancing, increased hygiene, and maintaining a sanitized environment.

Pet owners may need to take additional precautions, because, while there is currently no evidence that pets can contract COVID-19, a pet’s body, like any other frequently touched surface, may carry particles of the virus if touched by infected individuals.

Kitty wrapped in towelDr. Deb Zoran, a professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), informs pet owners of what steps they should be taking to protect themselves and their homes from the virus.

Just as healthy members of a household should avoid contact with anyone who may be infected, pets should also be kept away from sick or quarantined individuals.

“Everyone with pets should plan ahead and be prepared to separate from your pets when you separate from your family if you have someone become ill,” she said.

A sick person who lives with or pets an animal may “shed” the virus onto their pet, who could then infect a healthy individual who pets them; this includes all animals with fur, from dogs and cats to “pocket pets” like ferrets, hamsters, and guinea pigs.

“If a pet is living in close quarters with, sleeping with, or frequently touched by a sick person and that sick person has to go to the hospital, that pet is going to need to have a decontamination bath or have its coat wiped down with a moist towel or paper towel before that pet can stay with somebody else,” Zoran said.

Zoran also emphasizes that the risk of contracting the disease from a pet by any other means is almost non-existent based on all of the scientific evidence and the testing of pets that has occurred to date.

“If we just separate the animal as soon as the person feels unwell, has a fever, or is diagnosed with COVID-19, then these bathing precautions or concerns for being a carrier would not be needed,” she said.

It also is important to remember that any animal that comes in contact with an infected person can be cleaned to ensure that the animal is not carrying COVID-19 in their fur, according to Zoran.

“The bath process for pets should be gentle and without spraying them aggressively so as to prevent the material spraying into your face,” Zoran said. “When bathing your dog, simply get their coat wet all over and use enough soap to lather.  The soap will breakup and loosen the oils on the skin and haircoat, which is where the virus sits, and then, with gentle water, washing to remove all of the soap lather will remove anything that is attached on the coat, including the virus.”

Zoran recommends that owners use dish soap but pet shampoo or even baby shampoo, if you don’t have a specific shampoo for dogs, will work when cleaning animals for this purpose.

Dog being bathedIn addition, to avoid the splash back of soap or water onto the person bathing the pet, owners should take care to use low water pressure and wear protective clothing.

“Cover up your face with a bandana, for example. Wear goggles, glasses, or other shielding for your face. Bathe the animal slowly to prevent them from struggling, use low pressure or low volumes of water to prevent splashing,” Zoran said. “Once the bath is completed, dry the pet and remove it from the area into a kennel or other clean area.

“Then, remove the clothes you are wearing, launder these, and if you got any wash water on you during the process, take a shower or wash hands/arms or other exposed areas with soap and water,” she said.

If you have access to waterproof clothing, such as a rain suit, poncho, or even a homemade trash bag rain jacket, Zoran recommends wearing that as a barrier against the bath water.

Animals should be bathed in areas that are easily cleaned (bathtub or deep sink)—and following the bath the area should be sanitized with standard cleaning products.

If picking up a pet from a sick relative, Zoran recommends bathing the animal before traveling with the pet, if possible, or keeping the animal in a pet carrier until the pet can be bathed at the new location.  Once the pet arrives, the pet carrier can be sanitized with standard cleaning products.

Owners of pets that are resistant to baths—such as cats, hamsters, or ferrets—may want to take their animal to a veterinarian so they can be sedated before being bathed. This avoids putting unnecessary stress on the animal and reduces the risk of dirty water splashing the owner or bites/scratches that can occur during the process.

“The other alternative, when a veterinarian or a bath is not an option, is to use a wetted towel to wipe down the cat from head to tail and then top to bottom,” Zoran said. “Soap can be added to the wipe, but it must completely removed, as the cat will groom themselves and consume the soap.

“With COVID-19 and pets, it’s important to plan ahead if at all possible. But if a pet is living with a sick person, the pet can be safely cleaned will not be dangerous to other family members,” Zoran said. “People do not need to be fearful of their pets getting the virus or making other people sick, but their pets could carry it around on their fur, which means their fur is just like the surfaces in a house (doorknobs, keyboards, phones, etc.) that can be a source of virus exposure.  The biggest difference is we can’t use sanitizing wipes or hand sanitizer on fur.”

Though pet owners should be cognizant of with whom their pet has recently interacted, there is no reason to believe it is unsafe to keep their pet in their homes or to take them for walks or other activities that you can do while maintaining social distancing.

During this difficult time, pets will continue to serve as hopeful companions that see us through to healthier times.

“Pets are so important to family, and they’re so much a part of people’s peace of mind,” Zoran said. “Have a plan in case somebody gets sick, so you know that you can take care of that pet, and you don’t have to worry about it.”

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at Suggestions for future topics may be directed to

When to be Concerned about Coronavirus with Your Pet

The 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak has been at the front of many health professionals’ minds, especially with the World Health Organization’s recent declaration of the virus as a public health emergency of international concern.

a black cat lays next to a brown spanielAlthough the threat of the mutated 2019-nCoV strain should be taken seriously, veterinarians at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) discuss how this dangerous variant of coronavirus is different from strains that may infect your pet dog or cat.

Coronaviruses are fairly common and often mild infections in cats and dogs, contributing to illnesses such as Infectious Tracheobronchitis Complex (ITB), also known as kennel cough.

While there are also forms of coronavirus that can be more serious, and even life-threatening, for pets, Dr. Deb Zoran, a professor at the CVM, emphasizes that “the coronaviruses that infect animals do not infect humans unless the virus mutates—which is what 2019-nCoV did in the Wuhan, China region.”

However, Dr. Kate Creevy, an associate professor at the CVM, assures pet owners that “at this time, we do not believe humans can catch (any form of) coronavirus from their pet.”

In addition, veterinarians do not currently believe that pets are susceptible to the 2019-nCoV mutated virus.

“There is no evidence that the disease can be transmitted to animals, or that animals are involved in current transmission of the disease to humans,” said Dr. Wesley Bissett, director for the CVM’s Veterinary Emergency Team. “The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention does recommend avoiding animals if traveling to China and to not handle pets or animals while sick.”

Since the more commonly encountered coronaviruses are species-specific, cats ill with a coronavirus are able to transmit that virus to other cats, but not to dogs. Similarly, dogs are able to pass canine coronavirus to other dogs, but not to cats.

For this reason, Zoran says it is best practice for owners introducing a new pet into their household to separate the new animal from their other pets until the new animal can be examined by a veterinarian, or until the owner is sure their new pet doesn’t have signs of ill health (which may be a week or more).

Cats infected with coronavirus may exhibit mild diarrhea, fevers, jaundice, fluid acclimation in the chest or abdomen, and weight loss, depending on which strain of the virus is present.

Dogs infected with a coronavirus may have either an intestinal or respiratory variant, Creevy says. Canine intestinal coronaviruses typically cause mild diarrhea and may resolve without veterinary intervention.

“Dogs infected with respiratory coronavirus alone, or with other ITB complex pathogens, typically show mild nasal discharge and coughing,” Creevy said. “In most cases, they will recover on their own with supportive care including rest, steam therapy to soothe their cough, and soft food that’s easier to swallow with a sore throat.”

As with all viral infections, there are antiviral drugs that can help slow the virus effects in the body, but clearing the infection requires the infected individual’s immune system to do the work.

Dog owners can protect their pet from disease by practicing good hygiene for their pets and themselves, including avoiding contact with areas that have feces from other dogs, and washing their hands after contact with dog feces. Pet dogs should be well-nourished, receiving the correct anti-parasite medications, and vaccinated against preventable infections.

“For cats, since there are no effective vaccines for either coronavirus, the best prevention is good health and hygiene practices, and especially litterbox cleanliness, as the virus is present in feces,” Zoran said. “Owners should clean their cat’s litterboxes daily and make sure they have enough litterboxes, at least one per cat to avoid over-crowding.”

When possible, owners should keep their pets away from other animals that are sick and should seek veterinary care if their illness does not resolve, worsens, or if they have concerns about their pet’s well-being.

Humans coming into contact with pets should take care to wash their hands, and avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The agency also recommends avoiding contact with other people who are sick and staying home if you feel unwell. For more information, visit the CDC website.

By keeping with their usual practice of good hygiene and staying up to date on official information surrounding outbreaks such as this one, pet owners have little to worry about in the case of the novel 2019-nCoV coronavirus strain behind the Wuhan outbreak.

“Dealing with emerging viruses is always difficult, because when a new virus emerges, we cannot predict its behavior,” Creevy said. “For instance, more Americans are currently infected with the flu and more Americans are at risk of death from flu than from 2019-nCoV.  But 2019-nCoV is capturing all the news attention because it is more unpredictable. It’s appropriate to pay attention to 2019-nCoV while we try to figure out what it does, but it’s also essential to keep preventing flu, which is far more likely to affect most Americans.

“Similarly, for pets, there is a possibility that 2019-nCoV has mutated in a way that it could affect pets, but that is unlikely,” she said. “It’s OK to be aware of that and pay attention to emerging news, but it’s even more important for owners to understand the things that we already know coronavirus can and does do.”

“The first, and most important, thing to remember is that most coronaviruses are very specific to the species they infect—meaning the cat coronaviruses don’t infect dogs or humans and vice versa,” Zoran said. “As with all viruses, a clean environment, healthy diet, and good husbandry is the best way to ensure that viruses don’t cause problems for you or your pet.”

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at Suggestions for future topics may be directed to

Feeling the Heat

Dr. Deb Zoran uses her work with Texas A&M Task Force urban search and rescue dogs to study how different breeds have unique temperature ranges and how that impacts their ability to save lives.

Feeling the Heat

The Truth About Feline AIDS

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) is commonly known as Feline AIDS because of its similarities to Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). FIV is relatively uncommon, but it can have serious impacts on a cat’s health and well-being.two cats napping

With proper care, cats with FIV can live many years and usually can share a household with other, FIV-negative cats. Medications and good nutrition can help greatly increase the lifespan of a cat with this disease.

Dr. Debra Zoran, a professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, discusses the stages and prognosis for cats that become infected with FIV.

“FIV is not a virus that is easily contracted by contact in normal household settings, such as from grooming, eating from the same food bowl, or contact with other secretions from the nose, mouth, or urine of infected cats,” Zoran said.

FIV does not survive well outside the body; it is mostly transmitted through bite wounds and blood transfusions, or is passed to kittens during birth. It is also spread through breeding, so cats that are spayed or neutered have a much lower chance of contracting the disease.

“A cat with FIV that is neutered and not prone to fighting can live with another cat in a household and the virus will not affect the other cat,” Zoran said.

Zoran highly recommends that cats with FIV become indoor-only cats, both for their own safety and to reduce the risk of transmission to other cats.

She said that if a cat becomes infected with FIV, the disease will go through three stages, the first of which is characterized by a lack of symptoms.

“After the virus gets into the body, it enters the body’s T lymphocytes and lives in them without causing problems—often for years,” Zoran said. “Some infected cats that have poor immune function can get signs of illness in months, but most cats carry the virus for months to years before the virus transitions into the active stage.”

During the active stage, which can also last for years, cats are more prone to illnesses because the virus interferes with the immune system. They may have frequent respiratory, skin, or urinary tract infections, but veterinary care can allow these cats to recover completely.

“Cats with this stage of the disease do best if they live inside because they are exposed to fewer things to cause illness,” Zoran said.

During the third stage of FIV, called the AIDS stage, cats typically develop chronic illnesses or cancers.

As of now, there is no cure, but cats with FIV can have a good quality of life if they live indoors and have good veterinary care.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at Suggestions for future topics may be directed to

Choosing the best diet for your kitten

five kittens on the grassKittens have very specific dietary needs in order to grow into healthy, active adult cats. As carnivores, all cats need more protein than many other pets, but kittens also require a variety of nutrients to provide energy for growth and development.

Dr. Deb Zoran, a professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, has advice for kitten owners on choosing acceptable diets for kittens.

At birth, kittens rely on their mother for everything, especially nutritious milk. If a kitten is separated from its mother, it needs a suitable milk replacement.

Zoran said the best option is to find a foster queen, which is a different mother cat who will accept and feed the orphaned kitten. If this is not possible, commercial kitten milk replacers are the next best option.

“Cows, goats, dogs, or other milk sources may actually induce diarrhea and won’t have the needed nutrients, especially amino acids, that kittens need–they are very different from other species,” Zoran said.

After a kitten is about 2 to 3 weeks old, owners can start looking for the signs that a kitten is ready to begin the transition to solid food.

“Most kittens can start to eat small amounts of wet food after their eyes are open and they are starting to move around well on their own,” Zoran said.a

Until the kittens are about 4 weeks old and weigh at least a pound, they will still need the milk or milk replacer in addition to any wet food.

“The wet food can be introduced by placing small amounts on a plate or saucer. It needs to be warm, not hot; cold foods do not have a good odor and are less likely to be accepted,” Zoran said.

She also suggests pureeing wet food at first and gradually offering it in a more solid form.

“Dry kibble should not be offered until kittens are at least 6 weeks of age and should not be fed as the sole food,” Zoran said. “Wet food has more protein and more water, both of which are very important for young kittens.”

Once a kitten is fully weaned from milk, Zoran advises choosing a kitten food with more than 50 percent protein and less than 10 percent carbohydrates. She said that kittens can develop diarrhea if they are fed a poor quality food or a food with too many carbohydrates.

Looking at the first five ingredients on the label can help owners determine whether a food has too many carbohydrates; the ingredients on a label are listed by weight, so those listed first are present in the greatest amounts.

An appropriate kitten diet should not have a carbohydrate source listed in the first five ingredients, but, instead, should have water and protein sources, according to Zoran.

The name of a kitten food can also help with determining if it is a good option. For example, Zoran said a food named “chicken and rice” would indicate that it is high in carbohydrates.

In addition, she said, “The food should say on the label that it is complete and balanced for all life stages or for growth.”

Although providing a good diet is only one aspect of caring for a kitten, it is a very important one that sets a kitten up for a long, healthy life. With good nutrition, a kitten will quickly grow from a sleepy newborn to a strong, playful young adult cat.

Pet Talk is a service of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. Stories can be viewed on the web at Suggestions for future topics may be directed to

Cats are carnivores, so they should eat like one

cute cat staringDiet can have a big impact on health. Just like humans, cats have special dietary needs to help them stay healthy.

However, feline diets are a lot different than human diets. Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they require meat in their diet and need little carbohydrates.

In the wild, cats usually prey on small animals, such as mice and birds. But as a pet, a cat might only be preying on a can of cat food. Because pet cats often don’t get the opportunity to hunt for their own food, it’s important for cat owners to mimic the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet their cat would naturally eat in the wild.

Dr. Deb Zoran, a professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, said the best way to mimic a cat’s natural diet is to feed them canned food that has a protein content of 40 percent or higher and a carbohydrate content of 10 percent or lower.
Eating canned food will also help your kitty meet their daily water needs.

“Cats are used to getting a large percentage of their daily water needs from their diet,” Zoran said, adding that if a cat is primarily eating dry food, it may have a harder time staying hydrated. “All dry foods are low moisture, so cats that eat only dry foods consume less water and are more prone to dehydration.”

Dry food diets can also present other health challenges because they are typically high in fat, carbohydrates, and calories. In fact, a high-carb diet can lead to obesity and diabetes, Zoran said.

In addition, a dry food diet may also upset your cat’s stomach, since cats are not “built” for carbohydrate digestion and absorption.

So what should you feed your cat? Zoran said it is best to choose a canned-food diet that says on the label “complete and balanced.” If you want to feed a homemade diet or other type of whole-food diet, Zoran said that’s OK, too. Just make sure to consult a nutritional expert to ensure the diet meets all of your cat’s needs.

Additionally, it’s OK if you want to give your cat a treat every now and then. Zoran recommended plain, cooked meats that are not seasoned and do not contain onions and garlic, which can be toxic.

Other foods that can be poisonous for pets include fruits such as grapes and raisins. In fact, Zoran said to avoid giving your cat fruits and vegetables unless your vet has given you permission.

There are also many plants that are toxic to cats, such as Easter lilies.

“They are extremely deadly to cats,” Zoran said. “Chewing on a single leaf can cause kidney failure. It is best to know what plants you have before you put them in the house.”

As a cat owner, it is your responsibility to keep your pet safe from potentially harmful foods and to take your cat’s dietary needs seriously. As the old saying goes, you are what you eat!

Pet Talk is a service of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. Stories can be viewed on the web at Suggestions for future topics may be directed to