You walk into your local neighborhood vets. The receptionist smiles, the air con cools your hot face, everything seems clean, fresh and in order… You heave a sigh of relief inwardly, you’ve arrived in the pinnacle of pet care heaven. You’re in safe hands.
Nestled in amongst all the handy leaflets, are an array of pristine looking products.
In fact, just what you were looking for… guinea pig pellets.
The beaming smile and white teeth of the unquestionably trustworthy doctor adorning the bag bore into your brain and fill you immediately with a sense of comfort. These are the pellets that your guinea pigs need. Just look at all these healthy, natural ingredients.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve been there – or at least a variation of this scene. It’s a common scenario.
And you’d be forgiven for being taken in by it.
After all, the Australian pet industry is worth an estimated $12.2 Billion dollars. So it’s worth thinking about exactly how many marketing execs have been involved in creating those dazzlingly polished white teeth…
Curious? Well, read on to hear what I’ve recently discovered about guinea pig pellets and the sinister truth that lays behind them.
The Relationship Between Your Vet And The Pellet Manufacturers
OK guinea parents, brace yourselves.
While this might seem a little confronting – and almost unbelievable – did you know that each of the Australian Veterinary Schools are in bed with the major pet food companies?
This was uncovered in 2015, when a student named Alexi Polden publicly outed the University of Sydney’s Veterinary School with a particularly worrying example. She tells how the nutrition portion of the 3rd year Small Animal Medicine and Therapeutics subject was actually presented by Dr Penny Dobson of Hill’s Pet Nutrition (maker of Hill’s Science Diet, among other pet foods).
If you explore the link above you’ll find the full sordid details of the corporate sponsorship at the bottom of the page, including a leaked University email trail – showing that even some insiders feel these deals are getting “out of hand”.
The University of Sydney – and many other leading universities – have allowed pet food manufacturers to advertise extensively throughout their facilities, directly to students. This association is not hidden either, the University of Sydney’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital’s website boasts its close association with Hill’s on its website.
At this point you might be thinking that this stinks of some kind of backwater blog conspiracy theory.
But in fact, this story was verified by ABC News, also in 2015.
The president of the Australian Veterinary Association, Robert Johnson has even talked openly about this conflict of interest. Branded lab coats anyone?
Perth’s Murdoch University has so-called “multi project funding” which includes Hills paying for branded lab coats for students beginning hospital placements and the promotion of Hills pet food at the university’s veterinary teaching hospital.
Almost all discharge letters for animals treated there recommend a Hills specific diet. However, in a statement, Murdoch University denied there was a conflict of interest.
“The sponsorship with Hills Pet Foods does not preclude the use of, or sale of, other pet foods by the hospital, and it does not prevent discussion of other approaches/philosophies on pet nutrition,” the statement read.
But, I mean, read between the lines guinea parents! This guy clearly implies there is a sponsorship. That’s all you need to know. Australian vets are being trained in guinea pig nutrition directly by pet food manufacturers!
The truth about all pet food is that almost 100% of the standard nutritional information provided to veterinarians comes directly from the largest pet food manufacturers.
An unknowing guinea pig owner – trying to do a little homework in selecting the best guinea pig food could go through all of these steps…
- Consult their vet (as above, who is sponsored by the guinea pig pellet company);
- Consult the ‘nutrition expert’ in the pet store chain (who is employed by the pet store – whose only reason to exist is to sell you products);
- Consult the adoption agency their new piggie came from (who is regularly sent free pellets);
- Consult a few guinea pig blogger websites (with commission earning links to guinea pig pellets on Amazon)
- Consult a veterinary website (as above);
- Consult a few veterinary school websites (as above).
And it’s more than likely this same guinea pig owner could be told the exact same story from all of these sources:
“Guinea pigs need 70% hay, 20% veg and 10% pellets”, “Guinea pig pellets contain essential nutrients your pet won’t get from elsewhere”, “Pet food is the most regulated industry”, and so on…
Why? Because all of the resources this unwitting pet owner consulted are intricately related, actively working to promote the sale of products in order to earn money.
Many of these resources could in fact be owned by the same company. Who really owns that pet blog? Seemingly unrelated individuals and organizations are actually very related, or supporting hidden commercial agendas.
Marketing 101 – There’s Big Money In Processed Foods (For Guinea Pigs As Well as Humans)
To really understand the core of what’s going on here, we need to take a little history lesson.
Because what we are seeing here with guinea pig pellets in 2021 is just one example of a wider phenomena that spans the entire pet industry and has been going on for 150 years.
Prior to the the 1920s, guinea pigs weren’t fed on hay or pellets all. Much like dogs, or other household pets they were fed on scraps of natural food from the family table.
In fact it wasn’t until the 1860s that processed pet food was invented at all… when one James Spratt, a failed electrician and lightning rod salesman, made his fortune by shifting slaughterhouse offcuts mixed with grains to upperclass English dog owners – with the help of photos of Native Americans hunting Bisons (which his product didn’t contain) and the suggestion that his “show winning” dogs were “almost entirely” fed on his biscuits.
He called this invention Spratt’s “Meat Fibrine Dog Cake”
Thus, this wily entrepreneur sowed the seeds of the $87 Billion dollar global pet industry based on marketing not science.
The beauty of Spratt’s business model was this – he had a very cheap product, based on industry byproducts, that he could sell for a very high price – with the help of creative marketing. But the best thing… his ‘customers’ couldn’t talk back to complain.
Interestingly, this business model remains exactly the same to this day. Guinea pigs still can’t speak up for themselves, pellets are still made from cheap byproducts. Advertising is still creative.
The truth about most of these compressed, ‘long-life’, ‘biscuit’ like pet products (including guinea pig pellets) is that they are:
- Highly processed
- Bulked up with cheap industry ‘byproducts’
- Supplemented with ‘added’ vitamins
- Artificially sweetened so your pet actually eats them.
So the awful reality is that rather than your guinea pig pellets being the sort of ‘fortified’ natural superfood you may have imaged, they are more like a macabre sort of hay chicken nugget.
Still not convinced yet?
Take a read through of this Australian Pet Food Industry Overview hosted on the Australian Parliament’s website as part of a regulatory submission. Here you will find a horrifying trail of how the main players, Mars, Nestle, Colgate and Woolworths are all playing their part in this sinister hidden industry with little legislative oversight to work in the best interests of our guinea pigs.
But my guinea pig needs pellets because they don’t make their own Vitamin C!
If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably still got a few lingering thoughts in your mind along the lines of “but my guinea pig needs pellets because…”
That’s understandable. That guinea pigs need pellets because of Vitamin C is a very common myth.
While it’s true that guinea pigs don’t manufacture their own Vitamin C (just like humans) and therefore need to obtain it from a dietary source, this doesn’t mean that pellets are the best source of it.
The ingredients in guinea pig pellets themselves actually contain very little, if any, Vitamin C. Manufacturers add vitamin C into the vat with ‘powders’ that are produced at bulk very cheaply in China or India (my husband used to own a supplements company, before he grew tired of the industry – which is why I have some insight into how this all works).
All this means that there may or may not be much actual usable Vitamin C left in the pellet by the time it reaches you.
In any case, what the pellet manufacturers don’t mention, is that fresh grass contains tons of Vitamin C. Just 100g of fresh grass per guinea pig per day is the perfect, natural (and free) Vitamin C supplement!
Vitamin C is not the only myth about guinea pig pellets though. Bunny Meadow created an excellent list of these myths in their article why pellets, nuggets & museli are not part of a healthy diet.
Common Ingredients In Guinea Pig Pellets
As part of researching this post, we put on our undercover investigative journalism hats and headed out into the great Aussie outback to see just what we could find. Alright, it was a 90 minute drive around town – but we covered 3 of the major Australian pet store chains and snapped the ingredient panels of 9 different guinea pig pellet brands.
What we found was actually even more shocking (and depressing) than we imagined.
If you have a bag of pellets in your house, I urge you to go pick them up and take a look at the label right now. Chances are, you’ll see one or more of the following ingredients:
- Wheat Middlings / Wheat Pollard – an inexpensive filler, basically the byproduct left behind after producing flour. Grain, of any variety, is not natural food for guinea pigs.
- Soybean Hulls / Soybean Meal – another filler, essentially the byproduct left over after making soybean oil. Beans, of any variety, are not natural food for guinea pigs.
- Canola Meal – yet another filler, yet again the byproduct remaining after canola oil extraction. Canola (a.k.a. rapeseed) is actually from the Brassica (cabbage) family, which unsurprisingly is not a natural food for guinea pigs.
- Lignin Sulfonate – a binding agent, which happens to be a byproduct of the paper industry. Also used to treat gravel roads by binding them into a hard skid-resistance surface. Yum.
- Bentonite – this is basically clay, used as an anti-caking agent. Despite being approved for industry use, the jury is still out on side effects. A 2019 review showed in some cases bentonite clay leached out micronutrients, causing vitamin deficiencies in animals ingesting feed supplemented with it
- Dicalcium Phosphate – a textural stabilizer often made with crushed bones. The typical dicalcium phosphate manufacturing process includes ‘degreasing’ fine crushed bones in hot water (80° to 85°C) prior to a 4-5 day de-mineralisation process. Take note that “there is no calcium phosphate from bone [that is] food grade; only feed grade.”. Do I need to mention guinea pigs should not be eating bones?
- Cane Molasses – we all like the taste of molasses in Aunty Jemima’s fruit cake, don’t we? But what’s it doing in your guinea pig’s pellet? Answer: to sweeten the byproduct mixture, so your guinea pig will actually eat it (and keep coming back for more). Molasses, or any other type of refined sugar for that matter, has absolutely zero place in the diet of a cavy.
- Mill Run – My personal favorite. It’s hard to tell exactly what the foreboding reality of “mill run” may entail exactly, since in at least one guinea pig pellet the packaging didn’t state what type of mill the ‘run’ was from… Even industry pros consider it a catch all term for “floor sweepings“. Caveat Empor.
Even pellets that are supposedly ‘hay based’ still contain these ingredients prominently near the beginning of the ingredients list. Remember, just like human food, the ingredients listed in pet foods are sequenced in volume order.
We also found 2 Australian guinea pig pellet brands containing “Yucca”. Why or how this plant from the Asparagaceae family was appearing in these recipes was totally beyond us. It is far from the guinea pig’s natural diet. Turns out, it’s added to help reduce the smell of ammonia (guinea pig wee). That’s right, you may have been unknowingly feeding your guinea babies cage deodorizer.
So essentially, the recipe for the hypothetical archetypal guinea pig pellet might be:
“Acquire cheap fillers from around the world, mix in a little hay to make it sound healthy, sprinkle some cheap vitamin powders to make it sound complicated and then sweeten to taste with refined sugar. Add crushed cow bones to taste. Mix in a vat, superheat to pasteurize (destroying any semblance of remaining nutrients) and then harden with glue or clay. Allow to rest in warehouse for upto 2 years until consumed by guinea pig.”
The Truth About The Health Risks Posed By Guinea Pig Pellets
The truth of the matter is that, despite what your vet or the pellet makers claim, there is absolutely no need to feed your guinea pig pellets.
Feeding your guinea pig a natural diet based on fresh grass and hay with a small amount of fresh herbs, flowers and vegetables will give them everything they need.
Pellets are just not needed – they are the equivalent of guinea pig junk food. However, the situation is actually even more dire, feeding your guinea pig this ‘junk food’ may actually introduce additional health risks.
Let’s take a look at the possible complications of including pelleted products in your cavies diet:
Over Eating / Obesity
Just look at what too much refined sugar does to humans. Research on animals has literally shown that sugar is addictive because of the dopamine hit it causes.
Dr Michael Winterdahl, had this to say in his research published in January 2020:
“If sugar can change the brain’s reward system after only twelve days, as we saw in the case of the pigs, you can imagine that natural stimuli such as learning or social interaction are pushed into the background and replaced by sugar and/or other artificial stimuli,”
Pellets containing molasses or other refined sugars are addictive to your guinea pig and cause them to overeat on pellets whenever they are made available, in preference to their natural foods.
Compaction / Constipation
Compaction or constipation is a common issue in guinea pigs. In fact some guinea parents get so used to helping their babies out with this issue, that it becomes ‘normal’.
However, if you think about it logically, consider that eating too many pellets could be causing this issue in the first place. Pellets are extremely dry and contain many unnatural additives such as anti-caking agents, binders and textural stabilizers.
In the wild, guinea pigs don’t eat all this processed dry stuff. They eat fresh grass – which is around 80% water – making their poos large, dark, moist and extremely healthy. Humans can get constipated if they don’t eat enough natural greens, why wouldn’t your piggie?
We noticed immediately that when we started feeding Milo & Oreo freshly sprouted grass, rich with moisture, that their poos immediately started looking much healthier than when they were eating mainly dry hay.
Consider this: if you’ve been feeding your guinea pig mostly hay and pellets, you may have never actually seen what a proper, healthy guinea pig poo looks like. Guinea pig poos are not supposed to be dry.
If it’s dry pellets in, it’s dry pellets out.
Bladder stones are another common health issue in guinea pigs.
Stones are basically small crystalized formations of calcium or oxalate, that can occur anywhere in your guinea pig’s body when levels of these minerals are too high, although they most commonly tend to occur in the bladder and/or urinary tract and sometimes kidneys.
Guinea pigs that develop urinary stones are more likely to be fed a diet high in overall percentage pellets, low in percentage hay, and less variety of vegetables and fruits.
Some guinea pig pellets even contain added calcium. Multiple sources suggest eliminating pellets if your piggie is suffering from this issue.
While it’s contrary to everything you’ve been told, it’s high time you considered removing pellets from your guinea pig’s diet.
The argument for vitamin fortified pellets is only propped up by what has become the defacto diet for guinea pigs: hay. Hay is also a dead foodstuff devoid of vitamin C and is supplied by precisely the same companies that manufacture the pellets.
If we just include enough fresh grass (a natural source of Vitamin C) in our guinea pig’s diets, the argument for pellets disappears altogether.
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- Guinea Pig Pellets 101: Exposing The Truth Behind The Ingredients - January 20, 2021