Burton’s Blog: Bird Bedding and Problematic Grains

Burton’s Blog: Bird Bedding and Problematic Grains

Recently I found myself in a store that had a few cage birds and in order for the store employees to help keep the cages clean they used corncob grit on the cage bottom. This is dangerous for the birds. Most grains have a contaminant mold called Aspergillus, but corn has the worst record and some parts of the country have more than others. Essentially, all corn needs to be tested. There are 200 species of this mold and hundreds of others that may or may not be infective. Most if not all can possibly create respiratory problem. This goes for humans as well. This mold is notorious for causing respiratory infections in birds called Aspergillosis. This disease is almost impossible to cure if not caught early. Sometimes surgery can repair the infection and give the immune system of the bird a chance to fight the disease.

Birds do not generally show disease. It is a protective behavior. To show illness in nature makes the animal more vulnerable to predation. In order for a pet owner to diagnose a problem with a bird they must do two things: Watch for poop and listen.

The best bedding to use is newspaper. Newspaper is rather sterile, cheap, and many birds like to tear it up. It’s a win-win situation. The toxin buildup from these dangerous molds can also destroy the liver over time so our pets can get contaminated in two ways: through the liver and/or the lungs.

Most people are not aware of the threat, and pet food manufacturers that use corn and other grains have to be hyper-vigilant in monitoring levels of Aspergillus. For better or worse, the USDA has set allowable levels of Aspergillus in foods. Manufacturers will take grossly contaminated corn and reduce the toxicity levels by adding lesser contaminated corn or grain. Most corn used in manufacturing pet diets has some Aspergillus contaminants.

Diamond Pet, a very large dog and cat food manufacturer, didn’t catch their contamination until dogs started to die. Even though they clearly displayed negligence in testing and monitoring their contamination level, they blamed an employee that took in contaminated corn for a bribe of some kind. This resulted in one of the largest pet food recalls of all time.

How much faith do you have in pet food manufacturers that intentionally reintroduce contaminated grains through mere dilution of a product? That puts a lot of trust in those compiling our pet diets. I’m not a big fan of grain in our pets’ food for just these reasons.

The Diamond Food recall affected tens of thousands of animals. Horses, birds and other animals can be affected as well — but birds are really susceptible to molds. More than 50 years of experience has taught me a lot about how manufacturers think. Many lead their marketing direction with price. Lower prices, lower cost. Who are you going to trust? More and more of our pet foods have been bought out by hedge funds, corporations that don’t actually care much about your pet. As long as they can keep it alive long enough to make money selling you food. It’s a cruel outlook, but how else are we supposed to interpret the very damning observations about the way these companies do business? Every job in the chain of command is based on an increase in sales and profit. They bought the businesses in order make money — not be pet evangelists with the animal’s best interest at heart.

Getting back to bird bedding.

When using newspaper, don’t use the glossy colored sections. The ink can contain heavy metals that are possibly toxic. Just use the old fashioned newsprint. Plain and simple. Plus, you can contribute to the remarkably important print newspaper industry at the same time. Subscribe to a paper. It’ll do your brain good and then you can recycle it for the health of the bird – on the bottom of their cage.

Another bedding that worked really well in theory was ground English Walnut shells. If the walnut granules were left too long in the cage they developed mold. It worked really well for suppressing odors, but if the owner got lazy the shells would grow pretty moldy. Since it was quite expensive people did not want to change the bedding until it smelled. That’s a recipe for disaster.


Birds in general are some of the greatest pets we can have. I’ve had three great parrots that all died of fairly old age (Over 40). To achieve avian longevity one needs to know something about birds to keep them healthy. In the future I will discuss birds more in-depth because I’ve neglected writing about them in the past. In the meantime cherish your ball of feathers. They are a gift. Buy quality seed. Over the years I have like Goldenfeast, Abba, and Harrison’s. No matter the manufacturer, I would stay away from corn. There’s just too many potential problems.

Above is a photo of our African Grey Parrot, Rufus. He’s 25 years old and was our store mascot on McKnight Road for all those years. For those that know Rufus, he’s settling in to his new digs quite well and has decided he really likes my wife, Sharon. She feeds him regularly throughout the day with all kinds of foods, both cooked and raw. He has virtually no dry grain in his diet – and that’s just fine by him.

Until next time….

A Full, Fond, But Not-Quite Farewell from Burton

A Full, Fond, But Not-Quite Farewell from Burton

A Full, Fond, But Not-Quite Farewell from Burton

We did business in Pittsburgh for 26 years after I came to this city after being the operations manager of the Detroit Zoo. 26 years sounds like a long time, but honestly I wouldn’t have minded a few more with all of you and your pets. I found great joy in running Burton’s Total Pet – because for me it was always all about animals.

Our existence had to be based on making the health of the pet our foremost concern. There were already too many other establishments that sold high-margin “stuff” and pushed product without regard to the long-term health of the animal. It’s been difficult to run a business that had to, on occasion, tell a well-intentioned customer that they were doing a disservice to an animal.

I’ve had to refuse sales and sometimes turn customers away. Some appreciated the gesture and accepted the advice in the spirit in which it was intended. Others raised a ruckus or took to the Internet to make sure the world knew about the “ignorant” or “condescending” employees at Burton’s Total Pet. These instances were not the norm, but each one stung just a little bit.

To their credit, our managers and staff believed in our mission. I want to thank all past and present employees for their efforts in making this the store I envisioned. I’d also like to thank our loyal customers. We’ve gotten to know many of you quite well over the last 26 years. You made us more than just another retailer. It has been a privilege to serve you and I will miss our daily interactions most of all.

There have been many wonderful people that kept Burton’s Total Pet going throughout the years. We helped hundreds of young people earn while they learned. In order to work for any of our stores, our employees had to learn a little something about pet care. They chose their path, but I encouraged all of them to take this opportunity to find a passion. I’d like to mention some of our staff members by name. If you see any of them in the store during our final month, they’d love to hear that you appreciated their service as well.

Cindy Thompson – store manager, 26 years
Phil Thomas – store manager, 22 years
Ken McFarlane – store manager, 20 years
Steve DeCarlucci – store manager, 25 years
Dan Nodd – store manager, 20 years
Sharon Patrick – manager, animal care, store designer, 26 years
Chris Boyd – accountant, IT specialist, 26 years
BJay Weiss – my right hand man, operational assistant, 26 years

I also want to take a moment to remember a long-time employee that passed away a couple years ago. Bobby Thompson worked as our truck driver and resident comedian for 20 years. Bobby was a practical joker, but he’d put everything aside to help someone in need. All of us miss him dearly.

I’d also like to mention Donna Kennedy, 22-year Total Pet veteran, and Cindy Bain, 15 years as a reptile specialist.

Rufus, our African Grey parrot and McIntyre Square greeter, filled our store with laughter and terrorized everyone but Steve. Rufus will retire to my home as he’s earned some rest after so many years on the job. I hope his presence over the past 25 years has given our customers a look into the fascinating life of a bird. He will get all the attention and care he deserves.

I have many thoughts about the nature of business in 2018, but I’d like to share a specific observation that consumers should consider because it will irrevocably shape the commercial landscape. The pet business has become a major focus for investors. They keep finding new ways to offer less service alongside a poorer quality product.

In virtually every line of business, hedge funds and the bottom line have driven small retailers out of business. Internet e-tailers backed by these large cash stockpiles can make temporary price cuts and promise free shipping in order to drive “small” and “local” out of business. There are many other factors as well, but the long and the short of is that local businesses with a passion for their specialty face greater challenges every day. Make an effort to support them for as long as they’re willing to make a go of it.

As I mentioned in my shorter address, I desperately wanted to find a way for Total Pet to survive in an increasingly niche market. We worked on plans to downsize floor plans and relocate, to provide online purchasing, but unfortunately all of these plans required large amounts of capital that we just didn’t have as a local, family-owned business. Our plan all along was to decrease our store numbers and regroup with new footing. The new footing never materialized, and so we were faced with the impossible decision to keep fighting tooth and claw for every cent just to get by or close our doors. The more I fought to keep our stores open, the less time I could spend with the customers and their pets.

We were the first full-service pet store in Pittsburgh when we opened in 1993 on McKnight Road. People thought we were a national chain, but we were not. The stores were locally owned and operated. I made all of the decisions regarding the foods we carried and the items we sold, and our small staff became a family.

I was the first (and sadly the last) person to host a major local radio show dedicated solely to pet care. I did not allow advertisements because I did not want anyone to think that we were endorsing the advertisers because they had money to pay for ad space. Instead, we produced our own advertisements and paid for the show ourselves. I found it reprehensible that companies wanted to sell poor product using our reputation. That KDKA show provided one hour of pure pet care information. Our staff gave their time to produce that weekly one-hour radio program. I’d like to thank my co-host Rob Pratte for his help in making the show a success. People still recognize my voice and comment on how much they enjoyed the show all these years later.

We also published Pittsburgh’s first pet care magazine. Total Pet Magazine dealt with all manners of pet care. We even discussed cows and horses. I considered it an opportunity to share more personal and more thorough observations about topics like nutrition and food storage. Technical topics that required a bit more study than a quick in-store conversation.

I’m proud of our accomplishments. I wish we could have done more, but we perhaps limited ourselves from the very beginning because we wanted to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. I want our Total Pet customers to know that we appreciated each and every one of you. Getting to know you and your pets has been a wonderful reward for our efforts.

Even though our stores are closing I will remain a resource of information and experience for the community. I will continue to post pet care articles on the Total Pet blog. Watch for more information on Facebook in the coming weeks as we finalize details. I will continue to write these articles because I appreciate the animals in our lives. 50 years of animal husbandry experience shouldn’t go to waste.

Even though this is a bittersweet good-bye from our Total Pet family, it is not a permanent farewell. Thank you – all of you – for making Burton’s Total Pet your favorite Pittsburgh pet supplies store for the last 26 years.

Grain-Free Diets and Mass Confusion

Grain-Free Diets and Mass Confusion

In early July 2018, the FDA released an alert about a possible connection with Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs fed grain-free diets. The release understandably caused quite a stir among pet parents who for the past 10 years have believed such diets were preferable. The following post digs a little deeper into this issue. Trying to clarify the confusion about Grain Free Recipes and the Recent FDA Report will take a bit of explanation.

On July 12, 2018, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issued an alert regarding a possible connection with Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs fed grain free diets. This was done as a precautionary measure. The precautionary measure offered no solutions and just caused a scare among dog owners. This is the sort of thing that causes paranoia. Paranoia leads to knee-jerk reactions among pet owners, retailers, various pet food brands that produce and sell these diets, and the Internet community (which wastes no time in jumping to violent conclusions without any real information).

Let’s start with what we know. We don’t know if any of the approximate 100 dogs affected ate the same food. We don’t even know if the food was one brand or many brands – just that it was “grain-free.”

Some dogs also come genetically predisposed to Dilated Cardiomyopathy. King Charles Spaniels, for example. Is this because their heart structures predispose these dogs to DCM or is it because they don’t adequately absorb cysteine, methionine, and/or taurine. Is it because their liver enzyme prevent the production of taurine from cysteine and methionine? It’s one of my favorite phrases because it’s almost always true – more research is required.

The current issue has affected a small population of dogs (less than 100). There has not been a direct link established regarding the cause, but diet is a suspected component.

What should pet food manufacturers consider doing to address this issue? The balance and levels of bioavailable methionine and cysteine are of critical importance. All pet nutritionists should be evaluating diets for these key amino acids. Canine diets should have adequate levels of naturally occurring methionine, cysteine and taurine.

rawz dog food

The RAWZ recipes and those like RAWZ appear to be the best approach. At this time, however, we have to look at the underlying issues of inadequate key amino acids that may ultimately result in other nutritionally related diseases. Even once we’ve come to a conclusion on this DCM problem, we need to remain focused on the root causes of nutritional inadequacies that are caused by improper ingredient selection and processing degradation of those ingredients. Currently we’re just not considering these issues when our pets have a problem.

Only with a sound and prudent approach to making changes that further balance pet diets, can we provide balanced, superior nutritional profiles. Will it cost more? YES. The alternative is keeping our collective heads in the sand. If we choose ignorance, of course we can justify spending less on food that might cause long-term harm to our pet’s health. I’m offering this alternative in jest, of course. WE SHOULD ALL WANT TO KNOW MORE.

At this juncture, however, we need to look at what is available (rather than what is not). As I said, I like RAWZ (or diets like that) for both dogs and cats. RAWZ has high protein quality because it is 100% rendered-free. Available protein and amino acid profiles are retained to a greater percentage due to less processing.  Dehydrated proteins and real meats contain higher levels of naturally occurring methionine, cysteine, and taurine compared to some excessively processed meals, such as chicken meal or fish meal. Taurine supplementation has always been added to all RAWZ dry recipes (both canine and feline). RAWZ is a non-profit company (whatever that means in terms of their business practices I do not know) but I believe they have our pets best potential in mind.

Unfortunately determining the best ingredients is still a bit like driving through a London fog, for the consumer and the nutritionist alike. Nutritionists are not always in charge of ingredient quality. It’s a slippery slope. To confuse matters even further, a protein in certain plants called lectins has recently been shown to be detrimental to our digestive system. It seems to cause digestive issues that can create allergies and autoimmune diseases. These somewhat toxic plant proteins will affect our immune system by damaging the digestive tract.

The plants most implicated at this point belong to the nightshade family (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant). Pressure cooking can neutralize lectins in legumes, but the lectins in most grains and nightshades are a different matter. Those lectins do not seem to be heat labile. Since these findings are in their infancy we need to see how they play out. For more information about lectins read Dr. Steven Gundry’s The Plant Paradox.

Nutrition might be a science, but some days it feels more like an art form.

Has there ever been a similar situation with DCM and dogs? 

In late 1990’s there were a number of dog breeds reported with DCM in which diet may have been associated. In these cases, the suspected diet type was based on lamb meal and rice and formulated for maintenance (lower protein and not as well fortified). The dogs were generally large breeds (e.g. Newfoundlands). It was postulated that low circulating taurine was the cause and may have been due to inadequate taurine syntheses in the liver. This may serve as an early indicator of shortcomings in sulfur-containing amino acid supply (methionine and cysteine).

Was the lamb naturally short on sulfur-containing amino acids? The result of studies indicated that lamb meal was very low in cysteine and methionine. These meat meal products are processed at high heat without a lot of research to determine the effects of high-heat cooking quality food products. We do know that canning and rendering causes substantial degradation of protein quality. Rendering is more detrimental to ingredient quality than canning. Studies have shown reduced levels of taurine in cats fed some rendered foods. Fortunately for cats, taurine has been added to most cat diets because of resulting cardiomyopathy in the early days of manufacturing kibble. The cat seems to manifest the disease earlier than dogs and manufacturers found that out the hard way when the first kitty kibbles came on the market. I’m sure these manufacturers also claimed these diets were “all your cat needs.” Never listen to a manufacturer that claims any single diet is all your pet needs to survive. FULL STOP.

So, is there anything inherently wrong with grain-free diets? First, it must be understood that taurine is synthesized in the liver from sulfur amino acids methionine and cysteine. If there is an inadequate supply of these amino acids from plants then it stands to reason there will be a shortage of taurine. We also know that taurine may be depleted by certain food ingredients. Legume seeds like peas, lentils and chickpeas have low levels of methionine and cysteine and plants do not produce taurine. Thus, these ingredients must be paired with complementary proteins like those from animal sources. I found scarce reports in the literature evaluating the legumes or tubers on canine or feline taurine levels. There was some indication that soybean (a legume seed) protein decreased taurine in feline plasma. Another reason to avoid soybean meal in carnivore diets.

As it turns out, legume seeds can be rich in oligosaccharides, which could, at higher levels, lead to more fermentation and ultimately lower taurine. We need more study in that area since, for humans, fructose oligosaccharides are an important digestive fiber.

What should we consider doing to address this issue? First, gather more information through broader studies of DCM. There may be some common aspects to the previous issues in the 1990’s that have been overlooked.

It is unlikely that all grain-free diets are actually implicated despite the early scare. It might be only one or two. It’s also possible the animals were already predisposed to the condition. Furthermore, the balance of bioavailable methionine and cysteine are of importance. Nutritionists should be evaluating their diets for the bioavailability of these key amino acids.

Ultimately WE ALL NEED TO GET BACK TO BASICS. I’ll beat this drum until every pet food manufacturer’s ears bleed. We need to look to the animals’ primitive diets for guidance.