Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My trip to Hills PNC

I have talked about my trip prior to going to Topeka to the Hills PNC  (Pet Nutrition Center).  It has taken some time for me to digest the entire trip and consider what I wanted to say about it and how to present it.

Considering who I am (such a small blog and I don't even have a book published) and what I believe in (feeding a diet that mimics the cat's natural diet), I was more then a little surprised when I got the email asking me to attend.  I was so shocked in fact that I found a contact us link on the Hill's website to ask if this was legitimate.  (if you ever question an email, never reply.  Contact them through an known source.  If it is spam or phishing replying simply lets the scammers know your email address leads to an actual person and thus a money maker for them)

More then once I have stated I do not like Hill's products.  I'm pretty sure I have said I hated them during times of frustration.  Since they have such a strong reputation in the general public quite often we will get large quantities donated to the shelter and unfortunately most of it gets wasted.  I have yet to have a set of kittens or a mom for that matter that would eat it consistently.  They generally eat enough to slake their hunger and then  hold out for something different.  These are animals with a great need for good nutrition and eating 20% of the recommended serving and ignoring the rest is not good.

After I verified the invitation was legitimate, I still had some seriously strong reservations about going.  I know they are a very big company with very strong opinions and science / pseudoscience in their corner with people who have been working there for a long time that strongly believe in their product.  I am one woman who has had hundreds of kittens fail to thrive on their diet and they and my own cats that absolutely blossomed when I removed foods with optimized nutrition from their diets.  I knew what they stood for prior to going and I don't believe in it.  I was pretty sure that I would not be swayed by what ever they actually said to me (mostly because I have heard just about all of it before) so it seemed like a waste of time and money.

But I knew this would be a chance to meet some other bloggers and spend time with other pet people.  I have to say I have really come to completely appreciate the people I have 'virtually met' because of this blog.  It is nice to know there are people out there who consider their pets generally the same way I consider my pets.  All too often I am surrounded by people who do not have pets, do not want pets, do not really consider what it means to have a pet prior to getting one (if I had a dollar for each person that said to me 'oh I wish I had know about x before I adopted") and think nothing (or very little) about rehoming their pets of they become inconvenient.  I just don't understand how these people don't attach to their pets as I (and many of my readers) do.  To spend time in the company of people 'like me' who would care enough to come to this sort of thing seemed like it would be worth it.  And it was.  If it hadn't have been for them, I would have regretted the time away from The Crew and fostering.  It would have also been harder for me, personally to live with my own conscious,  to continue to talk about nutrition if I am not open to what everyone has to say.  Since a) it has been a while since I listened to their pitch, and b) it was a chance for me to grow as a blogger and c) to meet other bloggers, I went.

So anyway..  full disclosure.  Hill's paid for my way for this entire tour.  I broke out my wallet to purchase a couple of incidentals that I could have easily not purchased and had this been 100% free for me.  The hotel room was a suite on the sixth floor.  It was really very nice.  All food was paid for.  All the drinks (aka alcohol but also coffee and such) were free.
My room - there are two beds.
View from my room
Breakfast was provided by the hotel, lunch and snacks at the facilities and we were treated to two wonderful dinners. They transported us back and forth from the airport (I was in a shuttle while Robin of and Angie of got a really nice car) to the hotel and to all of the seminars.  All of this was wonderful and the only complaint I have was lack of free time to enjoy any of it.  Having brought my swimsuit I was sad I didn't find some time to go for a swim in the hotel's outdoor pool.
And it was warm too.. 
There was five minutes that was chiseled out of the schedule by some of the women to make a run down to the store to pick up some Wizard of Oz T-shirts because they didn't mind missing those minutes to get ready for dinner that night.  I opted not to go, but looking back I think I would have liked to have, if for no other reason then to have seen more then the hotel while on the trip.
The wonderful Teri of Curlz and Swirlz.  Her T-shirt says
"(From the desk of Toto) Dear Dorothy: Hate Oz, took the shoes, find your own way home! Signed: Toto"

So the first day we sat in a conference room at Hills and listened to several speakers talk very briefly on quite a few different subjects.  About their heritage (did you know Hills was founded because a guide dog had kidney issues?), Science of Nutrition: Ingredients & Pet Food Labels (knowing how to read a pet food label is as important as reading human food labels.) The Science of Taste and Nutritional Assessment.  They then talked about their Commitment to Caring and their donations to animal welfare societies around the country. Then opened up the floor to questions. (more on that later)
Hills PNC. Image provided by Hills
We then toured where they "test" on animals.  Testing on animals is an emotionally charged set of words.  We all have images of unhappy animals being pretty much tortured.  What they are currently doing is housing 420 dogs and about 500 cats (all with their own names and the staff that cares for them do recognize each one by sight) and feeding them food, weighing them and doing some blood work (the unfortunate choice of words was "bleeding them") and measuring their input and occasionally the output.  Their input is "closely regulated" (more on that later too) and if they are testing digestibility so is their output.  They are kept in larger open areas with some mental stimulation (less so for the 'retired' kitties who do not have any vertical space) and the employees are free to visit any kitties not in a study (I'm sure they can the dogs too, I wasn't paying attention so much to that - gee I wonder why).  They also have rooms with individual condos (about the size of a small kitchen pantry from floor to ceiling) for kitties that need to be isolated either for temperament or because the testing requires it.  There is a book with photos of each kitty when they aren't in a testing cycle that is free to be visited with and employees can 'request a cat' and go into a work area with WiFi and visit.  We, the PNC tour who left our pets at home, didn't get anywhere near an animal despite the fact we were all cooing at them from the wrong side of the glass.  They also have a full in house animal hospital where they do dentals on the animals on a yearly basis and it appears they can do everything your vet can do right there on site and they do have a very large number of vets on staff. All animals are vaccinated according to the current recommendations (every three years)  The cats live their entire life on site.  Once they are 'retired' they are available for adoption by staff only, but none of the medical needs of the pet are covered once they are privately owned which is probably why they had two rooms of 'retired' cats.  When their health declines, the animals are euthanized there at the facility and are cremated. That decision is made on an individual basis for quality of life.  When testing that needs to be done for a specific disease it is done off site.  Animals are found with the condition in question and the pet owners agree to feed the food in question.  Generally about 30 animals.  Tests are done in regards to the condition in question and if the animal met the standard of the test parameters.
Cats living at the facility for testing.  Image provided by Hills
Apparently these cats are "Adell" and "Dirty Harry"
since that is the file name of the  image provided by Hills
Apparently one of them was just "bled"
After the tour we went and had a very nice dinner.  It was late when we got back, but us "cat ladies" sat around gabbing away.  Did I mention I really appreciated being able to spend time with other cat people??  All too soon we had to go to bed.  We had gotten up early to eat and be on the bus to start the day at 7:30 and we needed to do it again the next morning except this time we had to pack and bring all of our stuff with us.
I took this picture at the museum where we had dinner the first night.
The factory they took us to was quite a drive from the hotel.  Fortunately they provided us a very nice bus that had WiFi.  I must say, I don't think I've ever had iPad/iPhone envy more then I did then. It didn't help that I am so new to Facebook that I didn't think to test to make sure I could connect to it on my netbook (the one we use for traveling so we don't use it much) and FB decided I must be the wrong person since I had the wrong machine and was in the wrong state.  *shrug* no biggie.. (oh who am I kidding, it drove me batty, but I survived.  Heck if I couldn't have gone three days with out mainlining the internet I would have had to seriously consider rehab)
The entrance to the factory
We got to the factory and the smell of pet food was almost overwhelming.  The comments made by the others mirrored my own opinion of the smell.  If you are wondering, buy a big pack of dry pet food, open it up and take a big whiff.  Yup, it was everywhere.  I remarked I would much prefer to have been in Hershey.

Security was VERY tight and we were never left unattended.  We had to remove all jewelry and pretty much anything metal that could be removed. We were dressed up with hairnets and hardhats and steel toed galoshes as we walked through the plant.  The main dry ingredients come in on trucks and are dumped into grates on the floor and you don't see them again until they come out as kibble.  Additional ingredients are stored in different areas and are added into the process.  I actually saw more about how kibble was made on the TV show "How It's Made"
The extruder looked almost identical to the one in the video, but it was much newer.

They source their vendors prior to signing contracts and accept shipments.  The suppliers need to agree to meet the Hill's standards for the items they source.  Hill's was quite happy that many of their suppliers don't like the Hill's standard because they are tougher to meet then some of the other places they supply.  They do test the items when they show up at the factory to make sure they meet standard. Standard being the nutritional requirements and the limit of contaminates.
Those in the tour that were willing to pose for this photo.
As I said, you really don't see the ingredients at all because everything is enclosed.  Well we didn't see much of anything.  Nothing much was happening while we were there.  No wet ingredients being shipped in, no raw meat in totes, no bags of supplements being cut open and dumped into vats and everything so clean to the point of being sanitized.  We did see the area where they dry the kibble through a camera.  Even with everything being so enclosed and contained,  Hills designed the "raw" area of the plant to be isolated from the 'cooked' area of the plant.  So all sourced ingredients come in to the 'raw' area. Anyone moving from the 'raw' to the 'cooked' side has to go through a foot and hand washing station.  All tools and supplies are duplicated so there should be no need to bring them from one side to the other.  Even though we got close to absolutely nothing, and saw very little of consequence (some dry foodstuffs being dumped out of a truck into a grate on the floor) we too had to wash and dry.  Once the food is packaged it is weighed to make sure it is of weight (not all are) and then run through a metal detector.  Food that is not of weight is opened up and dumped back into the process.  Food that is rejected by the metal detector is opened up and the source of the contamination is found and explained.

Foodstuffs that don't make it into a bag are used as stock animal feed.  What doesn't make it into a bag? well there were bins around the facility with "fines" in it.  Which are bits of food that didn't quite make it into the kibble form.

After the tour they gave us a boxed lunch and drove us the two hours to the airport.  I got home at around 11pm.  And as you saw from my previous post, I totally got my lickings for leaving :)  What I didn't tell you was I was involved in a kitty rescue on the way.  A young man and his young daughter were sitting across the isle from me.  She realized after she sat down she forgot her stuffie. She was about to cry when her dad her that he asked her to make sure she had everything, but not being able to leave it behind he told her to stay put while he ran back to the waiting area to get it.  The second he was out of sight she started to panic that the plane would take off with out him.  I did my best to assure her that the plane would not take off, that I wouldn't let it, but I could see the panic growing.  He got back rather quickly, and it turned out the stuffie was a cat (a Hello Kitty) and someone joked we had a cat rescue.  I almost laughed out loud at being a part of it.

So those are the facts of the trip.  Considering how long this post is already I'm going to save my opinions until tomorrow.  If need be I'll do a third post to answer any questions I can (and if I can't I'll tell you) so feel free to ask away!

If you happened to have gone on the Hill's PNC tour and have done your own post(s) on the subject, I'd love to link them up if you would like. Feel free to post your urls in the comments.


  1. I'm so glad you were able to far, I can tell you, that even should I be invited, I would decline the invitation. I'm not impressed so far.... :(

  2. You can guess what my question is, Connie. Involves the definition of an "obligate carnivore."

    BTW, my own vet has been there, and of course was super-impressed with the whole set up.

    Me? I don't care. I'd feed their food if there were no other options and it was a life and death situation, but otherwise, no. And I don't give a flying fig what their marketing people tell the public.

  3. Wow, I had no idea that they had paid for the trip. I'm guessing they are offering information in the hopes that in return they will get good PR? I too struggle with Hills and won't feed it. (The only exception has been emergency use of their A/D when one of the cats is seriously ill.)

    Did you get a chance to ask any questions about their food formulations (especially grains and cats)?

  4. good post. I have read yours and part of Robin's now. I have to say, I suspect Hill's may have hoped to be more "persuasive". I am not a fan, but at least they are reaching bad they aren't more in touch with what people want before they reach out.

  5. A very interesting read, Connie! Though don't have a clue who or what Hills is? Will look forward to your conclusions. Can't believe they paid for the whole trip!! They must be very keen on publicity!

  6. It will be interesting to read the rest of your report. Sometimes I don't get to take part in these things because even though my blog is popular, the companies do not like that I have to send out my assistant (my human) on their tab! And I can't say I blame them.

    But honestly, we are not Hills fans over here and between you and Robin alone (I don't know the opinions of the others), I am sure they had their hands full already!

  7. I agree.... the A/D and the C/D are the only two that I would consider buying (for a kitty that is an "intended target" of the food. But their food for DIABETICS is GARBAGE!....and that is my primary focus. (I have a diabetic kitty)

  8. Having fed both C/D and M/D (their "diabetic" formulation) I can tell you I would far prefer to feed M/D, and that isn't saying much. My two boys who suffer from urinary crystals get raw food and if I can keep them away from carbohydrates (Jack LOVES his carbs) they don't have a problem.

  9. You did a great job not saying what you were thinking about the food...LOL!!! I know the feeling. I look forward to seeing what else you had to say about this whole adventure. It was great getting to spend some time with you on the tour!


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