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🖋 Executive Director Lynne’s Blog: Pet Food for Thought 🐾

By Lynne Meloccaro, DCSPCA Executive Director

One of the positive benefits of Americans’ growing consciousness of their own health and nutrition is that more attention than ever before is being paid now to what our pets are eating. When I was growing up, you fed your dog Alpo and your cat Friskies and would never think to look at the can to see what was inside. But today, as we see the effects of processed food and saturated fat in human bodies, enough pet owners have also begun to ponder why the American pet population is seeing more allergies, kidney disease, and thyroid issues than ever before. That’s created a lucrative market for numerous new pet food products that purport to be healthier for our animals.


And, in general, that’s good. Pet food has a long history of containing leftovers from our human meat industry that are not appropriate for human consumption. Kibble, so convenient, was invented in the mid-20th century because aluminum for cans was scarce. How meat ends up becoming hard little brown nuggets is a process filled with mystery. The pet food industry is largely unregulated, and historically some of what has gone into those cans is literally gut-wrenching.

But let’s take a fast look at the healthier food that has been so superbly marketed in the last two decades. There are hundreds of brands to choose from, from frozen to freeze-dried raw, from small-batch canned to food that claims to be made in human facilities, so you know it’s clean. If you look at the ingredients on the labels, you’ll find that there is actually not a whole lot of difference between different brands. Marketing language can be the only big difference between "natural" pet foods and more mainstream varieties. For example, “bone and organ meat” in “natural” pet foods is often the same ingredients previously labeled “meat by-product.” Meat by-products are discarded in the production of human foods, but bone and organ meats are, in fact, healthy for cats and dogs. The inclusion of meat by-products does not make pet food unhealthy. What is concerning, however, is where these ingredients are sourced. Even some of the most highly touted “natural” brands get their ingredients from Thailand and China—two of the largest exporters of pet food to the US. Given that there is very little inspection and quality control for pet food in the first place, where is the accountability for what is going into those cans across the sea? It’s legal for brands to be labeled ‘made in the USA” and still source their ingredients from abroad. The pet food industry is one industry where the consumers can’t vocalize about the quality of what they are consuming (aside from sniffing and walking away), and that gives the advantage to the producer, not the consumer.


But that doesn’t mean your pet can’t eat well as long as you take the time to educate yourself about what’s in their food. Do the research to see what ingredients are used and where they come from. There are many reputable companies that are truly concerned about pet nutrition. But don’t depend on their ads to tell you this—check to see what third-party analysts say.  DogFoodAdvisor (also reviews cat foods), PetFoodReviewer and CatFoodDB are just a few sites that offer unbiased pet food reviews.


Many traditional vets oppose, and many integrative and holistic vets champion, the “raw” diet.  Biologically, this is the most appropriate diet for cats and dogs but may not be the most appropriate for the average owner. You really have to know what you are doing in terms of nutrition and proper food handling to avoid real danger of illness or malnutrition. Stories are rampant about salmonella or listeria contracted by both humans and animals. Most people (like me) may not have sufficient time or money to manage such a diet successfully for their pets. Raw diets can also be bought in frozen form, but the number of recalls of such food from manufacturers unable to maintain proper sanitary conditions is cause for concern. For myself, I’ve chosen to supplement my pets’ diet with a component of raw by mixing freeze-dried raw bits with quality wet food.  The freeze-dried form is easier to store and handle and—they love it.

The majority of my pets’ diets is high-quality wet food. For cats, I prefer grain-free wet food that is free from carrageenan, a known inflammatory that is often added to pet food (and human food, too) as a preservative. Unlike omnivorous dogs, cats are obligate carnivores and cannot digest grain. Cats are also lactose intolerant, so forget the milk. Cats can eat kibble as well, but again unlike dogs, cats are sometimes not great drinkers. They are built to get most of their hydration from their food, so an all-kibble diet is not the best for cats, though supplementing with a good quality kibble is a good idea, especially if you are away from home several hours a day. If you do feed your cat kibble, consider getting a water fountain rather than a static bowl—cats generally prefer moving water (which is why they are often fascinated with the faucet). Dogs, of course, drink a lot, so can tolerate kibble better, but what dog would not like the pleasure of fresh, moist meat as well? A grain-free diet is not so important for dogs, and in fact, the substitution of grains with legumes by some brands has led to health issues in dogs. Also, vary their diet—would you like to eat exactly the same thing every day? As for vegan diets, despite their marketing claims, these are not appropriate for dogs or cats. They simply do not have the digestive systems to absorb enough nutrients from plant matter alone. Both of these species require meat, so if you are opposed to meat in principle for yourself, consider a vegetarian species such as a rabbit or Guinea pig for a pet. Feeding a vegetarian diet to a dog or cat is as inappropriate as trying to make a rabbit eat hamburger.


The sheer volume of conflicting advice and do’s and don’ts you can find when trying to research good pet food is daunting. But ultimately, if you choose a high-quality food that 1) lists a meat as its first ingredient; 2) avoids unneeded ingredients such as grain fillers and carrageenan; 3) doesn’t have words on the label like “recipe” and “formula,” (tricky terms denoting lower percentages of the main ingredients), and 4) if your dog or cat eats it and maintains good body and fur condition without digestive upset, then that’s a good pet food for you.



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