In 2001 I brought home my very first puppies of my own. Two pugs I named Linus & Lucy. I began feeding them a well known commercial dog food when I first got them which they had already been eating. One day while doing some research on animal welfare I came across some disturbing information about the company and their food which lead to a mission to learn more for the well being of my dogs.
In my search, I came across a wealth of information and a book titled “Food Pets Die For” written by a woman named Ann M. Martin. She wrote the book in order to expose what she uncovered about the pet food industry when her dogs became mysteriously ill. She had her dog food tested by a private lab and what she discovered was disturbing and essential for loving pet owners to know for the well-being of their fur-families.
Since that year I have been reading, researching, learning, and writing articles about dog food, the pet food industry, and dog nutrition, sharing information and experience I’ve gathered from veterinary nutrition specialists, integrative and holistic vets as well as open minded and continually educated conventional vets. I have written some long winded blogs on the subject as it is a subject I am passionate about but I will do my best in this post to summarize (no promises!) what I’d like to share and think pet parents need to know about pet food and the pet food industry.
My journey of research, education and experience has lead me to feed my last generation and current dogs a raw food diet. And while I am a major advocate for raw, whole foods, species appropriate diets, I know it isn’t practical or comfortable for everyone so I do not completely cast out commercial pet foods but feel it’s important to be informed when choosing what to feed our pets.
(An important obligatory disclaimer before we move forward : I am not a veterinary professional so my advice should not be regarded as such.)
That being said...
Your Vet May Not Be The Expert When It Comes To Nutrition
Let me preface this section by saying that I respect veterinary professionals very highly. Their schooling, education, and hard work is no small feat and something to be admired. The concern for me is that veterinary schooling provides little more than a semester of education in the area of pet nutrition and what curriculum there is in veterinary school is both funded by and written by some of the largest corporate commercial pet food companies like Hill’s and Royal Canin. Which leads me to question everything and gather information from all angles.
Expertise is no guarantee of never falling into error, especially expertise based primarily on biased information (funded exclusively by particular pet food companies) as opposed to unbiased scientific research information provided by those considered knowledgeable experts. Experts with advanced schooling, advanced residency training and board certification in the area of veterinary nutrition from the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.
The Good, The Bad & the Downright Toxic
The pet food industry is highly unregulated and what regulations or guidelines there are allow much to slip through the cracks. Barely regulated labeling allows companies to print misleading wording on their marketing and packaging like All Natural, Holistic, Premium, Healthy. Lack of required information also conceals product quality from consumers. So while a recognizable and specific ingredient may be listed first in the ingredients list, the source, quality and parts contained in your pets food are unspecified and subject to questioning. Loopholes in the regulatory process allow a lot of things to slip through the cracks and into your pets food. (For more detailed information on exactly what that might be see:
Neither the FDA or USDA has much involvement in what goes into pet food and although the AAFCO has established regulations for nutritional requirements for pets they do so at a minimal level and provide no regulation for the quality of ingredients required to meet those requirements.
What finds their way into some of these pet food companies is deplorable. Many pet food companies have been found to obtain meat from rendering plants that get their meat from the discarded remains of euthanized animals, diseased and dying livestock and in extreme cases even roadkill has been mentioned. There are pet foods that have tested positive in laboratory testing for pentobarbital, the drug used to euthanize animals. There are no regulations that specify where the sources should be obtained to meet the very basic requirements set forth by the AAFCO.
If you find all this hard to believe, remember that animals are still considered property under the law, and therefore there aren’t a lot of regulations or laws in place for their well-being and those that exist leave a lot of wiggle room. Just look at the basic requirements by law for companion animals. All that is required by law is shelter water and food. That shelter could be a run down shed or dog house outdoors and food and water quality is not taken into consideration. Many animals have suffered neglect and poor quality of life because the of the very basic and nondescript laws that allow for pet owners to provide the absolute bare minimum, leaving many dogs chained outdoors for life, living in poor conditions because they only require food, water and shelter from the sun.
Quality is not regulated where animals are concerned. We have come along way where it comes to animal welfare but still have a very long way to go. The fact that animals are still considered property is what allows companies to get away with despicable manufacturing practices and allows for puppy mills to exist.
Food Allergies in Pets
Over the years, food allergies in pets have become more recognized and it’s worth knowing that not only are certain filler and nutritionally devoid ingredients the culprit but certain traditional proteins as well. The best way to determine the cause of a food allergy in your pet is an elimination diet.
If you’re interested in more information on a good elimination diet - here are some good resources:
Health Condition Specific Foods
Did you know there is no medical reason that PRESCRIPTION diet is prescription only? There are no ingredients in prescription pet food that requires prescription. No medication, no special ingredients. It's just regular food. And poor quality food at that.
In 2016 a lawsuit was filed against Mars Petcare US, Inc. ("Mars"); Nestle Purina Petcare Company ("Purina"); Hill's Pet Nutrition, Inc. ("Hill's"); PetSmart, Inc. ("PetSmart"); Medical Management International, Inc. d/b/a Banfield Pet Hospital ("Banfield Pet Hospital"); and BluePearl Vet, LLC ("Blue Pearl Vet Hospital") stating that:
“Defendants' prescription pet food contains no drug or other ingredient not also common in non-prescription pet food.Defendants' marketing, labeling, and/or sale of prescription pet food is deceptive, collusive, and in violation of federal antitrust law and California consumer-protection law.Defendants are engaged in an anticompetitive conspiracy to market and sell pet food as prescription pet food to consumers at above-market prices that would not otherwise prevail in the absence of their collusive prescription-authorization requirement.”
You can read the full transcript here: https://www.foodpolitics.com/wp-content/uploads/GPDOCS1-4687016-v1-2016_12_07_ECF_NO__1_Class_Action_Complaint_with_Ex....pdf
Needless to say, these prescription diets not only contain low quality ingredients but also deceptively market and sell them at higher prices labeled as prescription, therapeutic or veterinary diets with no legitimate reason for labeling or selling them as such.
Grain-free Diets and The DCM Scare
A subject at the forefront as of late is the correlation between grain free diets and Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). This alarming newsflash has been frightening pet parents everywhere without the facts and research to back it up. The information and what is still purely theory is highly oversimplified when the facts are anything but.
Last year, cases of DCM were recognized in dogs that do not typically have the disease. A common factor in several of the cases was that they were being fed a grain free diet, which statistically speaking makes sense as the popularity and use of grain free diets has increased and the feeding of these diets has become more widespread.
Anecdotal reports of DCM suggested that some grain free diets or diets containing legumes (peas, lentils, chick peas, beans, etc) were a factor in taurine deficiency and the development of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). Researchers, however, have yet to draw a direct association between grain free diets, taurine deficiency, and DCM. What IS known is that while there is enough suspicion for the FDA to issue warning to consumers, the veterinary medical community does not yet have the facts on whether there is a direct connection between these factors.
And Now, The Ingredients List
While things can get a bit tricky and complicated given the complex nature of the labeling process it’s still important to read the ingredient list on your pets food. Avoid being fooled by the marketing used to appeal to the consumer through use of wording or concealment of information.
Taking that into consideration, here’s the basics on what to look for on the ingredients list of your pet’s commercial food:
• specified protein sources listed first on the ingredients list: chicken, beef, salmon, lamb, turkey, bison, venison, duck, rabbit.
• NO fillers like corn meal or corn gluten meal
• NO soy
• NO cancer causing agents like BHA
• Limited use of legumes - these should come further down the list
• NO by-products of any kind
• NO sugars
• NO food coloring
• NO artificial ingredients
• Specified animal fats
• Natural preservatives like tocopherols (vitamin E)
• Best-by date
• Preferably more than 1 protein source
• Vegetables and fruits
It’s worth noting that ingredients are listed in order of weight. The first ingredient on the list will be the highest weight content BEFORE cooking. Kibble is cooked at high temperatures and once this is done, the protein content loses much of its water content thereby making its weight much less than before cooking. Adding or feeding only canned food to your pets food is beneficial and helps supply more moisture content in their diet.
A Final Word
We all have our individual preferences and what’s practical and right for each of us and our pets. Hopefully this article helps to provide some insight into the pet food industry, selection and interpretation. Should you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask a qualified veterinary nutritionist or reach out here. If I don’t know the answers we can always learn together.
To the health and longevity of your pets always!