Pet food. The truth about it is often hard to come by, especially because all the money and power are concentrated on making you, the consumer, believe that pet food companies know exactly how to make perfect food and are all about your pet’s health and well-being. Of course, we know that corporations are, by law, responsible first and only to their stockholders, and profit is their only goal. Pet food is just a means to this end.

However, there are a few folks out there trying to educate people about the nutrition pets really need to be healthy. Some (like us!) do a lot of research and are careful to never make claims without fact-checking first. And….some don’t. Today we have a couple of examples of the latter! (Quotes from the “experts” are in italics.)

a. “Is natural pet food better?”

When it comes to pet food, the options are almost as varied as people food.
 Real food, better known as “natural food” is a growing trend among our furry friends, so we wanted to know: what does a natural diet actually entail?

For Doctor James Bianco, it’s a no-brainer. “They are worth their money, absolutely. They’re worth their money because they promote healthy skin and healthy coat, they promote a healthy immune system,” said Veterinarian Dr. James Bianco.

Natural food will say “natural” on the packaging, but that isn’t the only word you will want to look for.

“Natural” does have a legal definition with regard to pet food: “A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.”

Nice and vague, eh? If it comes from nature, even though it’s processed to death, is still “natural.” By the book, meat is natural, but so are by-products, meat and bone meal, hydrolyzed poultry, animal digest, plasma, and feather meal. And so are corn gluten meal, wheat mill run product, malt hulls, and dried cheese product. Natural’s not looking so good, is it?

Then we have an issue with foods who use “Natural” or “Nature” in the brand name, where the “natural” rule does not apply. This allows Procter & Gamble (Iams Healthy Naturals, Eukanuba Natural, California Natural), Colgate-Palmolive (Hill’s Nature’s Best), Nestle-Purina (Cat Chow Naturals), Diamond (Diamond Naturals), and Mars (Nutro Natural Choice), to sell foods that sound natural but are simply variations on the theme of all their other poor-quality foods: same ingredients, new package (which is invariably, tan, brown, or green for that “natural” ambiance!).

A word worth writing down: AAFCO, it’s the pet version of the FDA.

This is absolutely false, and demonstrates complete ignorance of pet food rules and regulations. FDA is a regulatory body; AAFCO has no regulatory authority whatsoever. AAFCO sets voluntary standards for animal feed and pet food. Pet food is a relatively recent and rather small part of AAFCO; the bulk of its work is oriented toward livestock and poultry. FDA is a voting member of AAFCO, and they certainly work together, but the two organizations are not equivalent by any stretch of the imagination.

Next, look at the ingredients. “The first things you look at, the type of meat. Is it a meal, is it a meat by-product, or do you have corn or soy as a first ingredient. What you want to see is meat,” said Bianco.

Ah, the old “meat is the first ingredient” trick. Everyone falls for this one. Click here to read the facts about this and other pet food advertising tricks.

Many have a section devoted to natural options, but Doctor Bianco recommends the mom and pop shops in your neighborhood.
”Personally, I feel that going to the smaller, non-national chain type stores is where you’re going to get your best information. Many times when you have the owner there, they’re very knowledgeable,” said Bianco.

I agree with this. Many reputable “natural” brands are expanding into big-box pet stores, but I believe they are paying an unacceptable price for the increased market share. There simply aren’t enough truly high-quality ingredients to support such massive growth. The quality has to decline when this type of expansion occurs. Wellness is a good example. Their quality has definitely deteriorated since they increased production to cover more stores. Avoderm, Natural Balance, Blue Buffalo, and handful of others are there too, but in smaller quantities. This week I found Merrick at Petco; their poultry foods are still my cats’ favorite, but I’m keeping an eye on them. Being sold at big-box stores is not a deal-breaker, and I’m glad to see more consumer choice out there, but typically smaller stores carry a larger selection of unique products that may be significantly higher in quality.

Store manager William Carpenter says he tells his clients to look for meats, potatoes and cranberries in the ingredient list. “The majority of our customers like the all-natural foods,” said Carpenter.

A 30-pound bag of dry dog food can cost anywhere from $45 to $55, but there may be some hidden money savers.

Seriously, let’s look at these numbers. According to Steve Brown’s analysis of dog food prices: less than 20% of the cost of a bag of dog food is spent on ingredients. Where does the rest go? To profits for the manufacturer, distributor, and retailer; and costs like paper, printing, tape, pallets, freight, storage, and so on. If you include the costs of marketing and advertising, the money left over for ingredients is even less! This analysis was done on a “healthy” brand of natural dog food.

Your dog will eat a smaller quantity of food, and you might have fewer trips to the vet.

”As veterinarians, we see dogs on the more premium diets with healthier immune systems, healthier coats, less gastrointestinal problems,” said Bianco.
Overall, pet lovers say that they can see a difference.

Yes, there is a difference. Yes, you should buy the best quality food you can for your cat or dog. But you also need to understand how to read the label and assess the quality of food. You need to know the difference between canned, dry, raw, and homemade foods, and the risks and benefits of each one. And you need to remember that cost is only one variable, and that companies that spend a fortune on advertising spend less on ingredients.

b. “I Found the Best Food to Feed Your Dog or Cat” by Jeffrey Vogl, DVM.

Hardly a day goes by at my office without a client asking us what is the best food for my dog or cat, because everyone knows most of the pet foods are terrible. They have things like grain, BHA, by-products of some sort, preservatives, and who knows what else. Why I have even been told by clients that most of these foods cause cancer, weaken their immune system, cause skin disease; have ground up tires, soybean oil, tocopherol, and many acids like lactic, phosphoric and citric. I was horrified to learn that all these pet food companies were trying to harm our beloved pets. It would make sense then that all of the diseases I deal with every day are caused by the very food we use to try to keep them healthy. Could that mean that unscrupulous veterinarians would recommend these toxic foods, to cause diseases and increase their bottom line? What a horrible conspiracy.

I therefore made it my mission to find out who has the best pet food out there.

After very intense research, pulling out my old nutrition notes (from 1982), and asking Dr. Google I feel much better now. It turns out things aren’t as bad as I was led to believe. Why Science Diet brand alone has 77 different types of food to feed your dog and 46 products for your cat (not including the list of prescription diets for diseases). Every single one of them has wonderful nutrition facts, for healthy skin, heart, coat, etc. They even tell you how each product works and better yet, they have testimonials too. How can you beat that?

Well guess what: Royal Canin has “Innovation Inside.” NOW you have my attention. They actually have foods for every one of my breeds at home. I can have Yorkie Diet, Shih Tzu Diet and Bulldog Diet. Why how perfect is that!? They even have a Giant Junior Diet and a Mini Aging Care diet. These dog food companies can’t be all that bad when they make diets for all my own breeds.

But just when you think it can’t get any better, along comes a new upstart to take center stage. The Blue Buffalo Company’s line of Blue products is all the new rage. They are holistic and have “LifeSource Bits” that have been cold-formed for greater potency (They said it on TV). They have Life Protection Diets, Longevity, Wilderness, and Basics; more than 20 products to choose for your dog or cat.

I was very impressed with one company who had a feline-maintenance, a feline-maintenance-indoor, a feline-maintenance-indoor-hairball, a feline-maintenance-indoor-hairball-sensitive-skin, a feline-maintenance-indoor-hairball-sensitive-skin-mature. But I only wanted the feline-maintenance-indoor-hairball-mature, which they must have been out of.”

Please tell me everyone that you are feeling it. Do you get what is going on here? It is us crazy pet owners that have encouraged all the (yes, call it what it is) MARKETING. We buy into the slogans, jargons and fancy talk. For Pete’s sake, we do it to ourselves: Natural, Holistic, Organic, Free Range. I read in a business magazine the new phrase is Harvest and Natural Harvest, which is proven to immediately increase sales of any product. Why??? Things used to be so much simpler. I remember growing up with my first dog Char, a wonderful black lab mix. I fed him what everyone fed their dog at the time, Purina Dog Chow for 12 great, healthy years. It was $15.00 for 50 pounds.

I love this brilliant, tongue-in-cheek analysis of the niche marketing craze in pet food. But then the good doctor goes on to give some of the worst advice possible:

So, what to do with all this intense research and technical data? This is where I go really crazy. I tell my clients to make their own best dog food with all these products—literally. Pick three or four name brand foods that you like and mix them together in a bin and – viola! – there you have it. All the best of the best foods. If one food is better for skin, another better with fatty acids, another with protein, you get the best of all of these. The body takes what it needs and excretes the rest anyways. We call it a “Dog Food Stew.” We start with one food that agrees with your pet (i.e. no vomiting, diarrhea etc), then very slowly mix in food number two into the bowl over a week or two. When you are at half food one and half food two, dump the entire bag of food two into the bin and mix. Then do this again with food three, etc. You now have “Dog Food Stew.”

There’s a bonus to this method also. Some dogs over years get dependent on one brand and flavor of food and will get horrible vomiting and diarrhea if a client wants to change foods. Their gut has been “trained” to digest only that food. By feeding a mixture of foods, you slowly “train” their gut bacteria to digest any food you might want to feed them. This is a great benefit especially when a company changes their products or discontinues a line.

This sounds logical, but what you really have now is a single new dog food comprised of three other dog foods. The dog may still be just as intolerant of other brands and flavors. Unless you change foods frequently over time, the benefits he ascribes to the “dog stew” idea are bogus.

By the way, one of the best sources of vitamins, minerals and fiber you can give your dog is fresh fruits and vegetable. Most dogs will readily eat apples, bananas, pears, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, etc. (stay away from grapes and onions which can both be toxic in high doses). Bags of frozen vegetables and canned green beans are cheap, fill your pets up and are very healthy for them.

The doctor evidently forgot that, unless fruits and vegetables are steamed, pureed, or otherwise pre-digested, your dog cannot break down the cellulose  walls enclosing all these valuable nutrients, and the only thing you’ll get from adding them is expensive (and bulky) dog poop. Canned vegetables are cooked and therefore more digestible, but the benefit of the few nutrients that haven’t been cooked out are likely negated by the BPA and salt that go along with such foods. Cats, of course, should not be getting any additional carbohydrates in their diet.