Updated February 2023
Packaged, manufactured pet food is a great convenience to cat and dog guardians. But responsible consumers who want the best for their animal companions have a bewildering array of foods and claims to choose from. So, how do you know what’s best for your animals?
Holistic veterinarians agree that the very best diet for your animal companion is one that you make yourself. A homemade diet, carefully balanced nutritionally, and using raw and organic foods, is closest to what Mother Nature intended.
However, many of us do not have the resources to make our pets’ food, especially for multiple animals or large dogs. So, for those of us who rely, partially or entirely, on commercial foods for our animals. To make wise selections, the primary tool is the pet food label. It actually provides quite a bit of information. HERE are some guidelines to use in selecting a good-quality diet.
The Name Reveals the Contents
By regulation, the name of a pet food tells us quite a bit about it.
- “Chicken Cat Food” must contain at least 95% chicken (excluding water).
- “Fish and Giblets for Cats” must be 95% fish and giblets together, and there must be more fish than giblets, since fish appears first on the label.
- If the label says “dinner,” “platter,” “entree,” “nuggets,” “formula,” or similar term, there must be 25% of the named ingredients. That is, “Fish Dinner” must contain 25% fish.
- If more than one ingredient is named, such as “Fish and Giblets Entree,” the two together must comprise 25% of the total, and the second ingredient must be at least 3%. A food labeled “Fish and Giblets Entree” may contain anywhere between 13% fish and 12% giblets, to 22% fish and 3% giblets.
- Ingredients labeled as “with” must be present at 3%, such as “Fish Dinner with Giblets.”
- An ingredient labeled as a “flavor,” such as “Beef Flavor Dinner,” may not actually contain beef meat, but more likely will contain beef digest or other beef by-products that give the food a beef flavor.
That said, there are a couple of caveats that you should be aware of:
- It used to be that non-meat ingredients didn’t count on the main label, so food labeled “Chicken and Rice Dinner” still had to contain 25% chicken. However, the rules have changed, so now “Chicken and Rice Dinner” could contain 13% chicken and 12% rice and be legally labeled.
- Multiple studies have found many mislabeled pet foods and treats. In some cases, ingredients are present in the food but not disclosed on the label; this is a serious problem if a pet has a food allergy, because the food may contain undeclared allergens. On the other hand, some products contained none of the primary ingredient as stated on the label. The pet food industry has no interest whatsoever in fixing the problem.
Watch Out for By-Products
Even on many high-priced, premium, and veterinary brands, you will notice one of the major ingredients listed is “by-products” of some sort. These are basically “parts other than meat.” They may include internal organs not commonly eaten by humans, such as lungs, spleens, and intestines, other parts such as cow udders, and in the case of poultry by-products, heads, beaks and feet. By-products must be from “freshly slaughtered” animals, although there is some question as to how fresh they really are by the time they reach the pet food manufacturer, as they may be shipped in unrefrigerated trucks.
By-products are usually found in canned foods, where they are often the main or only source of animal protein. While a hunting cat or wild canine would eat the by-products as well as the meat, a named meat should be the mainstay of a carnivore’s diet.
What Are Rendered Products?
Rendering (basically a process of slow cooking) produces two major items: animal fat or tallow, and a dry, powdery product usually called “meat meal,” “meat and bone meal,” or “by-product meal.” (Due to historical quirks in naming, the term “by-product meal” refers to poultry, while the equivalent mammal product is “meat and bone meal.”)
Animals that are dead, dying, diseased, or disabled prior to reaching the slaughterhouse are known as “downers” or “4D” animals. These are usually condemned, in whole or in part, for human consumption, and are generally sent for rendering along with other by-products, parts and items that are unwanted or unsuitable for human use – such as out-of-date supermarket meats (along with their plastic wrappers), cut-away cancerous tissue, parasitized livers, and fetal tissue (which is very high in hormones).
Rendered ingredients vary greatly in quality. Some rendering facilities are closely associated with slaughterhouses, which are in turn connected with feedlots or poultry farms. These “captive” rendering plants are more likely to produce good quality, relatively pure meals. Such meals are typically designated with the name of the source animal, such as “chicken meal.” Independent renderers may take material from many sources.
Many independent renderers accept for processing such items as road kill, euthanized shelter dogs and cats, and other unappetizing ingredients. These items can be segregated from the food stream, and are not supposed to find their way into the pet food chain, but this is not always done. They are supposed to be converted for use in fertilizers, livestock feeds, and industrial applications. Over the years there have been numerous unsubstantiated reports of this material being processed into dog and cat food. The Center for Veterinary Medicine, a branch of the Food and Drug Administration, admits that dead dogs and cats are commonly rendered, and although there is no legal prohibition against using dogs and cats in pet food, they do not “condone” the practice. All the large, reputable pet food manufacturers certify that they do not use such materials in their products.
Because of the way they are processed, most dry foods use meals as their major animal-source ingredients. Meals do contain more protein than whole meat, since the fat and water have been removed.
Many dry foods advertise that they contain some type of “meat” (such as chicken or beef) as the first or a top ingredient. However, because of the high water content of fresh meat, and water may also be added to it, the actual percentage of meat protein is tiny. The first named meal is usually the primary protein source in these foods. (See Pet Food Marketing Hype for more information on this and other tricks the pet food industry uses to persuade you to buy their food.)
Rendered products are found almost exclusively in dry food (which we do not recommend for cats. See Why Cats Need Canned Food and 10 Reasons Why Dry Food is Bad for Cats and Dogs for more information.)
What Does “Complete and Balanced” Mean?
A food may be labeled as “complete and balanced” if it meets the standards set by a group called AAFCO, the Association of American Feed Control Officials. Standards set by AAFCO have been adopted by most states; the states are responsible for enforcement.
A food may be certified by AAFCO in two ways: (1) meeting published standards for content, or (2) feeding trials.
(1) Nutrient Profiles.
These standards set the required amounts of protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and so forth. These theoretically have the benefit of extensive research behind them. AAFCO published updated profiles in 2016. But by then, the research was already more than a decade out of date.
Moreover, any manufacturer can synthesize a food containing sufficient amounts of each nutrient according to the standards, yet an animal will ultimately starve to death on it. How could this happen? The standards don’t address the”bioavailability” of nutrients. The digestive tract doesn’t absorb certain forms of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. In theory, a food made of old leather boots, wood shavings, and crankcase oil can meet the technical requirements for protein, carbohydrates, and fats, but be completely indigestible. Unfortunately, “Old Boot” may be closer to the truth than anyone wants to admit!
(2) Feeding Trials.
Many consider this the “gold standard” of pet food formulation. I am not one of them. When you look at the actual AAFCO protocols for an adult maintenance diet, a manufacturer must feed exclusively the test food to only six (out of eight animals) for six months. Kitten and puppy food trials last only 10 weeks. Several of the largest pet food producers, such as Hills, Walthams and Purina, maintain their own colonies of dogs and cats, and test their foods on hundreds of animals over years or even multiple generations. Other manufacturers rely on testing facilities that keep animals for this purpose to do the studies for them.
It is easy to see how a poor quality diet could be fed for only six months without seeing adverse health effects, yet meet AAFCO standards. Foods that pass feeding trials may still be inadequate for long-term maintenance. Worse still, the AAFCO “family rule” allows the feeding test statement on “similar” foods that were not tested. There are criteria for using that rule, but since there’s no way to tell which food actually passed a feeding test, this label designation is all but useless.
The standards only set “minimums” and “maximums,” not “optimums.” Commercial foods are adequate for the average animal, but may not work for an individual animal’s variable needs.
Preservatives and Other Additives
Many pet food ingredients can spoil, so manufacturers must add preservatives. BHA, BHT, propyl gallate, propylene glycol (dog food only) and ethoxyquin are all synthetic chemicals. Ethoxyquin is rarely used now, except to preserve fish meal. Contrary to internet lore, it must be listed on the label.
Pesticides, antibiotics, and molds are common pet food contaminants. Glyphosate, the active component of the herbicide Roundup® is a major contaminant of GMO (genetically engineered) corn and soy. But there is even more glyphosate in many non-GMO crops. Potatoes, legumes, oats, barley, spinach, and apples are spray-dried with glyphose to make harvesting easier (and cheaper).
Meat from downer animals may be loaded with drugs. Some of them pass unchanged through processing. A toddler who ate the cat’s dry food died of an allergic reaction to penicillin. The level in the Cat Chow was over 600 times the limit allowed in human food!
There have been several major recalls of dry dog food by different manufacturers due to mold contamination of grain ingredients. Some fungal toxins are very dangerous, and so far killed more than 120 dogs.
Transitioning to Better Foods
When selecting a commercial food for your animal companion, be sure to read the label. Although percentages are misleading due to the variable moisture content of processed foods, they are often the only data available.
- Avoid foods containing “by-product meal,” “meat and bone meal,” or euphemisms like “beef and bone meal.” They tend to be the least expensive (and thus poorest quality) animal-source ingredients. “Meat and bone meal” (MBM) is the mammal equivalent to “[poultry] by-product meal.” MBM was reported as the ingredient most likely to contain the drug used for euthanasia (sodium pentobarbital) in a study conducted by the FDA.
- A named meat or meat meal should be the primary protein source. Ingredients like corn gluten meal, pea protein, or by-products are just cheap meat substitutes.
- Stay away from corn and soy. The feed-grade corn and soy in pet food are genetically engineered. Corn gluten meal is often substituted for expensive meat ingredients.
- Pet food makers are clever about marketing. It’s important to know how to see through the hype. For more about pet food marketing ploys, see this article.
- Never feed “semi-moist” type foods, which are full of additives, colorings, texturizers, flavorings and preservatives.
- Avoid foods containing chemical preservatives. Vitamins C and E are better. However, the shelf life of naturally preserved foods is shorter.
- In general, select “natural” brands. While they are not perfect, they tend to be better than most.
- Stay away from “light” or “senior” or “special formula” foods. They may contain inadequate protein, excessive fiber, and poor quality fats that can lead to skin and coat problems or worse.
- Change brands or flavors of dry food every few months. That way you can avoid deficiencies or excesses of ingredients. It also helps preven finicky eating behavior.
- Whenever you are changing foods, remember to GO SLOWLY, especially with cats. Add a tiny amount of new food to old, and gradually increase the proportion of new food. It can take weeks to properly transition a cat. Click here for more info on why and how to change foods.
- With canned food, you can change flavors daily if you wish–my cats never get the same food twice in a row!
- Cats need at least 75% of their diet (ideally 100%!) in the form of wet food (canned, raw, or homemade). Include a variety of meats and flavors to prevent finicky behavior and food allergies and intolerances.
- Do not give dry food to cats who are overweight, diabetic, or have liver issues, pancreatits, urinary problems, or kidney disease. Lw moisture and high carbohydrate content contribute to these problems. There is no benefit to the cat from dry food, and many adverse effects on health. Dry food is popular because of its cost and convenience. But it is definitely not healthy for your cat to eat. (And no, dry food does not clean the teeth!)
- If you must feed dry food, do not get it wet, even if the package says it’s okay. Do not mix kibble with canned food, milk, broth, or water. All dry foods have bacterial contamination on the surface. Moisture allow those bacteria to grow. Some are harmful and cause vomiting and/or diarrhea.
New Labels Are Coming!
The Food Safety Modernization Act was passed in 2017, and applies to both human and animal foods. AAFCO is updating pet food labels to look more like the Nutrition Facts box on packaged human foods. There will be a phase-in period, but you might soon see labels that look something like this:
Make Your Pet’s Good Food Even Better!
You can safely substitute up to 15% of your pet’s total daily food intake as supplemental foods or treats.
Add raw (or lightly cooked) meat and organ meats. (Freeze all meat products at -4oF for 72 hours) Always follow safe meat-handling procedures.
Add a small amount steamed, pureed or finely grated non-starchy vegetables or baby food. Carnivores can’t break down plant cell walls. Dogs can have organic tofu, cooked grains, or occasional fruit. Avoid carbohydrates for cats.
Other helpful supplements include Omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics such as L. acidophilus, digestive enzymes, and antioxidants.