As Americans are (very slowly) becoming more conscious of the foods we eat and the health consequences associated with them, a new debate over food ingredients has made way into discussion – Dog and Cat Foods. In the United States alone, there are over 77.5 million dogs and 93.6 million cats owned as pets, and this does not include those that are being held in shelters or roaming the streets. The American Pet Products Association has calculated that worldwide dog and cat food sales are at a whopping $52 billion dollars, with approximately $18 billion of that attributed to the U.S. market alone. When it comes to choosing what to feed our pets, we are faced with a plethora of varieties and options that some might agree are overwhelming: wet or dry food, new trends like raw food diets and grain-free, brands and manufacturers, etc. The problem with choosing food for our pets though, is that many pet owners are unaware of the guidelines and ingredients that are commonly in the foods.
Labeling Requirements for Pet Foods
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) provides labeling guidelines for pet foods that are produced by US manufacturers. The guidelines are updated annually but they do not regulate any parts of the actual production of the foods. Here are some common rules on terminology for labeling:
- “100%” or “All” – neither term can be used if the food contains more than one ingredient, outside of water needed for processing or trace amounts of condiments and preservatives.
- “Dinner” – food must include an ingredient that constitutes at least 25% of the overall weight of the product.
- “With” – term can be used as long as there is at least 3% of the ingredient it is referring to, included in the overall mix.
- “Flavor” – can be used as long as the food includes an ingredient that gives the overall product a distinct characteristic (however, something labeled “chicken flavor” might just include extract from poultry parts or artificial flavor, and not necessarily any actual chicken meat at all)
A Good Diet for Dogs and Cats
Just like we do, dogs and cats feel better and thrive on a healthy diet. Healthy pet foods improve coat and skin quality, energy level and general overall health and longevity. Dogs and cats both tend to be healthiest and happy on diets that are built primarily on protein. Healthy carbs, vitamins, minerals, and even limited amounts of fats are also a part of a healthy balance for the animals – very similar to that of a healthy human diet. When it comes to corresponding these aspects to ingredients on pet food labels, it can arguably become quite tricky. The AAFCO labeling guidelines require the ingredients to be listed in descending order according to the weight of the item added in the food; but even when an item such as chicken or lamb is listed as the primary ingredient, this can and commonly includes skeletal muscle, nerves, blood vessels, hearts, bones, and other parts found within the slaughtered animals. What you really want to steer clear from is any meat ingredient pairing with the term “by-product,” as the pets cannot digest meat byproducts. Shockingly, the majority of pet foods on the market today will have these in the ingredient lists, many times more than once. Also, experts have agreed that anything that acts as a filler, such as oats, flour, wheat, corn and peanut hulls are all good things to avoid – as they have little to no nutritional value what so ever. Removing these ingredients from the foods can reduce itchy skin and ear infections. It can sometimes become quite difficult picking these out of the ingredient list as some manufacturers will break them out into a number of different terms to make it less present in the mix. For humans and our pets too, we should also try to avoid the common preservatives BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole, a fat preservative) and Ethoxyquin (a chemical preservative used to prevent spoilage).
Deciphering the Terms
When animals are slaughtered for human food production, the lean muscle is cut off and placed for sale into the meat market. What remains is the carcass (bones, organs, blood, beaks, etc), and this is what commonly goes into pet foods as “byproducts,” “meal,” “byproduct meal,” or “digest.” Other human food industry leftovers have been found in production for pet foods such as, restaurant grease, out-of-date supermarket meat, and “4D’ livestock animals (dead, dying, diseased, disabled).
The process used in the production of meat products in pet foods is called “rendering,” which is defined as “the industrial process of extraction by melting that converts waste animal tissue into usable material” (in practice, this involves placing livestock carcasses and other leftovers into huge vats, grinding it up and cooking it for several hours). The mixture becomes separated, and the outcome is the ingredient known as “animal fat,” “meal,” or meat “by-product.” Here are the definitions of these terms in more detail…
- By-products: (for example: chicken by-products, or beef by-products), clean non-rendered “parts”, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals It includes, but is not limited to lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, blood, bone, fatty tissue, genitals and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. This practice is a cheap way for manufacturers to maintain a higher food protein level (although not high quality) while ensuring lower production costs.
- Meat By-product Meal: (for example, chicken by-product meal), chicken by-products, defined above, that are cooked/rendered. After cooking, the dried solids are added to pet foods.
- Digest: material from mammals which results from chemical breakdown of clean meat tissues or by-products (“parts” other than meat). The use of ‘digest’ is commonly used to give the foods a meat “flavor” when it does not contain any real meat.
Shockingly (or not shockingly), all rendered products are considered “unfit for human consumption,” and I am sure if our furry friends could voice their opinions, they would agree that they are unfit for their consumption too – especially considering the fact that they are an inferior protein source and are often unpalatable. Check out this video of a typical rendering plant… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYk-L7ACvWE
What about “Premium,” “Ultra-Premium,” “Gourmet,” “Natural,” and “Organic”?
Here are some definitions of these commonly seen labels:
- Premium, and Gourmet Products: Product labeling with these terms are mainly just an advertising hype. These labels are not required to contain any higher quality or healthier ingredients than products not labeled as such.
- Natural: products with this label do fall under regulations set by the AAFCO (the regulating body for pet food manufacturers). The organization defines the term as the food having ingredients from only plant, animal or mined sources. They cannot be ‘highly processed’ (whatever that means…) or contain any chemically synthetic ingredients such as artificial flavors, preservatives, or food colorings.
- Organic: pet foods labeled organic are those that are made without the use of conventional pesticides and artificial fertilizers, free from human or industrial waste contamination and processed without ionizing radiation or food additives. Like human organic foods, if food animals are involved in production, they must be raised without antibiotics or growth hormones and have been fed a healthy diet. Producers must obtain special certification and follow specific production guidelines to market the food as organic.
- 100% Organic: contains all organic certified ingredients
- 95% Organic: contains at least 95% organic ingredients
- Made With Organic Ingredients: the product contains 70% certified organic ingredients
Pet food and products are not always the most affordable item on our grocery lists – especially when trying to avoid everything above… There are some cost effective options on the market that consider the avoidance of such ingredients or consider a healthier diet. However, avoiding all of them in a single brand or food can become quite the difficult task. On Petco and PetSmart’s website, you can find each foods ingredient lists along with their prices. Here is a list of a few healthier foods in order of the most cost effective options to the more expensive options:
- Canidae and Natural Balance: these provide an assortment of protein sources without the use of by-products. They use grains such a brown rice, but Natural Balance has a variety of ‘grain-free’ options as well.
- Merrick – Whole Health Made Right: also has grain-free options and does not use meat by-products in ingredients
- Solid Gold, Newman’s Own, and Innova: high-quality food without byproducts. These food options are a bit pricier because they contain more protein than other food options. Innova will typically have two or three protein sources in one food.
- Blue Buffalo and Orijen: On the higher end of pet foods, the majority of these brands’ foods are completely grain-free; they rely mainly on potatoes for carbs, which experts agree is better for dogs especially because they would not eat grains in their natural environments.
- note: between 2008 and 2015, a class action lawsuit against Blue Buffalo stated that plaintiffs paid a higher price for the “natural” pet food because they were misled by false advertisements that it was a quality choice compared to other products on the market (in that, it falsely claimed their products were free of poultry by-products, corn, wheat, soy and artificial preservatives). The company agreed on a $32 million settlement on the allegations but stands by its label and denies it did anything wrong.
Environmental Aspects of Pet Food Production:
To this day, there has been little rigorous research on the direct production-to-muzzle environmental impacts of pet food. However, in moving forward with this assessment it becomes an important detail in how exactly we define the word “meat.” As we discussed above, the “meat” in the majority of pet foods cannot possibly be considered under the same category of “meat” that we eat as humans (by-products and rendering practices). On the one the hand, these practices can be seen as some sort of mammal recycling operation. The Sightline Institute explains that by-products account for at most 15% of a livestock animal’s value and argues that the pet food industry contributes relatively little to the total environmental impact of meat-producing mammals. Essentially, those animals are grown for human consumption and not to get scraps for pet food ingredients– so, 100 calories of by-product meat can be assessed with a lower environmental impact than 100 calories of human-grade meat. It also important for one to consider the extra energy that is needed for rendering and producing these by-products. On the other hand, an article in the New Scientist Magazine by sustainability experts Robert and Brenda Vale, conducted a study that assumed that all meat in pet food came from chickens – and that this pet-grade meat is no different than human-grade meat. They found that under these assumptions, a medium-size dog has roughly twice the ecological footprint than a Toyota Land Cruiser. With many arguments to this assessment, it must be considered that not all humans feed their pets an animal based diet and not all foods contain this much animal protein.
So what is an eco-conscious pet owner to do? In trying to lessen you and your pets’ impact on the planet, there are options in doing so. The general assumption to ‘eat less meat’ is one of them. Some research shows that dogs and cats can get a complete and balanced diet from all-veggie commercial foods (although no long-term clinical trials comparing various diet options have been done). Also, other research suggests (and a lot against), that humans do not need to give up meat entirely in their diets, and so neither should your pet. Another option is to include your pet in your own food recycling efforts. As Americans we waste up to 30-40% of our food; so if you have some leftover meat or veggies in your fridge that you know you aren’t going to eat, consider turning that excess food into your pet’s food instead (not all vegetables are good for pets’ digestion, consider reading Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats or Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets: The Healthful Alternative to learn more).
As there are with human foods, there are many trade-offs when considering the best foods to feed our pets. In the end though, I would argue that if it were up to them, they would choose the option that makes them feel the best and leeds them to living a long and healthy life with us.