Royal Canin, Science Diet, Eukaneuba, and Iams are some of the most popular brands recommended by vets. Yet these expensive and so-called “premium brands” often have low quality and biologically inappropriate ingredients. Could they be making your pet sick? Vet bills are too high to risk putting unhealthy food in your pet’s bowl.
@mrsannief at Twenty20
First and foremost, ditch the dry food (vet recommended or not)
It’s probably in your pet’s bowl right now, huh? If it is, throw it out! Dry food was made for our convenience, not our pet’s health. It’s highly processed, contains too many carbs, and is exposed to high temperatures, which destroys nutrients. Dry food is the equivalent of feeding your pet fast-food and it doesn’t belong in your pet’s bowl.
“As a holistic veterinarian and animal advocate with 22 years experience and thousands of hours of research under my belt, I’ve concluded that dry food is not a fit diet for our cats and dogs.” – Jean Hove, DVM
Dry food is dry, it lacks moisture. Consider this: a cat’s prey is about 65% water, and by contrast dry food is about 10% water. A cat’s thirst drive isn’t as strong as a dog’s, so if your cat doesn’t drink enough water, they could become chronically dehydrated. This could lead to urinary tract disease, urinary crystals and stones, bladder infections and renal (kidney) disease or failure.
“We know that a cat’s sensitivity to thirst is blunted compared to a dog. They don’t voluntarily drink water like a dog would.” Cats have very concentrated urine and because they may not drink enough water “we’re setting them up for urinary tract problems when their diet is low in liquids.” – Linda P. Case, M.S., author of “The Cat: Its Behavior, Nutrition, and Health.”
Dehydration is not the only risk associated with dry food, a recent study conducted by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences found “an increased risk of diabetes mellitus (Type 2) in normal-weight cats that consume dry food.”
Dry food typically contains a lot of carbs, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, tapioca, peas, and even fruit and those carbs break down into simple sugars. Too many carbs and your pet could become obese or diabetic.
“I have never seen a single case of serious obesity, diabetes, urinary tract disease, or IBD in a cat fed meat instead of commercial dry foods.” – Elizabeth Hodgkins, DVM
So why do dogs and cats like dry food so much? Scientists for the pet food industry have found just the right flavor combinations to spray over those pellets to make your pet gobble it up like “kitty-crack.”
Ingredients to avoid in expensive vet recommended food
Too many carbs
16:9 clue on Flickr @Creative Commons
Carbohydrates are not considered a necessary part of a dog or cat’s diet. Wild dogs and cats hunt mostly birds and rodents and that means their diet is very high in protein, fat and water, not carbs. The carbs most cats and dogs would consume in the wild consist of predigested grasses, fruits and veggies found in their preys’ stomach.
You’ll often find foods like white potatoes, sweet potatoes, lentils, tapioca, peas and fruits like blueberries in commercially manufactured pet foods (even the ones the vet recommends). The average bag of dry food can be 30 – 70% carbs. All carbs break down into starch and ultimately, sugar.
Carbs are an inexpensive way for the pet food manufacturers to fill the bag or can, but they are biologically inappropriate for cats and dogs. It’s best to limit your pet’s carb intake to no more than 5 – 12% of their overall diet.
Grains (another carb)
Grains are often used as cheap fillers in pet food, but they offer very little in terms of nutrition. Grains are not a natural part of your dog or cat’s diet and eating them regularly could lead to digestive issues, food sensitivities and/or allergies. Grains are high in carbohydrates and therefore not a species appropriate food for your pet.
By-products are leftovers from the slaughterhouse (after they’ve sold everything they can for human consumption) and could include things like hooves, heads and lungs. Meat by-products are an inexpensive way for manufacturers to keep the protein levels high, but the downside for your pet is the quality is low.
Meat and bone meal
Meat by-product meal
Animal by-product meal
When the protein source is not named (chicken, turkey, beef), it’s unclear what the meat is and where it came from. It could be road kill, dead zoo animals, diseased and heavily medicated livestock. Any form of a meat “meal” generally means that the manufacturer uses low quality ingredients, so don’t pay a high price for this mystery meat.
Large fish like tuna
Large fish often contain industrial chemicals like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), pesticides and/or insecticides (like DDT) and have high mercury levels. Mercury can affect the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys. If you want to avoid fish contaminated with mercury, stay away from big fish like mackerel, marlin, and tuna in your pet’s food. Read ingredient labels carefully because what it says on the front of the label may not correspond with what’s inside.
Ethoxyquin in fish meal
Ethoxyquin is an artificial preservative often added to the fat or oil in a pet food containing fish meal to help prevent it from spoiling. The preservative can cause liver, kidney and potentially lung (including asthma) problems over time. Ethoxyquin is prohibited in the European Union and Australia. The U.S. does not allow its use in human food products (except for a few spices) because it’s considered a carcinogenic. Ethoxyquin won’t necessarily be listed on the label as it’s often added to meat before arriving at the pet food manufacturer. If you want to avoid ethoxyquin, skip pet food that contains fish meal.
Paul B on Flickr@CC
Soy & corn
Avoid soy and corn in your pet’s food, especially if your dog or cat has allergies or digestive issues. Soy and corn are generally used as inexpensive substitutes for high quality and species appropriate ingredients. Soy can be listed as soy meal, soy flour, soy protein, grits, hulls, vegetable broth, textured vegetable protein or TVP (textured vegetable protein). Both soy and corn are likely GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and could contain chemical residue from the pesticides or herbicides sprayed on the crops at the farm.
Carrageenan is a common food additive in pet food. It’s used as a thickener, emulsifier and/or stabilizer. Carrageenan has been shown to cause gastrointestinal inflammation. Chronic inflammation can lead to health issues, so avoid carrageenan if your pet has any health conditions or a sensitive stomach.
BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) could cause cancerous tumors.
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) is a likely a human carcinogen.
TBHQ (tertiary butylhydroquinone) has been shown to produce pre-cancerous stomach tumors in lab animals.
BPA (Bisphenol A)
BPA is an industrial chemical found in plastic and often in the lining of canned food, including pet food. Research shows that BPA affects the brain, behavior and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children. While no research has been done on the how BPA affects pets, it’s best to avoid it.
OutOfwave on Flickr @CC
Natural Flavor/Fish Flavor
Natural flavor generally isn’t natural, but rather enhanced in a lab. Opt for real food instead of food “flavors.”
Animal protein in the #1, #2, and #3 spot
The ingredients listed on a pet food label appear in order based on its precooked or raw weight, but when it’s added to the pet food, it is cooked. Chicken may be listed in the #1 spot on the ingredient label, but after it’s cooked it loses moisture and therefore weight. Now, that same chicken might be in the #2, or #3 spot on the ingredient label. One way to find a high quality pet food is to look for a named animal protein (chicken, turkey, beef) in the #1, #2 and #3 spot on the ingredient label.
This is one to watch out for. Pet food manufacturers know that savvy consumers want a high quality protein in the #1 spot on an ingredient label. So if their product has more corn than meat protein, they may try to hide that fact by splitting the corn into different categories like corn meal and corn flour.
For example, let’s say 18% of a can of pet food is turkey and 30% is corn. Because corn is a higher percentage (30%) than turkey (18%), the pet food manufacturer would have to list it in #1 spot on the ingredient label. But if they split the corn into 15% corn flour and 15% corn meal, turkey now goes in the number #1 spot at 18%. There’s actually more corn than turkey in the pet food, but the average consumer wouldn’t notice. Tricky, right?
One way to avoid ingredient splitting in your pet’s food is to look for a high quality meat protein in the #1, #2, and #3 spot on the label and avoid foods that have too many carbs.
Other things to look for
Is the pet food human grade? If so, this means your pet is eating a high quality food fit for human consumption.
Vitamins and minerals because they are an important part of a balanced diet.
AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) approved. They regulate the sale and distribution of animal feed.
USDA certified organic means the food is free of pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
It never hurts to wonder when you read an ingredient label, would my pet eat this in the wild?
Jeremy Weber on Flickr @CC
DISSECTING A LABEL: EXAMPLE 1
Now that we know what ingredients to avoid in pet food, let’s see how a can of Hills Science Diet, a vet recommended brand, rates.
Hills Science Diet
Adult 7+ Chicken & Barley Entrée
Water, Chicken, Cracked Pearled Barley, Whole Grain Corn, Pork Liver, Dried Whey, Dried Beet Pulp, Soybean Oil, Corn Gluten Meal, Chicken Liver Flavor, Choline Chloride, Fish Meal
Calcium Carbonate, vitamins (Vitamin E Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate, Ascorbic Acid (source of Vitamin C), Niacin Supplement, Calcium Pantothenate, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Biotin, Riboflavin Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Folic Acid), Iodized Salt, Potassium Chloride, Iron Oxide color, minerals (Zinc Oxide, Ferrous Sulfate, Manganese Sulfate, Copper Sulfate, Calcium Iodate), Taurine, L-Tryptophan, Beta-Carotene.
The first ingredient is water. This means that there’s more water in this food than anything else. Ideally, it should be a high quality animal protein.
The second ingredient is chicken, which is a good animal protein, but once the chicken is cooked, it could weigh less than the 3rd ingredient, which is cracked pearled barley and possibly the 4th ingredient, which is whole grain corn.
It appears this company may have “split” corn into “whole grain corn” and “corn gluten meal” so savvy consumers won’t detect how much corn is actually in this food.
When put together, water, corn and barley make up the bulk of this food, not high quality animal protein. As a result, this food is very high in carbs.
Pork liver may not be what you expect when you buy a “chicken and barley entrée.”
Whey is derived from dairy. Not all animals tolerate dairy well.
Dried beet pulp is an inexpensive filler. It can provide fiber.
Soybean oil is a likely GMO and may contain potentially cancer-causing herbicide or pesticide residue. Soy is an inexpensive protein source.
Corn gluten meal is not a healthy meat based protein, rather an inexpensive plant based substitute. Also a likely GMO with pesticide residue.
This pet food contains “chicken liver flavor” rather than actual chicken liver.
Fish meal is an inexpensive and less nutritious substitute for fish and may contain the artificial preservative ethoxyquin. Would you expect to find fishmeal in a chicken and barley entrée?
The manufacturer doesn’t indicate what kind of fish is used so we have no way of knowing if it’s tuna, which is high in mercury.
Most of the protein in this expensive vet-recommended food is from corn and grains. It’s too high in carbs, which is not a biologically appropriate food for cats or dogs. The food contains inexpensive, low quality ingredients like chicken liver flavor and fish meal. Probably not what you’d expect from one of those so-called premium pet food brands. If you’re going to spend more money on pet food, choose a brand that contains higher quality ingredients.
Jeremy Weber on Flickr @CC
DISSECTING A LABEL: EXAMPLE 2
ZiwiPeak, Moist Dog Food
Rabbit & Lamb
Rabbit Meat, Lamb Meat, Lamb Liver, Lamb Lung, Lamb Tripe, Lamb Heart and Kidney, New Zealand Green-Lipped Mussel
Lecithin, Dried Kelp, Agar-Agar
Taurine, Choline Chloride, Niacin Supplement, Vitamin E Supplement, Calcium Pantothenate, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin Supplement, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Vitamin A Supplement, Biotin, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Folic Acid, Vitamin D3 Supplement Minerals – Potassium Chloride, Tetrasodium Pyrophosphate, Calcium Carbonate, Iron Proteinate, Zinc Proteinate, Sodium Selenite, Manganese Proteinate, Copper Proteinate, Calcium Iodate
The label says the food contains rabbit and lamb and rabbit and lamb meat are the #1, #2 and #3 ingredient.
New Zealand Green-Lipped Mussels are added for their anti-inflammatory properties. They naturally contain a variety of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, Omega-3 fats, antioxidants and enzymes.
Dried kelp is high in minerals, vitamins, amino acids and trace elements.
Lecithin is made of phosphoric acid, choline, fatty acids, glycerol, glycolipids and triglycerids. It’s used as a natural emulsifier in foods.
Agar-Agar is derived from red seaweed and is used as a thickening agent in food.
Taurine is an essential amino acid.
Vitamins and minerals are a necessary part of your pet’s healthy diet.
ZiwiPeak is high in protein, made with high quality ingredients, and the label depicts what’s actually in the food. Which food would you rather give your dog?
Bob Travis on Flickr @CC
Additional things to keep in mind
Rotate your pet’s food
No pet food is perfect and if your dog or cat is eating the same food day after day, the imperfections in the food could have an impact on your pet’s health over time. Switch up the animal protein (turkey, chicken, beef) and find one or two brands your pet likes and rotate them daily, weekly or monthly.
The brands your vet recommends often make special foods for various health issues and stages of life, but read the ingredient label carefully and ask yourself, “Is there really anything in this food that provides extra benefits for my pet or is this just marketing?” If there is something your pet needs (often it’s more or less protein), you can generally find that in a healthier brand.
It could cost a little more, but it’s worth it
Good health starts with highly nutritious and biologically appropriate food. Unfortunately, that’s not often found in the bags and cans of food sold at your vet’s office. Many experts believe a raw diet more naturally reflects what your pet would eat in the wild, but if that’s not an option for your pet, choose a canned food with the highest quality ingredients you can find. Rather than buy food from your vet’s office, find a healthy pet food store in your area or order what you want online. Spending the extra money on high quality pet food now, could help keep your pet healthy and save you hundreds or even thousands on expensive vet bills later.
Feature image by KPGS at iStock