Pet Nutrition – Healthy Food or Hefty Veterinarian Bills?

As a long time animal lover, I’ve had to put my share of animals to sleep, and for a few of them, it was much too soon. That’s what prompted me to start doing research on which foods were best and most optimal nutrition for both dogs and cats.

The evolution of both dogs and cats was similar to other predators in that their anatomy is designed to eat an essentially carnivorous diet. Despite outward differences in appearance, dogs and cats are descended from their wild ancestors known as canids and felids, and with whom they share the same genetic code. Therefore, like their wild ancestors, although they have adapted their digestive systems to eating other foods, they prefer eating carnivore. Even their anatomical features indicate this: they have sharp and pointed teeth to tear meat; they have a jaw joint that allows a wide mouth opening for the ingestion of large pieces of meat; and a short digestive system that is simply structured with a strong acid gastric PH suitable to digest and metabolize proteins, such as meat.

Like human foods, pet foods are regulated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and must be pure and wholesome, and contain no harmful substances. They also must be truthfully labeled. Foods for human or pet consumption do not require FDA approval before they are marketed, but they must be made with ingredients that are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) or ingredients that are approved food and color additives. If scientific data show that an ingredient or additive presents a health risk to animals, CVM can prohibit or modify its use in pet food.

Pet food ingredients must be listed on the label in descending order by weight. However, the weight includes the moisture in the ingredient, which makes it tricky to interpret. “A moist ingredient, such as chicken,which may be 70 percent water, may be listed ahead of a dry ingredient, such as soybean meal, which is only 10 percent water—yet the soy actually contributes more solids to the diet,” says Susan Donoghue, V.M.D., owner of Nutrition Support Services, Inc., and past president of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition.

Similar materials listed as separate ingredients may outweigh other ingredients that precede them on the list of ingredients. For example, chicken may be listed as the first ingredient, then wheat flour, ground wheat, and wheat middlings. The consumer may believe that chicken is the predominant ingredient, but the three wheat products—when added together—may weigh more than the chicken. Dogs and cats have difficulty digesting grains because grains are rather large and complex carbohydrates. These animals lack the specific enzymes to digest these substances.

Why then do most pet food companies put grains in the food they manufacture when the best system of nutrition is one that reproduces as closely as possible the natural diet of carnivores, that is a diet that is a biologically appropriate one?

Well, cost is one reason. Rather than using meat, which costs more, as the first ingredient in a pet food, a lot of manufacturers use something called “meat by-products”. What are meat by-products, you might ask? They can contain meat products that have not been heat processed, which is commonly called rendering, and may also contain heads, feet, viscera and other animal parts that are not particularly appetizing. Another way cheap pet food is made is by adding something called “meal”. “Meal” is another ingredient that you should avoid. In processing meat meal or poultry by-product meal, by-products are rendered (heat processed), which removes the fat and water from the product. Meat or poultry by-product meal contains parts of animals not normally eaten by people and shouldn’t be eaten by dogs and cats either.

The other thing that consumers should avoid when buying pet foods are the ones that contain load of preservatives!! Synthetic preservatives, such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and ethoxyquin. Ethoxyquin, in particular, has been hotly debated. Current scientific data suggest that ethoxyquin is safe, but some pet owners avoid this additive because of a suspected link to liver damage and other health problems in dogs. CVM has asked pet food producers to voluntarily lower their maximum level of ethoxyquin in dog food while more studies are being conducted on this preservative, and the industry is cooperating. I recommend purchasing pet foods preserved with naturally occurring compounds, such as tocopherols (vitamin E) or vitamin C. These products have a much shorter shelf life than those with synthetic preservatives, especially once a bag of food is opened, so I recommend buying a large plastic container and storing the food in the container once the bag has been opened to lengthen the shelf life and keep the food fresh. Since dry foods contain animal fat you want to ensure that they are stored in a tightly lidded container in a cool, dry place to avoid the fats from turning rancid. In addition, always keep canned pet food refrigerated after opening.

The other additive that you want to avoid in pet food is artificial coloring. Artificial colors are only added to a pet food for one sinister reason… to scam humans into believing our pets will be stupid enough to see the colored shapes as real pieces of meat… or fresh garden vegetables. Please don’t fall for that trick. Avoid buying multicolored kibble and always remember… colors and shapes are never put there to satisfy your pet. They’re added to deceive you… to mislead you into thinking you’re buying a higher quality product when you are not.

Artificial dyes are dangerous to both humans and pets and should never be consumed at all.

So now that we have talked about what to avoid in pet food, let’s talk about what types of pet food you should feed your pet.

You have probably heard foods called “Natural” and foods called “Organic”, but they are not the same. The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), has adopted the idea of “nothing artificial” as its recommended standard for “natural” pet food1 . That means a natural pet food cannot contain any artificial flavor, color or preservatives. For a pet food to be considered “Organic”, according to the National Organics Standards Board, the recommendation proposes that eligible label claims for organic pet food match the requirements for human food: a minimum of 70% organic ingredients for a “made with organic” claim, and at least 95% organic content for an “organic” claim.

There are several different pet foods that either call themselves “Natural” or “Organic”, so I recommend doing your research on the internet or going to Pet Food stores, turning over the bag and reading the ingredients before purchasing. If you are not sure, take your smartphone or digital camera with you, take a picture of the bag and ingredients panel, and go home and do your research before purchasing the food, as most of these natural or organic labeled foods can be rather pricey. You really want to know what you are buying before bringing it home to feed to your beloved pet.

And last but not least, you want to make sure that the company you are purchasing the food from sources all of their ingredients from the US.  A pet food can say, Made in USA,  but some of the ingredients can still be sourced from places like China. This information can usually be found on the internet, so be sure to do your research. It’s a bit harder to determine if the company uses genetically modified ingredients in the food, so it’s best to avoid pet foods that add grains and soybeans as those products can be GMO and the company does not have to note that in the ingredient panel. As I mentioned before, cats and dogs do not have the enzymes to digest grains, so I recommend that you feed grain free foods to your pets at all times and in this way you can feel safer that you will be avoiding adding GMO ingredients to your pets diet.

Please remember that feeding your pet wholesome food works for them as it works for us.  The healthier the food, the less disease and the lower your vet bills……. After all, aren’t they a part of your family?

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