How To Choose A Pet Food
So you’ve decided to get a pet! That’s fabulous! Whether it’s a cat, dog, or small animal; a pet can bring years of joy to you and your family for many years. Proper pet nutrition is an important part of pet ownership. But where do you start? If you’re like most people you are bombarded with TV commercials showing cute puppies and kittens with colourful packages all telling you they have the best nutritional value for your pet. You may also have asked your veterinarian for a recommendation. Keep reading because we are going to cut through all the hype and get to the bottom of HOW TO CHOOSE A PET FOOD!
LIMITED LAWS IN CANADA
The first thing you need to realize is that there are almost no laws in Canada to regulate the pet food industry. Essentially a pet food company could put a leather boot and motor oil and it would still, under the Canadian government, be safe for your pet to eat. The laws in the US aren't much better. Lobbyists for the large pet food companies have done a great job of blocking any type of pet food legislation.
In Canada a pet food company can change the ingredients of a pet food by up to 18% per year without having to change the packaging or alert the buyers. This means that in just 4 short years a pet food company could completely alter a product and you may never know.
Well, your vet deals with the health of pets every day, so they should be able to give you a great reference for a quality food – MAYBE! This is a surprise to most people. But most vets get approximately one day of pet nutrition training during their four years at veterinarian college. These courses are usually sponsored by large pet food companies (more on those in the next paragraph). Unless your vet has taken additional pet nutrition courses, they may not be the best resource . Before asking your vet for a food recommendation, ask your vet about additional courses they have taken specifically on pet nutrition. Note: Dorchester Pet Care and Supply always recommends that you follow your vet’s advice when dealing with a specific pet illness.
THE PET FOOD INDUSTRY
The pet food industry is dominated by a hand full of large corporations and include: Nestle (Purina), Mars (Royal Canin, Iams & Eukunuba), Colgate Palmolive Co. (Hills Science Diet), and Del Monte Foods (Meow Mix, Kibbles and Bits, Milk Bone, 9Lives and Snausages).
These companies are under enormous pressure from share holders to turn profits while staying competitive. Their business model is to spend millions of dollars marketing to entice you to buy their products. These companies also take advantage of weak government pet food regulations. It’s simple arithmetic; It's difficult to spend millions on marketing, sell at a low price and get fresh local quality ingredients. Many of these companies use inexpensive ingredients like corn, wheat, and soy, proteins from by-products which may be the euthanized pet remains or other animals. Chemical preservatives like BHA and BHT no longer allowed for human consumption on the possible risk they cause cancer. Large amounts of sugar, salt and sorbital are also added to improve the taste and are possible causes of obesity, cancer and hypertension. Many of these ingredients are outsourced from overseas including China to keep the cost low and profits high.
They then sell you on words like “balanced”, "premium" or “all natural” with colourful packaging with the hopes that you will buy their product over the competitors. They also count on you never reading the ingredients label or doing research. They simply want you to “trust” them.
DON’T HUMANIZE YOUR PET
One of the biggest mistakes people make is they humanize their pet. Your dog may indeed show some very human qualities, which is probably why we love them so much. But they are not human. The common 10 lb house cat is almost identical to a Bengal Tiger and your 5lb Pomeranian is descendant from the wild wolf. This means their dietary needs are different from humans. Cats are 100% carnivores and do not have the enzymes in their stomach required to digest complex carbohydrates like corn, wheat, soy, and other vegetable matter. Dogs do require carbohydrates in their diet; however excessive amounts of corn or wheat can cause allergies and obesity.
BREED SPECIFIC FOODS
Many large pet food companies will create a pet food specifically for your breed of dog. Many consumers feel the if a picture of their dog is on the bag is must be the right food for them. This simply a marketing trick. The nutritional needs of your German Shepard and your boarder collie are exactly the same. However we do recommend a puppy be on a puppy food until they are 9 to 10 months old. Small breeds and large breeds could benefit from slight altered formulas however the biggest difference between these foods are usually the size of the kibble.
WHERE TO START???
We have learned that there are little to no laws in North America to govern pet food, and most of the pet food companies you see in the grocery store or on TV are owned by large publicly traded co-corporations whose number one responsibility is to their share holders. The first thing to consider is not buying your pet food from the grocery store and seeking out a pet food specialty store in you area. However that is only part of the solution. Many specialty pet food stores also carry pet foods that may not be much better than the grocery store foods. You need to the ingredients label. One study showed that over 80% of North Americans have never looked at the ingredients list on a pet food label. And of the 20% that did, over 80% of those didn’t understand what they were reading as it pertained to their pet.
It’s also important to clearly understand not only what ingredients are and aren’t good for your pet, but some of the tricks pet food companies use to fool you into thinking you are buying a better product than it really is. For instance, here is a very popular example many pet food companies will pull and it’s perfectly legal under Canadian and US laws. Wheat is not a recommend ingredient in food, but compared to a quality protein like chicken or lamb, it is very inexpensive. Wheat can show up on a label more than once in multiple forms. You may see on an ingredient list chicken meal as the first ingredient and then wheat flour, then ground whole wheat. The difference between wheat flour and ground whole wheat to you dog is minimal. However, when shown on the list in this way the pet owner is led to believe that there is more quality protein (chicken) in the product then wheat, when it could actually be the other way around.
Truly understanding the pet food label is the key to proper pet food nutrition.
Let’s first look as some common ingredients that are big NO-NO’s.
Corn – Corn is a cheap ingredient that is common in almost all grocery store brand pet foods. The problem with corn is it’s a fibre, and a very good one at that, both dogs and cats do not possess the enzymes to break down corn. It is high in calories and tends to push food though the digestive system so quickly that the intestines can’t absorb the nutrients fast enough. The result is you end up feeding more. Pet food companies know this, and profit from it on both ends of the scale. They use a cheap ingredient which requires you to buy more of their food. It’s similar the strategy movie theaters when they add extra salt to popcorn so you buy a bigger drink. You may see some documents on the web that promote corn in pet food saying it’s part of a balanced diet. We don’t agree, you need to ask yourself, when was the last time you saw a pack of wolves attending a “corn roast".
Wheat – Not as popular as corn, however wheat can also be found in many grocery store brand foods. Wheat is also inexpensive ingredient that adds no nutritional value to the food. It is however a major cause of pet allergies with symptoms including hot spots, red and irritated ears, itchiness and paw chewing.
Soy – Soy, from the soybean is used as an inexpensive way to increase the protein level of the food. The problem is dogs and cats do not possess the proper enzymes in there digestive system to absorb protein from soy. This is considered my many people in the industry as false advertising form the pet food manufactures. It is true, that soy increases the protein level, its just your pet just can’t benefit from it. Again, this is a direct result of very lax pet food laws in North America.
BHA/BHT - BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) are chemical preservatives commonly found in lower priced pet foods. Pet food companies use them to improve shelf life, in some cases for over two years. BHA/BHT has been banned for human consumption in just about every country in the world (except the Untied States) as it is thought to be a direct link like to causing cancer.
Ethoxyquin – Similar to BHA/BHT, it is used as a preservative in foods and has been demonstrated to reduce signs of vitamin E deficiency and suppress the toxic effects of degraded fats in feed. However, it is also linked to a host of other undesirable issues in pets including, skin problems, livery, kidney, thyroid dysfunction and the possibility of cancer.
Propylene Glycol – This chemical is used as a preservative in soft-moist pet foods and treats. It helps retain water and gives the food a unique taste and texture. It is also the basic ingredient in antifreeze and aircraft de-icing fluid. It was shown to possibly reduce red cell lifetime in cats and as been banned in cat food by the FDA. However it is still legal for use in dog food.
By-products – A by-product (chicken by-product) is that part of the animal that is not fit for human consumption. By-products are routinely put into pet foods as an inexpensive way to increase the protein levels. By-products can include beaks, heads, brains, undeveloped eggs, etc. These ingredients on there own probably won’t harm you pet however the rules for storage of by-products are not the same as human grade ingredients. By-products may be stored in hot container for up to 24 hours before being used. This could cause them to go rancid and make you pet very ill.
Animal Digest, Meat and Bone Meal, Meat Meal, Meat and Bone Meal – These ingredients are know as the 4 D’s – Dead, Diseased, Dying, Disabled.
WHAT SHOULD BE IN PET FOOD
Chicken / Chicken Meal– Chicken is a natural prey for Wolves. So your dog will most likely do well with this ingredient. Chicken is also one of the least expensive proteins on the market, and usually offers a very good protein to cost ratio for pet owners. If you decide to feed a chicken based food, look for this to be the first ingredient on the label. It is possible in very rare cases that a dog may develop a allergy to chicken,
Lamb – Lamb is also a very nutritious protein source, it is more expensive than chicken but is also more digestible and is easier on dog’s stomachs. If your dog suffers from an upset stomach, lamb is a good alternative to Chicken.
Fish – Not as well know, but most dogs do like the taste of fish. Fish such as white fish and salmon offer excellent Omega fatty acids that are very good for heart health. Fish is usually a little more expensive and there may be a slight odder, however it is a better source of protein than chicken.
Fruits and Vegetables – Not recommended as much for cats, dogs get excellent nutrients from fruits and vegetables and vitamins for you dog (except grapes which are poisonous to dogs). Look for these fruits and vegetables on your pet food label: Carrots, Apples, Broccoli, Cantaloupe, and Peas and Pumpkin (yes, pumpkin, great for puppies with tummy troubles)
Flaxseed – Flaxseed is an excellent source of Omega fatty acids that you pet needs for good heart health.
TO GRAIN, OR NOT TO GRAIN
Grains are not a natural ingredient for you pet. Cats should not have any grains as they do not have any enzymes in their systems to digest them. For dogs, some greats are acceptable, but not necessarily recommended. Corn, wheat, and soy should never be in pet food. Acceptable grains that should not cause any issues are whole grain oats, barley, and whole grain rice.
POISONOUS HOUSEHOLD FOODS
Chocolate – Chocolate and cocoa contain a chemical called theobromide that can adversely affect the heart, lungs, kidney and central nervous system. This also includes Coco shells that may be in your garden. It isn’t uncommon for a puppy to swallow these shells. Signs include excitement, tremors, seizures, vomiting, diarrhea, abnormal heart rate/rhythm, drunken gait, hyperthermia and coma.
Onion and Garlic – Onions can cause a form of hemolytic anemia called Heinz body anemia, a condition that causes the destruction of red blood cells. Kidney damage may follow.
Grapes and Raisins - Grapes and Raisins can cause irreversible damage to the kidneys, possible resulting in death. Just 4 or 5 raisins for grapes can be poisonous to a 20lb dog.
Macadamia Nuts - Macadamia nuts, while generally not considered fatal, can cause your dog to experience severe illness.
ECONOMICS OF A BETTER FOOD
“I love my pet buy can’t afford a better food”. In actual fact you can! In most cases a better “grain free” food will allow you to feed in many cases almost ½ the amount that you are feeding now. This means a bag lasts almost twice as long. It also means your pet will be in better health and will live a longer and have a better life. Better nutrition also reduces the risk of diseased like cancer and diabetes which can attach very costly veterinarian bills. It is important to stress here that the goal is to have a healthy pet, for both the pet’s sake, and you wallets.
Just as important as being able to read the ingredient list is to identify where the pet food companies actually source their ingredients. The farther away ingredients are sourced the more opportunity for something to go wrong. Most of the ingredients in your pet food are perishable. They have a shelf life and must be stored properly under the right conditions for the right amount of time. The more hoops ingredients need to go through to get to the manufacturing facility, the grater chance a problem will occur. It’s great that a pet food may place lamb at the top of their ingredient list, however if that lamb is coming from places like China, what are the protocols to ensure when it get’s put into your dogs food, it is still fresh and hasn’t go rancid.
Another consideration is the scale of the operation. Are the ingredients in your pet food also sourced for hundreds of other pet foods? This is essentially putting all of your eggs in one basket. In 2007 there was a world wide pet food recall due to high levels of melamine in wheat gluten from China. The recall affected over 5300 pet food products and resulted in over 3000 dog and cat deaths (some estimates double that number). The melamine was traced to Menu Foods in Streetsville, Ontario which supplied wheat gluten to Purina products by Nestle, Hills Science Diet, and Royal Canin by Mars Corporation, Natural Balance, Blue Buffalo, Costo’s Kirkland, and Diamond Pet Foods. The problem with this type of ingredient distribution is that if one main ingredient becomes contaminated, it can affect hundreds if not thousands of products and tens of thousands of pets. At the time if you were feeding a food that sourced most if its ingredients locally, your pet would not have been affected by this recall.
The challenge here is pet food companies do not, nor are they required to advertise on their label where the ingredients are sourced. Don’t be fooled by clever marketing tag lines like “Canadian made”. This simply means it was manufactured in Canada, not the ingredients were sourced from Canada. The only way to be sure is to contact the company and ask them. If they don’t reply they may have something to hide and we recommend you don’t buy their food!
THE GOOD NEWS
The good news is there are a hand-full of smaller pet food companies that spend the majority of their money on R&D instead of massive marketing campaigns. Although the goal of any company is to be profitable, their focus is on proper pet nutrition. These companies have state of the art ISO certified for human consumption manufacturing facilities, source most if not all of their ingredients with in 100kms, and have won many awards for pet food nutrition. They use holistic ingredients like free range chicken, lamb, turkey and fresh salmon, fresh split green peas and flax-seed, whole eggs and potatoes. They use natural preservatives like vitamin E. Recalls are rare and when they do happen is it usually because of minor fluctuations in the manufacturing process that doesn’t conform to the company’s high standards, such as a protein level may be off by a percentage point on a batch of food, which has no impact on your pet’s health.
The information for this document was taken from a number of sources including: