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Ingredients Matter!
What's Really in Pet Food?
When you go to a pet store to buy a new bag of dog or cat food, how do you select one among all the others? By brand? By packaging? By price?

The television is filled with memorable commercials promoting cat and dog foods. Pet food companies spend more than $160 million per year for TV, newspaper, and magazine advertising. Their packages are designed to attract many consumers based on sight alone. A number of dog foods come in very large bags that somehow manage to remain inexpensive. Based on these factors, you may already be comfortable using a particular product.

However, although every pet owner would quickly agree they care about the health of their pets, how many owners could honestly say they've given considerable thought about the quality of the dog and cat food they buy? Now that you are reading this article, please take a moment and let's think about what is really in the pet food people regularly buy.

First, protein is vital for maintaining cat or dog health. There are numerous sources for the protein that goes into popular pet foods. When animals such as cattle, lambs, and chickens are slaughtered for human consumption, the remaining byproducts (bones, intestines, lungs, blood, hooves, feathers, etc.) are often sent to be processed for pet food.

"Although these are considered to be sub-standard sources of protein, many pet food manufacturers use these as their principle source of "nutrition." More disturbing, some pet food companies rely on what is known as the "4-Ds" of byproduct sources - "diseased, disabled, dying, and dead" farm animals.

Pet manufacturers use these byproducts because they are inexpensive methods of increasing protein content without sacrificing profits. However, aside from the unknown impact of this approach (for example, research on the effects of mad-cow disease on the pet population is lacking), these ingredients tend to be poorly utilized by your animals and thus provide little nourishment.

Beyond byproducts, popular pet foods also include "filler" ingredients. These add bulk to the product, allowing your pets to feel full after eating what might otherwise be a low-nutrient meal. Wheat, corn, peanut hulls, and soy are very common fillers. Pet food manufacturers have replaced meat with these products for decades to cut costs. Compared to meat, these ingredients are less digestible and provide limited nutritional benefit. Depending on the filler, there could be other risks as well. A company connected with the deaths of dogs eating its product was found to have been using peanut shells in their product as a fiber source. Unfortunately, these shells were contaminated with fungus that had a negative impact on pets' health! Not surprisingly, the best quality grains typically go to make human food. Wheat and corn of "lesser value" may be cleared for use in pet foods as an alternative to throwing it away.

Have you ever wondered how many store-bought pet foods manage to avoid staleness or spoiling for relatively long periods of time? And often we do not know how long that bag has been on the shelf (or stored in a warehouse) prior to being purchased. How can it survive? Obviously, the answer is chemical preservatives. Pet food manufacturers use a variety of chemicals to make food look and smell fresh for as long as realistically possible. Worse than simply lacking nutritional value, some of these additives might be contributing to the chronic health problems of pets everywhere.

Let's take a look at a few of these preservatives found in common pet foods:

  • BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (butylated hydroxytolune): Used to keep fats and oils from becoming rancid. BHA and BHT are known to cause physical problems in animals.
  • Ethoxyquin: Originally used in rubber production, this product is suspected of causing severe problems in pets.
  • Sodium nitrite: This is used to stop the colors in foods from fading, creating the illusion of continued freshness (for example, it keeps meat looking red). Sodium nitrite is banned in some countries outside of the United States.
  • Propylene glycol: Believe it or not, propylene glycol is found both in antifreezes and de-icing solutions and in pet foods! In dogs, it can cause skin problems. This ingredient is often found in "semi-moist" pet foods.
  • Artificial colors: Red No. 40 adds a fresh, "meaty" color to food. Red No. 2, in a related example, was banned from use in foods, and cosmetics by the FDA in 1976.
Besides these chemicals, the ingredients often used in semi-moist pet foods are sugar, syrups, and artificial sweeteners. These are used to appeal to the "sweet tooth" of dogs and soften food while producing an environment meant to reduce the chances of bacterial contamination. However, too much sugar can irritate the stomach and intestinal tract of animals. Corn syrups stress the body and may lead to undesirable health conditions. Sugar provides "empty calories" - short term energy lacking in any nutritional benefits such as vitamins and minerals. Yet semi-moist dog foods may contain as much as 25% sugar content!

This is just an introductory "taste" of what you can expect to learn when you start studying pet food ingredient labels more closely. Some of the things you may find may shock you, but (depending on the product you review) eventually you will find a balance of convenience and nutrition that both you and your pet can live with. And in the long run, when you consider how much you can save by avoiding diet-related (often chronic) health conditions, you will thank yourself for taking the time to learn, and your pets will thank you, too!

Special Note: Although every effort has been made to present healthy products and useful information to support your pets' health, the products and information contained within this website are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The contents of this site are not meant as a substitute for consultation with a trained veterinarian. If you are concerned about the health of your pets, you should ask your veterinarian for proper guidance suited to the specific condition of your pets. The owners of this website accept no liability for any consequences resulting from the use of products and/or information provided through this site. Please use your discretion when attending to your pets' health.
Special thanks to Fintan Darragh, Rich Bensen, Maggie, Jiji, and Mary Crissman for providing our pet pictures!
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