The good & bad of pet food

By Dr. JoAnne Roesner, DVM, DABVP

The amount of deception and misrepresentation in pet food labeling is huge. Most pet owners are completely unaware of the meaning of terms on labels and what they indicate about the content of the bag or can of food. The word “with,” for example, indicates 3 percent of an ingredient; while a “dinner” or stew has 25 percent of an ingredient. Ingredient lists may not even indicate what is in the container of food you purchase. It is legal for manufacturers to change ingredients without changing the label for six months.

Another area of misrepresentation and misunderstanding is related to the list of ingredients. There are no magic ingredients or any wholly evil ones. Pet food manufacturers have done animals a huge disservice by adding unusual protein sources (lamb, duck, bison, emu, venison, pheasant, etc.) to foods and implying somehow these benefit pets.

There is nothing innately exceptional about these protein sources; the reason they have been utilized in medical diets for skin and gastrointestinal problems is because they had not been eaten by animals before and thus would not elicit allergy. Unfortunately, now the only diets which are truly hypoallergenic are those made with protein, which has been broken down into fragments. These are much more expensive than their predecessors.

Another ingredient misconception, which marketers have promoted, is that of “grain-free” diets. Cats are true carnivores and do not have the metabolic processes to digest carbohydrates well. Dogs and humans are omnivores and benefit from carbohydrates in the diet. Sensitivities to food generally are related to the protein source, not to carbohydrates, so there is no benefits to grain-free diets in this regard.

Since ingredients are listed in order of weight, manufacturers can manipulate the order of ingredients by using non-dehydrated meat products. Although most of the weight is water, these ingredients will appear first in the list because they are heavier than dried ingredients, which are really the main components of the food.

There is no perfect diet, and each diet should be matched with the individual pet’s needs. Pet foods from major manufacturers generally have superior quality control and testing than the more exotic, boutique manufacturers. Only pet foods which state clearly that they are complete and balanced and meet AAFCO requirements are safe to feed long term.

Frustrated, loving pet parents may attempt to avoid the conundrum of commercial diets by home cooking. Unless your diet has been formulated by a nutritionist, you use the website and you do not change the formula that has been evaluated. This unfortunately is likely unbalanced and potentially dangerous. In a study of 200 diets on the internet, only four were nutritionally sound, so getting a diet off the computer is no guarantee of safety. ■


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