Debunking Pet Food Myths

Good nutrition, based on fresh, wholesome food, is the foundation of good health. This basic principle applies whether we are a human being or an animal. While many people worry about what they feed themselves and their family, these same people often incorrectly assume that all pet food is equal. Based on the aggressive and confusing marketing practices of pet food companies, people erroneously presume they are feeding their pet a quality food at a reasonable price, when in fact they may be unknowingly doing the exact opposite.

When it comes to pet food, the consumer's motto definitely should be "buyer beware." The pet food industry has done a great job of promulgating several myths about their products which many people sadly accept as fact. I encourage you to take the time to learn about these myths so that you can make an informed decision when choosing food for your furry friends.

MYTH: All Pet Food Companies Are the Same

Companies that sell pet food all do so to make a profit. There is nothing wrong with making a fair profit, but how a company gets there tells us much about the company and the product.

Over the years we have found that the healthiest foods are produced by companies which meet the following profile:

  • Small, and owned by a family of pet lovers,
  • Focused primarily on pet food and not mass marketing conglomerates like Wal-Mart, Mars, Nestle, Proctor and Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive where pet food is a very small part of what they do,
  • Own their manufacturing facilities and are directly involved in the sourcing of ingredients and quality control,
  • Distribute their products through independent pet specialty retailers,
  • Recognize that putting money into the ingredients that go into the bag is more important than the appearance of the bag, television advertising or celebrity endorsements.

MYTH: Pet Food Is 100% Complete Nutrition

Kibbles_and_bits_100_percentMany pet foods are labeled with statements such as “100% Complete and Balanced Nutrition” or “100% Complete Nutrition.” If those statements are true, it implies we (humans) know everything possible there is to know about nutrition. Knowledge about nutrition is dependent on our knowledge of genetics, physics, chemistry and biology. Since our learning of those sciences is not 100% complete, it is extremely presumptuous to make a claim that we have 100% knowledge of the nutritional requirements of any species. Have you ever noticed that several times per year we learn about some new vitamin or micronutrient and its role in nutrition? Why do scientists keep making these discoveries if we already have 100% knowledge of nutrition? Commonsense dictates that the claim of “100% Complete and Balanced Nutrition” cannot be true, and to put it on a label is at best, misleading.

Total breakfast cereal is advertised as being 100% complete balanced nutrition as is the protein drink Ensure. In theory that means if we consumed nothing but Total cereal or Ensure we would get all of the nutrition we need to be healthy. Does that make sense to you? It might enable us to survive, but I doubt we would thrive or have optimal health.

MYTH: Each Meal We Feed Our Pet Must Be Carefully Balanced

Related to the idea of 100% complete nutrition goes the myth that each of our pet’s meals must be carefully balanced. This is often the argument used to support the myth that pets should never have “people” food. Commonsense should also make short work of refuting this myth. When was the last time you made sure each of your meals throughout the day was 100% balanced? While balance is important over time, animals in the wild do not eat a balanced meal every time they consume food.

MYTH: Never Change Formulas or Brands of Pet Food

How many times have you heard that you should NEVER change the food you are feeding your pet because it will cause them digestive upset and other problems? Now think about how much sense it would make for you to eat the exact same thing, at every meal, every day, for the rest of your life. Do you think that would be a prescription for optimal health or more likely a path to poor health and a guarantee to maintain market share for the manufacturer of that food?

It is true that you cannot change diets with some pets because they do have overly sensitive digestive systems. Unfortunately, that is not a sign of health but a sign of disease. Dr. Wysong, founder of the highly reputable pet food company Wysong, actually believes a major reason for the food allergies and intolerances seen in pets is that they are fed the same thing day after day. Fortunately, you can change foods with most pets and when you are doing so you are helping them to achieve optimal health.

In our May 2005 Green Acres’ newsletter our kennel manager, Kate Dutra wrote an article entitled Alternating Your Dog’s Food Makes Sense, which advocated that people with healthy dogs should rotate their dog’s diet, buying different formulas or even different brands of food. We upset a few veterinarians and ticked off a pet food manufacturer; however, it made perfect sense to many of our clients who took our advice and six years later are still rotating diets. Since then some of the veterinarians as well as manufacturers, as evidenced by their variety packs, have agreed that rotation is a sound and logical practice for healthy animals. We change protein sources (chicken, lamb, turkey, fish, etc.) every time we get food for our pets, and as long as a client as a healthy dog we recommend they do the same.

MYTH: Always Feed the Appropriate Age Based Formula

Puppy-TikkenFormulas such as Puppy, Adult, Senior and Lite are largely a marketing device designed to take up shelf space that could be used by other brands of food. While there are some occasions where one of these special formulas might make sense, for most pets they are unnecessary. Again, think about cats and dogs in the wild. They do not have a different diet dependent upon their age or physique. In fact if you take the time to read the fine print on a bag of pet food you willOld_dog-Jasmine usually find a statement that says “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) procedures substantiate that Brand X Dog Food provides complete and balanced nutrition for all life stages.” Translation: this food provides adequate nutrition for dogs of any age.

MYTH: The Information on a Pet Food Bag Includes Everything You Need to Know

The information that appears on a bag of pet food is regulated at the state level based on guidelines from AAFCO. A bag of food must include: brand name, type of food, a guaranteed analysis, a list of ingredients by weight, an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement, feeding directions, the amount of food in the bag, and the name and address of the manufacturer. Beyond that it is up to manufacturers to decide what they put on the bag. Typically you will also see a lot of marketing claims, some of them rather deceptive. What you seldom see are three pieces of information I always use for evaluating a pet food; the amount of calories in a cup of the food, the food density (how much does a volumetric cup of the food weigh) and the typical feeding cost for an animal of a given size. The latter can only be calculated if you know the food density. While some manufacturers will provide this information if you call and ask for it, some flat out refuse to provide it. That makes me question what else these companies don’t want us to know.

MYTH: The Guaranteed Analysis Is the Most Important Information on the Bag

Countless times clients have come into the store looking for a food that is exactly “x%” proteinNutriSource_Adult_Guaranteed_Analysis and “y%” fat because they have been led to believe that the Guaranteed Analysis panel on a pet food is the most important piece of information on the bag. What is alarming is that carbohydrates are missing from this list. Why is this missing? Because dogs and cats have no need for carbohydrates in their diet and if they were eating the type of food they would find in the wild the percent of carbohydrates would typically be 5% or less. Dry pet food, because of the manner in which it is manufactured, and to keep costs low, is typically around 50% carbohydrates.

MYTH: If the Bag Says “Natural” It’s Natural and Is Therefore “Good”

Beneful_-_bag-cropped_-smlOver the past several years food companies, pet and human, have been emphasizing the importance of feeding natural food. Unfortunately the word “Natural” has no legal definition for pet food so it can be misleading. Pet food companies not only use the word “Natural” on their bags but they also use photographs and illustrations on the bag and in their advertising to create an illusion that the bag is filled with natural, fresh, whole food like beef and vegetables. For example a "natural" pet food found in most supermarkets is illustrated to the left.

If we look at the ingredients panel for this food (see below) to determine what is actually in this bag of food we can see that beef is the seventh item on the list and dried peas and carrots are number twenty and twenty-one; after sugar, water (this is a dry food) salt and various other ingredients. Obviously it is highly unlikely this bag of food contains very many peas or carrots. Also notice that the main source of meat is chicken by-product meal (the second ingredient) yet the main labeling on the bag touts this as a beef based dog food. The artificial colors highlighted in green are clearly not a “natural” ingredient.



MYTH: The Best Value Is the Food That Costs the Least Per Pound

Feeding_Amount_50lbs_dog-PedigreeFeeding_Amount_50lbs_dog-Innova Everyone wants to get a good value for their hard earned money, unfortunately, many people fall into the trap of incorrectly assuming that the pet food with the lowest cost per pound is the best value. Some stores even support this myth by putting labels on the shelf, which clearly state the cost per pound. The fact is pet food is more complex than just price per pound.

Pet food manufacturers use different ingredients in different amounts to formulate their products. Some use high quality ingredients which are also more expensive. Because these high quality ingredients contain more nutrition per pound, you can feed your pet less.

In the photos above I’ve illustrated the amount of Pedigree and the amount of Innova that each bag recommends be fed to a 50 pound dog. As you can see, at 2 cups for Innova, you would be feeding half as much food as the Pedigree that requires 4 cups of food. The ingredients that go in the food make a huge difference.

In order to determine the true cost of a pet food you need to know two things; 1) the amount of food you need to feed your pet in volumetric ounces or cups, and 2) the food density of the food, or how much one volumetric cup of the food weighs. You can then use this information to determine the number of days a bag of food will last, which allows you to determine the daily feeding cost. While regulations require pet food manufacturers provide you with information on how much to feed your pet, they are not required to indicate the food density of their food. As a result most companies do not put this valuable piece of information on the label, and some will not even release it if you call and ask, making it impossible to determine the true cost of their product. In my estimation, their failure to disclose that information is enough to discourage me from feeding or recommending their food.

In an effort to help our clients evaluate different food for budgetary reasons, we work to obtain this information and do the necessary calculations so that you can see exactly how much a given food will cost to feed a fifty pound dog on a daily basis.

MYTH: Canned Food Is Unnecessary and Is a Waste of Money

Without hesitation we recommend that all cats be offered a high quality canned diet at least twice a day. Cats depend on their food for getting much of their water. As a result many cats eating only dry food do not consume sufficient water; this may cause potentially fatal health problems with their urinary tract. If you are considering adding canned food to your cats diet, please keep in mind that cats develop their dietary preferences when very young and it may take some time for them to start eating canned food, so be patient and keep trying!

Canned food is not necessary for a dog, and certainly a good quality canned food is generally more expensive than a dry food, but it may be a good supplement or alternative. Many people who feed raw, use a 95% to 100% meat canned diet when they travel.

Canned food is just like dry pet food; there is a range from very high quality to very low quality products. As a consumer you need to educate yourself about the companies offering canned foods. There are only a few pet food canneries in the USA, so most pet food companies, even the huge ones, contract this work out to others. Two companies that do make their own canned food are Merrick and Evanger’s, which is one of the reasons we highly recommend these canned food lines.

The ingredient list on a can of food is just as critical as it is on a bag of dry food. Look for meat as the first ingredient and recognize that what passes for meat in many of those supermarket canned foods is in fact soy protein.

MYTH: Pets Should NEVER Get “People” Food

Notice I have the word people in quotes. Who decided that fresh, whole food was “people” food and that our pets should only be fed highly processed, fragmented, non-fresh food? Feeding your pet fresh, whole foods is probably one of the best things you can do for them. It will not upset the delicate balance of their diets as long as you take the time to educate yourself about which fresh foods are appropriate for your pet, what quantities are sufficient and which foods may be dangerous. Nor will it cause them to steal food or beg at the table, as it is how the food is delivered that causes this behavior.

MYTH: Raw Meat & Bones Are Bad for Pets

In 1980 dry dog food was introduced in Australia for the first time. Previously most Australian dogs were fed a variety of leftovers from their guardians’ meals. Before the decade was over, Australian veterinarians started to see an increase in illness as well as considerably more dental problems with dogs. In his book, Give Your Dog A Bone, Dr. Ian Bilinghurst, an Australian Veterinarian, postulated that this decrease in canine health was caused by the switch to dry dog food. In this first book and in others he advocates for a switch to a Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (BARF) diet.  Soon veterinarians and dog lovers throughout the world were looking at the idea of a raw diet for both dogs and cats. Such diets became commercially available in the late 1990’s.

More and more people are looking at the natural diet of felines and canines and as a result are feeding their pet’s raw meat and bones. In response many of the traditional pet food companies are actively warning people about the dangers of a raw diet. Again if we let commonsense prevail, this myth just does not hold up. Have you ever seen a cat eat a mouse? Who do you suppose cooks food for feral dogs, wolves and foxes? Canines and felines, when left to their own devices, would eat a diet of fresh, whole food, including raw meat and bones, as well as “far from fresh” carrion that they might scavenge. They have survived doing exactly this for millions of years.

A major argument against feeding a raw diet, especially one composed of chicken, has been the fear of the diet being contiminated with the salmonella bacteria. While raw chicken purchased at the supermarket is often contaminated with this bacteria, the supermarket is not concerned because they know we will cook it before consuming it. The chicken used in commercial raw food diets is handled very differently than the chicken we eat. It is maintained at sub-zero temperatuires throughout the production process to prevent bacterial contaimination.

FACT: No commercial raw diet has been recalled for salmonella contamination, dry dog foods have. A point dry food manufactuters often neglect to mention is that their products are also subsceptable to bacterial contamination.

There are risks feeding a raw diet, but if you take the necessary precautions and ensure your animal receives the appropriate nutrients, it can be quite safe and very nutritious. If you do decide to explore this option, take the time to educate yourself and read many of the excellent books on the subjects such as Ultimate Diet: Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats by Kymythy Schultze. You might also consider feeding one of the commercially prepared raw diets, available in the freezer section at your favorite pet store.


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