Thursday, August 13, 2009

Choosing a Good Dry Pet Food

Have you ever wondered what exactly was in the food your pets are eating? I have. About four or five years ago, I started reading about and doing some research on pet foods. Since we are becoming more conscious of what we put in our bodies, it makes sense that we are becoming more conscious of what we are feeding our beloved pets.

For starters, lets look at what some of those ingredients (or phrases) really mean. Below are the AAFCO (The Association of American Feed Control Officials) definitions of the most commonly used phrases that describe the ingredients:

Meat (e.g. lamb, beef, chicken) - "Meat is the clean flesh derived from slaughtered mammals and is limited to that part of the striate muscle which is skeletal or that which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart, or in the esophagus; with or without that accompanying and overlying fat and the portions of the skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels..."

Poultry - "Poultry is the clean combination of flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone derived from the part or whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet, and entrails..."

Meat Meal (e.g., lamb meal, beef meal) - "Meat Meal is the dry rendered product from mammal tissues, exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices..."

Poultry Meal - "Poultry Meal is the dry rendered products derived from a combination of clean flesh and skin with or without accompanying bone derived from the parts or whole carcasses of poultry or a combination thereof, exclusive of feathers, heads, feet, and entrails..."

Meat and Bone Meal - "Meat and Bone Meal is the rendered product from mammal tissues, including bones, exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents, except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices..."

Meat By-Products - "Meat By-Products is the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially defatted low temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines..."

Poultry By-Products - "Poultry By-Products must consist of non-rendered clean parts of carcasses of slaughtered poultry such as heads, feet, viscera..."

Poultry By-Product Meal - "Poultry By-Product Meal consists of the ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcasses of slaughtered poultry, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs, and intestines, exclusive of feathers, except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices..."

Animal By-Product Meal - "Animal By-Product Meal is the rendered product from mammal tissues, exclusive of any added hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents...This ingredient definition is intended to cover those individual rendered animal tissues products that cannot meet the criteria as set forth elsewhere in this section..."

Animal Digest - "A material which results from chemical and/or enzymatic hydrolysis of clean and undecomposed animal tissue. The animal tissues used shall be exclusive of hair, horns, teeth, hooves, and feathers, except in such trace amounts as might occur unavoidably in good factory practice and shall be suitable for animal feed."

Animal By-Product Meal - "The rendered product from animal tissues, exclusive of any added hair, hoof, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents, except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices."

Most people don't realize that terms like "meat by-products" can actually mean poultry feather meal, connective tissue (gristle), leather meal (yes, leather, like that used to make belts & shoes), fecal waste from poultry and other animals, and horse and cattle hair. Such ingredients would certainly boost the crude protein content, but provide relatively little nourishment.

Here is a list of some of the chemical preservatives used in pet foods:

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) - A chemical preservative and antioxidant used in many foods. It can cause allergic reactions and affects liver and kidney functions. It is listed as GRAS, which means "Generally Regarded As Safe" in certain low concentrations.

Ethylenediamine - A chemical used as a solvent, urinary acidifier, and as a substance to promote color retention. It can be irritating to the skin and mucous membranes and can sensitize individuals leading to asthmatic reactions and allergic skin rashes.

Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) - A chemical preservative and antioxidant. Also listed as GRAS, BHT also can cause liver and kidney problems.

MSG (monosodium glutamate) - Functions as a flavor enhancer. In people experiencing sensitivity to MSG, headaches and a tingling in the fingers is seen.

Sodium metabisulphite - A chemical preservative which in people, has been linked to weakness, loss of consciousness, difficulty swallowing, and brain damage.

Sugar, sorbitol, ethylene glycol, and propylene glycol - Used as preservatives and sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners may be related to diabetes, obesity, and are an empty source of calories. Propylene glycol, most commonly used in semi-moist diets, can cause anemia in cats and should also be avoided in diabetic animals. It is considered to cause the most health problems in dogs--dry itching skin, hair loss, dehydration, excessive thirst and tooth and gum problems. Ethylene glycol, also called antifreeze, can be fatal to pets in high doses.

Propyl gallate. A chemical used to retard spoilage. Suspected of causing liver damage.
Ethoxyquin - A chemical preservative also used as a rubber hardener, insecticide, and pesticide. It is permitted in pet foods at a very low concentration. This common preservative is among the compounds most suspect as causes of severe health problems in dogs including liver damage.
None of these ingredients sound like ones I want my pets to be eating!

What can you do? Read the labels! Forget about the packaging, the colors of the food, what the commercials tell you, etc. What matters is in the fine print! Ingredients are usually listed in descending order from highest concentration to lowest. The first ingredient makes up the largest amount (by weight) of the ingredients. A meat-based source of protein should be among the first two or three listed ingredients in the food.

Compare the ingredients in your pet's food with the list above. Is the food full of these ingredients? If so, you may want to consider upgrading.

Be prepared to pay more for top-quality foods. Pay for good food now, or the vet later.

Always allow your pet to be the ultimate judge of "what's best" for him or her. Just because a food works good for your neighbor's pet doesn't mean it will suit yours. Consider the following when selecting a food for your pet: Your pet's age: Is he a growing puppy/kitten? Middle-aged? A senior? Your pet's sex: Is he neutered? Is she spayed? Pets used for breeding or those who are pregnant or nursing have higher energy requirements than those who are "fixed". Your pet's condition: Pets who get a lot of exercise have different needs than those who do little or nothing. Your pet's health history: Any medical conditions that can benefit from a special diet, such as allergies, cancer, digestive difficulties, or a tendency to form kidney stones?

Don't obsess about which food is the very best. It's better for your pet to rotate between three to four good foods. To determine which ones might be the most appropriate for your pet, you will have to try a few. All pets are different; some do better on higher-protein foods, some do better on lower-protein foods. Some can't digest chicken. Some break out if they eat wheat. Try a likely a candidate for a month or two. If your pet has problems, it doesn't mean it's a "bad" food, it just disagrees with your pet. Give the food away and try another one!

If, in contrast, your pet had chronic health problems, such as infected ears, itchy paws, or runny eyes, and these symptoms cleared up, you're on the right track. A good pet food will contribute to a healthy coat, good energy level, balanced temperament and flawless health.

Here's what to look for:

Animal protein at the top of the ingredient list. Animal proteins are more palatable and are of a higher biologic value to cats and dogs than plant-sourced proteins. The animal source should be named -- chicken, beef, lamb, and so on. "Meat" and "animal protein" are examples of low-quality protein sources of dubious origin. Animal protein "meals" (i.e., "chicken meal", "beef meal", etc.) should also be named; "meat meal" could be just about anything. Whole meats do not contain enough protein to be used as the sole protein source in a dry pet food. Whole meats contain as much as 65 to 75 percent water and about 15 to 20 percent protein. When a whole meat appears high on the ingredients list, generally another source of protein is also present, in order to augment the total protein content of the finished food. It's preferable to see animal protein meals, rather than plant proteins, fill this role. An animal protein "meal" is essentially cooked and dried (rendered) muscle meat, although a certain amount of bone, skin and connective tissue is included. Animal protein meals are dried to a moisture level of only about 10 percent, and contain about 65 percent protein.

Whole vegetables, fruits, and grains. Fresh, unprocessed food ingredients contain wholesome nutrients in all their naturally complex glory, with their fragile vitamins, enzymes, and antioxidants intact.

Organic ingredients;locally sourced ingredients. Both of these things are better for our planet. Organic ingredients may be especially appropriate for pets with cancer, chemical sensitivities, or other serious health problems, but holistic practitioners recommend them for all creatures.

Here's what to look out for:

Meat by-products or poultry by-products. Some non-muscle parts of food animals (i.e., the internal organs) are highly nutritious--in some cases, higher in protein and fat, as just two nutrient examples, than muscle meats. But there are many other parts of food animals that have much less nutritional value--and are worth so much less (in dollars) to the processor, that they are considerably less carefully harvested, handled, processed, and stored. Poorly handled meats (which contain fat) and fat sources can quickly become rancid. Rancid fats not only smell noxious and taste bad, they also speed the destruction of vitamins and other nutrients in a food. Worst, rancid fats are carcinogenic. In contrast, whole meats are expensive--too valuable to he handled carelessly. Not that the cost rules out poor handling and oxidation (rancidity), but it makes it less likely.

Generic fats or proteins. "Animal fat", for example, can be just about anything; recycled grease from restaurants, or an unwholesome mystery mix of various fats. A preferable ingredient would be "beef fat" or "chicken fat". "Animal protein" and "poultry protein" are far inferior to "beef protein" or "chicken protein".

Added sweeteners. Dogs, like people, enjoy sweet foods. (Cats are not as big on sweets.) Corn syrup, sucrose (table sugar), ammoniated glycyrrhizin, and other sweeteners are sometimes added to lower-quality foods to increase their appeal. Sweeteners effectively persuade many dogs to eat foods comprised mainly of grain fragments and contain little of the animal protein that would be healthier for them. Dietary sugar can aggravate health problems in pets, including diabetes.

Artificial preservatives, such as BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin. Natural preservatives, such as tocopherols (forms of vitamin E), vitamin C, and rosemary extract, can be used instead. Preservation is necessary to keep the fats in the food from oxidizing and turning rancid. Natural preservatives do not preserve the food as long as artificial preservatives, however, so be sure to check the "best by" date on the label and look for relatively fresh products.

Artificial colors. The color of the food makes no difference to the pet! These nutritionally useless chemicals are used in foods to make them look appealing to you! Your pets don't need a daily - lifetime - exposure to these unnecessary chemicals.

Propylene glycol. Another chemical your pets don't need a daily exposure to. This chemical is added to some "chewy" foods to keep them moist.
A good-quality, nutritious food is worth the extra money. It means a longer-living, healthier pet and less trips to the vet. It means better dental health too. It is believed that a good diet is more effective in maintaining dental health than the fact that it's a hard, dry food. Our four dogs range in age from 7 to 13 years old and I always get compliments on their teeth at their yearly check-ups. I don't brush their teeth but I do give them lots of toys, bones and treats to chew on (and they are chewers, which some dogs are not). However, I believe the good quality foods I feed them has a lot to do with it.

One of our cats was on a prescription dry food (with higher fiber) because she was always doing the "booty-scoot". I was having to have her anal glands expressed fairly frequently. After awhile on this food, I didn't notice much difference in her anal problem and she started throwing up regularly (almost every morning). I switched her to a natural, good-quality dry food which is even for sensative stomachs. Guess what? No more throwing up and the booty-scooting is few and far between! Sometimes just a simple change to a good, wholesome quality food can make a world of difference!

Resources: Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats, S. Messonnier, D.V.M., 2001
Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats, R. Pitcairn, D.V.M., PhD, 2005
The Whole Dog Journal Handbook of Dog & Puppy Care & Training, 2008