Pet Food Ingredient Myths Part 1

Let's talk a little more about the pet food industry and some of the myths about various ingredients. I'm calling this Part 1 since I'm sure I'll have updates as time goes on and the industry comes up with new marketing ploys.

Pet food is a multibillion dollar industry. Last year revenues were almost 28 Billion dollars. Purina alone did over 12 Billion in sales last year. Their profits? About 2.4 Billion dollars. That's Billion with a B. Just for comparison Zoetis, the animal drug division of Pfizer, only had profits of 821 Million. If you thought the pharmaceutical companies were only interested in profits and willing to use sketchy methods to make money how much worse must the pet food industry be if they're making so much more money? To protect these kinds of profits Purina (and every other pet food company) are going to pull out every marketing ploy and advertising psychology trick they can. So pretty much everything you read on the label or see on their advertising is just part of their marketing ploys to get you to spend more money.

There is actually an entire field of advertising psychology. Turns out it's pretty easy to trick our brains with clever advertising. For example if someone tells you their product is “X Free!” our brains automatically assume that X must be bad and that the competitors must not be X free. It's just a thing people do. We'll talk about a couple of commons ones that lots of companies try to trick you with.

Grain Free. Unfortunately this is just marketing. It's not grains that are the problem for animals; it's high carbohydrate, low protein diets. Food allergies (and all allergies really) in animals are actually very different from what people experience. It's actually very different types of immune cells being 'set off' so the things they're allergic to and how they manifest those allergies are very different than in people (I have a whole separate blog post about allergies in animals). So it's actually the meats that cause the most issues with food allergies (chicken and lamb are the biggest offenders). The food companies figure that you don't know that so they put “Grain Free” on the package so you'll assume grains are bad for animals and pay more for their food because it says it doesn't have grains in it. All they do is switch from using one cheap carbohydrate like rice to using another cheap carbohydrate like potato and charge you extra for the potato. Meanwhile your pet is still getting an inappropriate diet that's high in carbohydrates and low in protein and fat.

But By Products really are bad, right? By Products is actually term which has a legal definition as far as being in food. It means any part of the animal that isn't skeletal muscle. So liver, kidney, bone etc are all technically By Products. In fact you've probably been paying extra for a fancy brand where they just changed the ingredient list so instead of saying “Chicken By Products” it says “Chicken Liver” even though it's the same thing. Organ meat like kidneys, heart, liver and spleen are actually good for dogs and cats as part of a balanced diet since they're high in protein and contain vitamins and minerals that regular muscle meat doesn't. Even things that seem gross to us like bone and feathers are actually really good sources of protein, vitamins and minerals. In the wild cats and dogs (and their wild cousins) do eat all of these parts because they do have nutritional value. There's some myth that By Products are used as “filler” in pet food. If you were a pet food company trying to make a lot of money you'd want to use the cheapest thing you could find as “filler” right? Well any animal product will always be more expensive than plant products. It takes a lot more resources to grow animals than plants so they're always going to be more expensive. If they want cheap “filler” they use things that are really cheap like potatoes and peanut hulls.

Those are some of the most common ones people ask me about but really pretty much anything you see in a foods marketing that says “Made without X”, “No X”, or “X Free” you can be pretty certain that whatever X is it's probably not actually bad for your pet and that it's just a marketing ploy to charge you more money.

 

Pet Food Labels

You've probably been told that you need to read the labels on the pet food you're feeding carefully to determine which one is best. But what exactly are you supposed to be looking for? You'll find all sorts of stuff on the internet about what percentages you're supposed to have and what ingredient lists should look like and what should and shouldn't be in there. Is any of that true?

Basically the answer is no. The vast majority of what's on the label of your pet's food is marketing to try to get you to spend more money. This is going to be a long post but it's important to understand why we can't trust the labels because a lot of people are trying to do what's best for their pet and thinking that because there's x, y, and z on the label it's a good food and they're actually just paying a lot of money for foods that aren't very good for their pets.

The first thing to realize about the pet food industry is that it's essentially a “self-regulating” industry. Yes there are official regulations and requirements that exist but there's extremely little enforcement of them. Unless animals start dying nobody really cares what is or isn't in there and whether or not the label is accurate. So companies can put pretty much whatever they want on the label. Things like “human grade” and “organic” sound nice, are they true? It says it's beef but is it? They've actually done studies checking proteins in various foods and about 1/3 of the foods are incorrectly labeled and either don't contain the protein they claim to or contain additional proteins not on the label.

Now there is something called AAFCO which you'll see on label. Most foods will say on them somewhere something like “Meets AAFCO standards for all life stages” or “Meets AAFCO standards for maintenance”. People sometimes thinks this means the food has gone through some sort of testing. Nope. AAFCO is just an organization which publishes some nutritional standards for minimum and maximum amounts of things that should be in pet food for various life stages. They don't regulate, test, certify or approve anything. So there were tests in the 1950's where they figured out if you feed less than a certain amount of Vitamin A to growing puppies they develop problems. They went through all the vitamins and minerals and figured out the minimum and maximum amount they needed to not have obvious problems. So a pet food company just looks at these numbers and formulates a diet that meets these minimums and maximums at least theoretically and voila! They have a diet that meets AAFCO standards for all life stages. Now those vitamins and minerals may not be are in a form that's actually digestible and usable by the animal but it was formulated on paper to meet the standards so they get to put that on there and it's not even untrue.

Now everyone knows that protein, fat and carbohydrates percentages are important and that we're looking for higher protein and fat and lower carbohydrates in food for dogs and cats since that's what their bodies are made to eat. So you just look at the back of the package and pick the one with the highest protein percentage right? Unfortunately it's not that simple. If you look closely you'll see that it says Crude Protein (min.). So that means it's at least that much but could be more, how much more we don't know. So if Food A says 25% minimum Crude Protein and Food B is 30% minimum Crude Protein Food A could actually be 32% and Food B could actually be just 30%. Now they can do an actual analysis of it and figure out the exact numbers but that would be slightly different for every batch so it would be expensive to do that so that's why they just use those minimum and maximums but it means you don't really know how much of anything is in there.

Even if you knew the true amount that's still just Crude Protein. To do these guaranteed analysis they actually take the food and do a series of tests and chemical reactions to remove different components. To figure out the Crude Protein they use a chemical which basically pulls out all nitrogen containing stuff in the food. Since proteins all contain nitrogen it's a good rough (Crude) measure of protein. The key point there is that it's rough. Just because it contains a lot of nitrogen (Crude Protein) doesn't mean that all that protein is digestible and actually usable by the animal. So even if you got the actual analysis you still wouldn't know how much high quality digestible protein your pet was actually going to be getting.

The other thing that makes it really difficult to tell which food has more protein or lower carbohydrates is the moisture content. Those minimums and maximums in the Guaranteed Analysis section are on what's called an “As Fed Basis”, it's for the food just as it is in the package. So for dry kibble it's only 5-10% water so all the other numbers look much higher since it all totals to 100%. For canned foods the moisture content is 30-40% so the rest of the numbers are going to look lower. It's like if you had a granola bar and a bowl of stew. Let's say the granola bar has 6 grams of protein and the stew has 24 grams. If you compare them without the water on what we call a “Dry Matter Basis” it's clear that the stew has more protein. But if you do it on an “As Fed Basis” the granola bar might have say 50% protein because there's very little water so it's mostly protein, fat and carbohydrates whereas the stew might be more like 20% protein since it's mostly water "As Fed". Now you can do some math and convert the percentages they give you from “As Fed” to “Dry Matter” so you can actually compare apples to apples but that's quite a bit of work and even after you convert it it's still just those minimums and maximums so may not actually be the correct percentages anyways.

Ok so the percentages aren't very helpful but I can just look for meat as the first ingredient and it's a good food, right? Nope. That ingredient list is done by weight of the raw ingredients. Which gets tricky because meat and bone are a lot denser (so show up higher in the ingredient list) than your carbohydrates. So for example take a theoretical food made with 1 cup of uncooked ground beef which weighs about 8 oz, 1 cup of uncooked rice which weighs about about 6 oz, some olive oil (1 oz let's say) and vitamins and minerals (0.5 oz let's say). Beef would technically be the first ingredient here but there's an awful lot of carbohydrates in that food. Another issue with the ingredient list is that they only have to list ingredients that make up 2% or more of the weight. This is why they don't have to list the chicken fat that gets sprayed on dry food at the end. All dry food has to have fat sprayed onto it at the end because the high heat it's cooked at actually cooks out all the fat. So in order to get fat and fat soluble vitamins back into it they have to spray fat on at the end. And chicken fat is the cheapest way to do it so that's industry standard. But you won't see chicken or chicken fat (very common food allergens for dogs and cats) on the label on many of the fancy expensive dry foods because it's less than 2% by weight so they don't have to include it.

Well I get one of the really expensive foods that's made with organic, human grade ingredients so it's a good food, right? Not necessarily. Remember how there's really no enforcement of label regulations in this industry? So USDA doesn't certify pet foods as Organic. They certify human foods and that's why you'll see USDA Certified Organic and you'll see that logo on human foods but they don't look at pet foods. So if a food says it's “organic” it's just marketing. Human grade isn't a real thing either. There's no legal or regulatory definition of “human grade”. It's just marketing. Now there is legal and regulatory stuff about what is and isn't “Human edible” which is pretty strict. If anything not human edible is added (like ground bone for example) the whole thing becomes human inedible. Any food claiming to be edible for humans has to follow strict federal regulations that govern the manufacturing, packaging and storage which are expensive and time consuming so not really a priority for companies when they can just put “human grade” on the package and charge you extra without having to actually spend any additional time or money on their end- more profits for them!

People always ask me what brands I recommend and now you can see why I don't recommend any specific brands. If I recommended them I would need to know what was in them and trust them but there's no way to do that from just reading the label.

Stay tuned and we'll go through some common myths about pet food ingredients!

Debunking dry food myths

Dry food isn't good for pets.

Check out my other posts for an explanation of why it's not good for pets. There are still a lot of myths and excuses I hear that are keeping people from getting their pets off kibble and onto something better but we're going to go through those and bust them.

Dry food is better for my pets teeth. Pretty sure the food companies made this one up and unfortunately unwitting vets have been perpetuating it. Dry food does not prevent dental disease in pets. If it did we wouldn't see it in pets that eat dry food right? And we definitely see lots of dental disease in pets that eat dry food. The whole theory of dry food somehow knocking tartar off the teeth (never mind that tartar is only one part of dental disease, but more on that in another post) doesn't even make sense. Does your dentist tell you not to bother brushing or flossing because you can just “knock the tartar off” with some peanuts and crunchy food? Of course not so why would we think that's how it works for pets?

It's bad for my pet to eat all wet food. Again pretty sure this was put out there by the food companies to get you to buy more dry food since they have way bigger profit margins on the dry food than on wet food. Now there are some foods like those “gravy” packets that are actually meant for only mixing in or feeding as a “snack” and they aren't nutritionally complete and balanced to provide all the essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients your pet needs so it would be a problem to feed nothing but that all the time. These foods will says on them that they are not complete and balanced and are intended for supplemental feeding only.

But my cat or dog doesn't like wet food. Dogs and cats are instinctively programmed to like food. Now they may like the dry food better. That's because dry food is like french fries and if I had a choice between french fries and a salad I'd take the french fries too. Cats and dogs love carbs. They're tasty and filling (briefly). So if they think they can just wait for their french fries they will. Some dry food junkies can be hard to transition but it's possible and if you want what's best for them it's what needs to happen. Tips and tricks can be found at www.catinfo.org. Most of the tips work just as well for dogs too.

Wet food is expensive. Ok it is more expensive than dry food. But lets take a minute to think about our pet's budgets and our spending priorities. For a cat or small dog we're talking about $30 a month for an all wet food diet. I know you're thinking but I have a Lab, that must be way too expensive to do all wet food. For a 70 lb Lab it's about $100 for a month to feed all wet food. If our pet's health and welfare is important to us we can prioritize and budget for a diet without dry food.

Wet food makes my cat or dog vomit. See my blog posts on vomiting, hairballs and allergies. Basically this makes no sense. That's like if a person said stew makes them vomit. All stew no matter what was in it. If your cat or dog is vomiting there's an underlying problem with inflammation in the GI tract which needs to be addressed. Just because they happened to have food several hours before vomiting doesn't mean that food has anything to do with it.

My cat or dog leaves food out all day. This isn't normal and is an indication of nausea and GI inflammation. See the paragraph above.

I go out of town and have an auto-feeder. They make wet food auto-feeders. You can get a pet sitter. It doesn't even have to be a professional pet sitter; most of us have friends, family or even co-workers who like cats and would be willing to stop by and hang out with our cats for free. You can also freeze wet food and put it out frozen so it will be ready for them to eat the next day. Lots of good tips on www.catinfo.org too.

I work long hours. It's normal and instinctual for cats and dogs to be hungry and want food all time. Out in the wild they never knew when (or if) the next meal was coming so they want to eat all the time to make sure they don't starve if they have to go without for a while. They haven't adapted to the lives of luxury they lead with us now. They are actually capable of fasting for several days without side effects (and in some neglect cases cats and dogs have recovered from weeks without food) although obviously I wouldn't recommend going days without feeding your pet. So even though your cat might think she's dying because she hasn't had food since you left in the morning she's actually just fine waiting to eat until you get home from work. If you're worried use an auto-feeder made for use with wet food.

I had a pet that lived for a long time and ate dry food. That's great your pet lived a long time! There are plenty of people who live a long time and they smoked and drank and ate lots of fat and sugar their whole lives. Now that's great it worked out for them but that doesn't mean that smoking is the key to long life and we should all start doing that. Maybe your pet would have lived even longer on a better diet. Maybe they would have been healthier for their long life. Just because something doesn't kill you immediately doesn't mean it's the best thing for you.

It doesn't matter if it's the most fancy expensive brand, all dry food is bad for cats and dogs. Don't believe any of the myths from the pet food companies that dry food is better. Don't give in to the excuses. The best diet for your pet is one with no dry food ever.

Is dry food bad for cats?

Is dry food bad for my cat?

Short answer: Yes.

To understand why dry food isn't good for cats we really need to understand the evolutionary history of cats, so bear with me for a moment.

As far as we can tell based on archaeological and genetic evidence the domestic cat became the domestic cat it is today about 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent in what is today the Middle East. They're from the desert so they're adapted to survive in desert conditions.

Desert adapted animals are really bad at drinking standing water. There's not a lot of standing water in the desert so they actually get most (some species get all) of their water from the food they eat. We're all mostly water remember. Cats just don't have a strong instinct to drink from a bowl of water since they didn't do that in the desert 10,000 years ago. Now they will eventually get dehydrated which sets off a whole set of reactions in the body which basically tell the brain “we need to drink water” and they'll finally lap a little out of a bowl but by the time they get that thirsty they're already dehydrated.

While we don't know exactly what life was like for cats 10,000 years ago we do know what life is like for wild and feral cats today and that's probably pretty similar to what their ancestors were doing. They spend the day alternating between sleeping, grooming and hunting/eating. They eat 5-7 mouse sized meals a day. Since they don't know if or when the next meal is coming cat's are basically “hard-wired” to be hungry all the time. They wake up, hunt, eat, groom, sleep, repeat.

Cats are obligate carnivores. They're lean, mean, efficient hunting, killing, meat eating machines. Now I don't subscribe to the theory that they should only eat proteins they would have eaten 10,000 years ago. But I do think that a diet that's primarily protein and fat and lower carbohydrates is biologically appropriate. Notice I said high carbohydrates are the problem not grain specifically? Unfortunately “grain-free” is a marketing ploy to get you to pay a lot of money for foods that are still high in carbs and not good for your cat. (Don't worry I'll have a post on how to decode the pet food labels and try to avoid pet food marketing ploys coming up soon.)

Ok so what does all this have to do with kibble?

All dry food shares certain characteristics which make it dry food. It contains minimal amounts of water. Most dry foods are under 10% water content. Dry food needs to be made with high amounts of carbohydrates. You just can't get cooked meat to stick together without carbohydrates. All dry food is sprayed in chicken fat. The cooking process burns off all the fat in the food so in order to get fat and fat soluble vitamins back into the food it has to be sprayed on at the end. Chicken fat is extremely cheap and so is used for this process. It may not even show up in the ingredient list since it only has to list ingredients that are a certain percentage of the food by weight and it's not enough weight to get included.

So we know cats are supposed to get most of their water from their food. What happens when you feed a cat let's say about ½ cup of dry food a day? She ends up getting about 20 mL of water from that. Now I know you're thinking, oh but my cat drinks a lot of water. Great! She only needs to drink about another cup of water to meet her hydration requirements for a day. She doesn't drink a cup of water a day does she? (Side note: if your cat is drinking a cup of water a day she probably has a medical problem and you should go to your vet). Remember cats aren't big water drinkers until they actually get dehydrated. So by the time you see your cat drink she's already dehydrated. That's not good. Chronic dehydration puts stress on the kidneys, the endocrine system, the heart and cardiovascular system. What problems do we commonly see in cats? Kidneys, endocrine (diabetes, hyperthyroid), heart. Obviously it's more complicated than just not feeding dry food since cats on wet food don't all live forever with no problems but chronic dehydration isn't helping anything.

Remember how cats need higher protein and fat and lower carbohydrates? That's not compatible with dry food. I know you feed the super expensive brand that says it's really high in protein. Turns the numbers you read on the package are totally misleading (more on this in my post on how to decode labels). Your super expensive dry food might say 24% protein and the canned food says 10% protein that's because the canned food is mostly water. Think of it as the difference between a protein bar and a bowl of stew. The protein bar is small and dry so most of it is protein, most of the bowl of stew is water, but there's actually more protein in the bowl of stew than in the dry bar. When you compare wet and dry food without the water the wet food actually is 40% protein. Way more than the dry food. And that's how it will always come out. It's just the nature of dry food that it must be made with higher carbohydrates.

So kibble is always going to dehydrate your cat and it's always going to be high in carbohydrates. It's also always going to have chicken on it which is a protein many cats have allergies to. Kibble just isn't good for cats and it shouldn't be fed to any cat in any amount ever.

Stay tuned for the next post debunking the myths and excuses people use to keep feeding kibble.

 

Is a Holistic vet the same as a Homeopathic or Naturopathic vet?

This is one of my frequently asked questions. About once a week or so I get one of these questions: What's a Holistic vet? Are you a Homeopathic vet? Are you a Naturopathic vet?

It might seem like just semantics but it's actually important to understand what these terms mean so that you can figure out what kind of vet you're working with. It's good to be sure that the vet is on the same page as you as far as how they're going to approach and treat your animal.

Let's start with Holistic. Here's the dictionary definition: relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts. So a Holistic vet is going to try to look at and treat the whole animal rather than focusing on individual problems. The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA) describes how a Holistic vet is interested not only in a medical history, but also genetics, nutrition, environment, family relationships, stress levels, and other factors.

What about Wholistic? This is a cutesy marketing term to emphasize that they're Holistic and focusing on the whole rather than the parts. I usually avoid people (and products) using this term. If they have to come up with gimmicky phrases to get your business they may not be providing the best service or product.

Some people think that Homeopathy refers to anything that's not conventional Western medicine. It's actually a very specific medical theory that some but not all Holistic vets use. Homeopathy uses the principle of “like cures like” where small amounts of substances that would cause the symptoms are used to treat the symptoms.

Most vets who use Homeopathy use it along with other treatments as part of their Holistic approach. I'm just as suspicious of a vet who only uses Homeopathy as I am of a vet who only uses conventional Western medicine. If the goal is to help the body heal itself we should be using everything we can to try to reach that goal so limiting ourselves to one kind of medicine and treatment is probably not going to provide the pet the best opportunity for healing.

Lots of people go to Naturopathic doctors for themselves and are looking for the same kind of approach for their pets. According to the American Association of Naturopathic Practitioners naturopathic medicine focuses on holistic, proactive prevention and comprehensive diagnosis and treatment. So basically the same as the definition of Holistic veterinary medicine.

However, Naturopathic is a term which is actually specific to human medicine. Only people who have completed the professional training and certification process required to become an ND (Naturopathic Doctor) can legally and officially call themselves a Naturopathic doctor or practitioner. It's not really correct or respectful of the actual Naturopathic Doctor's for a vet to try to claim that they are a Naturopathic vet even if we're using the same principles for our approach to veterinary patients as they do for their human patients. That's why you'll see lots of vets like myself who follow these same Naturopathic principles calling ourselves Holistic vets not Naturopathic vets.

Now that you know what all these terms mean you can make sure you find the right kind of vet for you and your pet!

Comment

Introduction

I'm Dr. Aja Senestraro. I'm a holistic veterinarian and my practice is called Sea to Sky Holistic Vet but this blog isn't really about me or my practice. It's about sharing my knowledge and expertise with as many people as possible so I can help as many animals as possible.

My philosophy is to look at the whole animal and it's environment and to take things like their history, personality and genetics into account. I try to find the underlying causes of disease so I can treat these and help support the body to heal itself. To do this I draw from multiple medical traditions including Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (acupuncture, herbs, tui-na, food therapy), Western herbalism and aromatherapy, rehabilitation and conventional Western medicine to come up with a plan tailored to the exact needs of each animal.

Every day I hear a lot of the same questions and concerns from my clients and I see a lot of the same issues in my patients. Things like: What's the best pet food? How do I know if my pet is painful? Should I give my dog fish oil? Is it normal for cat's to have hairballs? What can I do to help with my pet's arthritis or thyroid problem or chronic diarrhea or cancer or anxiety?

We all want to do what's best for their pet, but how do you know what's best? There's a lot of information on the internet but a lot of it unfortunately just isn't accurate or actually helpful and well meaning people end up confused and doing things that aren't actually good for their pets. Not everyone is lucky enough to live near a good holistic vet they can get trustworthy information from. That's why I want to share my point of view as a holistic vet in this blog so hopefully more people can have a trusted resource for this information in order to make informed decisions about what's best for their pet.

Now of course I can't legally give any specific and individual medical advice for your pets without seeing them in person for an exam so nothing I write in this blog is intended as or should be considered specific or individual medical advice. But there are lots of things I can provide my professional opinion on which may be helpful for people and their pets.

I'll be starting with my answers and opinions on some of the common questions I get. Do you have a topic you'd like me to cover? Leave a comment!

Comment