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Pet Food Basics


What’s a cat’s natural diet?

Cats are true carnivores. They evolved eating rodents, small mammals, and birds—but not grains. The most natural food for cats will mimic their natural diet and will contain considerably more protein and fat than carbohydrate.

What’s a dog’s natural diet?

Dogs are omnivores. They evolved eating rodents, small mammals, birds, and fruit and vegetables, with some grains. A dog’s natural food will contain 25-40% protein, with the rest of the diet consisting of vegetables, fruit, and possibly a small amount of grain.

Should pets eat grains?

Cats and dogs do not have the digestive organs or digestive bacteria to benefit from grains (corn, wheat, rice, oats) the way cattle, sheep, and horses do. Cattle, sheep, and horses have large “fermentation” vats that allow bacteria to mix with grains and break the grains down into molecules that the animal can absorb. Looking at these types of animals, you notice their bellies are large and round, because it takes a “barrel of an organ” to digest grains effectively. Cats and dogs do not have “barrel” bellies. For cats and dogs to benefit from grains, the grains must be prepared properly.

Although some pets are allergic to grains used in cheaper pet foods, many of these pets do fine if they’re fed human-grade grains present in the more holistic pet foods.

What is a healthy commercial diet for cats?

This is an example of a healthy commercial cat diet: beef, meat by-products (such as liver, kidneys, lung, heart) poultry, finely ground bone, yeast culture, and vitamins and minerals in proper amounts. Healthy commercial diets may also contain yams, blueberries, salmon oil, menhaden fish, spinach, yogurt, cottage cheese and carrots.

What is an unhealthy commercial diet for cats?

This is an example of an unhealthy commercial diet currently available for cats: brewers rice, soybean meal, corn gluten meal, poultry by-product meal, animal fat preserved with BHA, ground yellow corn….

What are 3 common tricks used to fool pet food consumers?

  • Some pet diets consist mostly of grain, but they come in terrific packaging and have enticing names so that we assume it’s healthy. To learn the truth, read the label and confirm that your pet’s food contains protein from meat or fish as the first ingredient. Healthy dogs and cats need protein as the first ingredient in their pet food.
  • Some pet food companies split grains into two components; they list rice, and rice bran separately. This allows them to put the ingredients lower on the label than they would if the rice were combined because ingredients are listed in the order of weight.
  • Some pet food companies state that there is no preservative added when the company actually buys their meat with the preservative already in it. Your pet ingests a chemical preservative regardless of the disclaimer on the package.

How are pet food ingredients listed on pet foods?

Ingredients are listed according to their weight. Whole meat has more water than meat meal so will be listed before meat meal. Meat meal, however, contains more protein per weight than whole meat.

What’s a food fragment?

Food fragments are by-products. Corn, wheat, and rice are often listed as by-products in less nutritious foods. For example, wheat bran is a by-product of wheat processing that removes the nutritious wheat germ. Rice by-products can be rice flour, rice bran, and brewers rice. Corn can be fragmented into corn starch and corn meal.

By listing the fragments, the manufacturer may be able to put meat first on the ingredient label because meat will weigh more than any of the other single ingredients. If all the fragments were combined—for example, if cornmeal and corn starch became corn—it would be necessary for the manufacturer to list corn first on the label. Don’t stop reading the label when you see that meat is the first ingredient; continue reading to confirm that your pet’s food is as healthy as you want it to be.

The opposite of a food fragment is a whole-food ingredient. Rice, wheat, and oats are whole foods, and are preferable to food fragments.

What is bioavailability?

Bioavailability refers to how well something can be absorbed and utilized. Bioavailability matters because there can be a difference between what is in a food and what can be absorbed. For example, think about a railroad tie that contains iron. If a railroad tie is put in a box of breakfast cereal, it can be claimed on the label that the food contains iron; but, obviously, the iron cannot be absorbed and utilized. Some companies do the equivalent with pet food. For example, a company can list the protein from corn on the label of the pet food although corn proteins are not highly bioavailable to pets.

Additional examples of nutrient bioavailability include choline and niacin. Corn contains choline. It is 100% bioavailable, that is, all the choline in corn can be absorbed and used. This is good because choline nourishes brain cells and promotes mental acuity. Soybeans contain choline, but the choline in soybeans is only 60-75% available. An example of extremely poor bioavailability is niacin in corn; the niacin in corn is 0-30% available. In contrast, soybeans contain niacin that is 100% available.

Sweeteners in pet food?

In most taste tests, pets prefer meat to any other flavor, including sweet. Some companies that don’t have your pet’s health in mind, however, may use sweeteners in their food, which is not healthy for your pet.

Cats don’t have sweet receptors on their taste buds, and scientists haven’t decided whether the lack of sweet-sensing proteins is because cats did not evolve eating anything sweet or whether cats don’t eat sweet things because they have no sweet receptors.

Dogs have far fewer sweet receptors than humans have so that the amount of sweetener necessary to stimulate a dog is quite high.

Among the artificial sweeteners used in pet foods are corn syrup, sucrose, ammoniated glycyrrhizin, and fructose. Natural sweeteners, such as applesauce, molasses and honey, are better than artificial sweeteners, but high concentrations of them are still undesirable. Some products, like Missing Link, contain molasses, but use the form of molasses that has had almost all the sugar removed. This form of molasses is added to provide iron and minerals rather than to provide sweetening.

Is meat meal healthy?

Meat meal is muscle meat that has been prepared and partially dehydrated so that it is more concentrated than whole meat.

  • The good aspect of meat meal is that it has more protein than meat.
  • The bad aspect of meat meal is that cooking and processing destroys many benefits of meat, including natural enzymes.
  • The ugly aspect of meat meal is that some companies don’t use beef meal, chicken meal, or fish meal. Instead, these companies use animal meal or meat meal. Anything with muscle, including diseased animals euthanized by veterinarians and picked up by the rendering company, can be added to pet food and labeled as animal meal or meat meal.

Healthy pet foods do not use animal meal, meat meal, or meat and bone meal. Healthy pet foods contain ingredients that clearly identify the source of the meat: chicken meal, beef meal, etc.

Why doesn’t grain deliver?

Although grains are packed full of nutritious elements, not all their nutrition is available to pets. These nutrients can be listed on the label, but they don’t do your pet much good because pets cannot digest or absorb them. Herbivores—such as cattle, horses, goats, and sheep—benefit the most from grains.

Do euthanized animals get turned into pet food?

Apparently so. The federal government (FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine) measured pet foods for presence of pentobarbital, the chemical used to euthanize animals, and for the presence of intestinal contents (digesta and fecal matter) that would be present if entire euthanized corpses were added to commercial pet foods. The CVM found euthanasia solution and fecal contents in many commercial foods. To make sure you are not feeding your pet euthanized animals, find a commercial food that specifically identifies each ingredient (beef, chicken, fish meal) and doesn’t have a generic category such as “animal protein.”

Euthanasia is normally done for pets and farm animals that have debilitating illness, cancer, kidney failure, parvo infection, etc. It is not in your pet’s best interest to consume the bodies of euthanized animals, nor to ingest the pentobarbital that killed them. This material can be included in ingredients listed as meat meal, meat by-product, animal meal, or animal by-product.


By-products are parts—other than muscle—from poultry or animals added to pet foods. For example, liver, kidneys, lung, heart, and spleen are by-products; and they are reasonably nutritious. Hair, horn, teeth, and hooves are by-products that are not nutritious. Because we cannot tell reading the label whether the by-products are nutritious or not, some recommend avoiding commercial food with by-products.

Rendered meat and meat by-products

Rendering is cooking or melting to separate impurities. All the following can be rendered: diseased, disabled, dying or dead animals. A “downer” cow with Mad Cow Disease can be rendered, and the organisms that cause Mad Cow Disease are not destroyed by the rendering process. Rendered meat can also contain recalled meats, such as hamburger that is contaminated with disease-causing E. Coli bacteria, and animals that have been euthanized by veterinarians. Up to 2.5% of rendered materials can be the polyethylene from plastic bags that encase euthanized animals or that encase packaged meat.

Approximately 1/3 of the material that is rendered ends up in pet food. The remaining material is used in manufacturing, animal feed, fertilizer, and cosmetics.

Rendered meat will be listed as: meat meal, meat by-product, animal meal, or animal by-product.

Homemade diets

Homemade diets are one of the most controversial aspects of veterinary medicine. Opponents believe that a healthy homemade diet is so exacting that pet owners need calculators, gram scales, and access to the National Research Council for the National Academies’ Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats or the Official Publication of the Association of American Feed Control Officials. Opponents of homemade diets point out that raw ingredients may contain bacteria and parasites that will infect the food preparer and the pet.

On the other hand, proponents for homemade diets point out that humans feed themselves very well without calculators, gram scales, and access to nutritional publications, and are likely to be able to feed their pets equally well. The truth may lie in the middle—pets may benefit most from a combination of commercially prepared and homemade diets. Work with your holistic veterinarian to develop a healthy diet that works for your pet.

Pet Food Labels

The following rules apply to all pet foods:

The 95% Rule

A pet food label that says “Bison and Beef for Dogs” must contain 95% bison and beef, and the concentration of bison must be greater than that of beef. If only one ingredient is given on the label, such as Bison for Cats, 70% of the food must be bison.

The 25% “Dinner” Rule

A pet food label that says “Chicken Dinner for Dogs” must have 25% chicken. It is possible the pet food actually contains another meat or ingredient present in a higher concentration than the named chicken. The 25% Rule applies to pet foods designated as Dinner, Platter, Entrée, Nuggets, or Formula.

The 3% “With” Rule

A pet food label that says “Pet Food with Pheasant” need only contain 3% pheasant.

The Flavor Rule

A pet food label that reads “Peacock Flavor Pet Food” need not contain peacock meat. The peacock flavor can be derived from peacock by-products, peacock meal, or peacock organs (digests).

Guaranteed Analysis

Every label of pet food must list

  • minimum crude protein,
  • minimum crude fat,
  • minimum crude fiber, and
  • maximum moisture.

Some—especially cat foods—will also list ash, taurine, and magnesium.

Complete and Balanced

The food meets standards set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. Either the food was chemically analyzed or the food passed feeding trials in live animals. Live animal trials are considered the gold standard.

  • The best pet food mimics a pet’s natural diet.
  • Your pet is an individual. The best food for your pet may not be the best food for another pet.
  • There is an enormous difference in the quality of pet foods.

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    This information is for educational purposes only and is intended to be a supplement to, and not a substitute for, the expertise and professional judgment of your veterinarian. The information is NOT to be used for diagnosis or treatment of your pet. You should always consult your own veterinarian for specific advice concerning the treatment of your pet.

    The information about medications is not intended to cover all possible uses, directions, precautions, warnings, allergic reactions, drug interactions or adverse effects, nor should it be construed to indicate that use of a particular drug is safe, appropriate or effective for your pet. It is not a substitute for a veterinary exam, and it does not replace the need for services provided by your veterinarian.

    Note: Any trademarks are the property of their respective companies