Selecting a Good Commercial Pet Food

February 18, 2014
By

By Jean Hofve, DVM

Commercial food is a great convenience to dog and cat guardians. Responsible consumers who want the best for their animal companions have a bewildering array of foods and claims to choose from. So, how do you know what’s best for your animals?

The most reputable manufacturers of “superpremium” and “natural” foods agree with holistic veterinarians that the very best diet for your animal companion is one that you make yourself. A homemade diet, carefully balanced nutritionally, and using raw and organic foods, is closest to what Mother Nature intended. (For a sample homemade diet, click here.) However, many of us do not have the time or energy to do home cooking, especially for multiple animals or large dogs. So, for those of us who rely, partially or entirely, on commercial foods for our animals, here are some guidelines to use in selecting a good-quality diet.

Content

The name of a pet food is strictly defined and tells us what is actually in the food. “Chicken for Dogs” must contain at least 95% chicken (excluding water). Similarly, “Fish and Giblets for Cats” will be 95% fish and giblets together, and there must be more fish than giblets, since fish appears first on the label. If the label says “dinner,” “platter,” “entree,” “nuggets,” “formula,” or similar term, there must be 25% of the named ingredients. That is, “Fish Dinner” must contain 25% fish. If more than one ingredient is named, such as “Fish and Giblets Entree,” the two together must comprise 25% of the total, and the second ingredient must be at least 3%. A food labeled “Fish and Giblets Entree” may contain anywhere between 13% fish and 12% giblets, and 22% fish and 3% giblets. Ingredients labeled as “with” must be present at 3%, such as “Fish Dinner with Giblets.” An ingredient labeled as a “flavor,” such as “Beef Flavor Dinner,” may not actually contain beef meat, but more likely will contain beef digest or other beef by-products that give the food a beef flavor.

By-Products

Even on many high-priced, premium, and veterinary brands, you will notice one of the major ingredients listed is “by-products” of some sort. By-products are basically  “parts other than meat.” These may include internal organs not commonly eaten by humans, such as lungs, spleens, and intestines, other parts such as cow udders and uteri, and in the case of poultry by-products, heads, beaks and feet. By-products must be from “freshly slaughtered” animals, although there is some question as to how fresh they really are by the time they reach the pet food manufacturer.

By-products are usually found in canned foods, where they are often the only source of animal protein. While a hunting cat or wild canine would eat the by-products as well as the meat, a named meat should be the mainstay of a carnivore’s diet.

Rendered Products

Rendering (basically a process of slow cooking) produces two major items: animal fat or tallow, and a processed product usually called “meat meal,” “meat and bone meal,” or “by-product meal.” (Due to historical quirks in naming, the term “by-product meal” refers to poultry, while the equivalent mammalian product is called “meat and bone meal.”)

Animals that are dead, dying, diseased, or disabled prior to reaching the slaughterhouse are known as “downers” or “4D” animals. These are usually condemned, in whole or in part, for human consumption, and are generally sent for rendering along with other by-products, parts and items that are unwanted or unsuitable for human use – such as out-of-date supermarket meats (along with their plastic wrappers), cut-away cancerous tissue, parasitized livers, and fetal tissue (which is very high in hormones).

Rendered ingredients vary greatly in quality. A few rendering facilities are closely associated with slaughterhouses, which are in turn connected with feedlots or poultry farms. These “captive” rendering plants are more likely to produce good quality, relatively pure meals. Such meals are typically designated with the name of the source animal, such as “chicken meal.” Independent renderers take all materials from an area, from roadkill to dead livestock. 

Many independent renderers accept for processing such items as road kill, euthanized shelter dogs and cats, and other unappetizing ingredients. These items can be segregated from the food stream, and are not supposed to find their way into the pet food chain, but this is not always done. They are supposed to be converted for use in fertilizers, livestock feeds, and industrial applications. Over the years there have been numerous unsubstantiated reports of this material being processed into dog and cat food. The Center for Veterinary Medicine, a branch of the Food and Drug Administration, admits that dead dogs and cats are commonly rendered, and although there is no legal prohibition against using dogs and cats in pet food, they do not “condone” the practice. All the large, reputable pet food manufacturers certify that they do not use such materials in their products.

Because of the way they are processed, dry foods use meals as their major animal-source ingredients. Meals do contain higher proportions of protein than meat, since the fat and water have been removed. A few dry foods advertise that they contain some type of “meat” (such as chicken or beef) as the first or a top ingredient. However, because of the high water content of fresh meat, and the water added to it, the actual percentage is small. The first named meal is usually the primary protein source in these foods. (See Pet Food Marketing Hype for more information on this and other tricks the pet food industry uses to persuade you to buy their food.)

Rendered products are found almost exclusively in dry food (which we do not recommend for cats; see Why Cats Need Canned Food for more information.)

“Complete and Balanced”

A food may be labeled as “complete and balanced” if it meets the standards set by a group called AAFCO, the American Association of Feed Control Officials. These standards were formulated in the early 1990s by panels of canine and feline nutrition experts. Standards set by AAFCO have been adopted by most states, which are then responsible for enforcement. However, in many cases, state enforcement is negligible.

A food may be certified by AAFCO in two ways: (1) meeting published standards for content, or (2) feeding trials.

(1) Nutrient Profiles. These standards set the required amounts of protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and so forth. These theoretically have the benefit of extensive research behind them. However, according to researchers at the University of California at Davis, the fundamental research supporting standards for adult cat food includes one study on protein requirements, one study on amino acid requirements, and ZERO studies on vitamin requirements. Yet AAFCO publishes standards specifying exactly how much of each vitamin must be included in adult cat food. Where do these values come from? They are interpreted and extrapolated from research in kittens (which has been a little more extensive) and from research in other species, mostly chickens and rats. Is this valid? We do not know.

Moreover, any manufacturer can synthesize a food containing sufficient amounts of each ingredient according to the standards, yet an animal will ultimately starve to death on it. How could this happen? Because the standards do not address the issues of “bioavailability” of nutrients to the animal. Certain forms of vitamins and minerals, for example, are poorly absorbed from the digestive tract. A noted veterinary nutrition textbook claims that a food can be created from old leather boots, wood shavings, and crankcase oil that will meet the technical requirements for protein, carbohydrates, and fats, yet would be completely indigestible. Unfortunately, given the ingredients used by some manufacturers, “Old Boot” may be closer to the truth than anyone wants to admit!

(2) Feeding Trials. These are considered the “gold standard” of pet food formulation. However, when you look at the actual AAFCO protocols for an adult maintenance diet, a manufacturer must feed exclusively the test food to only six animals for six months. (Eight animals are required at the outset; however, two of them may be dropped from the trial for non-diet-related reasons.) Foods intended for growth and reproduction must be tested for only 10 weeks. Most of the large, reputable pet food producers, such as Iams, Hills, Walthams and Purina, maintain large colonies of dogs and cats, and test their foods on hundreds of animals over years or even multiple generations. Other manufacturers rely on facilities that keep animals for this purpose to do the studies for them. It is easy to see how a poor quality diet could be fed for only six months without seeing adverse health effects, and legitimately be labeled as meeting AAFCO standards. In fact, studies have confirmed that even foods that pass feeding trials may still be inadequate for long-term maintenance. Worse still, AAFCO passed the “family rule” making it okay to put the feeding test statement on the labels of foods that were not actually tested, but are “similar” to one that was. The criteria for being “similar” are very loose. Since there’s no way to tell which food actually passed a feeding test, this label designation has become fairly useless.

Keep in mind, too, that the standards, such as they are, set only “minimums” and “maximums,” not “optimums.” Commercial foods are designed to be adequate for the average animal, but may not be suitable for an individual animal’s variable needs.

Additives and Preservatives

Virtually every commercial pet food contains additives and preservatives. Some of the worst include BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin. Monsanto, manufacturer of ethoxyquin (a rubber stabilizer), in 1993 was ordered to conduct a new study of this preservative due to faulty test protocols and alleged doctoring of data in its initial report. Not surprisingly, the second study, completed in 1996, found no problems associated with ethoxyquin in pet food. Given Monsanto’s track record, do you believe this? Ethoxyquin is banned from nearly all human food products (except certain spices) due to its cancer-causing properties.

Contaminants

Another concern is pesticide residues, antibiotics, and molds contained in pet food ingredients. Meat from downer animals may be loaded with drugs, some of which are known to pass unchanged through all the processing done to create a finished pet food. One toddler who habitually snacked from the cat’s bowl of dry food died of an allergic reaction to penicillin, which was found to be in the cat food at levels over 600 times that allowed in human food products. In the 1990s there were two major recalls of dry dog food by different manufacturers due to mold contamination of grain ingredients. Some fungal toxins are very dangerous. The second recalled food killed more than 20 dogs. In 2006, more than 100 dogs died from another food contaminated with a fungal toxin.

What to do?

When selecting a commercial food for your animal companion, be sure to read the label. Although percentages are misleading due to the variable moisture content of processed foods, they are often the only data available.

  • Avoid foods containing “by-product meal,” “meat and bone meal,” or the newest euphemism, “beef and bone meal,” which tend to be the least expensive (and thus potentially poorest quality) animal-source ingredients. “Meat and bone meal” (MBM) is the mammal equivalent to “by-product meal” (which is properly applied only to poultry). MBM was reported as the ingredient most likely to contain the drug used for euthanasia (sodium pentobarbital) in a study conducted by the FDA. .
  • A named meat or meat meal should be the primary protein source, rather than a cereal like corn gluten meal. Corn in all its forms must also be avoided. Corn has the same glycemic index as a chocolate bar, and is probably the primary culprit in the development of feline diabetes. Corn gluten meal, a high-protein corn extract, is often substituted for more expensive meat ingredients. Its presence in a food indicates a company’s preference for economy over nutritional value. Wheat is also a common allergen; wheat products should be avoided. Both grains are susceptible to mold and other toxins.
  • Because the pet food makers have gotten pretty clever about marketing, it’s important to know how to see through the hype. For instance, don’t fall for the “meat is the first ingredient” ploy! For more about pet food marketing, see this article.
  • Never feed “semi-moist” type foods, which are full of colorings, texturizers, and preservatives. Avoid foods containing chemical preservatives such as ethoxyquin, BHA, BHT, propylene glycol, or propyl gallate. In general, select brands promoted to be “natural.” While they are not perfect, they are better than most. Many brands are now preserved with Vitamins C and E instead of chemical preservatives. While synthetic preservatives may still be present, the amounts will be less.
  • Stay away from “light” or “senior” or “special formula” foods. These foods may contain acidifying agents, excessive fiber, and inadequate fats that will result in skin and coat problems. Avoid generic or store brands; these may be repackaged rejects from the big manufactures, and certainly contain cheaper – and consequently poorer quality – ingredients.
  • Change brands or flavors of dry food every 2 or 3 months to avoid deficiencies or excesses of ingredients, which may be problematic for your animal. (With canned food, you can change flavors daily if you wish–my cats prefer it that way!) Whenever you are changing foods, remember to GO SLOWLY. Add a tiny amount of new food to old, and gradually increase the proportion of new food. It will take a week or two to properly transition a cat. Click here for more info on why and how to change foods.
  • Cats need at least 50% of their diet (preferably 100%!) in the form of wet food (canned or homemade), for optimal health. Include a variety of meats and flavors to prevent finicky behavior and food allergies and intolerances. Cats who are overweight, diabetic, or have a history of or current liver, pancreas, bladder or kidney disease, should not eat any dry or semi-moist food at all. The low moisture and high carbohydrate content are known to contribute to these problems. There is no real benefit to the cat from dry food, and many adverse effects on health. Dry food is popular because of its cost and convenience, but it is definitely not healthy for your cat to eat. (And no, dry food does not clean the teeth!)
  • If you must feed dry food, remember to never get it wet. Do not mix with canned food, milk, broth, or water. All dry foods have bacterial contamination on the surface, and moisture will allow those bacteria to grow. Some are dangerous and cause vomiting and/or diarhhea.

Above all, supplement with organic raw meats (meat should be frozen at -4oF for 72 hours, then thawed prior to use; follow safe meat-handling procedures at all times) and if desired, a small amount lightly steamed, pureed or finely grated non-starchy vegetables (they cannot be very well digested by carnivores otherwise). Dogs may be supplemented with tofu and cooked grains; however, cats should receive minimal carbohydrates in the diet. Be aware that plant products tend to raise urine pH and may contribute to urinary tract disease. Other helpful supplements include Omega-3 fatty acids, acidophilus, digestive enzymes, and Vitamins C and E.

For a detailed list of Dr. Jean’s personally-recommended brands, see her in-depth ebook, What Cats Should Eat, in our Bookstore or on Amazon.com.

 

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22 Responses to Selecting a Good Commercial Pet Food

  1. corwin1 on May 3, 2013 at 5:04 am

    I have come across an ingredient called “Montmorillonite Clay” in canned cat food that I am surprised and stumped at. I have never heard of it before but it appears in a canned formula from a company called Nature’s Variety:Instinct.
    Why on earth would they use this, even as a “filler”? I associate the word “clay” with cat litter and would likely stay as far away from it as possible (my guys use corn based litter). is this an ingredient to avoid or are there any health benefits to it?

  2. beruset on January 13, 2013 at 10:38 pm

    In the content section you mention a list of words that denotes how much of the “main ingredient” is actually in the food. Is “recipe” another qualifier? And are there others that aren’t mentioned? Thank you.

    • jhofve77 on January 14, 2013 at 11:11 am

      Yes. ANY qualifier or descriptor on the label invokes the 25% rule. There are many, many others. If you have time and want do do something fun, go to any online petstore and see how many descriptors you can find; you’ll see how ridiculous they can be.

  3. Elizabeth Faraone on January 31, 2012 at 9:31 am

    My neighbor rescued a litter of four kittens from a feral mother at the age of 3 weeks and they weren’t healthy. She bottled fed them and then started them on an inexpensive dry food. I adopted them at two months and I couldn’t get them to eat any of the of the good, organic, wet foods (Weruva, Wellness, Blue Wilderness, Raw food from Feline’s Pride) that I had. I didn’t want to continue with the low quality dry food and so I bought Blue Wilderness dry food for them and I let them self feed, always keeping their dish filled and always providing them lots of fresh water. I continue to try to give them wet food, even mixed with the dry, and they have no interest. I had all of them spayed/neutered at the age of six months. They are indoor cats and so I haven’t had them vaccinated. At six months, I tested one of them for FIV, and he was negative. Now that they are ten months, I think I should change them over to wet food in a more forceful way. If they don’t accept the wet food, is Blue Wilderness dry food good enough for them. Three of them seem very healthy and happy now and they have shiny coats and a lot of energy. One of them has an eye ulcer (they all had eye infections when they were rescued and the one who is the strongest now was close to death when rescued). My vets have said there is nothing they can do for her ulcer, but I’m going to bring her to an opthamologist soon.

  4. Catherine on September 8, 2011 at 2:15 am

    Hi Dr. Hofve,

    I am glad that can read your article, although may be a little bit late for one of my cat, as she already gone last month because of kidney failure at only 5yrs old.
    I hope I can do better to raise my other 3 cats.
    May I ask why people keep telling me that wet food are bad for their teeth? Even vet said I should avoid giving wet food…
    If I change to wet food, any measure that I need to do to avoid the teeth problem?

    Another question is, after I read the cat food ingredient label, I find that there are lots of ingredients that I don’t know … like
    “phosphoric acid, sodium chloride, lecithin, potassium chloride, DL-methionine, taurine, dried seaweed meal, vitamins (vitamin E supplement, L-ascorbyl-2-polyphosphate (source of vitamin C) niacin, inositol, thiamine mononitrate, d-calcium pantothenate, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin, beta-carotene, vitamin D3 supplement, folic acid, biotin, vitamin B12 supplement), minerals (zinc proteinate, ferrous sulfate, zinc oxide, iron proteinate, copper sulfate, copper proteinate, manganese proteinate, manganous oxide, calcium iodate, sodium selenite), L-Lysine, chicory extract, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Enterococcus faecium, Bifidobacterium thermophilum , dried Aspergillus niger fermentation extract, dried Aspergillus oryzae fermentation extract, yucca schidigera extract, L-carnitine.”

    Why they need to add so many vitamins and chemicals?
    Are all these ingredients essential or healthy for the cats?

    • jhofve77 on September 8, 2011 at 10:28 am

      Your vet is wrong. Dry food is not good for the teeth, and wet food does not cause dental problems. This is a myth that is repeated over and over by pet food companies (because they make a much bigger profit margin on dry food than canned). Evidently your vet fell for that lie, as so many do. I have done a lot of research on this; maybe your vet would be interested in reading the article that summarizes the science: http://www.littlebigcat.com/health/does-dry-food-clean-the-teeth/. Regarding dental care to prevent problems, may this article will be helpful: http://www.littlebigcat.com/health/dental-care-for-cats/

      About the ingredients, in order for a pet food to claim it is “complete and balanced,” vitamins and minerals are added. That’s mostly what that list is. DL-methionine is a urinary acidifier; chicory is a prebiotic, the next few ingredients are probiotics and herbs; yucca is an herb that reduces stool odor, and taurine and carnitine are amino acids found only in meat, so they are commonly supplemented. Taurine supplementation is necessary in canned and dry foods; this, of course, is a dry food. Probiotics are not added to canned food because would just be destroyed by the canning process. Note that only some of these (Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Enterococcus faecium, Bifidobacterium thermophilum) are probiotics; the rest are “fermentation products” which are not live probiotics, but rather a protein source.

      • Catherine on September 11, 2011 at 10:56 pm

        Thank you so much for your reply.
        I am now switch to 50% canned food and 50% dried food.
        Actually I am thinking of home-made cat food, but seems take a long time to learn and the supplement is not easy to buy in Hong Kong. Also I really worry that what I feed them is not “complete and balanced”.
        From many articles and research, seems raw food is better then cooked one. However, I still worry if the raw food is being contaminated… What do you think for home-made cooked food? Would it be better then canned food? Do you have any good book suggestion of cook book for cats?
        Thanks!

  5. Sally on August 17, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    I have some questions regarding canned cat foods. Our previous cat was fed Wellness canned. They now have one called Core that has 50% more protein. I have also noticed that some of the good quality brands like Evo, Innova, Natural Balance and Weruva all now have canned foods that are about 80 to 95% meat. Is this really safe to be feeding long term with so much protein? Are they really better than the regular canned foods like Wellness Grain Free? Is this new kind of food safe for all cats or is it made for a more specific kind of cat? Are their cats who shouldn’t eat this kind of food? And how would I know if my cat should steer clear of these new higher protein foods? We are getting a new cat soon and want to start off with the right kind of canned food. Thanks for your help.

    • jhofve77 on August 18, 2011 at 5:57 am

      Good questions! Two answers: –First, read the labels! Many of the ultra-high protein foods are made for “intermittent or supplemental” feeding only. That is, they are not balanced with vitamins and minerals that aren’t found in meat alone; calcium is the prime example. They are suitable as occasional meals or treats (like I can eat ice cream or popcorn for dinner now and then without throwing my entire nutritional status out of balance!)…or you can supplement them to make them balanced, which kinda misses the point about convenience. –Second, there is no harm in feeding high protein canned food (the same does not go for high protein dry foods, which are extremely dehydrating). Cats are designed to eat a very high protein diet: the average rodent provides about 55-60% protein, as well as high fat. The only circumstance where high protein could be a problem is in cats with significantly impaired kidney function (e.g., chronic renal failure). The key for your new cat will be variety–feed lots of different brands and flavors. Eventually you’ll settle on maybe 6 or 7 that are favorites…but variety is the most important feature of any cat’s diet.

  6. Tara on July 18, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Hi Dr. Hofve,

    Thank you so much for such an informative article. I have learned so much, and cannot wait to share it with my husband. Our cat, Rhiannon, is 12 years old and eats a canned-only diet. We have been feeding her Weruva Mack and Jack – Mackerel & Grilled Skipjack almost exclusively for the past year, and we ran out last night and had to buy a can of Fancy Feast instead. Of course, Rhiannon LOVED the FF, and my husband asked me why she couldn’t eat it every day, so I came here to learn more. After reading Why Fish is Dangerous for Cats, I now know that I need to switch to a chicken or meat based food. And add some variety! Thank you.

  7. Kim on June 30, 2011 at 5:32 am

    Do you have any suggestions of what type of food to give a cat with a heart condition.

    Also my cat loves fish flavored food the best but I heard that is not good for her is this true?

    • jhofve77 on June 30, 2011 at 11:45 am

      I don’t usually comment on brands or particular foods (other than in my ebook What Cats Should Eat), but any good meat-based canned food should be adequate; poultry would be a great choice because it’s naturally higher in taurine, an important nutrient for heart function. Avoid cheap by-product or grain-based foods.

      I don’t recommend fish-based foods for many reasons, you can read more info here: Why Fish is Dangerous for Cats.

  8. claudia on June 20, 2011 at 7:02 am

    Thanks Dr. Hofve for this interesting and most informative website! (Defintiely added to “my favorites”) I just adopted a 10week old kitten who was apparently the runt of the litter. Her rescue foster was supplementing with GNC powdered milk replacement. They also started her on “friskies wet”..which I need to change immediately. She is definitely not a good eater. Refuses to lap water and prefers her milk from a bottle. (Screams for it) Can you tell me how to encourage her to eat wet food and which brand? She is just shy of two pounds and was spayed last week. I am concerned that she is not getting enough nutrition and I want to help support immune function. I thought perhaps I should switch to KMR milk. She does seem to be having a bit of diarrhea as well. Any information would be deeply appreciated.

    • jhofve77 on June 29, 2011 at 7:00 pm

      A kitten starts eating solid food at 3-4 weeks of age. Mom would not be allowing her to nurse whenever she wanted. I suspect the GNC formula is contributing to her diarrhea, as it is full of artificial junk and sugar, devoid of vital healthy fats (and no, KMR is not particularly better). She should not be getting a bottle at this age… giving in to her “screaming” will just create a spoiled and manipulative cat! Her hunger is your best friend–use it wisely to get her to eat a wide variety of foods. This is the time when her food preferences are formed for life–you want to get her accustomed to eating what she is given, not just what she likes. If a child screamed for ice cream at every meal, would you give it? Of course not! Time for some “tough love!” :) Maybe some of the tips in our article on “Switching Foods” would help you to deal with your little princess!

  9. jhofve77 on May 23, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    I do not recommend dry food for cats. All dry food is bad for them; grain-free isn’t any better. It just substitutes starchy vegetables (in this case, white potatoes) for grain. For more info, see my article “Why Cats Need Canned Food.”

  10. carol fink on May 4, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    Hi Dr. Hofve,
    I am really confused. My first two cats (siblings) ate only inexpensive dry foods and lived to 17 years, our next cat ate only the generic grocery store brand canned tuna flavored food and died at age 19. We now have two wonderful 10 month old kitties ( male and female.) The male eats anything( we are giving him highly recommended food a combination of wet and dry) but his sister will not eat any wet food at all.
    Were we just lucky with our first three cats? They were all indoor cats so never supplemented their diets with outside prey. Why has the protocal changed?
    Thank you!
    Carol

    • jhofve77 on May 5, 2011 at 9:02 am

      Good question! I had a cat who lived to be 20 who ate Meow Mix for her first 15 years, so I understand your confusion! But, several factors are at play.

      For one thing, cats have changed. They’re now more heavily vaccinated, which sets them up for kidney disease and cancer later in life. I also don’t think the genetics are as “hardy” any more. We used to regularly see 20 to 22-year old cats, but that doesn’t happen so much these days. So many cats are dying at 11 or 12 from unusual cancers that we never used to see.

      And pet food has changed. Over the years, more and more grains and by-products have been substituted for meat, and the quality of ingredients has declined overall. So dry food has become a really poor diet not really suited for keeping cats optimally healthy.

  11. jan on April 24, 2011 at 7:39 am

    what is a cheaper food to feed s LARGE male cat the store started him on science digest and now he is on light science digest which is very pricy. how much to feed etc.

  12. Shannon on April 7, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    Hi Dr. Hofve,

    I just left you a long email with a specific question regarding feeding a tuna based food to my cat, Max. Then I found this article, and your views are clear – I’ll try the meat based flavor in the same brand and hope that Max will eat it! Any comments I appreciate, but I will refer to your articles for more information.

    Thank you!

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