Commercial pet food is a great convenience for busy caregivers. You want the best for your companion, but with a bewildering array of foods and claims to choose from, how do you decide what’s best for your pets? (See our article on Feeding Guidelines for your pet for more useful information.)
Standards for Pet Food Ingredients
The pet food industry is huge and extremely profitable ($60+ billion a year in revenue worldwide). While large manufacturers (national brands) may appear to have the best interests of your companion animals at heart, they are generally more concerned about their stock prices and bottom lines. This may be especially true of pet food manufacturers owned by large, diverse, multinational parent companies.
What this means to you is that if an inexpensive ingredient is available to replace a costlier one, many companies will make the substitution to save money. A few companies pride themselves on their “fixed formulas,” meaning that they always use the same ingredients. This may be good … if the ingredients are of acceptable quality to begin with.
Pet food may be labeled as “complete and balanced” if it meets the standards set by a group called AAFCO, the Association of American Feed Control Officials. These standards were formulated in the early 1990s by panels of canine and feline nutrition experts.
How Pet Foods are Certified
A food may be certified in two ways: (1) by meeting AAFCO’s published standards for content (“Nutrient Profiles”), or (2) by passing feeding tests or trials. While most researchers agree that feeding tests are superior in assessing the nutritional adequacy of a food, clinical experience as well as scientific studies have confirmed that even foods that pass feeding trials may still be inadequate for long-term maintenance.
Also keep in mind that the published standards set only “minimums” and “maximums,” not “optimums.” Commercial foods are designed to be adequate for the average animal, but not all foods will be suitable for an individual animal’s various needs.
Problems with Some Pet Food Ingredients
Commercial pet foods and some pet food ingredients have been implicated in a number of diseases in companion animals. Allergic skin disease, obesity, food intolerance, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic ear infections, cystitis (bladder inflammation), bladder and kidney stones, certain heart diseases, pancreatitis, feline hyperthyroidism, canine mammary cancer, bloat, and diabetes all have nutritional components — that is, nutritional factors are suspected or known to play a role in inducing or perpetuating these diseases. Thus, it is crucial that we, as caregivers, pay close attention to what we are feeding our animals and how they are reacting to the food.
One potential problem with commercial pet food is pesticide residues, antibiotics, and molds contained in pet food ingredients. Meat from sick animals may be loaded with drugs, some of which (such as penicillin and pentobarbital) are known to pass unchanged through all the processing done to create a finished pet food. Between 1995 and 1999, 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.
Another problem is the unpredictable quality of common pet food ingredients. By-products, by-product meal, meat and bone meal, and similar ingredients can vary widely in their nutrient composition. Bone meals in the U.S. have had a lead contamination problem for many years. The protein in a meal containing a large amount of bone may be poorly digestible and fail to provide adequate nutrition, even though chemical analysis will reveal an acceptable amount of amino acids.
Heat Processing Destroys Many Nutrients
One of the biggest problems with commercial foods is the processing they undergo. Meals are rendered (cooked) at moderate to high temperatures for hours. Extruded foods pass through a steam heat/high pressure device that allows them to “puff” into kibble shapes when they come out of the machine. Even though they move through the extruder quickly, the extreme conditions may alter or damage some nutrients.
Pet food manufacturers are aware of these factors, and most add sufficient extra vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to compensate for losses in the manufacturing process. However, because the AAFCO profiles set only minimums for many nutrients, tests have shown that some minerals may be added to the food in excessive amounts.