Today’s Pet Foods – What They Provide

If you believe that a steady diet of highly processed foods would not be healthy for you; consider that today’s pet diets consist of the most highly processed foods on the planet and this food is fed every single day of the animal’s life.

In human nutrition there are RDA’s or Recommended Dietary Allowances provided as guidelines. RDA’s are considered to be two standard deviations above the Minimum Requirements used for pet food manufacturers yet; most human nutritionists agree that RDA’s are considered inadequate and are certainly not Optimum. In fact, it is estimated that at least 90% of all humans are not receiving optimum levels of nutrition.

So let’s see now! We are actually feeding a pet diet two levels below human RDA’s. No wonder we are seeing so many health problems in our pets. I’ll bet the commercial pet food manufacturers have never used this information in their advertising and marketing efforts.

I believe that Optimum Nutritional Guidelines are essential if optimum pet health and longevity are the goals we hope to someday achieve. Sadly, Optimum Nutritional Guidelines do not exist for pets.

Why? One reason might be that the U.S. Pet food Industry is primarily made up of giant corporations who vigorously compete for a share of the $15 Billion annual pet food revenues. These corporations are governed by Board Room decisions that are focused on maximizing profits for their shareholders. In other words, economics may be trumping pet health.

Let’s take a closer look at the economics associated with today’s pet foods. Recently, I found a 22 pound premium brand bag of dog food for under $14.00. This equates to $0.63 per pound. If we subtract the cost of manufacturing, marketing, advertising, shipping and the retailers profit leaving only the cost of the ingredients – you shouldn’t be too surprised to hear that the nutritional cost per pound is only a few cents. How nutritious can it be?

Today’s pet food companies tell us that our dogs are no longer carnivores. They do this to justify the large amounts of cheap carbohydrate included in today’s pet diets.

What this chart shows is that out of 1,511 different pet foods, 1,252 (342 + 233 + 386 +291) contain between 30% and 60% carbohydrate.

Manufacturers say carbohydrate is included in order to spare protein – that is to allow carbohydrate to act as the body’s source of energy in place of using protein. This may be possible but, it is certainly not the healthiest choice. For the dog and cat that evolved using protein to provide both energy and the essential building blocks of life, substituting carbohydrate has created more health problems than any other thing we know of.

The History of Commercial Pet Foods

Before commercial pet foods grew in popularity, dogs and cats generally ate whatever food was available to them. Farm pets consumed milk, meat scraps, eggs and anything else they could scavenge. City dogs and cats depended on left-over table scraps, cheap meat and bones from the butcher shop plus anything else they could catch that was edible. The very wealthy had gourmet meals prepared for their pets, which could have been a good thing or not based on certain owner’s quirky eating habits.

The historical period of commercial pet food is relatively short in comparison to the length of time that domestic dogs and cats have been on this planet. It was in 1860 when James Spratt, an electrician from Cincinnati, Ohio while selling lightning rods in Europe viewed stray dogs being fed left-over ship’s biscuits by English sailors and decided he could do better. His first processed dog food Spratt’s Patent Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes – a biscuit made of wheat, beet root, vegetables and beef blood was offered to English gentlemen for their sporting dogs. It was an instant success and in 1890 the British company that took over Spratt’s formula brought this new pet diet to America.

What this means is that our dogs and cats that have been around for thousands of years have only been fed a commercially prepared diet for 157 years. In evolutionary terms – this is nowhere close to being enough time for adequate adaptation to take place.

Other US companies entered into the arena of pet food manufacturing however, the depression in the 1930’s prompted dog owners to look for less expensive methods of feeding their pets. Less raw meat was fed, and more grains and cereal products were introduced into the diet. Canned meat products were introduced in the 1940’s and in 1943, dehydrated dog food was introduced.

It wasn’t until after World War II however, that the use of commercially prepared pet foods became popular in the United States. Manufacturers and grain dealers found a good source for their by-products in the pet food industry. Slaughterhouses provided non-human grade, diseased meats, unusable parts, and meat by-products to pet food companies. This created a market for products that previously had been discarded. Since many of these meat sources were non-human grade, the practice became common to mix these with the grains and cook them together for many hours or days to kill bacteria and disease. The final mix was then formed into pellets that were easily bagged for convenience of feeding.

Then, in the 1950’s the Purina Company discovered an innovative new concept for dry dog food. Dry dog food was generally found in two forms prior to this. One was biscuit, or crumbled biscuit, known as kibble, which was baked. The other type was dog food made in pellets of which the ingredients had to be hand mixed. Purina’s new technique was called “extrusion”. The extrusion process consisted of combining and cooking the ingredients together in a liquid form, and then mechanically pushing them through an extruder. These dog food pieces were much larger and lighter than the pellets, giving an appearance of ‘more for your money’. Thus began the onset of ‘clever marketing’ into the race to promote dog food to the public.

Convenience was the first selling point for prepared and packaged dog foods. Scooping dry pieces of food into the dog’s food bowl was more time saving than cooking or preparing their pet’s dinner. The second selling point was developed by a professional marketing campaign. Dog food companies began labeling their dog foods as complete, with no additional foods or supplements being necessary. In fact, they began warning the public that adding table scraps could actually be dangerous to the dog’s health. An active campaign was developed in 1964 through the Pet Food Institute, to inform the public of the dangers of table food scraps, and the importance of feeding processed dog food.

Continuing marketing strategies included using celebrities in television commercials, making dog foods that produced their own ‘gravy’, making dog kibble into various shapes, and using dyes in the dog food so it would look ‘natural’ and pleasing to the dog owner’s eyes. Pet food ads were appearing regularly in the media and designs were developed more to attract the owner’s idea of a tasty and visually attractive meal than for the dogs’ health. Pet food sales moved from the feed stores to the grocery stores, with bright labels and appealing pictures. The marketing strategies were paying off, and soon pet food sales were surpassing the amount of money spent on baby food. Aisle and shelf space for dog food sales were expanding by leaps and bounds as more dog food companies joined the marketing competition.

The next marketing strategy was in specialty diets, formulated for specific diseases or disorders in pets. The first diets were developed for kidney and heart disease in 1948. These have expanded to multiple specialty diets being offered today. Dr. Mark Morris DVM, founder of Hill’s Pet Products (Science Diet) was the first in the field to develop this idea. The Purina Company quickly followed, along with several other companies. Only veterinarians offered these Hill’s prescription products. This really began to portray dog nutrition as complex, and the public relied more on their veterinarian’s advice about nutrition than trusting their own judgment or common sense. Shopping now expanded from the supermarkets to the veterinarian’s office.

Up until 1974, the National Research Council (NRC) developed the protocol for the nutritional values needed in pet food. As the industry continued to grow, regulating the pet food industry was under the control of the Food & Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and state feed control officials – coordinated through the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

AAFCO is an organization of state and federal officials who regulate pet food. Representatives of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and state regulators participate in AAFCO to develop uniform laws, regulations and rules for pet food products as well as feed products for livestock.

AAFCO has adopted definitions for many of the pet food ingredients found in cat and dog food and has developed complex rules for pet food labels.

Every year AAFCO publishes its Official Publication (OP), a compilation of the most current model law, model regulations, labeling rules, ingredient definitions and other guidance materials adopted by the organization. Copies of the OP are available for purchase from AAFCO.

AFCO maintains nutrient profiles for cat and dogs food and has developed procedures, called a feeding protocol, to evaluate whether cat and dog food products contain the essential nutrients for healthy pets. Products that provide “complete and balanced” nutrition, or that are similarly labeled, must state whether their nutritional content was verified by testing in a laboratory or through a feeding trial.

The Animal Protection Institute (API), in their article “What’s really in Pet Food” points out that in 1974; AAFCO was formed and organized by the pet food industry. They decided to change the standards of the NRC (National Research Council) testing procedures from extending feeding trials of the dog food over a period of time, to simple testing of the chemical analysis of the dog food. While this provided results for the percentages and breakdowns in the dog food, it certainly didn’t address the type of food used, freshness, or digestibility of each of the ingredients. As API states in their article, this left the pet food industry to police itself, without government intervention.

In 1985, the National Research Council updated their guidelines for nutrition, instituting three important changes. The first was that the percentage requirement was removed for protein, and instead requirements for ten amino acids were listed by weight of the dog. These were developed for growth and adult stages. The second change was removing the word allowances from the guide, and replacing it with the word requirements. This was to provide information on the availability of nutrients in the food when eaten and digested. It also developed a chart that listed factors that could affect the bioavailability of the ingredients of the food chosen and mixed together for dog food.

Bioavailability is defined as the efficiency of absorption, and the availability of amino acids in the food. The intent of this classification was to take into consideration the affect that processing, heating and cooking had on many of the ingredients. Combining certain ingredients also affects nutrient value, especially the phytates in grains that block certain minerals, and the differences in animal and plant amino acids profiles. The guidelines urged consideration for all the above in formulating percentages of the nutrients in the pet food for analysis AFTER it was actually cooked and processed.

One API report states “Pet food provides a market for grains considered “unfit for human consumption, slaughterhouse offal, and similar waste products that can be turned into profit”

And what was the response from the pet food companies? Today, pet food companies are still using the AAFCO modified 1974 NRC nutritional guidelines. Not only were the proposed changes in 1985 never adopted but, the most recent 2000 NRC Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats that takes into consideration the past 25 years of nutritional research was disregarded as well.

The next trend in commercial pet food was called the “premium” diet. These foods were and still are advertised to be more nutritional for dogs, and they offered different types of blends for all stages of life, including puppy diets, maintenance diets, performance diets and senior dog diets. This brought several new markets for pet foods, and lent a new sense of helplessness to the public. While these foods were advertised as ‘premium’, they were still using the old standards from the 1974 requirements.

In the 1980’s, consumers were becoming more educated on nutrition for their own diets and reading labels on food products. With this information in hand, dog owners began reading the dog food labels and questioning some of the ingredients in pet foods. The ingredients of most concern were the chemical preservatives.

Due to the pressure from the public on the use of these chemicals, many but not all pet food companies have eliminated them, and are now using vitamin C and vitamin E for preserving fat in dog food.

This led to the next trend in commercial dog foods, which is marketing brands that are labeled as natural, either by offering organic foods, human grade foods or new forms of meat to pet foods, such as venison, fish or rabbit. Some even offer whole chickens as the main meat ingredient, and state they don’t use meat by-products or other less nutritious ingredients. However, all the brands offered still continue to heavily process and cook all ingredients, and the food is still approximately 45 – 65% grains, grain fillers, fibers and grain by-products.

The last 10 years has seen the number of pet food manufacturers grow along with the number of pet food choices that range from completely raw meat diets to Holistic, Organic and even Vegan. Today pet owners are faced with trying to discern what is actually best for their pet. This is continuously made more difficult due to the advertising and claims made by pet food companies that go far beyond stretching the truth.

In the upcoming sections, I hope to clarify some of the mysteries of pet nutrition and make it clear to everyone how they should go about deciding what is best for their pet as well as how to determine if what you are doing is truly benefitting your dog or cat.

Today’s Pet Foods – Are they all that they could or should be?

Today’s commercially prepared pet foods often defy common sense and may even contradict nutritional science. Outside of a few metabolic similarities to typical omnivores (the conversion of carotene to vitamin A, tryptophan to niacin, cysteine to taurine and linoleate to arachidonate) our canine friends still remain anatomically and physiologically related to their carnivore ancestor the wolf.

In fact, according to all nutritional experts, dogs do not require any carbohydrate at all. As such, they would benefit from higher quantities of higher quality meat sources, less carbohydrate and fiber and more biologically available vitamin and mineral sources in their daily diet.

What’s in your pet’s food bowl?

Nutritional Facts:

  • Commercially prepared diets are based on minimal nutritional requirements
  • Protein / carbohydrate levels are determined by ingredient cost rather than nutritional adequacy
  • Protein quality of cereal grains and animal by-products (a measurement of essential amino acid availability) is poor
  • Foods that list meat like chicken, lamb or beef are able to do so by dividing the cereal grain sources into multiple forms…sometimes two or more forms of the same grain i.e. whole ground corn, ground yellow corn, corn meal, corn gluten meal, corn grits in order to place them behind the meat source.
  • Natural or Holistic brands do not provide anything more natural or holistic than the majority of commercially prepared diets
  • Extensive cooking often destroys naturally provided vitamin content
  • Mineral sources in pet foods routinely use oxide or sulfate forms that are poorly absorbed and are not very bioavailable to the dog or cat.
  • Artificial colors and preservatives are routinely used to enhance appearance and preserve ingredients that easily become rancid
  • The normal distribution chain for commercial pet food involves a lengthy process of trucking, storage and shelf sitting…fresh takes on a new meaning when it comes to pet foods

The recommendations you make can often determine which foods a client will provide for their pet. This may well be the most important influence you can impart on the overall health of the animals entrusted to your care. Consider that allergies, autoimmune disease, immune deficiencies, diseases of major organs and cancer are all increasing faster than the general population of dogs. Something is at the root of this all.

Most of today’s commercially manufactured foods are not what I would consider healthy. They often contain more grain than meat – with most of the grain coming from leftover human food and beverage industry scrap. The meat sources aren’t much better either. The bottom line is today’s pet food manufacturers are provided minimum nutritional guidelines and for them to remain competitive from a price standpoint – minimum is what they provide.

AAFCO definitions: Guidelines they set for themselves


“Meat is the clean flesh taken from slaughtered animals 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 the accompanying and overlying fat and the portions of the skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels which normally accompany the flesh.”

Meat By-Products

“Meat by-products are 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, stomachs and intestines freed from their contents.

Meat Meal

“Meat Meal is the “rendered” product of these animals exclusive of any added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, and stomach or rumen contents except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices.”

The source of rendered materials comes from slaughterhouse waste or condemned animals, butcher shop trimmings, grocery store expired meat, restaurant grease, and the carcasses of euthanized and dead animals from farms, animal shelters, zoos and some veterinary clinics.

The process of rendering includes removing most of the hide that is salvageable. The animal is then crushed in its entirety – ground up – heated to remove the fats and oils – cooked to remove bacteria – dried and powdered – packaged and sold to be fed back to farm animals or to be included in pet food.

A Few Truths

With excess carbohydrate we see overweight pets, excessive stool volume, poor hair coat quality and itchy, scratchy skin. Internally, organ systems are fat laden, unhealthy and struggle to function and survive. As we treat our pets for what the veterinary profession considers a higher incidence of disease or the earlier onset of normal age-related diseases; few of us, including the veterinary community, trace these pet health problems back to their origin – the diet.

What about natural and organic pet foods? Are they any better at promoting canine wellness? A small amount of improvement may be found in the meat quality and processing, but the carbohydrate amounts remain and in some cases have been set at an even higher level. There is nothing natural or organic about feeding a biologically inappropriate pet diet containing high levels of carbohydrate to a dog or cat.

I also know people who believe that a vegetarian pet diet contains acceptable nutrition for their pet because it fits within their own belief system and lifestyle. This is anthropomorphic reasoning and is dangerous at best.

The Nature Channel frequently provides stories about wild animals and their eco systems. When natural habitat is removed or the food chain is disrupted animals become stressed and are forced to adapt. How well they adapt determines whether they survive or not.

In-between survival and death are many levels of poor health.

Raw Diets

A raw diet recreates the way our pet’s ancestors ate in the wild for thousands of years. Dogs and cats are carnivores. Left to their own devices, their typical daily diet, like that of their wild cousins would involve catching and eating another animal. A raw diet returns our pets to this more natural form of nutrition, as if they had hunted and caught their perfect dinner.

When a carnivore eats a herbivore like a rabbit or a deer, the carnivore eats some meat, some bone and some organ meats and in some cases a small amount of green vegetation contained in the herbivore’s digestive tract. These ingredients are the four main food groups of a good raw diet.

  • Fresh, raw meat
  • Some uncooked bone
  • Some raw organ meats
  • Some green vegetation

The Raw Diet Rationale

More and more professionals in the world of dogs and cats and thousands of concerned pet owners, are advocating a second look at what we feed our animals. There is a growing belief that dogs and cats need a raw, natural diet in order to be healthy and that commercial pet foods cannot supply the nutrients necessary for good health and a long life. An overabundance of the wrong ingredients may serve to satisfy a hungry pet, but they may also contribute to long-term health problems.

Just like us, our pets are what they eat.

And here’s what raw-feeding pet owners around the world see in their raw-fed pets:

  • Shinier, healthier skin and coats>
  • Cleaner teeth and fresher breath
  • Better weight control
  • Improved digestion
  • Reduction of allergy symptoms
  • Harder, smaller, less smelly stools
  • More energy and stamina
  • Decrease in abnormal hyperactivity
  • Increased mobility in older animals
  • Reduced or eliminated need for veterinary dental work

Switching an animal with an existing health problem to a raw diet can often produce an improvement in their conditions. Among healthy animals, a raw diet is likely to help them avoid some of the illnesses that are now becoming common in our companion animals. Regardless of the starting point for your pet, a high quality raw diet will help promote a long and healthy life.

Cats and Raw Diets

The domestic house cat is descended from the jungle cat, and still retains the desire to eat like a wild cat. Both wild and domestic cats are classified as “obligate carnivores”, which means that due to their genetic makeup, their digestive anatomy and physiology they must eat the tissue of other animals in order to thrive. A raw diet made with fresh, approved meats and bones provides a cat with a healthy, biologically appropriate choice.

It can be difficult to switch a cat’s diet. Unlike dogs, who are usually willing to investigate any potential food source, cats often imprint on the specific smell, taste and texture of the food they are used to eating. So, while a few will immediately appreciate the raw food offered to them, some will not at first. Most will however, eventually make the transition.

The key to success with finicky felines is to transition them very slowly. In these cases, mix only a finger-full of raw food at a time into their current diet – just enough to let them get used to the slight smell of the new food in their bowl. Very gradually increase the amount. Over the course of a month, most will make a full transition.

Rabbit, venison and poultry tend to be very popular with cats. Organ meats are very important to feed at least a few times a week. And while some cats love vegetables and its fine to feed them, they aren’t really necessary.

The above information has been provided as a guideline for how to achieve optimum nutrition in our dogs and cats, not as an endorsement for any specific type or brand of pet food.