You don't live on junk food, why should your pet?

By Lisa Wogan

This article was originally published in February 2002

cat drawing

See Correction from March 2002, Sound Consumer below

My dog’s belly keeps time more accurately than the atomic clock at the U.S. Naval Observatory. And when Tallulah is ready to eat — at exactly 6:01 a.m. and 6:01 p.m. — she follows a strict ritual of purposeful padding into the pantry, where she whips her tail against the black plastic bin in which her food is stored. She’s singing for her supper, sure enough, but it’s a far cry from the hunt-and-forage of her ancestors. Unfortunately, it took me a while to realize exactly how far.

The truth — written in the small print of an ingredients list — is that my dog’s supermarket kibble bore little resemblance to a wild canine diet; it couldn’t even legally be called “natural.” In fact, “healthy” would be a stretch. Commercial-grade protein is derived from whatever renderers, not known for being discriminating, throw into the pot. The mix often includes fur, feathers, chicken feet, brains and other animal by-products that can’t be sold for human consumption. In some cases, road kill and euthanized companion animals are boiled with the rest. This “meat meal” is combined with a nutritionally negligible filler, such as wheat hulls, and then dosed with Ethoxyquin, a carcinogenic preservative that cannot be used in most human food.

Today, commercial pet food fills the bowls of approximately 95 percent of this country’s more than 500 million cats and dogs. Not bad for an industry that didn’t even exist before World War II. Convincing so many people that the centuries-old diet of meat and bone scraps, leftovers from the kitchen and whatever a pet could find or kill should be replaced with a pet-only, mass-produced, preservative-laden kibble has been a triumph of marketing. (Of course, the pets were an easy sell. My dog eats cardboard if it smells good.)

“Most of the world is brainwashed about commercial pet foods,” says Casey Loomis of Peregrine Marketing, a distributor of Showbound and Lick Your Chops natural dog foods. But not everyone has been persuaded that commercial pet foods are good for Fido.

Following in the footsteps of the larger natural food movement, a vocal minority advocated for a pet menu that approximates the dietary habits of foxes, wolves and hyenas, or cougars, mountain lions and panthers. The only problem is these diets of fresh meat, bones, milk, nuts, oils, vegetables and grasses are too time-consuming and expensive to rustle up. Most of us can’t find time to shop and cook for ourselves, let alone a cat. Fortunately, several brands evolved to meet the demand for convenient, natural pet food.

What exactly does “natural” mean? The FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine and the Association of American Feed Control Officials regulate labels. Under their guidelines, there is no official definition for “natural,” but it is generally construed to mean unprocessed ingredients containing no synthetic or artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. Among natural food producers, the term equals human-grade ingredients (at a minimum) that are easily digested and unlikely to cause allergic reactions. Enzymes, essential fatty acids, live beneficial bacteria and vitamins are often added. It’s important to note that “natural” does not mean organic, although several natural foods use some organic ingredients.

“It’s not so much what’s in natural dog foods, as what’s not,” says Phil Buchner of Evergreen Pet Supply, distributor of Wysong and Precise pet products.

Drawing of dog

Though proponents of natural pet food don’t always agree on what makes the best diet for a cat or dog, they do agree on what’s wrong with the big commercial brands: sub-par protein sources, allergens and artificial additives. Loomis — whose two cats and two dogs eat all-natural diets fortified with table scraps and nutritional supplements — recommends consumers read ingredients, especially the first five and the last three. If the first is something other than meat, like corn or “meat meal,” Loomis says, walk away. You’ll find any artificial additives and preservatives listed as the last few ingredients. Most natural pet foods use a combination of vitamins and herbs as a preservative.

There are few, if any, definitive and generally accepted studies comparing the health benefits of natural animal diets with commercial products, but testimonials abound. Pet owners often turn to natural foods after the animal exhibits symptoms associated with commercial foods — such as allergies, dull coat, diarrhea, oozing eyes, skin irritations and a lack of energy.

“The truth is that your dog’s health is a reflection of his diet, and the overall quality of that diet determines what resources are available to his body to fight disease,” Dr. Mary L. Brennan writes in her book “The Natural Dog” (Dutton, 1993). “When you switch to a high-quality diet, ongoing health problems may disappear within days or weeks.”

And the benefits aren’t merely short-term. Many natural pet food advocates believe commercial foods will someday be linked to shortened life spans, arthritis and increasing rates of cancer. Just as with humans, a natural diet is a key part of living a full, healthy life.

Pet food clarification (Sound Consumer, March 2002)
The article in the February Sound Consumer, “You don’t live on junk food, why should your pet?” incorrectly advises that if a pet food lists “corn meal” or some kind of “meat meal” (lamb meal, chicken meal, etc.) among its first five ingredients, people should not buy it.

Casey Loomis of Peregrine Marketing, which distributes Showbound and Lick Your Chops natural dog foods, explains that “corn meal” and “meat meal” simply mean grinding up the food and removing its water, and are thus fine for animals to consume. He says that if a pet food lists some kind of meat byproduct, it should be avoided, since meat byproducts come from meat rendering plants and may be of questionable quality.

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