One thing is clear: People are passionate about their pets. With the 2007 fiasco of Chinese manufacturers adding the plastic melamine to pet food ingredients to boost protein levels, it's no wonder pet food is a touchy subject.
Consumer Ally learned that firsthand after publishing ratings by our partner GoodGuide.com, which set off an angry barrage of comments."It's hard because labels are two things -- an official document and marketing for the company," said Calico Schmidt, DVM, a general veterinary practitioner who serves as a clinical instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Veterinary Medicine. The labels can be geared toward getting pet owners to buy the product with words like "holistic," "organic," "human-grade" and "premium" -- all words that have no official definition or guidelines in the pet food industry. Pet owners -- Schmidt included -- gravitate toward those words on labels, with the thought of doing something good for their pets.
"Premium -- that sounds good doesn't it?" Schmidt said. "I'd buy that."
"They do need to do their homework," Schmidt said, recommending consumers look into the company and if they do feeding trials and research. She also recommended asking the company for information about the digestibility of the food. "If it's not digestible, it will just come out the other end."
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A good rule of thumb that both Schmidt and Dr. Cailin Heinze, assistant professor of clinical sciences at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, recommend is: Look on the label for an Association of American Feed Control Officials' statement that says the food was tested in feeding trials.
It should be noted that both the Iams Co. and Hill's Pet Nutrition have contributed money to the University of Wisconsin's veterinary school. It was unclear if the pet food industry has donated to the Cummings school.
The AAFCO is the recognized authority in cat and dog nutrition and has set appropriate nutrition levels for pet food manufacturers to follow, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
But even checking the label for the AAFCO wording isn't foolproof, Schmidt said, pointing to computer-generated pet food formulas as an example of why the feeding trials are important. "If we analyze it, does it include all of the ingredients? Yes," she said. "But it is digestible?"
Schmidt also said there is a misconception among consumers that ingredients listed as by-products are things like roadkill, feathers and rendered animals when the by-products really are comprised of non-meat pieces like lungs and stomach. "They have nutritional value," she said. "There's all this misinformation."
Heinze said in an email that pet food ingredients are listed in order of weight, so ingredients with higher water content are going to be listed before dry ingredients even though they may contribute less nutrients in the overall food.
"Pets require nutrients, not ingredients," she said. "A diet full of great sounding ingredients can be less nutritious than a diet containing less appealing ingredients. Some manufacturers may add ingredients to diets solely for marketing purposes, to increase the appeal of the diet to consumers. There is a big misconception that just because an ingredient isn't palatable or appealing to people in this country, that it isn't palatable or nutritious for our pets."
Two routinely vilified ingredient categories are by-products and grains, Heinze wrote. "By-products (mainly organ meats) often provide more nutrients than muscle meats and are important components of human diets in other countries," she wrote.
"Whole grains, rather than being "fillers," contribute valuable nutrients including vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and fiber to diets while helping to keep the fat and calories lower than if animal products were used in their place."
And this is where the advice starts to differ.
Susan Thixton, a pet owner turned pet food activist, recommends steering clear of any animal by-products, by-product meal and grains like corn, soy and wheat. She said that by-products are not meat, but internal organs of slaughtered animals. The by-product meal could include meat, but she questioned the origin of such meat in an article she wrote and sent to Consumer Ally.
"The problem with this ingredient (by-products) is that it can be a mix of all types of internal organs to inferior quality remains of slaughtered animals such as intestines," she wrote. "I prefer to feed a pet food with specific internal organs listed in the ingredient panel (such as chicken liver, chicken hearts) and not pet foods that contain the generic and who-knows-what's-in-there ingredient by-product."
Thixton, who maintains the site, TruthAboutPetFood.com, had been running a dog obedience school and boarding kennel when her own Rottweiler named Sam died of cancer her veterinarian said was most likely caused by a preservative used in Sam's food. Thixton was galvanized to action and has kept an eye on the pet food industry since.
Thixton recommends consumers steer clear of chemical preservatives including BHA, BHT, Ethoxyquin and TBHQ, saying all have been linked to serious illnesses in pets. Dyes are also good to stay away from, as well as synthetic vitamins like sodium bisulfite -- a vitamin K added to pet food.
Meat meal and animal fats in pet food could contain the drug pentobarbital used to euthanize animals, Thixton wrote.
So what is a consumer to do? Ask questions. And pay attention to your pet.
"There is no 'best diet,' despite all the marketing claims to the contrary," Heinze said. "Every pet is unique and the goal is to find the best diet for the individual pet."
Expense, she says, doesn't necessarily equal quality. "There are some inexpensive diets that have years of rigorous scientific testing behind them and some very expensive diets that are lacking in vital nutrients or based on unsound science," she wrote.
Larger companies generally have more stringent quality control protocols, employ expert nutritionists and food scientists, Heinze wrote, but added, "If the marketing of a product sounds too good to be true, the manufacturer cites 'studies' or 'research' that they cannot provide to you or makes claims that cannot be substantiated, then that's a red flag that the diet should be avoided."
Schmidt recommended asking if the company did feeding trials and to read the labels "with a little bit of healthy skepticism."
Thixton wrote that consumers should ask:
- If the meat ingredients are the same quality as the meat found in the grocery stores.
- If all of the ingredients, including vitamins and minerals, came from the United States. Thixton said vitamins and minerals are commonly made in China for pet foods.
- What is the shelf life of the pet food?
- Who makes the food and where is the plant?
- Do the pet food cans have a BPA lining?
- Does the chicken meal or other meat contain muscle meat only or organs and bone?
If the pet food contains fish, ask what the supplier used as a preservative. Thixton said that since the preservative isn't in the pet food, it wouldn't have to be listed on the label, but could potentially be a chemical preservative that could be a risk to a pet's health like ethoxyquin.