Types of Pet Food
There are many varieties of commercial pet food to choose from.
Most store-bought food comes in either a dry form (also known as kibble), semi-moist or a wet canned form. Dry food contains 6-10% moisture by volume, as compared to 60-90% in canned food. Semi-moist foods have a moisture content of 25-35%.
Pet owners often prefer dry food for reasons of convenience and price. Dry food can be left out for long periods of time to allow your pets to ‘graze’ but some owners portion control and feed their pets fresh food twice a day, as they would with wet food.
Many dry foods can be less expensive, per pound, than their canned (wet) or semi-moist counterparts, and do not spoil as quickly as wet food can. In addition, dry food is more nutritionally dense than canned food because of the canned food's high moisture content. This means that more canned food must be fed to meet the animal’s requirements, compared to dry. However, dry food generally contains a higher percentage of fillers such as corn and wheat. Generally, less expensive dry dog and cat foods have more fillers and less meat. Excess carbohydrate consumption such as corn and wheat can cause GI tract problems and shorten the life span of your pet. It is always important to note the ingredients in the pet food you choose (even if it is vet recommended!).
Wet or canned food is significantly higher in moisture than dry or semi-moist food. Because the food is sterilized after being canned (sometimes it is also cooked in the can), it is often easier to ensure the sterility of wet food. A given wet food will often be higher in protein or fat when compared to a similar kibble on a dry matter basis (a measure which ignores moisture), however, given the canned food's high moisture content, a larger amount of canned food must be fed than with dry food. Grain gluten and other protein gels may be used in wet food to create artificial meaty chunks, which look like real meat.
Dry vs Wet Food
In dogs, dry food has a significant effect on dental health over wet food. The chewing required for dry food helps to keep teeth clean and ‘bad breath’ cases are drastically reduced in dogs that eat only dry food compared with those on a wet food diet.
In cats, studies have not shown any difference between a dry or wet food diet for dental health. Cats generally do not 'chew' their food and usually only crunch once or twice before it is swallowed. Cats also lack the enzymes that humans possess inside their mouths to help breakdown the food they eat.
There are foods specially formulated for animals allergic to common ingredients such as chicken, wheat, or corn. These foods usually contain ‘novel proteins’ and substitute uncommon starches for the usual grains. Meats used in allergy formulas can range from the mundane, such as lamb, beef, or whitefish, to the unusual, such as venison or duck. Carbohydrates in allergy formulas are usually a less common grain, such as rice or barley, but such ingredients as potato and quinoa are sometimes used.
The commercial approach to allergies in animals is not the same as the veterinary approach. Prescription diets, purchased from a veterinarian, will often contain common ingredients that have been hydrolyzed to prevent them from triggering an immune response.
Some foods are designed for pets with maladies, such as urinary tract infections, and some are tailored to the dietary needs of especially young or aging animals.
There are also vegetarian foods, for owners who do not want their pets to consume meat products, as well as for dogs or cats who have experienced allergic reactions to a number of animal-based ingredients.
What’s In My Pet’s Food?
Is a very good question – but not one that most pet food companies are willing to answer honestly.
Like you or I, our pets ‘are what they eat’.
Food for human consumption is governed by strictly enforced quality guidelines. In the pet food industry, guidelines and regulations are distinctly foggy. Pet food manufacturers can and do take advantage of this and it’s easy to understand their reluctance to come clean when you consider some of the ingredients they use:
Meat and animal derivatives – a generic term for animal proteins which avoids having to specify where the meat comes from. This enables the pet food company to use whatever meat is the cheapest when they make their food and there’s no way you can tell what it is.
What is wrong with using meat and animal derivatives?
The main problem is the fact that it doesn’t specify what type of meat it contains, allowing pet food manufacturers to use any part of any animal to make their food. Yet some proteins, such as chicken and fish, are better for pets as they are easier to digest and produce fewer waste products than others, such as beef. Some pets will have dietary intolerances and allergies to certain proteins, so it is important that they are specified in the ingredients so owners can avoid them. Also, because they are not specified, the protein used changes from batch to batch depending on the price of the different ingredients, and this can cause dietary upsets.
And finally, because they are not specified, it is very hard to find out exactly what meat goes in to ‘meat and animal derivatives’ – it could be chicken, but it could be beef, pork or horse and many people would not be comfortable with feeding these ingredients.
Derivatives of vegetable origin – sounds unpleasant, is unpleasant! Another loose term used to disguise all manner of hidden ingredients such as vegetable residues and even charcoal!
Why not use ‘derivatives of vegetable origin'?
‘Derivatives of vegetable origin’ is a term that covers all vegetable by products, from processed vegetables to residues such as charcoal. These ingredients are not necessarily bad for pets but, because they are not defined, it is impossible to make an informed decision about a food with this term on the ingredients list.
EC permitted additives – this term hides a list of over 4000 chemicals, many of which have been banned from human foods due to health concerns.
Are artificial additives really bad for pets?
There is a large amount of evidence for the potential harm that artificial additives can do to pets. For example, artificial colours such as E102 (tartrazine), E110 (sunset yellow) and others have been shown to cause hyperactivity in children (and have recently been banned by the Food Standard Agency) - and it is highly likely that this effect is also seen in pets. In addition to hyperactivity, colours such as Blue 2 have been shown to have the potential to cause tumours, as have anti-oxidants including BHA.
One of the main problems is lack of transparency – by using the term ‘EC permitted additives’ manufacturers can hide the exact additives they use, so it is impossible for a pet owner to make an informed decision about the food. If manufacturers are so confident about the additives they use, and their effects, why don’t they name them rather than use this woolly general term?
Cereals – like other vague terms, ‘cereals’ does not define exactly what is in the food – it could be wheat, barley, oats, maize or other cereals. There is no way of knowing which are being used, and as some cereals are healthier than others, and some can cause intolerances and allergies; knowing which are being used in your pet’s food is very important.
Low quality proteins – cheap protein sources such as soya are used instead of meat in many pet foods. They are hard to digest and much less suitable than real meat proteins.
Animal by-products in pet food may include parts obtained from any animals that have died from sickness or disease provided they are rendered in accordance to law. As well, cow brains and spinal cords, not allowed for human consumption due to the possibility of transmission of BSE are allowed to be included in pet food intended for non-ruminant animals. The drugs used to put down sick or injured animals (including dogs and cats) are still present in the animal’s system when they are processed into pet food. Just think, with the wrong food you could be slowly putting your pet down and giving them cannibalistic tendencies!
‘Splitting’ is a widely used practice of dividing an undesirable ingredient into components in order to place it lower in the ingredient list. A product made of ‘lamb, corn, corn flour and corn meal’ is likely to contain less lamb than corn.
The ingredients lists use generic terms such as ‘meat and animal derivatives’, ‘cereals’, ‘derivatives of vegetable origin’ and ‘EC permitted additives’ to hide their real ingredients from the consumer. For that reason, the source of the food is often untraceable and some of these ingredients may not be beneficial to pets’ health. If you read the ingredients list of the pet food you are using right now, the chances are you will see some of these so called ‘ingredients’ listed.
So what is in your pet’s food?
Consumers certainly can’t be sure. A lot of the pet food manufacturers themselves probably don’t know either! Many pet owners would not be happy if they knew what was really going into their pets’ food.
So Who Does Know?
Well, it’s not all bad news. Some companies pride themselves on producing good quality pet food, using real ingredients from traceable sources.
Good quality natural pet foods only use identifiable, named meats, such as chicken, fish and lamb. There are no ambiguous meat ingredients such as ‘meat and animal derivatives’ and open and honest ingredients labelling allows pet owners to make an informed decision when choosing one of these foods.
Because many pet foods are made from very low quality ingredients to save cost, additives are required to make them palatable and preserve them. High quality pet foods use natural alternatives such as vitamin E as a preservative, and rely on good quality ingredients for palatability.
Real pet foods are never tested on any unwilling animals, with all product taste testing being carried out by willing volunteer pets.
But aren’t the vitamins in so-called ‘natural pet foods’ actually artificial? Well most natural foods do contain artificial synthesised vitamins rather than vitamins sourced from the natural world. These are exact copies of natural molecules, and have the same properties and effects as the naturally occurring vitamins. They are added to pet foods to ensure that pets receive the correct amounts of the essential nutrients in their food as otherwise they would have to put in high quantities of natural vitamins during manufacture to allow for the degeneration of the vitamins during the product’s shelf life.
Real pet food is simple, honest food made with natural ingredients. There are no artificial additives, and all of the ingredients are honestly declared so you, the caring pet owner, can make an informed decision.