Well, it's been about a year since the big pet food recalls. The gross corporate and multi-government neglect that precipitated the recalls had some tragic consequences, leaving thousands of pets chronically ill or dead. It had one positive side effect, that more pet owners began to scrutinize what they feed their animals.
For me, like many other pet owners, the journey actually began before the recalls, as a result of a less than healthy pet. For years now, a small but growing segment of the pet owning population has been questioning the value of commercial pet food products and the lack of integrity in the industry. Usually these people have experience with one or more pets made chronically ill by a life time of poor nutrition on a commercial diet. A diet where carnivores are fed primarily grains, sugar, substandard animal by-products and rendered animal waste, fortified by supplements of undetermined value, and preserved with cancer and tumor causing chemical compounds such as BHA and BHT. This unnatural and inappropriate diet has had much the same impact on our pets as processed and inappropriate foods have had on humans. Obesity, diabetes, food allergies, gum disease, kidney failure and cancer have become epidemics. Let's start at the beginning ...
Once upon a time people knew that their cats and dogs were carnivores. Plain common sense dictated that animals that prefer to hunt, catch, kill and eat small prey animals, rather than munch on hay, were carnivores. Common sense told our ancestors that an animal with claws, fangs and a jaw and teeth designed for tearing into flesh, was a carnivore. Common sense said that if a cat or dog could catch and eat a mouse, bird or rabbit, in its entirety, without cooking it first, and not only not get sick, but thrive on such a diet, without human intervention, then it was a carnivore. Without having to debate the merits of supplements, rendered and extruded products with people who have a vested financial interest in the consumption of said products, the average person knew that "give the dog a bone" was darn good advice. Pets, in return for their companionship and performing their job as mouser or defender of the farm and family, were given table scraps; meat, connective tissues, bones, organs, possibly a few left over veggies and as many vermin as they could catch. Barring injury, animals were living long, healthy, useful lives.
Then, in 1860, along came Mr. James Spratt, an entrepreneur who saw an opportunity in marketing and selling a dry biscuits for dogs. It was a convenient and inexpensive way to feed pets. At first the product was snatched up by sportsmen, it could conveniently be tucked in a pocket and taken with them on the hunt. Spratt's invention also happened to coincide with the birth of the industrial revolution, urbanization and a time in Victorian England when owning purebred show dogs became all the rage for city dwellers. As humans began to buy foods from markets rather than the farm (or raising their own), it became less likely that they would have an abundance of scraps to throw to the dog, in the city it was also less likely that a dog would catch some of their own food, especially the new pampered purebred pooches that were being kept by the middle and upper class. These people were quite detached from the countryside, from where their food came from and from the notion that their little Fluffy or Fido was a predator and a meat-eater. There was a demand for cheap and convenient pet food and it was filled by Mr. Spratt and many others after him. By 1890 commercial pet food had spread to the United States. It should be noted that many people continued to feed their pets as they always had or fed table scraps in addition to commercial products, probably more out of habit than knowledge (lucky for their pets).
By the 1940's canning was a very popular means of preserving cooked foods, this extended to dog food, in which meat and veggies were cooked up, fortified and canned, for the convenience of the owners. Canned food could be kept for a long time, meaning it could be mass produced and shipped all over the country, driving prices down. When the war came along and aluminum was rationed, the canned food had to go. Pet food manufacturers focused on producing a dry product that had the shelf-life of canned food, was even cheaper, didn't smell, and could be left out all day, kibble. Due to its low cost and extreme convenience, kibble was a wild success.
Though clever marketing and pretty packaging had been a part of the pet food industry from the start, it really began to flourish after the advent of kibble and the booming sales that it produced. Everyone wanted in on the action. Cereal, soup and candy manufacturers got into the pet food business with names like Campbell, Lipton, Post, General Foods, Nestle, Mars and Carnation. When it came to manufacturing pet food, these companies were subjected to almost no regulation by the federal government.
In an absence of real regulation, pet food manufacturers have produced foods using inferior and often questionable ingredients and labeled them "complete" and "balanced". Labeling regulations by the FDA allow manufacturers to use generic terms like "meat meal" and "meat by-products". In theory by-products aren't bad, in fact organs, ligaments, skin, eyes, etc are quite nutritious. "Meal" is the dry form of parts of the animal. The trouble is that these terms don't tell you exactly what's in there, the nutritional value or the source. The source is often the scariest part. It is common practice that "4-D" animal parts make their way into these rendered products. The term 4-D refers to animals that dead, dying, diseased or disabled before reaching the plant, animals that are rejected for human consumption are forwarded to rendering plants for pet food. This is actually against the law, but the FDA feels little incentive to go up against big pet food manufacturers, and they are under virtually no pressure to do so. The rendering process is harsh and while it destroys most of the nutrients in the food, it does not appear to destroy the hormones, antibiotics and euthanization drugs that were used on the feed animals. Additionally, it is impossible to determine what nutritional value "meals" and "by-products" have because they are such a hodge-podge of rendered animal and plant materials. And of course, whatever nutritional value there might have been prior to the rendering, most of it is destroyed by the process itself. Rendering means, “to extract by melting; to treat so as to convert into industrial fats, oils or fertilizer.” The fat gets scraped off the top and sold to pet food manufacturers as "by-product", it is also used in soap and various cosmetic products. What's left in the vat has the liquid removed and is sold as "meal". Rendering kills most bacteria, but it also destroys most proteins and enzymes. As if you weren't grossed out enough already, I'm going to tell you that when it comes to the rendering vat, anything goes. In short, rendering plants use waste. The 4-D's make the grade and of course any part of the animal that is not fit for human consumption including cancerous tissue, contaminated blood, tumors, injection sites, and any part of the animal that was treated with non-FDA/EPA approved substances. Again, this is technically illegal, disease animals = adulterated materials and that's not allowed in pet food ... but if the FDA won't enforce their own rules, who will? Also showing up in rendering vats are about 6-7 million cats and dogs per year, road kill, expired grocery store meat and dead zoo animals. The meat wrappers, Styrofoam and plastic wrap also make their way into the vat (because its just not reasonable to mandate that they take the time to remove those items from the rotten meat first). The best part is that just because its labeled "chicken meal" doesn't mean that it is, cats and dogs are routinely used because of their similar protein structure. I wish this were conspiracy theory, but its not, it has all be readily admitted by owners and employees of rendering plants and animal control officers. And unfortunately, it's not just gross, it has real consequences. Outbreaks of feline paralysis have been linked to rendered products, diseases have been passed on through rendered products and sodium pentobarbital has been found in finished product dog food ... meaning that they are eating the same product that will someday be used to euthanize them, after their bodies have finally succomed to illness from all the garbage they have been fed.
All of this is before we even consider the questionable quality and safety of the vitamins, minerals, food coloring and chemicals that are added to the food and are virtually unregulated. Propylene glycol was used in canned cat food for years despite the fact that is is a cousin to anti-freeze (incredibly toxic to pets) and that propylene glycol was known to cause Heinz Body Formation, a severe red-blood cell disorder in cats. Under significant pressure, it was finally banned in cat foods, it took over 15 years. Ethoxyquin, a chemical preservative is still commonly used in dog food despite its documented connection to allergies, organ failure, cancer and behavioral issues.
I could go on and on, but this post is long enough already! Let's move along :)
So, what do you about it? Well, there are lots of healthy diet options. Many people, myself included, feed their pets an all natural, all raw, animal based diet. It's not as icky, difficult or expensive as it sounds and it's certainly not dangerous, not any more dangerous than feeding certain commercial products :) Lots of people also cook for their animals, in my humble opinion this is difficult and it can get expensive because when you cook food you break down its nutrients, because carnivores get their nutrition solely from animal products, if you cook those products, most experts agree that then you must supplement for the lost nutrients, and since you can't feed cooked bones, then you need a substitute for that, a real pain the neck in my opinion. But if you want to do it, more power to ya, just do your homework :) There are also good quality canned foods and some decent kibbles. A good rule of thumb when shopping for a commercial pet food is to go to a real pet store, avoid grocery and big box stores, they tend to sell "cheap" food that is way overpriced for its quality (or lack thereof) because it is heavily advertised, advertising costs money. When it comes to pet food, cost per pound should be a secondary consideration because not only is the quality of the food more important but in the case of most high quality pet foods, you actually need to feed a lot less of it. Species appropriate foods are more filling and produce less waste (yes that means less litter box mess and less poop-patrol in the yard, usually less stinky too!). When you read labels, look for foods that do not contain any by-products (they should specify what part of the animal you're getting, same goes for plant by-products, there's just no call for using those), try to avoid "meals" if possible and opt for things that simply say "chicken" or "beef" or "lamb" not "chicken meal" etc... This means you're getting meat, not stuff out of the bottom of the rendering vat that was previously mentioned. Also the first few ingredients on the bag/can should be meat/animal parts, remember, you're feeding a carnivore, grains, fruit and veggies should be way down the list, if they're present at all. Look for products that claim they use only USDA certified human grade ingredients (or something to that effect). Look for products that do NOT use BHA, BHT or Ethoxyquin, instead look for Vitamin E, Vitamin C and Tocopherols, these are natural and safe preservatives that don't cause cancer. And finally, it's a good idea to avoid foods that use corn and soy, these are common allergens and cheap fillers that typically indicate a low quality food. If the food has grain, look for brown rice or barley. Most importantly, be aware of what you are feeding your pets and make an informed decision that you feel comfortable with.
For further reading, documentation etc, you might want to visit the following links.
A very well written and cited abstract from a Harvard Law student on the state of the pet food industry. She basically goes into a lot more detail than I do and provides the documentation to back it up.
Alternative Feeding Practices by Dr. Wynn
Jane Anderson's Raw Learning
Wysong's Pet Food Learning Web Site
The Healthy Pet Journal
Dr. Lisa Pierson's Cat Info Web Site
Dr. Tom Lonsdale's Web Site
Dr. Richard Pitcairn's Web Site