Pet food aisles are full of packages that claim to hold "natural" and "holistic" foods, with pictures of fresh vegetables and roast chicken on the front. But there's not much difference between these foods and the cheapest by-product-filled kibble. Here's what you can expect to find in your pet's food.
This is Chip. Chip is a good dog. Photo by Bas Bloemsaat.
What Does "Chicken" Mean, Exactly?
Dogs and cats both love to eat meat, and their wild relatives happily snarf down smaller creatures, often organs and all. So pet foods should, and do, usually contain plenty of animal tissue. But if you're envisioning filet mignon - or even those chunks of lean chicken and salmon that grace package labels - you're not thinking like your pet.
"If you buy commercial pet foods at all, you are buying ingredients that humans do not want to eat," Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim write in Feed Your Pet Right, a great read if you want to know what's really in your pet's food. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with what we feed our pets - after 300 pages of analysis they conclude that all the commercial foods are basically fine - but most of the "meaty" ingredients are things you would never see in a grocery store.
There's no need to slaughter food animals just to make pet food, since the meat industry has plenty of scraps that you and I aren't interested in buying. So if your dog food boasts "chicken" as the number one ingredient, you're probably getting a slurry of meat, skin, and gristle that was mechanically separated from leftover chicken necks and backs. It's nutritious and delicious, if you're a dog. If you're curious, but not too squeamish, this video shows how that process works:
Here are a few other meat-related terms you're likely to see on pet food labels:
- By-products include clean parts of slaughtered animals that are edible to animals but don't count as meat. These might be beef lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, liver, blood, bone, and fat. For poultry, by-products can include heads and feet.
- Meals, like "chicken meal" or "fish meal", are rendered. This means the producers take edible parts - either meat or by-products - and cook and dry them into a powder.
What Else Is In There Besides Meat?
Plenty of pet food brands boast meat (or something like it, like "chicken") as their number one ingredient. That's fine, but no matter how the ingredients are ordered, there are almost always grains, vegetables, and other components like vitamins and minerals.
You can tell from the phrasing on the package just how much meat is in the product. As the Pet Food Industry Association Of Australia (PFIAA) explains:
The variety name of a pet food shall be informative and an accurate description of the style and flavour. The Australian Standard 5812 includes detailed guidance to assist both manufacturers and consumers in regards to content and variety names of pet foods. For instance with regards to variety naming of canned pet foods, section 3.1.3 states: 'If a meat ingredient constitutes 25% or more of the meat component and is the main meal ingredients then that meat may be referred to as the variety name of the product'.
Example: Where beef is the main meat ingredient in a product and is present at more than 25% then that variety can be named 'beef'.
In other words, a cat food called 'Chicken" might only contain a quarter poultry which may or may not be slurry. If wet food seems like a simple way around this issue, because it looks like chunks of meat, think again. Nestle and Nesheim write:
Canned pet foods usually begin with relatively low-grade meat trimmings that are reconstituted into pieces that look like chunks of meat. This requires suspending meat particles in gels, heating them so they coagulate into chunks, or using extruded vegetable protein to simulate meat. Some 'premium' or 'superpremium' pet foods contain actual chunks of meat, but many do not.
As a rule of thumb, salt is somewhere around one per cent of a pet food. So anything that appears after salt in the list is only present in trace amounts. That's sometimes the case for fruits and vegetables pictured on labels.
In their book, Nestle and Nesheim were able to rule out some of the things that aren't in pet food. For example, none of the by-products include hair, horns, teeth, or hooves. And despite rumours, you won't find wood shavings, motor oil, or old boots in pet food, either.
Are the Non-Meat Ingredients a Problem?
Nutritionally, pets need the vitamins and other nutrients that come from unappetizing places like prey animals' organs and stomach contents. Cats and dogs have also adapted to scrounging food from our plates and our garbage dumps, so it makes sense that their diets wouldn't be the same as their wild relatives. But should they really be eating grains and veggies every day?
Even though grains are unfashionable for humans and pets these days, there's nothing wrong with them. Dogs and cats can digest grains, and they're a fine ingredient in food as long as the nutrients are balanced. In other words, it's fair to use an "if it fits your macros" approach, and grains often fit just fine.
There are two small caveats. One is that barley and soy tend to make dogs fart a lot. Another is that the more fibre a food contains - whether from grains, veggies, or the small amounts of fillers like carrageenan and guar gum - the more poop the dog is likely to produce. More expensive "premium" foods tend to result in less poop.
So, let's say you find a grain-free food you like. That's fine, but you're paying extra for a food that's nutritionally similar to the cheaper grain-containing foods. Grain-free foods may not have wheat or corn, but instead typically have pea flour, potatoes, and other starchy ingredients. As long as the food is nutritionally complete - and it will say so on the package - you should probably save your money.
What about the other reassuring-sounding words on the label? Most don't mean what you think they mean. There is no official definition of "natural" or "holistic," and even though "organic" has a specific meaning in human food, pet food laws have loopholes that let them call foods organic that don't meet all the organic standards. "Human-grade" is another meaningless buzzword. Pet foods just aren't the same thing that you would feed yourself, and that's okay - your dog doesn't mind.