A friend recently consulted me about the declining health of her parents’ cat, Rose. The pampered feline, who was only seven years old, had been losing her eyesight and exhibiting behavioral issues. When I asked my friend what her parents were feeding their furry companion, the likely source of Rose’s issues became clear. As it turns out, the middle-aged cat had been eating a nutritionally inadequate high-carbohydrate diet full of commercial cat treats for years. The next time I spoke to my friend, Rose had gone totally blind, and just a couple of months later I learned that her health had deteriorated so dramatically that my friend’s parents had the cat euthanized. This unnecessary tragedy occurred well before Rose had even reached her senior years, and, in all likelihood, was preventable had species-appropriate nutrition been provided. 

Pet Health is Declining

While today’s widely available and convenient pet food and veterinary care should allow animal companions to enjoy long healthy lives, the opposite case is often true. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention’s 2018 survey reveals that over half of U.S. cats and dogs are overweight or obese. Companion animals are at risk of developing comorbid issues like heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes; the latter disease is driven by obesity resulting from being fed a high-calorie, high-carbohydrate diet. Veterinarians are also observing that, while cancer in pets was a rarity forty years ago, it now accounts for about half the deaths of pets that are over ten years old. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), most of the types of cancer affecting humans are also affecting dogs and cats, including those of the skin, breast, head and neck, testicles, abdomen, bones, and lymph nodes. Many cats also succumb to feline leukemia complex while more dogs are now reportedly suffering from skin issues such as itching, rashes, and dry coats that are often attributed to allergies but may actually result from consuming processed dog food. Other dismal health outcomes that are decreasing the lifespans of many dogs include kidney failure, liver disease, heart disease, cancer, and gastric bloat and torsion. Animal companions are increasingly suffering, right along with their humans, from obesity and multiple degenerative health issues. 

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“Big Pet Food”

As companion animals’ life spans are declining, the commercial pet food industry is flourishing. The pet food market is a lucrative secondary profit hub for big food corporations that primarily produce food for human consumption. From 2007 to 2019, pet food sales doubled. This growth was partly driven by the increasing numbers of pets per household as well as the desire for a more convenient way to feed them than resorting to raw meat and table scraps. Of the $95 billion that the American public annually spends on animal companions, $37 billion is spent on pet food. The pet industry’s upward trajectory is predicted to top $113 billion by 2025 in the United States alone. Ten multinational conglomerates that include Coca-Cola, Nestle, Mars, and Unilever manufacture the majority of commercial pet foods. These companies collectively own hundreds of common brands and therefore control nearly every recognizable U.S. brand name food and beverage product. Giant food brands expand into pet food as they discover profitable avenues for food processing’s byproducts that are deemed unfit for human consumption. Allowing powerful corporations to profit considerably from cheap and readily available ingredients, commercial pet food is now considered a recession-proof consumer staple.

Commercial pet food regulations appear to focus more on protecting this ever-increasing industry than preserving animal health. Through the private nonprofit Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the pet food industry regulates its own ingredient definitions, product names, and food labeling. AAFCO membership consists of various state and federal agriculture agencies, pet food companies, feed associations, drug companies, and lobbying groups like the National Renderers Association. AAFCO regulation compliance remains optional for manufacturers based in about half of the U.S. states—but even where voluntarily incorporated into state law, the regulations are not enforceable. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not monitor nutrition claims made by pet food producers and only investigates formulas after reported contaminations. Since AAFCO’s membership consists of key players in the very industry they regulate, their interests align. Leaders at the helm of the companies that profit from pet food sales are intensely protective of the regulatory leeway that they enjoy. Susan Thixton, the activist behind truthaboutpetfood.com and an attendee at AAFCO’s annual meetings, has received death threats after exposing “Big Pet Food.” As an industry with scant regulatory oversight allowing it to profit at the public’s expense, the incentive to suppress criticism seems high.

Low-Quality and Deceptively-Listed Ingredients in Pet Food

Pet food producers customarily obscure their product ingredients’ origins and quality. AAFCO regulations enable this lack of transparency by specifying that pet food labels should list ingredients in the order of weight and permitting the omission of calorie totals and nutrient breakdowns. Consumers are often aware that the first ingredient in their pets’ food should be protein. Unfortunately, commercial formulas often source low-quality proteins from meatpackers and grain operations that might otherwise be disposed of in landfills. Meat from such sources has typically been condemned for human consumption and can legally include pesticides, industrial chemicals, filth, drug residues, and microbiological contaminants, while grain byproducts are often suboptimal as well. U.S. federal law permits commercial pet food companies to use these subpar or even contaminated ingredients and to label their undesirable sourcing in an intentionally vague manner.

Although meat byproducts are typically listed as the first ingredient in pet food, meat is not usually the primary ingredient. Byproducts primarily contain factory farmed animals’ organs, skin, bones, hooves, and other body parts—even tumors. AAFCO does not require labels to disclose the species origin of animal byproducts that are rendered from multiple species. Rendering is the process of boiling various animals and their parts and waste products to separate fat and remove water while killing bacteria, parasites, and some viruses. Pet formulas’ rendered meats can also consist of diseased animals, cats and dogs euthanized at shelters and slaughterhouse waste—even sawdust, hooves, and other inedible debris—and are not independently tested for safety. After high temperatures denature these mixtures’ proteins and destroy their natural enzymes, artificial flavors including garlic, cheese, salt, sugar, and bacon mask poor palatability. Weighing byproducts before rather than after rendering, which decreases their moisture and weight, allows manufacturers to list meat as the first ingredient on pet food labels. Rendering allows pet food companies to use unspecified animal carcasses and byproducts in order to label protein as the primary ingredient. 

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Grains’ designation as the second major ingredient type listed on most pet food labels is problematic for several reasons. The industry utilizes a deceptive technique known as “splitting.” Splitting is when producers add the same type of grain (usually corn) in various forms, which they then list under separate names: yellow corn, ground corn, gluten meal, etcetera. Otherwise, corn would typically be the heaviest and therefore the first ingredient on the label. In addition to their nutritional inadequacy for cats and dogs, these processed grains may also be toxic; extrusion, which expands and “pops” kibbles through high heat and pressure, destroys nutrients and vitamins while producing a carcinogen called acrylamide. Molds called mycotoxins, which can infect grains when damp, are also legally allowed in pet foods in higher levels than those permitted for human consumption. In between their deceptive labeling, suboptimal nutrition, and potential toxicity, grains’ presence in pet food warrants consumer scrutiny. 

While meat and grain amounts are guilefully listed on pet food labels, antibiotics are never listed but may nonetheless be present. Farmers continually administer excessive amounts of antibiotics to factory-farmed animals in an attempt to prevent the many ills associated with their crowded and filthy conditions. Animal producers commonly disregard the laws that regulate set lengths of time from which they must withdraw animals from antibiotics before slaughter. Antibiotics therefore may remain present in high quantities in farmed animals’ bodies at the time of their slaughter, and these traces end up in commercial pet food. Although labels won’t indicate so, heavy antibiotic use in farmed animals is likely impacting the composition and safety of animal companions’ food. 

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Pet food marketing frequently boasts of high-quality ingredients that are desirable to humans, regardless of their actual benefit to pets. Many pet foods now offer an increasing assortment of healthy and trendy ingredients such as pumpkin, pomegranate, blueberry, quinoa, kale, carrots, green lentils, oatmeal, brown rice, broccoli, asparagus, oats, herring, quail, smoked salmon, roasted bison, lamb, and venison. Although appealing to pet owners and aligned with the latest food trends, these ingredients are added to commercially processed kibble in very small amounts. Since they are usually listed after salt, these wholesome-sounding additions likely comprise less than one percent of the product’s total ingredients. While trivial amounts of these ingredients may be included in some pet foods, their marketing and packing often misleadingly highlight and emphasize them.

Pet food companies often strategically use buzzwords that lack real meaning or benefit. Such phrases may include: complete and balanced, “optihealth,” simple and natural, organic, grain-free, grass-fed, superfoods, antioxidants, free-range, and byproduct-free. These trendy descriptors can legally describe slaughterhouse leftovers that companies render into a pulp before adding synthetic vitamins. The Pet Food Institute, a lobbying group that advocates at the governmental level for the pet food industry’s interests, actively supports pet food producers’ largely unregulated marketing tactics. This group, which is well-funded by industry participants, helps pet food producers to legally circumvent transparency in ad claims. In the world of commercial pet food, highly manipulative—and highly effective—marketing tactics abound because these companies are not legally obligated to provide transparent and truthful information.

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The Impact on Your Pet’s Health

While low-grade food products degrade companion animals’ health over time, acutely unsafe foods may affect their immediate health. The Food and Drug Administration generally announces recalls several times every year for salmonella-contaminated pet food. Salmonella contamination, which occurs when foods have come into contact with feces, directly or indirectly through dirty equipment or hands, can particularly affect dogs with compromised immune systems. Lesser-known toxins may lurk in pet food as well; in 2007, cat and dog food that was tainted with melamine (a nitrogen-rich chemical used in fertilizer) and cyanuric acid (a component in various disinfectants, herbicides, and bleaching agents) caused the largest pet food recall in history. Together, these two contaminants can cause health problems including vomiting, excessive thirst and lethargy, inflammation, and renal failure. Leading up to the 2007 recall, unscrupulous ingredient suppliers in China were adding these contaminants to wheat gluten to inflate their protein levels. The adulterated ingredients then ended up in foods made by 12 different manufacturers and sold under about 180 brands. The majority of these contaminated products came from Menu Foods, a Canadian manufacturer of numerous brand name foods. Sadly, tens of thousands of animals ate the poisoned foods, causing illness and death for many. Another scandal ensued when horse meat and the deadly drug pentobarbital (a barbiturate used in horse euthanasia) were found in Evanger’s Hunk of Beef canned dog food. Pet food recalls will likely continue as long as unscrupulous industry suppliers and a lack of batch testing continue risking pets’ health.

Deceptive Marketing

I learned firsthand about the inner workings of the commercial pet food industry in my role as a Pet Nutrition Specialist for Nutro, a subsidiary of the Mars Corporation (more known for candy bars). Nutro’s offerings range from premium to more affordable options, along with a variety of “life stage” products. Each Pet Nutrition Specialist’s role is to boost sales by intercepting consumers in the aisles of large pet retailers Petsmart and Petco. Job training involves reviewing promotional materials detailing Nutro’s offerings. Contrary to the job title’s implications, the position does not require objective knowledge about species-appropriate nutrition but a willingness to push Nutro’s products. I was instructed to follow the Nutro script by asking shoppers what they were feeding their pets and then inquiring if they were familiar with Nutro’s products. Before long I began to conduct pet nutrition research outside of my Nutro product training and encourage consumers to become advocates for their pets’ health and look beyond company advertising bias. Nutro and all other pet food brands claim similar superiority. My own experience attests to the fact that nutrition specialists serve as a marketing ploy to maximize pet food manufacturers’ product sales. 

Pet food companies employ many additional marketing techniques to convince consumers that their brand provides premium quality pet nutrition. To pique consumer interest, many of these companies continually release new, seemingly highly-specialized products. Aware that more captured market segments mean more products sold, pet food companies introduced 270 new pet products into the U.S. marketplace in 2008. A company known for this specialized approach is Royal Canin, whose marketing messaging implies that all dog and cat breeds have unique nutritional needs. In examining these specially formulated foods, experts find the differences to be minute; however, given the line’s popularity, many devoted customers must believe that these companies have formulated the perfect lifelong diets for their specific breed of dog. Royal Canin also manufactures kibble in sizes and shapes that the company brilliantly markets as being unique to each dog breed’s mouth and jaw. Nestle and Nesheim note that while it seems rational and scientific, the claim that kibble can correspond to different breed’s unique traits is not evidence-based. 

What You Can Do

Concerned pet owners may be wondering what to feed their pets instead of commercial pet foodAccording to a 2015 study, dog owners feel that choosing the right food is the most difficult part of caring for their canine companions. In her book Pet Food Nation: The Smart, Easy, and Healthy Way to Feed Your Pet Now, veterinary clinical nutritionist Joan Weiskopf recommends that felines eat a diet comprised of two-thirds protein and canines one of one-third protein, with the rest consisting of grains, carbs, greens, and fruit. Cats, who in the wild might only ingest grains by way of their prey’s digestive tracts, have no known requirement for carbohydrates. Despite pet food companies’ efforts to promote the idea that animal companions should be eating a single brand of food over the course of their entire lifetime, pets should receive a variety of nutritionally diverse options. Just as humans would not eat the same food every day for a lifetime, animals require varied nutrition to provide a host of different vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, and fiber. 

Optimally, pet owners who choose to purchase commercial pet food that contains meat should ensure it is organic human-grade or USDA-certified. Organic meat comes from animals raised without the use of antibiotics or added fattening hormones such as estrogen or steroids. Consumers should always verify meat safety. If pet parents cannot regularly afford or otherwise access healthier options for their pets, integrative wellness veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker recommends feeding pets unprocessed and nutritionally balanced foods at least some of the time and to whatever extent possible. A pet’s human is their best advocate, and many resources are available for concerned animal lovers. Mercola.com’s healthy pets website and YouTube channel provides many more of Dr. Becker’s tips, including how to best feed and detoxify pets. Nutrition is an often-overlooked baseline for pet health and longevity. A varied, holistic, and organic diet is often the best defense against the excess weight gain and degenerative diseases plaguing so many pets today. 

Pet parents who rely on commercial pet food presumably do so with good intentions. Unfortunately, the corporate food industry’s economic incentive to sell the most products seems to supersede any authentic mission to provide companion animals with evidence-based, species-appropriate nutrition. Regulatory oversight that should prevent contaminants from entering pet food is dangerously lacking, and product recalls continue to occur only after numerous animals are sickened or die from ingesting unsafe formulas. Obesity, cancer, allergies, diabetes, and other health problems that are largely related to the corporate food system are common for both Americans and their pets. Understanding the basics of commercial pet food and its manufacture can help minimize consumer confusion and keep pets healthy. Pet parents should be scrupulous of pet food manufacturer claims, learn how to recognize misleading ingredient lists, and provide their pets with a variety of nutritionally diverse options. Animal companions deserve the very best. Consumers can ensure that their pets’ lives are not degraded and cut short after many years of low-quality nutrition, as was that of Rose the cat, by making more informed food choices.

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