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Pet Food: The Good, the Bad, and the Healthy

by Dr. Patrick Mahaney The majority of dogs and cats in the United States eat food and treats manufactured specifically for their particular species (i.e., dogs eat dog food and cats eat cat food). As a holistic veterinarian, I focus highly on the quality of nutrients entering my patients’ bodies and strive to get them eating whole-food-based diets with the same grade of nutrients as we humans consume. By providing their pets with commercially available dry and moist foods and treats, owners are lulled into a false sense of security that their pet’s best health is being served. Cumulatively, consumption of highly processed foods and excess calories has led pets to suffer from a variety of health problems having potentially irreversible consequences, including obesity, arthritis, periodontal disease, diabetes, and cancer. In 2007, an international pet food crisis caused kidney failure and death in dogs and cats who had consumed pet foods containing melamine-contaminated wheat gluten produced in China. Wheat gluten is a grain by-product which provides a cheaper alternative to muscle meat protein or whole grain carbohydrates. Melamine is a component of plastic which increases nitrogen content and protein levels (as determined by laboratory testing) when added to wheat gluten. As a result of certain pet food manufacturers’ efforts to create a less expensive product using poorer quality ingredients, our companion animals suffered life-threatening toxicity. Currently, we are dealing with a comparable crisis stemming from the toxic effects of China-made chicken jerky treats. Despite extensive research by the FDA, the reason why these treats are causing illness and death is unknown.

Let’s consider why pet food may be a good or bad choice for your pet, starting with ‘the good.’

The Good

[caption id="attachment_2908" align="alignleft" width="300"]Automatic pet feeder Automatic feeders can make feeding your pets even more convenient. Even with a busy schedule, you won't have to worry if your pet has had their breakfast or dinner.[/caption] Convenience When feeding most commercial foods, pet owners benefit from the convenience of opening a bag of dry food or a can of wet food, or defrosting and serving frozen pet food. As our society has become more focused on convenience instead of health, processed foods requiring little to no preparation have become popular among pet owners.   Nutritionally Complete and Balanced Commercially available pet food is required to be nutritionally complete and balanced for all life stages, which gives the pet owner a degree of certainty that their companion animal will consume a combination of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals to meet their nutritional needs. Labeled List of Ingredients and Recommended Feeding Guidelines Commercial diets and treats are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the product’s label is legally required to include “proper listing of all the ingredients in the product in order from most to least, based on weight” along with Guaranteed Analysis (percentages of crude protein, fat, fiber, and moisture).There is also a guideline for the daily quantity of food recommended to be fed based on pet body weight. Now let’s move onto ‘the bad.’

The Bad

Feed-Grade Ingredients Cooked at Nutrient-Destroying Temperatures Unfortunately for our pets, nearly all commercially available dog and cat food is made with ingredients considered to be feed-grade instead of human-grade. Feed-grade ingredients are lower quality than human-grade. Additionally, feed-grade ingredients have allowances for toxins, such as mold-produced mycotoxins, that are acceptable in significantly reduced quantities in human-grade foods. Meat ‘meals’ such as ‘meat and bone meal’ and ‘by-products’ come from the rendering process and can contain “dead animals from farms, ranches, feedlots, marketing barns, animal shelters, and other facilities; and fats, grease, and other food waste from restaurants and stores.” (according to the National Agricultural Law Center). Another contaminant that can come along with these dead animals is pentobarbital, an anesthetic used to euthanize animals (confirmed through FDA testing of dog foods). Even the less questionable ingredients may not be as nutritious as you think. Dry (kibble) and canned foods are cooked at high temperatures to kill bacteria, but which also deactivates beneficial enzymes and denatures protein’s more bioavailable form. Similar to microwaving or “nuking” your food, this reduces the nutrients in your pet’s food. Chemicals & Preservatives Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA), Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT), and Ethoxyquin are 3 nasty chemical preservatives. BHA and BHT are chemicals added to oils (fats) as preservatives that can be found in pet foods and treats. According to California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, BHA is on the list of Known Carcinogens and Reproductive Toxicants. BHT is also a carcinogen and causes kidney and liver damage in rats. Ethoxyquin is another chemical preservative which is illegal to use in human foods in the United States, yet can still legally be added to pet foods. Human safety data reports Ethoxyquin to be harmful if it is swallowed or directly contacts skin. Ethoxyquin often enters through ‘fish meal’ and may not even appear on a label. It’s best that your pet’s food and treats have no preservatives, but natural options like Vitamins C and E are safer choices. Propylene Glycol (PG) is a humectant (moistening agent) found in some soft dog foods and treats. It is chemically derived from ethylene glycol (EG), also known as antifreeze, which is extremely toxic to animals.PG is touted as non-toxic and non-absorbent for your pet, but consuming ‘pet-safe’ antifreeze’ will not improve your pet’s health. Food Dyes Blue 2, Red 40, and Yellow 5 and 6 have been documented to contribute to hypersensitivity (allergic-type) reactions, behavior problems, and cancer in humans. More recently, caramel color has come under fire as it contains 4-methylimidazole (4-MIE), a known animal carcinogen. When it comes down to it, artificially coloring food only appeals to humans and not pets. Rendered Fat Rendered animal fat provides flavor enhancement for kibble and is a source of microorganisms (Salmonella, etc.) and toxins (heavy metals, etc.) If moisture penetrates a dry food bag, then harmful bacteria and mold can flourish. Contaminants According to FDA Compliance policy CPG Sec. 675.100, the FDA “does not object to the diversion to animal feed of human food adulterated with rodent, roach, or bird excreta.” Therefore, your dog or cat may be eating such undesirable and disease-causing substances otherwise not permitted in human foods. Meeting our pet’s nutritional requirements, but doing so with sub-standard quality and potentially toxic ingredients, can cause both short and long-term health consequences. For your pet’s sake, offer a diet of human-grade, whole-food-based ingredients early in life and minimize the consumption of dry and canned diets and treats.

Pet Food Shopping List

What to look for in a dry/wet food:

  • Natural preservatives (Vitamin C/E) or no preservatives
  • Made in the U.S.A.
  • Human-grade ingredients (although there are very few foods that can put this on their label and you won’t find this on any packages of kibble)

Ingredients to avoid:

  • Corn and wheat gluten
  • Meat and grain meals and by-products
  • BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole)
  • BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene)
  • Ethoxyquin
  • Food Dyes (Blue 2, Red 40, Yellow 5 and 6, 4-MIE)
  • PG (Propylene Glycol)
  • Rendered fat

Recommended brands:

  • Lucky Dog Cuisine: Lucky Dog Cuisine is a cooked, all-natural, human-grade, small batch, prepared dog food that you order online and then is shipped frozen to your home.
  • The Honest Kitchen: With minimally processed, whole-food, human-grade ingredients in dehydrated form, just add water for a healthy, wholesome meal for your dog or cat.

About Patrick Dr. Patrick Mahaney is a veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist providing services to Los Angeles-based clients both on a house call and in-clinic basis. Years of clinical experience, including an extensive background in emergency medicine, have provided countless eye opening insights on animals overcoming adversity. Dr. Mahaney’s unique approach integrating eastern and western medical perspectives has evolved into a specialized house call practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. As his professional purpose has expanded, he discovered a growing need for pet enthusiasts to experience the triumphs and virtues of holistic care. In addition to providing house calls, Dr. Mahaney offers complementary cancer treatments for dogs and cats at the Veterinary Cancer Group. Dr. Mahaney’s entry into the pet media world began in 2008, when he began blogging my perspective on veterinary medicine and pet health in Patrick’s Blog. His media presence has expanded to multiple formats, including online, print, radio, and television. In 2011, Dr. Mahaney participated in his first international veterinary volunteer project with Amazon CARES. Peruvian urban and Amazon Jungle communities were the venues for mobile clinics providing medical and surgical treatments to dogs and cats, most of which had never experienced any form of wellness care. With his do-gooder gene activated and the travel bug buzzing, Dr. Mahaney plans more adventures through international philanthropic excursions in the future. As a veterinary insider, he understands the human interest and educational value of exploring the human-animal bond in a variety of media formats. Website: PatrickMahaney.com.

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Rendered fat is such a major problem and, despite the numerous recalls that it has prompted, it continues to be used.

I’m glad to see that you highlighted the dangers so plainly.  People need to be aware of just how dangerous their dog’s food can be.

I was wondering what your viewa were on pedigree lamb and rice dog food was? My basset dog is 5 and has always had a hard time with chicken dog foods and beef dog foods, but does well with lamb and rice mixs. She would throw up if she ate the other kind.

I use the Kirkland Signature (Costco) Maintenance Cat Food. My cat loves it, but I can’t really tell if it’s healthy for him. The first ingredient is chicken, if that means anything.

Hi Michelle,

I’m surprised that you would ask about a brand like Pedigree if you did in fact read this article. There is not a single ingredient in that brand of dog food - or basically anything you can buy at a grocery store - that I would feed to anything I loved. This article is talking about the way that commercial foods - like Pedigree are processed and everything in this article relates directly to Pedigree, Purina, Science Diet, Iams, and even other brands like Royal Canin, Blue Buffalo, etc. Use dogfoodadvisor.com to review other options, but if you are going to feed kibble, please look into Orijen or Acana. But more preferably, consider Sojos, Honest Kitchen, Primal Raw, or another company that provides a healthy, balanced, whole-ingredient diet.

Best of luck to you!

Thanks for giving some tips to other readers, Michelle. Dog food can, at times, be very confusing and overwhelming. It’s great to know that this blog prompted people to ask questions! Questions are always a good thing! We suggest to consult with your veterinarian to find the proper food for your pet if there’s any doubt in your mind. Best of luck, and thank you all for reading!

Hi Alex. The best thing to do would be to talk to your vet about the proper food for your pet. Good luck!

I have a 5 year old cocker spaniel. I was told by his Vet to feed him ‘iams’. After reading this article I realize that has been a mistake. I am hoping that you can advice me on two good brands of dog food for him as well as treats to replace the Pup-Peroni’s that I’ve been giving him.

i feel our dog merrick puppy. Is that a good brand?

I know you stated that few if any store bought brands of dog food are acceptable to feed pets, so I’m wondering about Newman’s Own brand as I’ve been feeding my dog this for years now. I also supplement with grass fed buffalo meat, organic turkey, sweet potato, broccoli etc…
Also, what do you think of raw food diets for dogs?
Thanks for your time and insight.

Example of Newman’s Own below

Turkey & Brown Rice:

Organic Turkey, Water Sufficient for Processing, Turkey Liver, Organic Brown Rice, Tricalcium Phosphate, Sweet Potatoes, Oat Bran, Cranberries, Flaxseed, Dried Kelp, Guar Gum, Carrageenan, Potassium Chloride, Sea Salt, Minerals (Iron Amino Acid Chelate, Zinc Amino Acid Chelate, Cobalt Amino Acid Chelate, Copper Amino Acid Chelate, Manganese Amino Acid Chelate, Sodium Selenite, Potassium Iodide), Vitamins (Vitamin E, A, B12, D3 Supplements, Thiamin Mononitrate, Biotin, Riboflavin Supplement).


Crude Protein…................8.0% (min)
Crude Fat…......................7.0% (min)
Crude Fiber…...................1.0% (max)
Moisture…......................78.0% (max)

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