Just looking at the pet food ads on TV and in magazines, you’d get the impression that all commercial pet foods are healthy. All those fresh ingredients could tempt you to try these pet foods yourself! Unfortunately, the truth about most pet foods may be far from what artful ads would have us believe. If you’ve ever opened a pet food can that was marketed as healthy, and then found a glob of unrecognizable, grayish something-or-other, then you probably know what I mean.
Now, if you’re already aware that not all pet food commercials and ads live up to their promises, you should ask yourself a simple question: how can I tell if a particular pet food is healthy? The answer to this is often hidden in plain sight, on the pet food label, often in the midst of a bunch of unfamiliar terms. To do well for your pet, you need to be able to interpret pet food labels correctly.
First and foremost, healthy pet foods contain real food ingredients.
Healthy commercial pet foods are made from natural food ingredients that reflect the needs of the pet for which the foods are intended. Remember that ingredients are listed in the order of their relative quantity in the pet food. Healthy dog and cat foods should contain animal-derived products as their first ingredients. The quality of these ingredients is absolutely essential to the health of your pet. If you see terms like ‘chicken meal’, ‘fish meal,’ ‘animal by-products,’ or ‘animal fat,’ you should know that these ingredients are of extremely low quality. Better choices are products that list terms that precisely describe the ingredient, such as chicken, cod, or animal parts, such as chicken heart or beef liver. Finally, the addition of synthetic chemicals should be kept to a minimum, as most of the available pet food supplements added routinely to pet foods are of low or questionable quality and value.
Second, healthy pet foods are certified organic.
This is true quite simply because organic ingredients are both safer and healthier for your pet. Organic ingredients are safer because their production and processing precludes by regulation the use of toxic manufacturing and processing chemicals. These include agricultural pesticides, fertilizers such as sewage sludge, hormones and antibiotics used to raise livestock, and toxic chemicals used during manufacture, including among others, fumigants, pesticides, and corrosive sanitizers. As well, organic ingredients can never include genetically engineered foods (some of which have been implicated in a variety of health problems, such as allergies or reproductive disorders). Increasingly, studies have shown that organic ingredients are healthier than their conventional counterparts, not only because they are free of toxic residues and diligently processed, but also because they contain more nutrients, including vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, and critically important trace elements.
However, you should be aware that only USDA certified organic claims are regulated and enforced by Federal law; other non-certified organic claims cannot be verified by an unbiased third party.
Third, healthy pet foods are made of human-grade quality ingredients.
Although it doesn’t seem to make much sense, there are both USDA certified organic ingredients for human consumption and USDA certified organic ingredients for animals (examples are eggs, peas, etc). The latter are called ‘feed-grade’ ingredients, and are approved for the use solely in pet foods. Feed-grade ingredients are certainly of lower quality than human-grade ingredients. So, if you’re searching for a healthy pet food, look out for the descriptive word ‘human-grade’ on the pet food package! Never assume that pet food manufacturers are required to tell the consumer whether they use human-grade or feed-grade ingredients; they aren’t. But they most certainly will indicate if they use human-grade ingredients because these are of higher quality (a major selling point) and more expensive to produce (a justification for charging more for their product).
Fifth, healthy pet foods can be identified by the way they’re processed.
Even certified organic pet foods, containing all of the appropriate ingredients for a particular species of pet, are not necessarily healthy. Healthy pet foods must offer more than just organic certification and species appropriateness. They must also be processed in a manner that preserves the integrity and bio-availability of the nutrients in their ingredients. Heat-based processing, such as canning, baking or extruding food into nicely shaped kibble or biscuits, ruins the quality of many nutrients and can render even the best ingredients ‘lifeless’ and all but useless to your pet. Dehydration is a better way to process foods-but keep in mind that cats in particular don’t do well on dry food alone and that certain problems can even be associated with re-hydrated pet foods that were previously dehydrated. If fresh foods are unavailable, the best choices among commercial pet foods are products that have been fresh-frozen. Of course, freezing is less convenient and more expensive for the manufacturer to ship and store, and those costs get passed down to you, the consumer. Nevertheless, keep in mind that this additional expense will almost certainly ensure that your pet will stay healthy longer, and will also save you the pain and financial burden of caring for a sick animal.
Finally, a pet shouldn’t live on one prepared pet food alone, even if it is healthy and nutritious.
No plant or animal can thrive on just one combination of nutrients. Variety is a must for your pet’s health and well being, and you have the responsibility to provide this variety for your best friend. Just as you and your family would not live happily ever after on even the best quality ‘astronaut’ food (freeze-dried ice cream-blecchh!), your pet needs different foods to stay both healthy and happy! Since your pet has few choices of her own, it’s up to you to provide her with a variety of different safe and healthy USDA certified organic, human-grade, quality foods where ingredients have been processed in ways that are designed to preserve the endogenous nutrients. Your pet will thank you for your diligence and care!