Dr Karen Becker
What to look for in a dry pet food:
- Meat, more meat, and did I mention meat? Cats and dogs are carnivores – they thrive on a diet based on meat. They have no evolved need for carbohydrates. Grains (carbs) are added to pet food because 1) they’re cheaper than meat, and 2) they hold the kibbled bits together. They aren’t added for the sake of proper nutrition for your meat-eating pet.
The source and quality of protein in the formula is crucially important for your pet’s health. Look for whole food sources at the very top of the ingredient list like ‘beef,’ ‘turkey,’ ‘lamb’ or ‘chicken’ -- one-word descriptions.
Meat and fat ingredients should be identified by species (turkey, lamb, beef, fish, etc.). Avoid any formula that uses unidentified sources, described non-specifically as ‘meat,’ ‘animal’ or ‘poultry.’
- The next ingredient of better quality foods will probably be a meat source followed by the word ‘meal.’ Meat meal (with the meat source identified, as in ‘chicken meal’ or ‘turkey meal’) is considered a relatively high-quality protein source by processed pet food standards.
- Ingredients three and four should be vegetables (avoid corn, wheat or beep pulp) and unless the formula is grain-free (which I recommend), a whole grain source like brown rice. Organic grains are preferable where grains are included, but they are no substitute for meat content. Avoid formulas with ‘grain fragments’ -- these are non-nutritive fillers. Grain-free formulas will frequently use potatoes as the starch, which holds the food together during processing.
Whole fruits as a portion of ingredients three and four are fine -- especially if they replace grains.
In addition, it’s also important to be aware of a labeling practice known as ‘splitting.’ Splitting occurs when different components of the same ingredient are listed separately on the label to improve the look of the ingredient list.
If, for example, rice makes up 50 percent of a formula and meat only 25 percent, it’s possible to list the rice as three or four individual ingredients all under 25 percent each, for example, brown rice, white rice, rice bran, and rice gluten meal. Listing the ingredient ‘rice’ in this manner allows the manufacturer to list the meat -- at 25 percent -- as the first ingredient.
- Leave all pet food containing corn or soy in any form on the shelf. Corn is a cheap filler ingredient, non-nutritious for pets, and a known allergenic. Soy is estrogenic and wreaks havoc on your pet’s endocrine system.
- Also walk away from formulas containing by-products, especially those that don’t specify the type of meat in the meat by-product. Believe it or not, meat by-products – especially those not specified as a certain kind of meat – will contain parts of beaks, feathers, feet, hooves, hair and even tumors that have been ground into the mix during processing. Although some by-products may provide some nutrition, such as spleens and other organ meats, because they are all lumped together it’s best to avoid them.
- Avoid pet foods containing artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives, especially those known to be carcinogens. In dog food, these usually go by the names BHT, BHA, ethoxyquin and propyl gallate. When considering foods containing fish, look for manufacturer assurance on the label that states the formula contains NO artificial preservatives. Look for foods preserved with vitamins E and C, often called tocopherols.
- It’s important to note that on pet food labels, ingredients are listed by weight. Because meat is inclusive of water, it is heavy, so it can be listed first on the label. When the water is removed from meat (which happens when a kibbled or dry food is produced) the meat is reduced in weight by roughly 80 percent, meaning the bulk of the food is probably coming from ingredients two, three and four – yet the meat will appear on the label as the first ingredient.
It can be confusing to figure out the relative quality of a pet food you’re thinking of purchasing, and in many ways, it’s intended to confuse. But with practice, you can become expert at reading labels and understanding the nutritional value of the food you feed your pet.