Pet food is similar to human food, in that the tastiest products are often the least healthy. When you go to feed your dog or cat in the morning, you may be dumping the equivalent of doggie or kitty Big Macs in his bowl. The long-term health effects of a poor diet can lead to a number of ailments, and a shortened life expectancy, just like with humans.
Knowing how to read dog food and cat food labels is even more important considering the high number of pet food recalls.
Keep these basics in mind while reading dog food and cat food labels in order to give him better food, and a longer, healthier life.
Pet Food Labeling: What to Look For
Start at the beginning (a wonderful place to start), and look at the first ingredient listed on the label. Just like with human food labeling, the ingredients are listed in descending order, from most prevalent ingredient to least.
Ideally, the first ingredient is some kind of meat, be it chicken, beef or lamb. Meat byproducts should be avoided as a first ingredient on a dog or cat food label.
Byproducts are animal parts that do not qualify as standard meat, which is made up primarily of muscle and sinew. Byproducts instead may include hair, bones, blood, hooves, lungs, brains, intestines and all too often come from old, diseased, disabled and euthanized animals.
While some meat byproduct in an animal’s diet seems to be okay – consider how they would eat in the wild, and you realize much of that would end up in their stomachs – but the more you can avoid it the better.
Meat meal, such as chicken meal, is similar to meat byproduct. The main difference is that meal is rendered. Rendering is when animal parts are cooked in a vat at high temperatures (around 250 degrees F), often in plastic bags.
This sterilization process allows dog food and cat food manufacturers to include even lower grade materials, including manure in some cases. Rendering kills bacteria, but also destroys healthy enzymes. It also fails to eliminate certain chemicals which may exist in the food source, especially if the animal was euthanized.
Grain meals, such as corn meal, quite literally tend to come from the bottom of the barrel. They are the sweepings from farm silos and may contain disinfectants and various trace metals. None of which you want to be feeding your dog or cat.
Instead of meal (or “hull”), look for dog food with whole grains, such as rice, oats and barley. Whole grains offer higher nutrient values and tend to be safer for your cat or dog. Just remember that grains, no matter how healthy, should not be the first ingredient listed.
While the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) could certainly do a better job of regulating pet food, they are the best we’ve got and a certification from AAFCO is at least a good start. It means that certain criteria for safety and truth in labeling have been met.
Since many consumers don’t know to look for it, the AAFCO certification label is sometimes not promoted very heavily on the packaging, so you may have to do a bit of searching to find it if it is there.
Natural preservatives are best, such as Vitamins C (ascorbate) and E (tocopherols), over chemical preservatives, which can have negative long-term impacts on a dog or cat’s health and lifespan. Especially avoid BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin.
Clove, oils of rosemary, and various other spices are additional natural preservatives which manufactures of dog food have begun to incorporate into their products, as chemical preservatives continue to fall under scrutiny from the pet owning public.
While fat is a necessary part of any canine diet, seeing “animal fat” listed on a label is a cause for concern. The type of animal should be clearly listed so that you know what you’re getting.
In other words, so you know you’re getting lamb, chicken or beef, and not horse, cat or dog (all of which have found their way into the dog food supply at various times). Disturbing facts like these are just one reason it’s so important to know how to read pet food labels accurately.
Beet Pulp, Beetroot & Tomato Pomace
Beet pulp, beetroot and tomato pomace are used in commercial dog foods as stool hardeners. They are used to make it appear as if a dog is healthier than may actually be the case. Owners see normal bowel movements as a sign of health. If it weren’t for these stool hardening agents, the dog might defecate loose stools, signaling a poor diet.
Beet pulp is also quite high in sugar content.
Expiration Dates & Shelf Life
Don’t forget to check the expiration dates on your pet food. Do not feed your dog expired food, be it wet or dry. Do not feed your dog or cat expired treats, either. Also avoid any food containing fish of any kind with a shelf life over six months.
Where to Buy Healthy Dog Food and Cat Food
Finding healthy dog food and healthy cat food at your local grocery store can sometimes be tricky, or even impossible. This is especially true of smaller grocery stores, which may only carry a handful of brands. They will opt for the most high selling brands, which tend to be the mass produced, lower quality pet foods.
Your best bet is to either go to a pet store, as they tend to have a larger selection of dog and cat food to choose from, or to buy online. Buying pet food online is a good option for those who may be in an area without a lot of grocery store and pet store options.
Healthy Pet Food – Recommended Dog Food and Cat Food Brands
The following dog food brands are recommended for following the above guidelines better than the average commercially available dog food.
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