Hundreds of brands of dog and cat foods are now available, with more popping up each month. Selecting which to purchase can feel overwhelming. In the article “The Whys and Hows of Raw Foods,” I discussed raw meaty bone-based diets for dogs and cats. In this article, my goal is to help you understand more about dry and canned pet foods: how they’re made, what to look for and what to avoid. And if I convince you to feed at least some fresh foods, all the better!
Most dry foods are made by a process called extrusion. Meat products are rendered, ground and dried then mixed with grains to form dough, which is fed into a machine called an extruder. The extruder subjects the dough to high temperature and pressure, and squeezes it through an orifice that gives the food its unique shape (stars, triangles, etc.). The food is then sprayed with fat, animal digests and other compounds to make it palatable. (Incidentally, many breakfast cereals, pastas and other “people foods” are also made via extrusion.) Canned foods are generally less processed than dry. Ingredients are mixed together, poured into cans and cooked at extremely high temperatures.
Here’s what’s most important to know: the high temperatures and pressures used in the making of both canned and dry foods can denature the proteins, change the fats and destroy many of the vitamins, enzymes and other nutrients found in raw or lightly cooked foods.
Most conventional veterinarians tell their clients: “Cats should be fed only cat food and dogs only dog food. No table scraps, no human foods.” These words ring in my ears–and on my tongue. Before I began my studies of holistic health care, I was one of those vets. The history of how and why veterinary schools and their students have embraced this notion is fascinating, if not disturbing, and can be attributed primarily to marketing campaigns instilling fear that home-prepared diets–raw or cooked–are comparatively incomplete and thus harmful to our pets.
If anything, the opposite is true. Chronic disease such as cancer, autoimmune disease, kidney failure, dental disease, digestive disorders, arthritis and allergic dermatitis are rampant in our pets. Now, many factors may play a role in these disorders, including environmental toxins, vaccinations, genetics and lack of fresh air, sunshine and exercise. But we should not ignore diet as a potential risk factor for our pets any more than we should for ourselves.
Most holistic veterinarians are of the opinion that diets based on fresh, whole, organic, raw foods, in which the nutrients exist in their natural states, are optimal for our pets. You may be concerned that raw meat is dangerous because of the potential for bacterial contamination. Bacteria, if present, is more dangerous for us than for our pets, as dogs and cats digest them far more effectively than we do. (Think about what they lick!)
You should employ the same safe practices when handling raw meats for your pets as you would for yourself. If you’re not comfortable feeding raw foods, there are many excellent books that outline how to prepare cooked foods, such as Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats and Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats by Kymythy Schultze.
In any case, we should all be aware that commercial pet foods may contain bacteria. Thousands of pounds of dog and cat foods have been recalled for everything from contamination with salmonella, aflatoxin and melamine to toxic doses of some vitamins and insufficient amounts of others. Processed pet foods are neither as safe nor as nutritious as we have been led to believe.
In my opinion, there’s only one reason to feed dogs and cats cooked commercial pet foods. Convenience. It certainly takes less energy–both physically and mentally–to pour a scoop of dry food or place a spoonful of canned into a bowl than to prepare food or even to defrost it. Chucking a chicken neck to your dog or cracking an egg into your cat’s bowl is relatively easy, but I recognize that it’s only realistic to accept that processed pet foods are here to stay. So let’s look at how to choose them, beginning with cat foods.
Cats are strict carnivores. Since they’re designed to eat only meat, it is preferable to select diets that are high in meats and low in grains and other sources of carbohydrates. Canned foods are typically higher in meats than dry. Canned foods are also much higher in water content than dry foods. This is particularly beneficial for cats as they have a low thirst drive. In the wild, most of cats’ water intake comes from their prey. Cats will drink more if they’re fed dry rather than canned food, but it still may not be enough to make up for the lack of moisture in the food. And please take note: dry foods do not clean teeth. For all of these reasons, I recommend canned food over dry for cats.
Dogs are more omnivorous than cats. This does not mean they are designed to eat grains, but it is possible that they tolerate them better. That said, I recommend avoiding wheat, corn, and soy, which are some of the most common allergy-causing ingredients for both dogs and cats. Other ingredients to avoid are any kind of animal or grain by-product (the leftovers from processing foods for human consumption), chemical preservatives including BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin, artificial flavors and preservatives, and fillers such as beet pulp, powdered cellulose and soybean mill run (soybean hulls).
I’ll give you an example of the importance of reading labels. Let’s compare two bags of dry dog food purchased at Pet Smart. The ingredients in the first are listed in the following order, by weight: whole grain corn, soybean mill run, chicken by-product meal, powdered cellulose, corn gluten meal, soybean meal, chicken liver flavor, soybean oil and lots of vitamins and minerals. The ingredients in the second are turkey, chicken, chicken meal, barley, brown rice, potato, rice, chicken fat preserved with natural tocopherols, some vegetables, egg and lots of vitamins and minerals. Which food would you choose? No doubt the second. Would you be surprised to know that the first food is Science Diet Light dog food and the second is Innova? I must admit that I was.
If you choose to use commercial kibble or canned foods, please don’t choose just one. Variety, even in processed pet foods, is key. Each food has a different nutritional composition. Vary the brands, vary the flavors. Better yet, investigate commercial raw foods or prepare your own raw or lightly cooked foods at home. Even a little fresh food is better than none.
Be brave. Go natural. Your pets will thank you!