If you’ve taken a spin around mshealthesteem.com you can probably tell that I believe in feeding our bodies with kindness. We all deserve a nourishing, healthy diet that we adore. But what you may not know is that I’m also a huge advocate for feeding our pets a healthy, nourishing diet as well. Something that isn’t as easy as it seems.
With a multi-billion dollar industry that often sacrifices nutrition for the sake of cost and convenience and a dizzying plethora of options, how do you pick a healthy pet food?
Here’s what you need to know:
Pet foods humble beginnings…
Commercial pet food first came onto the scene in the 1860’s in the form of a ‘dog cake’. Don’t let the word cake fool you. You and I totally don’t want to enjoy this at our birthday party (blegh).
Dog cakes were made out of wheat, vegetables and beef blood. This simple three ingredient creation was the catalyst for an industry that’s estimated to pull in $69.36 billion dollars this year. Total game change, eh? That’s one booming industry!
These days, pet foods have a far more complex ingredient list. Products are heavily marketed and often pull on our heart strings. We’ve got images of an adorable, pudgy puppy growing big and strong on this kibble. Or a fluffy kitten that will literally jump through a wall for that can of cat food.
There are a floppity jillion options… but what these commercials don’t tell you is that many of these foods are full of high processed, carb heavy ingredients (something we’ll talk more about in a minute). And aren’t usually as healthy for your pet as they’d like you to believe.
While you may not consider it, ingredient quality is important. The wet and dry pet foods we buy often serve as our pets’ entire diet instead of a treat or supplement. And you know what? What you feed your pet every single day also has a whole lot to do with their health. A good pet food can potentially save you tons on vet bills and give your furry little buddy the quality of life they deserve.
How do we know what our pet needs to be healthy?
For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to focus on dogs and cats (since carnivores and herbivores have very different needs). If you want to learn more about herbivores like bunnies, let me know in the comment below.
Your dogs and cats are cute little fluff balls, but they’re also feisty little meat eaters. And a carnivore’s body has a few special features designed for a meaty diet:
1. A Short Digestive Tract
A carnivore’s digestive tract is short and highly acidic. Your carnivorous friends boast a gastric pH of around 1 (to put that in perspective, your stomach’s pH tends to sit at around 4 to 5) (source).
That high pH helps to break down a meat heavy diet (and kill the icky bacteria you’d find on raw meat). And the shorter digestive tract means that food transit is a hell of a lot quicker than that of an omnivore or herbivore. Why? Because it’s much easier to digest meat than it is to break down plant matter. No pesky, thick cell walls to destroy.
2. Lack of Amylase in the Saliva
You know when you suck on a candy and it starts to break down in your mouth? Giving you that delicious, sweet taste you’re dying for? Well that’s thanks to an enzyme we have in our saliva called amylase.
Amylase is meant to help digest carbs. And for omnivores and herbivores, it hangs out in our saliva. This means that, for us, digestion starts in the mouth.
But carnivores, dogs and cats included, don’t have amylase in their saliva. Digestion doesn’t really begin to get serious until the stomach. Their bodies aren’t meant to break down carbs as efficiently as ours.
A carb heavy diet can be really hard on a carnivore’s system.
According to the Champion Pet Foods White Paper “Feeding dogs [and cats] as though they were omnivores or herbivores makes the pancreas work harder in order to digest the carbohydrate-filled foods (instead of just producing normal amounts of the enzymes needed to digest proteins and fats).” (source)
They really don’t thrive on a carb heavy diet.
3. Fewer Taste Buds
Surprise – your cat wouldn’t want to suck on a candy anyway… because they can’t taste sweet. While humans are lucky enough to have around 9000 taste buds, dogs only have 1 700. And cats got the serious short end of the stick with 500.
That’s because, as meat eaters, they don’t need to taste the rainbow. Carnivores can usually tell if something is bitter (in order to avoid eating rotten meat… because that would be bad news bears). But since they don’t eat fruit and vegetables, they don’t need much else in the taste department.
4. Tons of Olfactory cells (We’re Talking about one Powerful Nose!)
Before you feel bad about all the delicious flavours that your pet is totally missing out on, remember this: While they can’t taste the rainbow, they can definitely smell it. So maybe we’re the one’s missing out?
Dogs have 70 to 220 million olfactory cells and cats have 60 to 65 million. By comparison, us humans can’t really brag about our sniffers… we’ve only got 5 to 20 million.
Why is this important? While you may eat for taste, your dog or cat will eat for smell. So when a pet food company brags about their food ‘tasting great’ they’re, well, full of it. This is an attempt to advertise to your sense, not to your dog or cats needs.
And since your dog or cat is eating for smell, colours don’t matter either (in fact, they don’t perceive all of the same colours that we do). Dyes are a completely useless (and unhealthy) addition to your pets diet.
5. Sharp Teeth
One peek into your cats or dogs mouth and you’ll notice that they’ve got some sharp pearly whites. Our feline friends have an entire set of carnivorous teeth. And while canines have some molars, they’re triangular with jagged edges and still help their carnivorous teeth do their job.
These guys aren’t big chewers. Their teeth aren’t designed to grind grains. And we already know they don’t have amylase in their saliva, so tons of chewing is kind of pointless. It’s all about biting off chunks to swallow whole, not chewing on plants to help break them down.
How does this affect their pet food needs?
Ideally, we’re looking for something high in easily digestible animal proteins and moderate in healthy fats.
When it comes to carbohydrates, dogs and cats would naturally eat very little. Mainly, they’d devour the pre-digested grains, fruits and vegetables from the stomach and intestines of their prey. It’s kind of like cheating the system. The herbivores and omnivores they’d eat would have already done the hard work for them by breaking down the carbs already.
Carbs should be minimal and complex (think sweet potatoes, potatoes, beans and oats). We want small amounts of carbs that break down nice and slow so we don’t cause a spike in the blood sugar.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) dog and cat food nutrient profiles (Methods for Substantiating Nutritional Adequacy of Dog and Cat Foods) actually makes no mention of carbohydrates as an essential nutrient.
But here’s the problem with commercial pet food…
Most commercial pet foods are overloaded with carbs! Take a walk down your grocery store aisle and you’ll notice that carb sources like corn and wheat often dominate the first 5 ingredients.
Why is this important?
Ingredients go by weight, which means that the first few ingredients make up the bulk of the food (that makes them pretty darn important). When carbs dominate the top spots, you’re basically feeding your pet tons of useless, hard to digest, sugary junk. Which we now know they don’t really handle well in large amounts.
What does this mean for their health?
A low quality, carb heavy food can lead to obesity, increased shedding, hyperactivity (think of kids after eating a sugary breakfast cereal) and energy crashes, skin issues and other health problems.
And it gets worse…
Most carb heavy, junky pet foods don’t stop the junk train at carbs. The goal here is to make a cheap food; nutritional quality is often thrown out the window.
Another peek at pet foods labels often found in grocery store brands and you’ll notice terms like poultry by-product, animal digest, and meat.
But when things aren’t specific we run into problems… here’s a look at what non-specific ingredients in your pet food might be.
By-products are kind of like leftovers and often lack muscle meat (making them less digestible and nutritionally dense). Legally they can include parts like bones, heads, beaks, feet, eggshells and sometimes feathers (if unavoidable, according to AAFCO)
Is there such a thing as good by-products? Hell yea. Organ meats are a great example. But companies who use good ingredients want to brag about it (who doesn’t want to talk up their goodness?) So, instead of using blanket terms like “by-products” you’ll see something along the lines of “chicken giblets (liver, heart, gizzard)”.
2. Non-Specific Ingredients
When companies use words like poultry they didn’t specify what kind of bird… and there’s a reason for this. It allows them to use whatever kinds of poultry are available (chicken, turkey, duck, goose, etc.) The same can be said when we see words like “meat” or “animal”.
Why does this matter? Well, a few reasons.
One, this can make the food a hit or miss from bag to bag. Have you ever had your dog love the first bag of food but hate the next? Well, sometimes this might be because of non-specific ingredients changing from bag to bag. When poultry is the main protein source, you might get mostly chicken in one bag, and mostly turkey in another. And your dog may love chicken, but hate turkey.
Secondly, non-specific ingredients usually aren’t well sources (and are never found in a good quality food). Ingredient quality matters. And this is about more than just reading good ingredients on a label. It’s about companies who source their ingredients well because they genuinely care about creating a good product.
Poorly sources ingredients have played a huge roll in some pretty awful recalls. This includes the Diamond pet food plant salmonella recall in 2012 (which affected tons of brands) and the giant, horrible recall in 2007 (which led to the deaths of many pets) caused by wheat gluten sourced from China.
What about meal?
Sometimes you might see words like “chicken meal”. All this means is that a mix of flesh and skin (and sometimes bone) have been ground together and dehydrated. While this might seem weird, since chicken is about 70% water, this can actually be a good thing.
If you’re buying from a responsible company that sources their ingredients well, then meal can help boost up the meat protein.
Remember how I mentioned that ingredients are listed by weight? This means that the top spots are occupied by the ingredients that are the most abundant. When water weight is taken out of the equation before an ingredient is weighed we know for a fact that it deserves to sit where it does on the ingredient list. So a good quality meal just helps to pack the punch in the animal protein department.
So What Exactly Should We Be Looking For?
Now that you know what you don’t want – a carb heavy diet with non-specific meat sources and junky ingredients – what exactly should you be looking for?
We want specific meat based ingredients as the first 2 or 3 ingredients and good quality, complex carbs (in minimal amounts).
From a nutritional perspective, your pet, of course, needs more than those 2 things. But when you find a food that’s foundation is good quality meat and that’s carbs are minimal and complex you usually have something pretty wonderful.
You don’t need to be a nutritionist to see the difference. Just look at the ingredients below (one from a high quality brand and one from a carb-heavy grocery brand) and see the difference for yourself.
Ideally, a good ingredient list should look something like this:
Instead of something like this:
Here are a few other ways to narrow it down:
You probably won’t find a good food at a grocery store or big box store.
In my experience (I spent 4 and a half years working in the world of pet food), good quality brands can’t keep up with the demand of giant box stores. It’s about quality, not quantity. Because they want to maintain healthy standards and not sit on the shelf with low quality food, you’re more likely to find them at health pet food stores.
Good brands are usually solely focused on pet foods.
Remember how pet food has become a multi billion dollar industry? Well that means tons of corporations want to get their hands in the pot. And unfortunately they’re often pulled in by the money, not a passion for animals.
Some corporations make everything from paper, to candy bars, to breakfast cereals, to diapers, to multiple brands of pet foods. And it’s rare to see good quality ingredients coming out of that sort of machine.
The best pet foods are often made by companies that are focused on, surprise, pet food!
Better brands probably don’t have tons of catchy commercials.
The foods that do the most marketing are spending tons of money to get their name out there. It’s very rare to see commercials and heavy advertising for high quality brands. They tend to spend most of their money making their food fantastic. They also have a lot less money to play with than their giant corporate counterparts.
This doesn’t mean that good quality brands don’t do any marketing. They just don’t usually have the budget for the same heavy hitting ad campaigns.
The price tag will be higher, but it will last you longer.
While it may seem like a huge jump in price, it often evens out in the end. Why? Good food is more filling, so you’ll feed a lot less.
For example, an 80 pound lab might need up to 8 cups a day on a lower quality pet food. but give them something good and you might be feeding 3 cups a day. So while you may have to pay double, that bag is going to last you more than twice as long.
If that didn’t seem awesome enough already, you can also expect less shedding and less visits to the bathroom. Which means you’ll be saving on clean up! Booyah! Not to mention, a healthier diet often saves you on vet bills.
There’s no such thing as the perfect pet food.
What works for one dog might not work for another. Your pet might have food sensitivities or preferences. And that’s ok. There are tons of healthy options out there.
Just make sure to mix with your pets old food for 7 to 10 days when switching foods so your pet doesn’t get an upset tummy.
What do I recommend?
While there is no perfect food, there are a few companies that have totally set the bar.
Champion Pet Foods is my favourite Canadian pet food company. Their food is fresh and never frozen. They source their ingredients responsibly. And they maintain control over everything (from delivery right to packaging, Champion Pet Foods does not outsource). And they’ve won tons of awards for creating such a fantastic product (including pet food of the year for 3 years in a row from the Glycemic Research Institute). (source)
I also love Petcurean, another Canadian pet food company that makes fantastic foods. Go, Now Fresh and their new organic brand Gather offer fantastic ingredients and tons of options.
Both companies have limited ingredient diets for animals with allergies or sensitive tummies too.
However, if your pet has an illness or is on a prescription diet, please speak with your vet before making the decision to change their diet.
Remember, there are lots of other good options out there. And it may take a few tries to find what works for your furry friend. But when you know you’re supporting their well-being through a healthy, nutritious diet, it’s absolutely worth it.
Have you found a healthy diet that works well for your dog or cat? Share your tips and experiences in the comments below.
Health and love,
Thought of the day: My pets deserve to be fed a healthy diet that allows them to thrive.