Are You Buying Healthy Dog & Cat Food?

February 21, 2017

In light of all the recalls and law suits in recent years involving commercial pet food, we all have a right to worry and wonder if the food we purchase for our beloved dogs is a healthy choice. We have certainly learned that just because a manufacturer swears their food is the best and contains only healthy, pure ingredients, it doesn’t make it so. Let’s take a look back at the beginnings of commercially-manufactured pet food.

The History of Commercial Dog Food

Throughout history, dogs belonging to wealthy people ate better than most humans. Farm dogs also ate well because they were expected to work hard. As the Industrial Revolution took over, a middle class was created and pets became more likely for ordinary folks. More pets created a need for veterinary medicine. Many of those experts believed that since wild dogs ate meat, domesticated dogs should not. But that line of thought began to change in 1860 when James Spratt, an electrician and lightning rod salesman, created a dried dog biscuit he called a “Patented Meat Fibrine Dog Cake.”

In 1908, the F.H. Bennet Co.  began making biscuits shaped like bones, and they also made the first commercial puppy food. The company packaged different sizes of kibble for different dog breeds.

Nabisco bought out Bennet’s company in 1931 and renamed the biscuits “Milkbones,” and thus began the real growth of dog biscuit popularity.

Ken-L-Ration was introduced to the United States in 1922 as the first canned dog food and was basically horse meat. By 1941, canned dog food held 90% of the pet food market, but World War II changed that as Government rationing of food brought back dry dog food. In 1950, Ralston Purina used a cooking extruder for cereal production. Their pet food division borrowed the extruder and tested it for several years for making dry dog food and introduced their product as Purina Dog Chow.

The rest is history as more companies jumped on the commercial pet food bandwagon. By 1975, there were more than 1500 dog foods on the market.

Expansion of the Extruder in Pet Food Production

In today’s manufacturing world, an improved version of the extruder is still making dry pet food. First, the raw dry and wet ingredients are mixed into a dough and then fed into a machine that steams or hot water cooks the ingredients at very high temperatures. Some say this destroys many of the nutrients in the food, as well as the taste.  As the product is released from the pressure of this machine, it expands into hot, soft kibble. The food then goes into dryers to harden. Synthetically-flavored nutrients are sprayed on the kibble, as well as powdered or liquid flavor-enhancers. The kibble is dried again and is then ready for bagging.

While it doesn’t sound like the most appetizing food for a pet, there is more to the story. The process above is part of the rendering process.

What Really Goes Into Those Bags of Dry Dog Food

Some dog food products that go through the rendering process are actually nutritionally sound. They are often rendered on human pet food assembly lines where only human-grade ingredients are included and strict sanitizing methods are used. These foods are usually manufactured by high end companies and are priced a bit higher than the average dry pet food because the cost is higher to produce them.

To understand how important it is for consumers to avoid the lower-priced, rendered pet foods, you must understand the rendering process. Rendering companies contract with local businesses, like veterinary clinics or restaurants, even supermarkets, farmers or zoos, to send trucks on certain schedules to pick up their waste. Such waste includes euthanized pets from the veterinary clinics, old and/or spoiled meats from the supermarkets, dead farm or zoo animals. Restaurants store their old fats and cooking grease in large drums that sit outside for weeks at a time in all kinds of weather to become rancid and smelly. The trucks from the rendering companies go to the businesses with whom they have contracts and pick up those items. They also contract with cities or counties to pick up road kill. Wildcatters operate their own trucks and do the same pickups and then sell the contents to the rendering companies.

The trucks all deliver their contents to the rendering companies and empty them into huge vats. This includes the styrofoam and plastic packaging on the grocery store meats, collars and metal tags on dead animals and whatever else might be left on the items picked up.  Keep in mind that animals euthanized by veterinarians will contain whatever drug was used to kill them. Pentobarbitol is usually that drug. All of this material that is dumped into the vats is then rendered into pet food by pulverizing the entire mess and cooking at high temperatures designed to separate the meat from the bone. The grease is removed and used to make animal fat, also for use in pet food.

“The rendering process destroys much of the bacteria, such as E.Coli, but how did that animal die?  Was it by euthanasia?  Did it die in the field and lie there in the heat for days? Was it hit by a car?  When an animal dies, the body releases a bacteria (gas) that supposedly isn’t destroyed by rendering.  No one tests for this.”

There is a way to distinguish between the better products and the rendered ones that are not necessarily the best for your pets to eat. Read the ingredients list!  If you see any kind of by-products listed, that is a red flag. Should you see animal fat or animal digest, keep shopping. Be sure the meat included on the list is a named meat, such as chicken or beef or lamb. When a company lists their meat as beef, pork, fish or poultry, that’s not a good sign. The named meats should also head the ingredients list before any grains or vegetables. Ingredients are listed in order of weight, from the heaviest to the lightest. A simple method for shoppers can be found here.

Commercial pet food is big business. The companies spend millions on marketing and public relations to encourage pet owners to buy their products. Think about those commercials you see on television for popular brands. The companies use bright colors, appealing ingredients and positive wording to entice the public to choose their products over others.  Unfortunately, what you see on the packages isn’t always what you get and that is why reading the ingredients list is so crucial to your pet’s health. Be sure to read some of the reviews of popular dog food brands on this site, and you’ll see what I mean.

Sometimes, the ingredients don’t match the artwork on the front of the package. There have even been cases of  the actual food inside differing somewhat from what the ingredients list said. It is important to trust the company whose products you purchase.

Lack of Oversight by the FDA Affects the Health of Our Pets

Beginning in 2007 with the nationwide recalls of multiple brands of pet food that caused many pet deaths, consumers have become more aware of the dangers that commercial pet food could bring to their dogs. We have seen recalls for numerous reasons, from possible contamination with mold, metal fragments, vitamin deficiencies or elevated levels of certain vitamins, to Salmonella and now Evanger’s, what I thought of as one of the better brands, voluntarily recalled some of their products due to pentobarbitol contamination. We depend on the manufacturers to provide healthy food for our dogs and cats and when something goes wrong, it destroys our trust.

A dog died from the Evanger’s pentobarbitol poisoning and had the owner not possessed the tenacity to push for a recall, other dogs might have suffered a similar fate. The company blames the supplier of their beef for the error and says they will no longer do business with that company, yet the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) investigated and tested the supplier’s products and found no evidence of pentobarbitol.

Last year, Nestle-Purina sued Blue Buffalo, a company that claims its dry dog food never contains any kind of by-products. Purina proved their case by having samples of the Blue Buffalo product tested by an independent lab, and chicken by-products were found in the food.

The problems faced by pet food manufacturers are compounded because most of them use outside sources for some of their ingredients. They may be able to vouch for their own production processes, but they only have the word of their suppliers for purchases made elsewhere. As Blue Buffalo found, those outside sources can’t always be trusted.

Shopping for Dog or Cat Food Is Serious Business 

Pet owners are faced with several difficulties when buying food for our beloved dogs and cats. Along with finding an option our pet likes, we have to choose between many brands on the retail store shelves. Do we believe what we see on the packages and cans? Who do we trust? There is no correct answer to our questions when manufacturers break the rules, or when the FDA does not enforce said rules. I can only say to other pet owners to read the ingredients label, research the manufacturer. Check for past recalls of your chosen manufacturer’s products. If they were frequent, be careful. Watch your pet for changes in behavior and eating habits, especially after eating. And pay close attention to any recalls that occur.

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