All pet foods not created equal

Posted: Sunday, December 07, 2003

It's time to feed the dog. You reach for the brand of food you bought beef-flavored dog food after seeing a TV commercial showing images of choice cuts of beef, plump chickens and whole salmon.

You think to yourself "This is the most wholesome and nutritious food for my dog," but you're wrong.

As you glance at the label while pouring, you notice not only is the primary ingredient corn, but beef isn't even listed as an ingredient.

How can this be? Why is you dog an animal that's primarily carnivorous in nature eating a diet that consists mostly of corn-based products?

Many cat and dog owners are fooled into buying pet foods based on claims by the manufacturer that the product is "100 percent complete and balanced."

The U.S. pet food industry is an $11 billion per year industry. By their advertising, some companies may lull many consumers into buying pet foods that are nutritionally quite the opposite of what consumers might think.

This is a major concern because not only are consumers not getting what they pay for, but the problems associated with poor quality commercial diets are practically innumerable.

Every day veterinary establishments see cases that can be attributed to these diets, such as skin problems, allergies, hypertension, kidney and liver failure, heart disease and dental problems.

Roughly half of every animal used for food does not get used in human foods. Bones, beaks, blood, intestines, lungs, ligaments and almost all the other remaining parts not generally consumed by humans are used in pet food. These parts are typically known ambiguously as "by-products" on pet food labels.

To make a more informed decision about which food is right for your pet, it's important to understand the labels of the commercially available foods on the market.

It is commonly accepted that ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, but how many people are aware of any difference between a label that reads "beef for dogs," "beef dinner" or "dinner with beef?"

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has established rules that pet food manufacturers must follow.

If the product states "beef dog food," then 95 percent of that product must be the named ingredient. A product that claims "beef and liver for dogs," must contain 95 percent beef and liver, and there must be more beef than liver, since it is named first.

If the product states "beef dinner," then at least 25 percent of the product, but less than 95 percent, must be the named ingredient on the label.

The "dinner rule" also includes label terms such as entree, formula, platter, feast, stew, nuggets and many others. All must have at least 25 percent of the named product.

However, if two ingredients are named under this rule such as "beef and chicken dinner for dogs" the two ingredients named need only total 25 percent. There is not 25 percent of each one.

The "with rule" ensures that if the product states "dog food with beef," at least 3 percent of the product is the named ingredient.

Lastly, is the "flavor rule." A pet food may be labeled "beef flavor dog food" even if that product does not contain any beef. The product must only have a "sufficiently detectable" amount of flavor, which may be derived from meals, by-products or digest of various parts from the animal species indicated on the label.

Stay away from by-product meals and meat-and-bone meals, too, since these are made of materials that have been rendered a process of "melting" livestock carcasses to extract oil from the fat.

So what's a pet owner to do? Start by educating yourself. Begin by reading the labels. When selecting a commercial food, make sure the label has an AAFCO approval.

There are numerous Web sites and books devoted to the subject of pet nutrition, what's in pet food and how to read the labels.

You also can use these resources to learn how to make your own pet food with fresh ingredients. Just be sure to consult a veterinarian or a nutritionist to ensure that recipes are balanced and complete.

If sticking with commercial brand pet food, don't just shop at the grocery store. Shop around and compare brands at pet shops and feed stores as well.

You also can ask your veterinarian for advice. Vets should have a good understanding of pet nutrition as it is part of their education to become doctors.

They may be able to recommend a particular brand or at the very least answer questions for you to make your own informed decision.

Rules to remember

Food rule: If the label states "beef dog food," then 95 percent of the product must be beef. If the label reads "chicken and fish for cats" the product must contain 95 percent chicken and fish and there must be more chicken than fish since it was named first.

Dinner rule: If the terms "dinner," "entree," formula," "platter," "feast," "stew," "nuggets" or something similar appear in a pet food label, than at least 25 percent but less than 95 percent of the product must be the ingredient named in the label, whether it's beef, chicken or fish.

With rule: If a label states "dog food with beef," at least 3 percent of the product must be beef.

Flavor rule:A pet food may be labeled "beef flavored" even if there's no beef in the product. It just has to have a sufficiently detectable amount of beef flavor. That flavor may come from meals, animal by-products or digest of various parts of an animal.

Ask a veterinarian for more information about specific nutritional requirements for your pet.

Source: The Web site for the Association for the American Feed Control Officials at and the Animal Protection Institute at

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at

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