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The Daily Vet by petMD

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All of us pet owners want the peace of mind that we are feeding our pets the highest quality food possible. The definition of quality varies from owner to owner and includes preference from real edible meat (cooked or raw) to holistic to organic to hormone free to sustainable to geographically specific etc.

The only way to ensure such qualities is home prepared meals, where the owner controls the ingredients and production practices. Costs for this method vary according to individual preferences, ingredient sources, levels of nutrient supplementation, commitment, and the number or size of pet(s) being fed. Most often quality trumps costs for owners that choose this option and convenience is not a consideration. Pet owners seeking the same quality assurance, ingredient transparency at an affordable price point are often disappointed, especially after their “premium” food has been recalled. There is an inherent cost/quality conflict with commercial pet foods.

Quality of Commercial Pet Food

The striated muscle that we call meat cuts is too valuable to put in pet food. If it is considered edible, meat is more profitable if it is destined for the grocery store.

Pet food is made from the 50 percent of the carcass that cannot be profitably sold for human consumption. Real meat cuts deemed inedible for human consumption can also be included in pet food with the discarded 50 percent, which includes tongue, esophagus, diaphragm, intestine, sinew, and heart, and is defined as “meat” by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

Other carcass scraps defined as meat by-products by AAFCO also comprise the meat that goes into pet food. Meat meals and fats derived from rendered dead carcasses of animals are also allowable in pet food. The use of inedible meat, by-products, and meat meals, as defined by AAFCO, certainly does not meet most definitions for quality products, and the processing procedures for these ingredients have wide variations of quality control. In fact, AAFCO uses the term “in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices” for exclusions of hair, hoof, horn hide, feathers, bones, beaks, manure, rumen and intestinal contents, along with other contaminants such as plastic, nut shells, saw dust, etc. for these protein sources.

Preparing hard, kibbled food almost certainly compromises quality. Preparation requires two separate processes of high heat treatment that is known to degrade the quality of many nutrients. Nutritional claims for this most popular and convenient form of pet food is based on the nutrient content prior to both heat processes.

Cost of Commercial Pet Food

The other side of the coin is that these animal products are much less expensive than real meat. Commercial pet food manufacturers can produce affordable pet food from products that would otherwise be turned into fertilizers or industrial and cosmetic products. Additionally, millions of pets have thrived for decades with these products in their food, so a blanket dismissal of the quality of commercial pet food is probably unwarranted.

As in human food recalls, the problems in pet food have been problems of contamination rather than inherent inferiority of the ingredients. And also like human incidents, the number of individuals affected is incredibly small compared to the number of meals fed. Clearly, commercial pet foods are cost effective relatively safe.

Unlikely Conflict Resolution

As stated above, the only way to guarantee that pet food meets owner requirements for quality, safety, and philosophical concerns is to control ingredient assembly and preparation by making it ourselves. Of course, creating an at-home diet may not work for every family, and most commercial food manufacturers put great care into producing their product. So do your research, consult the experts (your veterinarian and/or veterinary nutritionists) and find out what is right for your pet.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: Shutterstock

Comments  5

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  • Additives
    11/29/2012 06:52am

    In my opinion, the most frightening thing is the possibility that there can be an additive like the melamine that killed and sickened so many pets in 2007.

  • 11/29/2012 11:10pm

    Dear OldBroad:
    I have been concerned & wondered the exact thing. Generally in this country we value our pets as dear family members yet many purchase food from discount retailers that sell food made in China, Thailand, etc. that has a record of melamine! Shouldn't petfood from these countries be prohibited? It's just not trustworthy & certainly not worth the risk. Although USA petfood is far from perfect I feel a little safer only purchasing USA made--& that grain free highest quality for my kitties. There's some high quality food from New Zealand but NO ONE should purchase food made in the Asian countries if you're going to provide commercially prepared.

  • 11/29/2012 09:16am

    You write: "Preparing hard, kibbled food almost certainly compromises quality. Preparation requires two separate processes of high heat treatment that is known to degrade the quality of many nutrients. Nutritional claims for this most popular and convenient form of pet food is based on the nutrient content prior to both heat processes."

    Thank you for this important information. But I wonder why so many veterinarians who are deemed "board certified veterinary nutritionists" make such outrageous claims about corn and meat by-products being better than real, fresh meat. Here are a couple of their quotes:

    "If one considers that corn was a main staple in the diet of Native Americans for many years, it is difficult to understand how critics can claim that corn is a filler used in pet foods."

    "There is no reason why 'grain free' foods are better for either dogs or cats."

    "... often by-product is as good, maybe even a better source of over-all nutrition ... better off eating by-product than chicken breast."

    "My preferred method of feeding presently is kibble."

    Why are these "specialists" so irresponsible?

  • 11/29/2012 11:23pm

    Dear Rod Russell:
    I agree & share your perplexed concern--& IT REALLY BOTHERS ME! Why on earth would a vet say such things but I've encountered those that did. Are they just trying to encourage a bad diet on purpose? Are they just ignorant? These are terrible accusations I'm most uncomfortable making but what else am I to conclude? What little research I was able to do online I'm convinced cats are obligate carnivores. I provide mine with both homemade & commercial high quality grain free USA-only moist food supplementing with prescription grade moist/dry food. Several water bowls are throughout the house to encourage drinking-as you know is very important for cats, LOTS of play for exercise/social development, & kept strictly indoors...along with regular vet checks. That's the best I can do--I hope.

  • in praise of strange food
    11/29/2012 04:52pm

    Cats happily eat mice and birds, guts, skin, feathers, bones, digestive contents, etc. and evolved to do this. We eat anything. When in college on a limited budget, I invented a dish of beef heart, beets, a potato, herbs and spices, bound with oatmeal and breadcrumbs and egg, and baked. I called it beet-meat-loaf. It was very good and I served it to guests with positive feedback. A southeast asian supermarket here has a vat of pork uterus. I have not tried this yet. I have enjoyed rocky mountain oysters very much. A friend who spent a few years in the military in Korea used to eat spaghetti with fried silkworms frequently. I frequently eat at a Vietnamese restaurant where the soup has pieces of connective tissue cooked to a soft, gelatinous texture. Also meatballs which are totally unidentifiable as to origin. It is very good. My point is that all of this is good to eat, and nutritious, assuming that the ingredients themselves are clean, uncontaminated, and fresh. Latino supermarkets here sell a chorizo made with pork salivary glands and lymph nodes, etc... In Greece and Turkey they make a dish of sheep heart and liver and chunks of fat, spiced, stuffed into a large intestine casing and grilled over coals, and it is delicious. It is all good. Our pets do not demand prime angus ribeye, or stroganoff, or scaloppini marsala, although these things are a delight. I do seriously care, though, about adulterants in our pet food, and our own food.

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