Love ‘Em Like Family, Feed ‘Em Like Family: What is Really in Your Pet’s Commercial Food?
by Jonathan Reynolds, Contributor to Animals & Pets on All Things Healing
If dogs and cats were capable of visiting the places where commercial pet food comes from, would they still want to eat it? It’s perhaps an interesting question, but realistically, most dogs and cats will never visit a factory farm over the course of their lives. They rely entirely on their human caretakers to research, understand, and decide what’s best for them.
Ingredients on pet food containers are listed in decreasing order according to weight. Meats which tend to sponge up water, such as chicken, are usually higher on the list when it comes to canned foods, even though the actual amount of meat may be less. Wet foods are especially beneficial to cats for this reason, as they have a tendency to not realize when they become dehydrated. Dry food generally has less water, more plant material, and more calories for energy. Wet food tends to have more protein, but it is also usually more expensive and must be refrigerated after opening.
One ingredient typically found in commercial pet food for both dogs and cats, known as “meat by-products”, consists of dead animal pieces mostly deemed unfit for human consumption. According to bornfree.org, “about 50% of every food animal does not get used in human foods. Whatever remains of the carcass — heads, feet, bones, blood, intestines, lungs, spleens, livers, ligaments, fat trimmings, unborn babies, and other parts not generally consumed by humans — is used in pet food, animal feed, fertilizer, industrial lubricants, soap, rubber, and other products.”
Meat meals, poultry meals, by-product meals, and meat-and-bone meal are also common ingredients in dry pet foods. Meals go through a “rendering” process which requires the dead carcasses to be boiled for several hours to separate fat and proteins. Because rendering must be gentle enough to remove the valuable nutrients intact, there is the possibility that the end-product might carry biological pathogens.
Some preservatives used in dry pet food are worth avoiding, such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propyl gallate, propylene glycol, and ethoxyquin (pdf), all of which are used frequently.
Animals living on factory farms are regularly injected with antibiotics. The FDA estimates that in 2009, around 29 million pounds of antibiotics were pumped into farm animals by the meat industry.
Pet food is frequently the target of recalls (pdf). Between 2006 and 2007, 60 million containers of 180 different brands of pet food and treats, produced by 12 different manufacturers, were recalled due to the intentional contamination of wheat gluten and rice protein imported from two Chinese companies. This recall is considered to be the largest in US history.
Taking all of this into consideration, combined with our knowledge of what regularly goes on in factory farms, what options do vegetarians and vegans have if they want happiness and health for their non-human companions, but also want to avoid supporting the meat industry? Meatless alternatives exist for both cats and dogs, but both animals and their specific dietary requirements differ greatly.
Dogs are technically classified as carnivores; however, they do exceedingly well as omnivores too, and there are many examples of dogs living long, healthy lives as vegetarians.
An adult dog needs fats (energy and vitamins), carbohydrates (energy), vitamins, and proteins, all of which should be found in any quality vegetarian pet food. Protein is made up of amino acids, of which there are 23 different kinds (pdf), 13 that a dog can create, 10 which the dog needs added to his/her diet. Milk, fish, soy, eggs, beans, legumes, and nut butters are all adequate sources for many of these proteins.
Dogs can eat a variety of vegetables. However, because of their small digestive tracts, steaming vegetables to soften them, or putting them into a liquid form, makes digestion easier. One study (pdf) showed that textured vegetable protein (“soy meat”) is only slightly less digestible in dogs than beef. Veggies that dogs can eat include: broccoli, carrots, cabbage, cucumber, celery, green beans, kale, squash, and spinach. As for fruits, apples, bananas, and watermelon are a good place to start.
Canned vegetarian dog food can be found at most pet stores. Perhaps surprising, it’s not much more expensive than regular food (I purchased a 13 oz. can for only $2 in NY). Some brands of canned vegetarian dog food may be sufficient on their own for maintaining a dog’s health. Try researching different brands via the internet to find the best product for your dog.
There is perhaps more research into homemade and non-commercial vegetarian/vegan dog food than there is of the commercially-produced kind. For example, CNN reported the story of 4-year-old Cleo, who switched to a vegan diet after her caretaker’s vet recommended it to fight an ear infection. Cleo was fed beans, rice, and sweet potatoes for five months. Afterwards, not only was her ear infection gone, but so was her dandruff and bad breath. She also had a shiner coat. Caretakers of vegetarian dogs shared their experiences in James Peden’s 1999 book, “Vegetarian Cats & Dogs”. The health benefits they reported include decreased ectoparasites (fleas, ticks, lice and mites), improved coat condition, allergy control, weight control, decreased arthritis, improved vitality, improved stool odor, and cataract resolution. A two-year study (pdf) conducted by university researchers in 2002 placed young and aging Beagles on a diet of regular dog food, or a fortified diet consisting of d,l-alpha-tocopherol acetate (vitamin E), l-carnitine, d,l-alpha-lipoic acid, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), and 1% inclusions of spinach ﬂakes, tomato pomace, grape pomace, carrot granules, and citrus pulp. The study concluded that such a fortified diet has the potential to drastically reduce cognitive decline in aging animals.
Donna Spector, a veterinary internal medicine specialist who runs SpectorDVM (an animal nutrition consultancy), and six other pet experts who spoke with CNN conceded — some more reluctantly than others — that “most dogs could biologically live on a vegan diet. But doing so requires substantial attention to creating a balanced diet that makes up for the loss of animal protein with substitutions of beans, soy and, to a lesser extent, vegetables and grains.”
Even if one chooses to not make such a dietary change for their companion, at least incorporating more vegetables into meals along with meat and fish can substantially alter their health for the better.
But what about cats?
Cats are obligate carnivores. Because of this, they rely on nutrients typically found in animals: high protein, moderate fat, and minimal carbohydrates. Animal-based proteins also contain taurine, arginine, cysteine, and methionine, all of which are key ingredients for cat nutrition. Lack of taurine can lead a cat to experience heart or respiratory problems, blindness, and even death.
Armaiti May, a certified veterinarian, elaborates on veganhealth.org in further detail where research currently stands on cats and vegetarian/vegan food:
“Cats on a vegan diet can develop abnormally alkaline (high pH) urine due to the more alkaline pH of plant based proteins in comparison to the acidic pH of meat-based foods which cats have evolved to eat. When the urine pH becomes too alkaline, there is an increased risk of formation of struvite (also known as magnesium ammonium phosphate) bladder crystals and/or stones. Calcium oxalate stones can also occur, but these do not occur if the urine is too alkaline, but rather if it is too acidic. Such stones can create irritation and infection of the urinary tract and require veterinary treatment. In male cats who form such crystals or stones, they can suffer more severe consequences than simply irritation or infection of the urinary tract because the stones can actually cause an obstruction of the urethra so the cat cannot urinate. This is a life-threatening emergency requiring immediate veterinary care; this involves passing a urinary catheter to relieve the obstruction, placing an indwelling urinary catheter, and starting supportive intravenous fluid therapy, along with appropriate pain management and antibiotics if indicated. These “blocked” cats frequently need to be hospitalized and monitored closely for several days before they can go home and the associated veterinary fees can easily be between $1000-$1200. The sooner a problem is identified and the cat is treated, the better the prognosis for recovery. Some cats who get blocked repeatedly require a highly specialized (and expensive, ~$2000) surgery called a perineal urethrostomy (PU).
Cat guardians who put their cat on a vegan diet should have their veterinarian check the cat’s urine pH 1-2 weeks after switching them to a vegan diet and then once a month for the first several months to ensure the pH remains stable. If the pH is too high, urinary acidifiers may help the urine pH to become more acidic. Urinary acidifiers that may be used include methionine, vitamin C, and sodium bisulfate. James Peden, author of Vegetarian Cats and Dogs states there are natural urinary acidifiers, including asparagus, peas, brown rice, oats, lentils, garbanzos, corn, Brussels sprouts, lamb’s quarters (the herb Chenopodium album, also known as pigweed), most nuts (except almonds and coconut), grains (not millet), and wheat gluten (used in kibble recipes). Once the pH is regulated, the urine pH should be checked at least twice a year. If a cat shows signs of pain or straining while using the litter box, immediate veterinary attention should be sought. It is important to not supplement the cat’s diet with urinary acidifiers unless it is actually needed because a too acidic pH can cause a different kind of stone to form (calcium oxalate stones). While many cats appear to thrive on a vegan diet, there are also anecdotal reports of cats with recurring urinary tract problems, including infections associated with previous urethral obstructions caused by urinary crystals.
For cat guardians who find it too tedious to monitor their cat’s urine pH, they should perhaps consider feeding a non-vegetarian cat food or not keeping a cat as a companion. [...]
Many cats are very picky eaters. Although adding vegan mock meats and nutritional yeast to flavor vegan cat food will encourage many cats to eat it, there may be many cats who still refuse to eat, especially if they are sick. Cats who are anorectic for a prolonged period are at high risk for developing hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver syndrome), a serious condition that requires extensive veterinary care. Some cats may require more patience and a gradual transition from a meat-based diet to a vegan diet if they are accustomed to eating a meat-based diet. Most commercial pet foods contain “digest” which consists of partially digested chicken entrails, that makes the food more palatable.”
Caring for a cat through a vegetarian/vegan diet requires a lot of time and work. The possible health implications could also be fatal if carried out improperly.
In an article posted on the ABC News website in 2009, Eric Weisman, CEO of Evolution Diet Pet Food Corp., a manufacturer of vegan cat and dog food, said in an interview that his company has been in business more than 20 years. “We have dogs over 19 years old in good health. We have cats over 22 years in good health. Our food is 100 percent complete according to state requirements. We have all the proteins and all the fatty acids found in meat-based [foods] but without the cruelty and destruction of the environment.”
If you’re skeptical of a vegetarian/vegan diet for your cat, yet remain concerned about the health effects of commercial pet food, there are still options. If you buy canned meat for your cat, try looking for brands without “meat by-products” added. This may be a bit more expensive (depending), but the long-term health benefits should be worth the investment. Cats also like fish, which is good (in moderation) because it contains beneficial fatty acids.
Take note of your companion’s health before any new diet is introduced, and after a few weeks of the new food, check it again to determine the nutritional impact. Make sure to gradually phase out the old food instead of making a sudden change. Both of the former points apply to cat and dog diet modifications.
Vegetarian/vegan diets cannot be considered healthy without exercise. Always have a dish of fresh water available for dogs and cats. Adequate hydration is critical for the maintenance of good overall health.
Some vegetarian dog and cat food companies also produce canned meat pet food, so if your objective has anything to do with a desire to economically starve the meat industry, keep this in mind. Some pet food companies also test their products on animals, another point worth consideration.
Always consult a veterinarian if you are even the slightest bit unsure of anything regarding your companion’s diet. If possible, ask multiple vets to get a more varied opinion.
And lastly, be sure to do your own research. Vegetarian/vegan pet food is relatively new in the market, at least in a commercial sense. But its presence is a sign that a demand exists, which is definitely a good sign. Hopefully, research will continue and more effective brands will be created and released in the future.