If you think what goes into hot dogs and bologna is scary, what about the ingredients in canned pet food? Eek. For a while we cooked for my old dogs, and then when we lost the time to do that, we moved on some very fancy all-natural canned food that seriously looked like something a carnivorous human might want to eat–big chunks of recognizable cuts of meat (like whole chicken wings!) and vegetables that somehow manage to retain their shape–with names like Grammy’s Pot Pie and Campfire Trout Feast. The ingredients panel was simple with no questionable components. But when you’re done breaking the bank and need to rely on more mainstream canned food, what should you look for?
In the Rodale book New Choices in Natural Healing for Dogs and Cats, the author Amy Shojai writes about looking at pet food labels. One way to assure quality is to see if the label says that the food has passed feeding trials by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)–this is the organization that regulates the quality of pet food. Even with that on the label though, the food still may be chock-full of chemical additives and preservatives.
Ingredients in pet foods are listed on the label in descending order. Those at the beginning of the list are more plentiful that those towards the end. For cats, choose a food that has meat as the first and second ingredient. Ideally, it should be the same as in dog foods, but meat can be at least two of the top three ingredients.
Shojai asked holistic veterinarian Susan G. Wynn, D.V.M to analyze the ingredients in a popular supermarket pet food. Here is her take:
Ground Yellow Corn
This is a good protein and carbohydrate source, but since most cats and dogs are meat-eaters, I would prefer to see this third or fourth on the list. That is where you will see it on most high-quality food labels, where meat is the first ingredient and reappears within the top three.
Even the best pet foods lose some of their nutritional value during processing, so manufacturers routinely supplement them with extra vitamins and minerals, such as potassium and vitamin B12. It is a reasonable way to ensure that pets get all the nutrients they need.
Poultry By-Product Meal
This is one of those terms that is hard to interpret. “By-products” could be organ meat, which is nutrient-rich. But they could also be necks and feet, which are fairly indigestible. Natural foods would probably use the highly digestible and nutritious whole chicken or chicken meal, which is much better.
At least this is whole lamb and not byproducts. Meal is essentially dehydrated meat and organs and is a good source of protein and other nutrients. But if this were first on the label instead of third, it would be a sign that this food contains more meat, which is better for our carnivorous pets.
This is an artificial preservative, which is probably not safe to eat every day. Artificial preservatives aren’t necessary if the food sits on the shelf less than two months. Most natural brands use safer natural preservatives like rosemary extracts, vitamin C (ascorbic acid), or vitamin E (natural mixed tocopherols).
Digest Poultry By-Products
This is fairly meaningless, and you probably won’t find it in natural foods. It is actually unidentified meat parts and fat that have been sprayed onto kibble to give it flavor. Given its location on the label, it probably doesn’t contribute much in the way of nutrition. If it were higher up, I would be worried since by-products sometimes aren’t the best source of nutrients.
Healthy pets aren’t as sensitive as people to the effects of salt, so it is really not a problem. On the other hand, it doesn’t add anything useful beyond taste.
This is a metallic-tasting ingredient that is typically used as flavoring in commercial food. When natural-food companies add extra flavoring, they use the real stuff–garlic or other spices.