What’s in Commercial Pet Food

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.

Vitamin Supplements
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.

Lamb Meal
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.

Phosphoric Acid
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.


Vural K.
Past Member 8 years ago



Ranee Rms
Past Member 9 years ago

Ranee- There are many sites online that provide recipes for pets. Most pet food is scary! I make food and treats for my bundle of joy.

Past Member
Past Member 9 years ago

Check out www.dogaware.com for information on foods and feeding of dogs. Check out the newsletters on www.b-naturals.com for more information on feeding. If you have questions join the k9nutrition list and you can get help from them on food, feeding, and health issues. The archives of the list are very helpful and can be found at www.onibasu.com. You have to uncheck native nutrition and check k9nutrition. These are all excellent sources of information with many really knowledgeable people. Did you know that a vet is the last person you should ever ask about nutrition for a dog or cat? Vets get very little nutrition education in vet school. What education they do get on nutrition is taught by visiting "experts" paid for by some of the big, older companies that produce pet food. They produce pet food with poor nutrition and preservatives like BHA and BHT which are known to be carcinogens. At least one of these "wonderful" companies mixes peanut hulls in their dog food for fiber. Do you want to pay for peanut hulls?

Lily Pad
Lily Pad9 years ago

I have a 2 year old Papillon who refuses to eat any and all commercial dog food including dry & wet. I don't know what his early years consisted of as we inherited him from my mother-in-law who doesn't know where he comes from. He has such a loving and affectionate personality although he certainly knows what he likes and dislikes.

I worry that he does not have all the necessary nutrients required for a healthy diet. He is only a handful, about 9-10 lbs. and extremely picky when it comes to food.

We have only had him for 5 months and his tastes are limited. He loves hotdog weiners, fried bacon & eggs, some cuts of red meat (cooked), rye bread w/butter but doesn't like liver, chicken or vegetables.

He looks and acts like an energetic young pooch. We have lots of land so he does have lots of exercise outdoors along with my two older dogs, who do eat the dry food & table scraps ;-)).

I searched the internet for sites that would give me some guidelines or advice but haven't found any answers yet.

Would anybody reading this be able to offer some suggestions?

Melissa W.
Melissa m9 years ago

after doing extensive reading, it is evident that cats, at the very least, do not need grains in their diet. There is a lot of evidence that many of the diseases that we see in cats may be directly linked TO diet and ingredients that they don't really need.

I feed EVO wet food to my cats and they love it. It is grain free.

My dog eats Innova currently, as he was not interested in the raw food diet, and he does like it when I cook for him.

They all look 100% better than they did prior to the food change.

I would carefully read pet food labels and reconsider feeding dry food only (as it is sprayed with chemical flavoring to get them to eat it..)

Rosario A.
Rosario A9 years ago

Dogs are wolves. Really. When they were in the wild they didn't eat cooked, chemically enhanced, fat sprayed food; they ate prey, as wolves do now (they hunt their food). So if you are concerned for the health of your pet, the most "natural" and danger free diet is what nature intended for them: raw food, like the "prey model". You can read more at rawfeeding sites. My dog (beagle) has been on this diet for 2 years and he's the only non-fat beagle I've ever seen, his coat is shiny, his teeth are white, and he's healthy as can be. And he has such a great time with his food!!! he gets entertainment besides nutrition!!

Kathy B.
Kathy B9 years ago

I like feeding my kitties Natural Balance. They love it too!

David Moore
David Moore9 years ago

Lately (besides all of the aforementioned garbage), I've been concerned about all of the food coloring in commercial pet foods. Ironically, it's probably put in more for the sake of the pet owner.

My wife and I have a small no-kill cat shelter and the expense of pet food prohibits us from giving them anything other than commercial brands. I always feel guilty every time I pour one a bowl of that crap.

Rajendar Menen
Rajendar Menen9 years ago

Until pet food came ont to the scene, pets were fed 'our' food and they did quite well on it. So what is best for them?

jackie s.
Jackie R9 years ago

These unidentifiable meat by products are scary as much investigation has been performed to indicate this stuff is plain old nasty. Much of it consists of left overs from downed cows (see the anti cruelty websites to know exactly what this means).
The pet food business is big business and none of the commercial brands actually give a darn about your pet. It's about money: how much they can get away with, inferior ingredients, substitution, imported products from a dog-eating nation and how to maximize dollars and minimize cost and therefore quality.
The pet food mega-gods have revealed who they really are and have been on a massive campaign to clean up their image - do not be fooled.
Take charge of your pet's health: make your own food and if you cannot, get an organic, made in America wholistic food. I do both.