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Veterinarian Recommended Ingredients Corn meal Poultry by-product Animal fat AAFCO Statement Guaranteed Analysis

Living Green

No Bones About It
The Truth About Cat and Dog Food

by Jason Best

Spend years watching puppies on TV race toward the sound of kibble spilling into a bowl, and the notion that commercial pet foods are, as one critic put it, no better than "vitamin-fortified sawdust" seems crazy. But consider some of the stuff that makes its way into pet food: diseased livestock, restaurant grease, even road kill. And it's all legal.

Holistic vets say a natural diet consisting of whole, fresh foods improves the health of pets and reduces their susceptibility to everything from fleas to heart disease (see Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats by Richard Pitcairn and his wife, Susan). If you're not ready to cook for your cat quite yet, here are some things to watch out for the next time you find yourself in the store surrounded by kibbles and bits.

Veterinarian Recommended
Ignore this. In fact, ignore most of the splashy claims on pet food labels. They have no regulatory meaning, and many, such as "improves coat," "promotes a healthy immune system," and "boosts energy" can be made about any food.

The truth is in the fine print -- sort of. Every ingredient in pet food has to be listed here in descending order by weight. But manufacturers don't have to disclose how much of any ingredient they use. Hence, two brands with identical lists can have dramatically different content. Yet this is still your best source of information about what's actually in the food you're buying.

Corn Meal
These not-so-tender vittles have more corn meal than anything else. Combine that with "rice flour," "rice bran," and "brewer's rice" (all basically rice, the last being a waste product of the alcohol industry), and this food has far more processed grain in it than meat. Look for nutrient-rich whole grains and vegetables instead: "rice," "potatoes," "carrots."

Poultry by-product
Think "poultry" means "chicken"? Wrong. Try "sundry edible fowl." "By-products"? Necks, heads, feet -- whatever scraps they won't serve at KFC. You want ingredients like "chicken," "beef," or "lamb," and you want to find them at the very top of the list.

Mystery Meat
Mystery meat. Who knows what it is? Most likely it's a mix of unsavory things, including so-called "4-D" animals (dead, diseased, dying, or disabled).

AAFCO Statement
A variation of this statement is required on all pet foods. Unlike your shampoo, you want this product to have been tested on live animals (look for something that says "animal feeding tests" or the like). This one was merely "formulated" from a nutritional profile on paper. Though advocates of natural pet care object that no one food can provide "complete and balanced nutrition," that's what this statement is here to guarantee. AAFCO recognizes two categories: food for young animals and lactating females, and food for adult "maintenance." Any product that claims to be for another life stage, such as "senior," is merely required to meet the standards for the latter.

Guaranteed Analysis
The first four items here must be on a food's label. (Percentages of other ingredients are listed at the manufacturer's discretion.) The problem is that canned foods, which are often made from higher-quality ingredients and contain more meat than dry foods, appear to have fewer nutrients because they contain more moisture (which isn't a bad thing).

Pet Smart

For other tips on environmentally conscious living from OnEarth magazine, visit the Living Green index page.

OnEarth and NRDC do not test or endorse products. Product references are for information only.

OnEarth. Summer 2002
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council