Updated: Born Free USA’s “What’s Really in Pet Food” report
Originally Published 04/05/07
The recent recall of Menu pet foods has
highlighted many issues with the commercial pet food industry
and has left many people confused and frustrated as to what they
can do to ensure their animals are eating a healthy diet. API
has received hundreds of inquiries from people wanting to know
more about what is in commercial pet food and what alternatives
to it exist. In response, we have updated our “What’s
Really in Pet Food” report with the assistance of Dr. Jean
Hofve, a veterinarian specializing in the dietary needs of
As news from the recall continues to develop, we urge you to
read the report and familiarize yourself with the issues and
ingredients so that you can make an informed decision about what
you feed your cherished companions. After all, like us, they are
what they eat!
Statistics show that
the life span of America's companion
animals is now half what it was in the 1950's
Nearly 50 percent
of natural deaths in older cats and dogs are
attributed to cancer.
To help prevent your pet from
becoming a statistic, click on the happy dog below.
Plump whole chickens, choice cuts of beef, fresh grains, and
all the wholesome nutrition your dog or cat will ever need.
These are the images pet food manufacturers promulgate
through the media and advertising. This is what the $15 billion
per year U.S. pet food industry wants consumers to believe they
are buying when they purchase their products.
This report explores the differences between what consumers
think they are buying and what they are actually getting. It
focuses in very general terms on the most visible name brands —
the pet food labels that are mass-distributed to supermarkets
and discount stores — but there are many highly respected brands
that may be guilty of the same offenses.
What most consumers don’t know is that the pet food industry
is an extension of the human food and agriculture industries.
Pet food provides a convenient way for slaughterhouse offal,
grains considered “unfit for human consumption,” and similar
waste products to be turned into profit. This waste includes
intestines, udders, heads, hooves, and possibly diseased and
cancerous animal parts.
The pet food market has been dominated in the last few years
by the acquisition of big companies by even bigger companies.
With $15 billion a year at stake in the U.S. and rapidly
expanding foreign markets, it’s no wonder that some are greedy
for a larger piece of the pie.
Nestlé’s bought Purina to form Nestlé Purina Petcare
Company (Fancy Feast, Alpo, Friskies, Mighty Dog, Dog Chow,
Cat Chow, Puppy Chow, Kitten Chow, Beneful, One, ProPlan,
DeliCat, HiPro, Kit’n’Kaboodle, Tender Vittles, Purina
Del Monte gobbled up Heinz (MeowMix, Gravy Train,
Kibbles ’n Bits, Wagwells, 9Lives, Cycle, Skippy, Nature’s
Recipe, and pet treats Milk Bone, Pup-Peroni, Snausages,
MasterFoods owns Mars, Inc., which consumed Royal Canin
(Pedigree, Waltham’s, Cesar, Sheba, Temptations, Goodlife
Recipe, Sensible Choice, Excel).
Other major pet food makers are not best known for pet care,
although many of their household and personal care products do
use ingredients derived from animal by-products:
Procter and Gamble (P&G) purchased The Iams Company
(Iams, Eukanuba) in 1999. P&G shortly thereafter introduced
Iams into grocery stores, where it did very well.
Colgate-Palmolive bought Hill’s Science Diet (founded in
1939) in 1976 (Hill’s Science Diet, Prescription Diets,
Private labelers (who make food for “house” brands like
Kroger and Wal-Mart) and co-packers (who produce food for other
pet food makers) are also major players. Three major companies
are Doane Pet Care, Diamond, and Menu Foods; they produce food
for dozens of private label and brand names. Interestingly, all
3 of these companies have been involved in pet food recalls that
sickened or killed many pets.
Many major pet food companies in the United States are
subsidiaries of gigantic multinational corporations. From a
business standpoint, pet food fits very well with companies
making human products. The multinationals have increased
bulk-purchasing power; those that make human food products have
a captive market in which to capitalize on their waste products;
and pet food divisions have a more reliable capital base and, in
many cases, a convenient source of ingredients.
The Pet Food Institute — the trade association of pet food
manufacturers —has acknowledged the use of by-products in pet
foods as additional income for processors and farmers: “The
growth of the pet food industry not only provided pet owners
with better foods for their pets, but also created profitable
additional markets for American farm products and for the
byproducts of the meat packing, poultry, and other food
industries which prepare food for human consumption.”1
There are special labeling requirements for pet food, all of
which are contained in the annually revised Official
Publication of AAFCO.2 While AAFCO does not
regulate pet food, it does provide model regulations and
standards that are followed by U.S. pet food makers.
The name of the food provides the first
indication of the food’s content. The use of the terms “all” or
“100%” cannot be used “if the product contains more than one
ingredient, not including water sufficient for processing,
decharacterizing agents, or trace amounts of preservatives and
The “95% Rule” applies when the ingredient(s) derived from
animals, poultry, or fish constitutes at least 95% or more of
the total weight of the product (or 70% excluding water for
processing). Because all-meat diets are not nutritionally
balanced and cause severe deficiencies if fed exclusively, they
fell out of favor for many years. However, due to rising
consumer interest in high quality meat products, several
companies are now promoting 95% and 100% canned meats as a
supplemental feeding option.
The “dinner” product is defined by the “25% Rule,” which
applies when “an ingredient or a combination of ingredients
constitutes at least 25% of the weight of the product (excluding
water sufficient for processing)”, or at least 10% of the dry
matter weight; and a descriptor such as “recipe,” “platter,”
“entree,” and “formula.” A combination of ingredients included
in the product name is permissible when each ingredient
comprises at least 3% of the product weight, excluding water for
processing, and the ingredient names appear in descending order
The “With” rule allows an ingredient name to appear on the
label, such as “with real chicken,” as long as each such
ingredient constitutes at least 3% of the food by weight,
excluding water for processing.
The “flavor” rule allows a food to be designated as a certain
flavor as long as the ingredient(s) are sufficient to “impart a
distinctive characteristic” to the food. Thus, a “beef flavor”
food may contain a small quantity of digest or other extract of
tissues from cattle, or even an artificial flavor, without
containing any actual beef meat at all.
The ingredient list is the other major key
to what’s really in that bag or can. Ingredients must be listed
in descending order of weight. The ingredient names are legally
defined. For instance, “meat” refers to only cows, pigs, goats
and sheep, and only includes specified muscle tissues. Detailed
definitions are published in AAFCO’s Official Publication,
revised annually, but can also be found in many places online.
The guaranteed analysis provides a very
general guide to the composition of the food. Crude protein,
fat, and fiber, and total moisture are required to be listed.
Some companies also voluntarily list taurine, Omega fatty acids,
magnesium, and other items that they deem important — by
Pet Food Standards and Regulations
The National Research Council (NRC) of the Academy of
Sciences set the nutritional standards for pet food that were
used by the pet food industry until the late 1980s. The original
NRC standards were based on purified diets, and required feeding
trials for pet foods claimed to be “complete” and “balanced.”
The pet food industry found the feeding trials too restrictive
and expensive, so AAFCO designed an alternate procedure for
claiming the nutritional adequacy of pet food, by testing the
food for compliance with “Nutrient Profiles.” AAFCO also created
“expert committees” for canine and feline nutrition, which
developed separate canine and feline standards.
While feeding trials are sometimes still done, they are
expensive and time-consuming. A standard chemical analysis may
be also be used to make sure that a food meets the profiles. In
either case, there will be a statement on the label stating
which method was used. However, because of the “family rule” in
the AAFCO book, a label can say that feeding tests were done if
it is “similar” to a food that was actually tested on live
animals. There is no way to distinguish the lead product from
its “family members.” The label will also state whether the
product is nutritionally adequate (complete and balanced), and
what life stage (adult or growth) the food is for. A food that
says “all life stages” meets the growth standards and can be fed
to all ages.
Chemical analysis, however, does not address the
palatability, digestibility, or biological availability of
nutrients in pet food. Thus it is unreliable for determining
whether a food will provide an animal with sufficient nutrients.
To compensate for the limitations of chemical analysis, AAFCO
added a “safety factor,” which was to exceed the minimum amount
of nutrients required to meet the complete and balanced
In 2006, new NRC standards were published; but it will take
several years for AAFCO’s profiles to be updated and adopted,
let alone accepted by the states.
The pet food industry loves to say that it’s more highly
regulated than human food, but that’s just not true. Pet food
exists in a bit of a regulatory vacuum; laws are on the books,
but enforcement is another story. The FDA has nominal authority
over pet foods shipped across state lines. But the real
“enforcers” are the feed control officials in each state. They
are the ones who actually look at the food and, in many
instances, run basic tests to make sure the food meets its
Guaranteed Analysis, the chart on the label telling how much
protein, fat, moisture, and fiber are present. But regulation
and enforcement vary tremendously from state to state. Some,
like Texas, Minnesota, and Kentucky, run extensive tests and
strictly enforce their laws; others, like California, do
The Manufacturing Process: How Pet Food Is Made
The vast majority of dry food is made with a machine called
an extruder. First, materials are blended in accordance with a
recipe created with the help of computer programs that provide
the nutrient content of each proposed ingredient. For instance,
corn gluten meal has more protein than wheat flour. Because the
extruder needs a consistent amount of starch and low moisture to
work properly, dry ingredients — such as rendered
meat-and-bone-meal, poultry by-product meal, grains, and flours
The dough is fed into the screws of an extruder. It is
subjected to steam and high pressure as it is pushed through
dies that determine the shape of the final product, much like
the nozzles used in cake decorating. As the hot, pressurized
dough exits the extruder, it is cut by a set of rapidly whirling
knives into tiny pieces. As the dough reaches normal air
pressure, it expands or “puffs” into its final shape. The food
is allowed to dry, and then is usually sprayed with fat,
digests, or other compounds to make it more palatable. When it
is cooled, it can be bagged.
Although the cooking process kills bacteria in the
ingredients, the final product can pick up more bacteria during
the subsequent drying, coating, and packaging process. Some
experts warn that getting dry food wet can allow the bacteria on
the surface to multiply and make pets sick. Do not mix
dry food with water, milk, canned food, or other liquids.
A few dog foods are baked at high temperatures (over 500°F)
rather than extruded. This produces a sheet of dense, crunchy
material that is then broken into irregular chunks, much like
crumbling crackers into soup. It is relatively palatable without
the sprayed-on fats and other enhancers needed on extruded dry
Semi-moist foods and many pet treats are also made with an
extruder. To be appealing to consumers and to keep their
texture, they contain many additives, colorings, and
preservatives; they are not a good choice for a pet’s primary
Wet or canned food begins with ground ingredients mixed with
additives. If chunks are required, a special extruder forms
them. Then the mixture is cooked and canned. The sealed cans are
then put into containers resembling pressure cookers and
commercial sterilization takes place. Some manufacturers cook
the food right in the can.
Wet foods are quite different in content from dry or
semi-moist foods. While many canned foods contain by-products of
various sorts, they are “fresh” and not rendered or processed
(although they are often frozen for transport and storage). Wet
foods usually contain much more protein, and it’s often a little
higher quality, than dry foods. They also have more moisture,
which is better for cats. They are packaged in cans or pouches.
Comparing Food Types
Because of the variation in water content, it is impossible
to directly compare labels from different kinds of food without
a mathematical conversion to “dry matter basis.” The numbers can
be very deceiving. For instance, a canned food containing 10%
protein actually has much more protein than a dry food with 30%
To put the foods on a level playing field, first calculate
the dry matter content by subtracting the moisture content given
on the label from 100%. Then divide the ingredient by the dry
matter content. For example, a typical bag of dry cat food
contains 30% protein on the label, but 32% on a dry-matter basis
(30% divided by its dry matter content, 100-6% moisture = 94%).
A can of cat food might contain 12% protein on the label, but
almost 43% on a dry-matter basis (12% divided by its dry matter
content, 100-72% moisture = 28%). Dry food typically contains
less than 10% water, while canned food contains 78% or more
Pet Food Ingredients
Dogs and cats are carnivores, and do best on a meat-based
diet. The protein used in pet food comes from a variety of
sources. When cattle, swine, chickens, lambs, or other animals
are slaughtered, lean muscle tissue is trimmed away from the
carcass for human consumption, along with the few organs that
people like to eat, such as tongues and tripe.
However, 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. These
“other parts” are known as “by-products.” By-products are used
in feed for poultry and livestock as well as in pet food.
The nutritional quality of by-products, meals, and digests
can vary from batch to batch. James Morris and Quinton Rogers,
of the University of California at Davis Veterinary School,
assert that, “[pet food] ingredients are generally by-products
of the meat, poultry and fishing industries, with the potential
for a wide variation in nutrient composition. Claims of
nutritional adequacy of pet foods based on the current
Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutrient
allowances (‘profiles’) do not give assurances of nutritional
adequacy and will not until ingredients are analyzed and
bioavailability values are incorporated.”3
Meat or poultry “by-products” are very common in wet pet
foods. Remember that “meat” refers to only cows, swine, sheep,
and goats. Since sheep and goats are rare compared to the 37
million cows and 100 million hogs slaughtered for food every
year, nearly all meat by-products come from cattle and pigs.
The better brands of pet food, such as many “super-premium,”
“natural,” and “organic” varieties, do not use by-products. On
the label, you’ll see one or more named meats among the first
few ingredients, such as “turkey” or “lamb.” These meats are
still mainly leftover scraps; in the case of poultry, bones are
allowed, so “chicken” consists mainly of backs and frames—the
spine and ribs, minus their expensive breast meat. The small
amount of meat left on the bones is the meat in the pet food.
Even with this less-attractive source, pet food marketers are
very tricky when talking about meat, so this is explained
further in the section on “Marketing Magic” below.
Meat meals, poultry meals, by-product meals, and
meat-and-bone meal are common ingredients in dry pet foods. The
term “meal” means that these materials are not used fresh, but
have been rendered. While there are chicken, turkey, and poultry
by-product meals there is no equivalent term for mammal “meat
by-product meal” — it is called “meat-and-bone-meal.” It may
also be referred to by species, such as “beef-and-bone-meal” or
What is rendering? As defined by Webster’s Dictionary,
to render is “to process as for industrial use: to render
livestock carcasses and to extract oil from fat, blubber, etc.,
by melting.” In other words, raw materials are dumped into large
vat and boiled for several hours. Rendering separates fat,
removes water, and kills bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other
organisms. However, the high temperatures used (270°F/130°C) can
alter or destroy natural enzymes and proteins found in the raw
Because of persistent rumors that rendered by-products
contain dead dogs and cats, the FDA conducted a study looking
for pentobarbital, the most common euthanasia drug, in pet
foods. They found it. Ingredients that were most commonly
associated with the presence of pentobarbital were
meat-and-bone-meal and animal fat. However, they also used very
sensitive tests to look for canine and feline DNA, which were
not found. Industry insiders admit that rendered pets
and roadkill were used in pet food some years ago. Although
there are still no laws or regulations against it, the practice
is uncommon today, and pet food companies universally deny that
their products contain any such materials. However, so-called
“4D” animals (dead, dying, diseased, disabled) were only
recently banned for human consumption and are still legitimate
ingredients for pet food.
The amount of grain and vegetable products used in pet food
has risen dramatically over time. Plant products now replace a
considerable proportion of the meat that was used in the
earliest commercial pet foods. This has led to severe
nutritional deficiencies that have been corrected along the way,
although many animals died before science caught up.
Most dry foods contain a large amount of cereal grain or
starchy vegetables to provide texture. These high-carbohydrate
plant products also provide a cheap source of “energy” — the
rest of us call it “calories.” Gluten meals are high-protein
extracts from which most of the carbohydrate has been removed.
They are often used to boost protein percentages without
expensive animal-source ingredients. Corn gluten meal is the
most commonly used for this purpose. Wheat gluten is also used
to create shapes like cuts, bites, chunks, shreds, flakes, and
slices, and as a thickener for gravy. In most cases, foods
containing vegetable proteins are among the poorer quality
A recent fad, “low-carb” pet food, has some companies
steering away from grains, and using potatoes, green peas, and
other starchy vegetables as a substitute. Except for animals
that are allergic to grains, dry low-carb diets offer no
particular advantage to pets. They also tend to be very high in
fat and, if fed free-choice, will result in weight gain. Canned
versions are suitable for prevention and treatment of feline
diabetes, and as part of a weight loss program, as well as for
Animal and Poultry Fat
There’s a unique, pungent odor to a new bag of dry pet food —
what is the source of that smell? It is most often rendered
animal fat, or vegetable fats and oils deemed inedible for
humans. For example, used restaurant grease was rendered and
routed to pet foods for several years, but a more lucrative
market is now in biodiesel fuel production.
These fats are sprayed directly onto extruded kibbles and
pellets to make an otherwise bland or distasteful product
palatable. The fat also acts as a binding agent to which
manufacturers add other flavor enhancers such as “animal
digests” made from processed by-products. Pet food scientists
have discovered that animals love the taste of these sprayed
fats. Manufacturers are masters at getting a dog or a cat to eat
something she would normally turn up her nose at.
What Happened to the Nutrients?
Cooking and other processing of meat and by-products used in
pet food can greatly diminish their nutritional value, although
cooking increases the digestibility of cereal grains and starchy
To make pet food nutritious, pet food manufacturers must
“fortify” it with vitamins and minerals. Why? Because the
ingredients they are using are not wholesome, their quality may
be extremely variable, and the harsh manufacturing practices
destroy many of the nutrients the food had to begin with.
Proteins are especially vulnerable to heat, and become
damaged, or “denatured,” when cooked. Because dry foods
ingredients are cooked twice — first during rendering and again
in the extruder — problems are much more common than with canned
or homemade foods. Altered proteins may contribute to food
intolerances, food allergies, and
inflammatory bowel disease.
Additives in Processed Pet Foods
Many chemicals are added to commercial pet foods to improve
the taste, stability, characteristics, or appearance of the
food. Additives provide no nutritional value. Additives include
emulsifiers to prevent water and fat from separating,
antioxidants to prevent fat from turning rancid, and artificial
colors and flavors to make the product more attractive to
consumers and more palatable to their companion animals.
A wide variety of additives are allowed in animal feed and
pet food, not counting vitamins and minerals. Not all of them
are actually used in pet food. Additives can be specifically
approved, or they can fall into the category of “Generally
Recognized as Safe” (GRAS).
All commercial pet foods must be preserved so they stay fresh
and appealing to our animal companions. Canning is itself a
preserving process, so canned foods need little or no additional
help. Some preservatives are added to ingredients or raw
materials by the suppliers, and others may be added by the
manufacturer. The U.S. Coast Guard, for instance, requires fish
meal to be heavily preserved with ethoxyquin or equivalent
antioxidant. Evidently, spoiling fish meal creates such intense
heat that ship explosions and fires resulted.
Because manufacturers need to ensure that dry foods have a
long shelf life (typically 12 months) to remain edible through
shipping and storage, fats used in pet foods are preserved with
either synthetic or “natural” preservatives. Synthetic
preservatives include butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and
butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propyl gallate, propylene glycol
(also used as a less-toxic version of automotive antifreeze),
and ethoxyquin. For these antioxidants, there is little
information documenting their toxicity, safety, interactions, or
chronic use in pet foods that may be eaten every day for the
life of the animal. Propylene glycol was banned in cat food
because it causes anemia in cats, but it is still allowed in dog
Potentially cancer-causing agents such as BHA, BHT, and
ethoxyquin are permitted at relatively low levels. The use of
these chemicals in pet foods has not been thoroughly studied,
and long term build-up of these agents may ultimately be
harmful. Due to questionable data in the original study on its
safety, ethoxyquin’s manufacturer, Monsanto, was required to
perform a new, more rigorous study. This was completed in 1996.
Even though Monsanto found no significant toxicity associated
with its own product, in July 1997 the FDA’s Center for
Veterinary Medicine requested that manufacturers voluntarily
reduce the maximum level for ethoxyquin by half, to 75 parts per
million. While some pet food critics and veterinarians believe
that ethoxyquin is a major cause of disease, skin problems, and
infertility in dogs, others claim it is the safest, strongest,
most stable preservative available for pet food. Ethoxyquin is
approved for use in human food for preserving spices, such as
cayenne and chili powder, at a level of 100 ppm — but it would
be very difficult for even the most hard-core spice lover to
consume as much chili powder every day as a dog would eat dry
food. Ethoxyquin has never been tested for safety in cats.
Despite this, it is commonly used in veterinary diets for both
cats and dogs.
Many pet food makers have responded to consumer concern, and
are now using “natural” preservatives such as Vitamin C
(ascorbate), Vitamin E (mixed tocopherols), and oils of
rosemary, clove, or other spices, to preserve the fats in their
products. The shelf life is shorter, however — only about 6
Individual ingredients, such as fish meal, may have
preservatives added before they reach the pet food manufacturer.
Federal law requires fat preservatives to be disclosed on the
label; however, pet food companies do not always comply with
Given the types of things manufacturers put in pet food, it
is not surprising that bad things sometimes happen. Ingredients
used in pet food are often highly contaminated with a wide
variety of toxic substances. Some of these are destroyed by
processing, but others are not.
Bacteria. Slaughtered animals, as well
as those that have died because of disease, injury, or
natural causes, are sources of meat, by-products, and
rendered meals. An animal that died on the farm might not
reach a rendering plant until days after its death.
Therefore the carcass is often contaminated with bacteria
such as Salmonella and E. coli. Dangerous
E. Coli bacteria are estimated to contaminate more
than 50% of meat meals. While the cooking process may kill
bacteria, it does not eliminate the endotoxins some bacteria
produce during their growth. These toxins can survive
processing, and can cause sickness and disease. Pet food
manufacturers do not test their products for bacterial
endotoxins. Because sick or dead animals can be processed as
pet foods, the drugs that were used to treat or euthanize
them may still be present in the end product. Penicillin and
pentobarbital are just two examples of drugs that can pass
through processing unchanged. Antibiotics used in livestock
production are also thought to contribute to antibiotic
resistance in humans.
Mycotoxins. Toxins from mold or fungi
are called mycotoxins. Modern farming practices, adverse
weather conditions, and improper drying and storage of crops
can contribute to mold growth. Pet food ingredients that are
most likely to be contaminated with mycotoxins are grains
such as wheat and corn, and fish meal.
Chemical Residue. Pesticides and
fertilizers may leave residue on plant products. Grains that
are condemned for human consumption by the USDA due to
residue may legally be used, without limitation, in pet
GMOs. Genetically modified plant
products are also of concern. By 2006, 89% of the planted
area of soybeans, 83% of cotton, and 61% of maize (corn) in
the U.S. were genetically modified varieties. Cottonseed
meal is a common ingredient of cattle feed; soy and corn are
used directly in many pet foods.
Acrylamide. This is a carcinogenic
compound formed at cooking temperatures of about 250°F in
foods containing certain sugars and the amino acid
asparagine (found in large amounts in potatoes and cereal
grains). It is formed in a chemical process called the
Maillard reaction.4, 5 Most dry pet foods contain
cereal grains or potatoes, and they are processed at high
temperatures (200–300°F at high pressure during extrusion;
baked foods are cooked at well over 500°F); these are
perfect conditions for the Maillard reaction. In fact, the
Maillard reaction is considered desirable in the
production of pet food because it imparts a palatable taste,
even though it reduces the bioavailability of some amino
acids, including taurine and lysine.6 The content
and potential effects of acrylamide formation in pet foods
Pet Food Recalls
When things go really wrong and serious problems are
discovered in pet food, the company usually works with the FDA
to coordinate a recall of the affected products. While many
recalls have been widely publicized, quite a few have not.
In 1995, Nature’s Recipe recalled almost a million
pounds of dry dog and cat food after consumers complained
that their pets were vomiting and losing their appetite. The
problem was a fungus that produced vomitoxin contaminating
In 1999, Doane Pet Care recalled more than a million
bags of corn-based dry dog food contaminated with aflatoxin.
Products included Ol’ Roy (Wal-Mart’s brand) and 53 other
brands. This time, the toxin killed 25 dogs.
In 2000, Iams recalled 248,000 pounds of dry dog food
distributed in 7 states due to excess DL-Methionine Amino
Acid, a urinary acidifier.
In 2003, a recall was made by Petcurean “Go! Natural”
pet food due to circumstantial association with some dogs
suffering from liver disease; no cause was ever found.
In late 2005, a similar recall by Diamond Foods was
announced; this time the moldy corn contained a particularly
nasty fungal product called aflatoxin; 100 dogs died.
Also in 2005, 123,000 pounds of cat and dog treats were
recalled due to Salmonella contamination.
In 2006, more than 5 million cans of Ol’ Roy, American
Fare, and other dog foods distributed in the southeast were
recalled by the manufacturer, Simmons Pet Food, because the
cans’ enamel lining was flaking off into the food.
Also in 2006, Merrick Pet Care recalled almost 200,000
cans of “Wingalings” dog food when metal tags were found in
In the most deadly recall of 2006, 4 prescription canned
dog and cat foods were recalled by Royal Canin (owned by
Mars). The culprit was a serious overdose of Vitamin D that
caused calcium deficiency and kidney disease.
In February 2007, the FDA issued a warning to consumers
not to buy “Wild Kitty,” a frozen food containing raw meat.
Routine testing by FDA had revealed Salmonella in
the food. FDA specifically warned about the potential for
illness in humans, not pets. There were no reports of
illness or death of any pets, and the food was not recalled.
In March 2007, the most lethal pet food in history was
the subject of the largest recall ever. Menu Foods recalled
95 brands including Iams, Eukanuba, Hill’s Science Diet,
Purina Mighty Dog, and many store brands including
Wal-Mart’s — 60 million individual cans and pouches.
Thousands of pets became sick and an estimated 20% died from
acute renal failure caused by the food. Cats were more
frequently and more severely affected than dogs. The toxin
was initially believed to be a pesticide, the rat poison
“aminopterin” in one of the ingredients, but the
investigation is ongoing.
The idea that one pet food provides all the nutrition a
companion animal will ever need for its entire life is a
Today, the diets of cats and dogs are a far cry from the
variable meat-based diets that their ancestors ate. The
unpleasant results of grain-based, processed, year-in and
year-out diets are common. Health problems associated with diet
Urinary tract disease. Plugs, crystals,
and stones are more common in cats eating dry diets, due to
the chronic dehydration and highly concentrated urine they
cause. “Struvite” stones used to be the most common type in
cats, but another more dangerous type, calcium oxalate, has
increased and is now tied with struvite. Manipulation of
manufactured cat food formulas to increase the acidity of
urine has caused the switch. Dogs can also form stones as a
result of their diet.
Kidney disease. Chronic dehydration
associated with dry diets may also be a contributing factor
in the development of kidney disease and chronic renal
failure in older cats. Cats have a low thirst drive; in the
wild they would get most of their water from their prey.
Cats eating dry food do not drink enough water to make up
for the lack of moisture in the food. Cats on dry food diets
drink more water, but the total water intake
of a cat eating canned food is twice as great.7
Dental disease. Contrary to the myth
propagated by pet food companies, dry food is not good for
teeth.8 Given that the vast majority of pets eat
dry food, yet the most common health problem in pets is
dental disease, this should be obvious. Humans do not floss
with crackers, and dry food does not clean the teeth.
Obesity. Feeding recommendations or
instructions on the packaging are sometimes inflated so that
the consumer will end up feeding — and purchasing — more
food. One of the most common health problems in pets,
obesity, may also be related to high-carb, high-calorie dry
foods. Both dogs and cats respond to low-carb wet food
diets. Overweight pets are more prone to arthritis, heart
disease, and diabetes. Dry cat food is now considered the
cause of feline diabetes; prevention and treatment include
switching to a high protein, high moisture, low-carb diet.
Chronic digestive problems. Chronic
vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, and inflammatory bowel
disease are among the most frequent illnesses treated. These
are often the result of an allergy or intolerance to pet
food ingredients. The market for “limited antigen” or “novel
protein” diets is now a multi-million dollar business. These
diets were formulated to address the increasing intolerance
to commercial foods that pets have developed. Even so, an
animal that tends to develop allergies can develop allergies
to the new ingredients, too. One twist is the truly
“hypoallergenic” food that has had all its proteins
artificially chopped into pieces smaller than can be
recognized and reacted to by the immune system. Yet there
are documented cases of animals becoming allergic to this
food, too. It is important to change brands, flavors, and
protein sources every few months to prevent problems.
Bloat. Feeding only one meal per day
can cause the irritation of the esophagus by stomach acid,
and appears to be associated with gastric dilitation and
volvulus (canine bloat). Feeding two or more smaller meals
Heart disease. An often-fatal heart
disease in cats and some dogs is now known to be caused by a
deficiency of the amino acid taurine. Blindness is another
symptom of taurine deficiency. This deficiency was due to
inadequate amounts of taurine in cat food formulas, which in
turn had occurred due to decreased amounts of animal
proteins and increased reliance on carbohydrates. Cat foods
are now supplemented with taurine. New research suggests
that some dog breeds are susceptible to the same condition.
Supplementing taurine may also be helpful for dogs, but as
yet few manufacturers are adding extra taurine to dog food.
Hyperthyroidism. There is also evidence
that hyperthyroidism in cats may be related to diet. This is
a relatively new disease that first surfaced in the 1970s.
Some experts theorize that excess iodine in commercial cat
food is a factor. New research also points to a link between
the disease and pop-top cans, and flavors including fish or
“giblets.” This is a serious disease, and treatment is
Many nutritional problems appeared with the popularity of
cereal-based commercial pet foods. Some have occurred because
the diet was incomplete. Although several ingredients are now
supplemented, we do not know what ingredients future researchers
may discover that should have been supplemented in pet foods all
along. Other problems may occur from reactions to additives.
Others are a result of contamination with bacteria, mold, drugs,
or other toxins. In some diseases the role of commercial pet
food is understood; in others, it is not. The bottom line is
that diets composed primarily of low quality cereals and
rendered meals are not as nutritious or safe as you should
expect for your cat or dog.
Pet Food Industry Secrets
The 2007 Menu Foods recall brought to light some of the pet
food industry’s dirtiest secrets.
Most people were surprised — and appalled — to learn that all
Iams/Eukanuba canned foods are not made by The Iams Company at
all. In fact, in 2003 Iams signed an exclusive 10-year contract
for the production of 100% of its canned foods by Menu.
This type of deal is called “co-packing.” One company makes
the food, but puts someone else’s label on it. This is a very
common arrangement in the pet food industry. It was first
illustrated by the Doane’s and Diamond recalls, when dozens of
private labels were involved. But none were as large or as
“reputable” as Iams, Eukanuba, Hill’s, Purina, Nutro, and other
high-end, so-called “premium” foods.
The big question raised by this arrangement is whether or not
there is any real difference between the expensive premium
brands and the lowliest generics. The recalled products all
contained the suspect ingredient, wheat gluten, but they also
all contained by-products of some kind, including specified
by-products such as liver or giblets.
It’s true that a pet food company that contracts with a
co-packer can provide its own ingredients, or it can require the
contractor to buy particular ingredients to use in its recipes.
But part of the attraction of using a co-packer is that it can
buy ingredients in larger bulk than any one pet food maker could
on its own, making the process cheaper and the profits larger.
It’s likely that with many of the ingredients that cross all
types of pet foods, those ingredients are the same.
Are one company’s products — made in the same plant on the
same equipment with ingredients called the same name —
really “better” than another’s? That’s what the makers of
expensive brands want you to think. The recalled premium brands
claim that Menu makes their foods “according to proprietary
recipes using specified ingredients,” and that “contract
manufacturers must follow strict quality standards.” Indeed, the
contracts undoubtedly include those points. But out in the real
world, things may not go according to plan. How well are
machines cleaned between batches, how carefully are ingredients
mixed, and just how particular are minimum-wage workers in a
dirty smelly job going to be about getting everything just
Whatever the differences are between cheap and high-end food,
one thing is clear. The purchase price of pet food does not
always determine whether a pet food is good or bad or even safe.
However, the very cheapest foods can be counted on to have the
very cheapest ingredients. For example, Ol’ Roy, Wal-Mart’s
store brand, has now been involved in 3 serious recalls.
Menu manufactures canned foods for many companies that
weren’t affected by the recall, including Nature's Variety,
Wellness, Castor & Pollux, Newman's Own Organics, Wysong,
Innova, and EaglePack. It’s easy to see from their ingredient
lists that those products are made from completely different
ingredients and proportions. Again, the issue of cleaning the
machinery out between batches comes up, but hopefully nothing so
lethal will pass from one food to another.
Another unpleasant practice exposed by this recall is pet
food testing on live animals. Menu's own lab animals, who were
deliberately fed the tainted food, were the first known victims.
Tests began on February 27 (already a week after the first
reports); animals started to die painfully from kidney failure a
few days later. After the first media reports, Menu quickly
changed its story to call these experiments “taste tests.” But
Menu has done live animal feeding, metabolic energy,
palatability, and other tests for Iams and other companies for
years. Videotapes reveal the animals’ lives in barren metal
cages; callous treatment; invasive experiments; and careless
Although feeding trials are not required for a food to meet
the requirements for labeling a food “complete and balanced,”
many manufacturers use live animals to perform palatability
studies when developing a new pet food. One set of animals is
fed a new food while a “control” group is fed a current formula.
The total volume eaten is used as a gauge for the palatability
of the food. Some companies use feeding trials, which are
considered to be a much more accurate assessment of the actual
nutritional value of the food. They keep large colonies of dogs
and cats for this purpose, or use testing laboratories that have
their own animals.
There is a new movement toward using companion animals in
their homes for palatability and other studies. In 2006, The
Iams Company announced that it was cutting the use of canine and
feline lab animals by 70%. While it proclaims this moral
victory, the real reasons for this switch are likely financial.
Whatever the reasons, it is a very positive step for the
Finally, it is important to remember that the contamination
that occurred in the Menu Foods recall could have happened
anywhere at any time. It was not Menu’s fault; the toxin was
unusual and unexpected. All companies have quality control
standards and they do test ingredients for common toxins before
using them. They also test the final products. However, there is
a baseline risk inherent in using the raw materials that go into
pet foods. When there are 11 recalls in 12 years, it’s clear
that “freak occurrences” are the rule, not the exception.
A trip down the pet food aisle will boggle the mind with all
the wonderful claims made by pet food makers for their
repertoire of products. Knowing the nature of the ingredients
helps sort out some of the more outrageous claims, but what’s
the truth behind all this hype?
Niche claims. Indoor cat, canine
athlete, Persian, 7-year old, Bloodhound, or a pet with a
tender tummy, too much flab, arthritis, or itchy feet — no
matter what, there’s a food “designed” just for that pet’s
personal needs. Niche marketing has arrived in a big way in
the pet food industry. People like to feel special, and a
product with specific appeal is bound to sell better than a
general product like “puppy food.” The reality is that there
are only two basic standards against which all pet foods are
measured: adult and growth, which includes gestation and
lactation. Everything else is marketing.
“Natural” and “Organic” claims. The
definition of “natural” adopted by AAFCO is very broad, and
allows for artificially processed ingredients that most of
us would consider very unnatural indeed. The term “organic”,
on the other hand, has a very strict legal definition under
the USDA National Organic Program. However, some companies
are adept at evading the intent of both of these rules. For
instance, the name of the company or product may be
intentionally misleading. Some companies use terms such as
“Nature” or “Natural” or even “Organic” in the brand name,
whether or not their products fit the definitions. Consumers
should also be aware that the term “organic” does not imply
anything at all about animal welfare; products from cows and
chickens can be organic, yet the animals themselves are
still just “production units” in enormous factory farms.
Ingredient quality claims. A lot of pet
foods claim they contain “human grade” ingredients. This is
a completely meaningless term — which is why the pet food
companies get away with using it. The same applies to “USDA
inspected” or similar phrases. The implication is that the
food is made using ingredients that are passed by the USDA
for human consumption, but there are many ways around this.
For instance, a facility might be USDA-inspected during the
day, but the pet food is made at night after the inspector
goes home. The use of such terms should be viewed as a “Hype
“Meat is the first ingredient” claim. A
claim that a named meat (chicken, lamb, etc.) is the #1
ingredient is generally seen for dry food. Ingredients are
listed on the label by weight, and raw chicken weighs a lot,
since contains a lot of water. If you look further down the
list, you’re likely to see ingredients such as chicken or
poultry by-product meal, meat-and-bone meal, corn gluten
meal, soybean meal, or other high-protein meal. Meals have
had the fat and water removed, and basically consist of a
dry, lightweight protein powder. It doesn’t take much raw
chicken to weigh more than a great big pile of this powder,
so in reality the food is based on the protein meal, with
very little “chicken” to be found. This has become a very
popular marketing gimmick, even in premium and “health food”
type brands. Since just about everybody is now using it, any
meaning it may have had is so watered-down that you may just
as well ignore it.
Special ingredient claims. Many of the
high-end pet foods today rely on the marketing appeal of
people-food ingredients such as fruits, herbs, and
vegetables. However, the amounts of these items actually
present in the food are small; and the items themselves may
be scraps and rejects from processors of human foods — not
the whole, fresh ingredients they want you to picture. Such
ingredients don’t provide a significant health benefit and
are really a marketing gimmick.
Pet food marketing and advertising has become extremely
sophisticated over the last few years. It’s important to know
what is hype and what is real to make informed decisions about
what to feed your pets.
What Consumers Can Do
Write or call pet food companies and the Pet Food
Institute and express your concerns about commercial pet
foods. Demand that manufacturers improve the quality of
ingredients in their products.
Print out a copy of this report for your veterinarian to
further his or her knowledge about commercial pet food.
Stop buying commercial pet food; or at least stop buying
dry food. Dry foods have been the subject of many more
recalls, and have many adverse health effects. If that is
not possible, reduce the quantity of commercial pet food and
supplement with fresh, organic foods, especially meat.
Purchase one or more of the many books available on pet
nutrition and make your own food. Be sure that a
veterinarian or a nutritionist has checked the recipes to
ensure that they are balanced for long-term use.
If you would like to learn about how to make healthy
food for your companion animal, read up on "Sample
Diets," which contains simple recipes and important
Please be aware that API is not a veterinary hospital,
clinic, or service. API does not and will not offer any
medical advice. If you have concerns about your companion
animal’s health or nutritional requirements, please consult
Because pet food manufacturers frequently change the
formulations of their products and API would not have conducted
the necessary testing, we are unable to offer endorsements for
particular brands of pet food. Many of our staff choose to make
their own pet food or to purchase natural or organic products
found in most feed and specialist stores but we cannot recommend
brands that would be right for your companion animal or animals.
For Further Reading about Animal Nutrition
The Born Free USA recommends the following
books (listed in alphabetical order by author), many of which
include recipes for home-prepared diets:
Michelle Bernard. 2003. Raising Cats Naturally — How
to Care for Your Cat the Way Nature Intended. Available
Chiclet T. Dog and Jan Rasmusen. 2006. Scared
Poopless: The Straight Scoop on Dog Care. Available at
ISBN-10: 0977126501, ISBN-13: 978-0977126507.
Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, and Susan Hubble Pitcairn.
2005. Dr. Pitcairn’s New Complete Guide to Natural
Health for Dogs and Cats. Rodale Press, Inc. ISBN-10:
157954973X, ISBN-13: 978-1579549732. Note: The recipes for
cats were not revised in this new edition and date back to
2000; they may contain too much grain, according to recent
Kate Solisti. 2004. The Holistic Animal Handbook: A
Guidebook to Nutrition, Health, and Communication.
Council Oaks Books. ISBN-10: 1571781536, ISBN-13:
Donald R. Strombeck. 1999. Home-Prepared Dog & Cat
Diets: The Healthful Alternative. Iowa State University
Press. ISBN-10: 0813821495, ISBN-13: 978-0813821498. Note:
Veterinary nutritionists have suggested that the taurine and
calcium are too low in some of these recipes. Clam juice and
sardines are poor sources of taurine; use taurine capsules
Celeste Yarnall. 2000, Natural Cat Care: A Complete
Guide to Holistic Health Care for Cats; and 1998, Natural Dog Care: A Complete Guide to Holistic Health Care
for Dogs. Available at
The books listed above are a fraction of all the titles
currently available, and the omission of a title does not
necessarily mean it is not useful for further reading about
Please note: Born Free USA
is not a bookseller, and cannot sell or send these books to you.
Please contact your local book retailer or an online bookstore,
who can supply these books based on the ISBN provided for each
Who to Write
AAFCO Pet Food Committee David Syverson, Chair Minnesota Department of Agriculture Dairy and Food Inspection Division 625 Robert Street North St. Paul, MN 55155-2538 www.aafco.org
FDA — Center for Veterinary Medicine Sharon Benz 7500 Standish Place Rockville, MD 20855 301-594-1728 www.fda.gov/cvm/
Pet Food Institute 2025 M Street, NW, Suite 800 Washington, DC 20036 202-367-1120 202-367-2120 fax
Association of American Feed Control Officials Incorporated.
Official Publication 2007. Atlanta: AAFCO, 2007.
Case LP, Carey DP, Hirakawa DA. Canine and Feline
Nutrition: A Resource for Companion Animal Professionals.
St. Louis: Mosby, 1995.
Nothing on this website has been evaluated by the FDA. This information
is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Please
see a qualified healthcare practitioner for any disease or illness.