There's a retail boom going on in North America. While consumer spending is down in many areas, savvy companies have learned that there is very little the doting owner can deny their pet. The result is a virtual explosion of products, toys and pet foods. In fact, one of the most profitable items on the shelf at your local grocer's is not steak - it's dog food.
Today's better educated owners are growing increasingly picky about what they feed their pet, and manufacturers have been quick to respond with a wide range of foods geared towards this market. Phrases such as "balanced", "complete" and "all natural" clutter the labels of cans that a few short years ago were more likely to say "Tasty" - or the old stand by "Dogs Love It".
But how much more do we really know about what we're feeding our dogs? The language employed on labels is less than clear - and the reasons for this may be more sinister than you think. Most of the major dog food companies are divisions of giant food conglomerates - conglomerates that produce tons of offal and by products from the manufacture of human foods every day. Using this material that would otherwise be garbage may be good business sense, but is it good for your pet?
In the last few years, articles have quietly appeared that illustrate a more disturbing aspect of these cost cutting measures. They paint a picture of a billion dollar industry that is almost entirely self policing, and willing to go to almost any lengths to increase bottom line profits.
It's the worst moment in every pet owner's life - that final, painful trip to the vet's with your treasured companion. You make the difficult decision to let your vet dispose of your beloved pet's remains, confident that he'll ensure the disposal is handled in a sensitive matter. In actuality, many vet clinics now use a pick up service to collect the bodies of euthanised animals, and what can happen to these pets from the timethey are picked up is nothing short of shocking.
"Dogs and cats euthanised at clinics, pounds and shelters are sold to rendering plants, rendered with other material and sold to the pet food industry. One small rendering plant in Quebec was rendering 10 tonnes (11 tons) of dogs and cats per week from Ontario. The Ministry of Agriculture in Quebec, where a number of these plants are located, advised me that "The fur is not removed from dogs and cats." and that "Dead animals are cooked together with viscera, bones and fats in 115 C (236 F) for twenty minutes." One large pet food company in the U.S., with extensive research facilities, used rendered dogs and cats in their food for years and when the information came to light"claimed no knowledge of it."
- Ann Martin, Natural Pet Magazine
Difficult as it may be to believe, millions of these dead American dogs and cats are processed each year at plants across North America. Eileen Layne of the California Veterinary Medical Association states "When you read pet-food labels and it says meat meal or bone meal, that's what it is - cooked and converted animals, including dogs and cats."
Road kill, slaughter house rejects, animals that die on their way to meat packing plants - all are acceptable ingredients for pet food under the "4D" rule - diseased, disabled, dead and dying. Steroids, growth hormones and chemicals used to treat cattle for infestations - including insecticide patches - again end up mixed into the final product. Meat from grocery stores past its final due date is also added to the mix, as are the Styrofoam trays and plastic wrap they were packed in.
The addition of euthanised pets goes beyond morally repugnant - it also introduces a host of chemicals not listed on pet food labels. At the rendering plant, time cannot be spared to remove even the green plastic bags the pets came wrapped in, let alone the insecticide laden flea and tick collars they were wearing. Even the very chemicals used to put these pets to death also find their way into the final product. "Facts of Sodium Pentobarbital in Rendered Products", a University of Minnesota research paper, stated that sodium pentobarbital, the barbiturate which is most commonly used to euthanize small animals,"survived rendering without undergoing degradation." When ingested, sodium pentobarbital has been shown to cause liver and kidney damage and renal failure. The pet food companies claim these chemicals are found in such low doses as to be harmless, but make no mention of what the cumulative effects of years of ingesting them may be.
Before the meat even arrived at the rendering plants, it has already been saturated with chemicals. To comply with government regulations, all meat rejected by slaughter houses must be "denatured" - a procedure designed to make it unpalatable to humans, thus ensuring it cannot be resold as human grade meat.
In Canada, the chemical used to "denature" is Birkolene b. In Natural Pet Magazine, Ann Martin writes "According to the Department of Agriculture, Animal Plant and Health, the composition of this chemical cannot be disclosed." In the US, there are a variety of other methods that can be used:
"In my time as a veterinary meat inspector, we denatured with carbolic acid (phenol, a potentially corrosive disinfectant) and/or creosote (used to preserve wood or as a disinfectant). Phenol is derived from the distillation of coal tar, creosote from the distillation of wood. Both substances are very toxic. Creosote was used for many years as a preservative for wood power poles. Its effect on the environment proved to be so negative that it is no longer used for that purpose. According to federal meat inspection regulations, fuel oil, kerosene, crude carbolic acid, and citronella (an insect repellent made from lemon grass) are the approved denaturing materials."
Dr Wendell Belfield, DVM, former USDA Vet, "Let's Live" Magazine
The chemical cocktail does not end there, either. To prevent rancidity, a fat stabiliser is added to the finished product. Dr. Belfield writes "The common chemicals used are BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytolulene), both known to cause liver and kidney dysfunction. Some European countries prohibit the use and importation of these preservatives. Another fat stabiliser often used is Ethoxyquin, suspected of being a cancer-causing agent.
Most vets agree that food allergies and toxic conditions are on the rise in modern day pets. When asked, many blame such possible causes as "environmental pollution" and "the stress of living in cities". It's an unfortunate fact that at many North American Veterinary schools, pet nutrition is touched on only briefly, usually during lectures that are presented by the major pet food companies. In a lecture to the New Zealand School of Veterinary Medicine, Tom Lonsdale, DVM, said "The problem is in the main unrecognised and undefined by the veterinary profession. Veterinarians gain legitimacy and privileges as guardians of the public welfare in respect to animal health. The profession has failed badly in its duties." Little wonder that so many vets remain painfully unaware of the possible toxins our pets ingest every day, not from their environment, but from the very food we shop so diligently for.
Learning to decipher labels is a good beginning for those of us who wish to discover just what exactly we are feeding our pets. Any dog food that lists "Meat Meal", "Bone Meal" or "Meat By Products" might in fact have been made from suspect sources. The generic term "Meat" allows the pet food companies to use any animal source as an ingredient, as opposed to more specific terms that clearly state the animal source - ie; "Chicken Meal" or "Beef By Products" . Even the foods that do state the meat source do not spell out for you that these meat sources could still fall under the 4D rule - that is, animals that were rejected as being unfit for human consumption. The reasons for rejection are many, but can include pest infestation, disease, cancerous tumours, mould, infection and a host of other highly unsavoury conditions. In the wild, most dogs will naturally shy away from eating contaminated meat, which perhaps explains the dizzying array of flavour and scent additives most commercial foods contain.
The very labels that are supposed to let us know just what is in the food we feed are open to an amazing amount of artistic licence, thanks to AAFCO's regulations. A consumer who buys a food named "Johnny's Dog Delite with Lamb and Rice" may very well assume that "Lamb and Rice" are the primary ingredients of this food - after all, it seems to clearly say just that on the label. In actuality, the addition of "With" to the label means the manufacturers are only required to include lamb and rice as 3% of the total food ingredients. If this food was labelled "Johnny's Lamb and Rice Dog Food", AAFCO would require the Lamb and Rice combined to comprise 95% of the total ingredients (excluding water used for processing) - a very big difference for such a small word.
The wide spread use of Lamb and Rice in so many foods has caused some canine dermatologists to worry. "It's not meant to be eaten by the average dog" states Dr. Maxwell, DVM. "It was meant to be introduced as an alternative protein, but if dogs are eating it every day it is now worthless to us for use as an alternative food. Owners of allergic pets will have to go to exotic protein/carbohydrate combinations like Ostrich and Millet, or Duck and Potato. It's expensive and unnecessary. Leave the lamb and rice alone unless your pet has been diagnosed with food allergies." Old time breeders comment on the number of food allergies they see in dogs today - conditions that were almost unheard of in the days when dogs ate mainly human food with a little puppy biscuit or cereal mixed in.
So what is the conscientious pet owner to do? Long regarded as setting the standard for natural pet care, "Dr Pitcairn's Guide to Natural Pet Care" sets out a variety of home cooked diets for healthy pets. Emphasising fresh ingredients, raw meats, and balanced supplementation, Dr. Pitcairn's book addresses the nutritional needs of everything from pregnant dogs to vegetarian cats. Even more conveniently, Sojourner's Farms offers meal sized packages of pet food mix that include steamed and raw fresh vegetables, grains, vitamins and natural source minerals. It needs only to be mixed with fresh meat and a little warm water to become a fully nutritous and all natural food. But few of us, especially those with multiple pet households, have the time required to feed a fresh, home cooked diet to our pets. We want a food that's safe, but we also want convenience.
An answer may lie in the growing number of "holistic" pet food companies that are emerging. Many of these manufacturers are adamant about their commitment to using only "Human Grade" ingredients - that is, food sources that have been certified as safe enough to be eaten by humans. The California based pet food company "Innova" was started by Dr. Belfield, DVM, after his years of experience as a USDA vet gave him good cause to worry about the connection between pets he treated in his practice and the food they were eating. Other "Holistic" companies making a similar commitment include Solid Gold, Wysong, Cornucopia, Nature's Recipe, Natural Life and Flint River Ranch. While premium foods carry a price tag higher than your average supermarket brand, most offset this by requiring pets to be fed a reduced volume of food compared to foods made from nutritionally worthless sources.
Eager for your business, many smaller food companies offer a home delivery plan, saving pet owners from lugging heavy bags of food from store to home. This policy of home delivery often means fresher food - rather than going from factory to warehouse to store and finally to you, many smaller companies ship their food straight to the consumer from the factory. As well, bulk buying and breeder discounts are offered by almost half of all the companies we called, comparable to the breeder programs offered by the major manufacturers. Several companies have combined the use of quality ingredients with enhanced packaging to preserve quality and increase shelf life, all without the addition of chemical preservatives. Wysong uses an ingenious packaging method of cartons that contain smaller, vacuum sealed bags of food. Solid Gold has also adopted this method of packaging, and several other companies we contacted are planning to do so.
As pet owners, it is up to us to learn just what it is we are feeding our pets, and to decide what we can and cannot accept as ingredients. Make inquiries - most manufacturers print their customer service 1-800 number on the side of their bag. Ask them what they put in their food - and if you don't like the answer, tell them so. Insist on food made from quality ingredients, sold in packages that are clearly labelled, and tell them you will only buy from companies willing to offer this. Those of us who breed can carry particular clout, which we can exercise in part by recommending a food we trust to buyers who would otherwise be swayed by advertising. The fact that so many breeders are sought out to appear in dog food ads illustrates how much our opinions matter to the major companies - when you call them, tell them if you are a breeder. Together, the pet owning public can flex it's financial muscle to a degree that manufacturers will have a difficult time ignoring, and together we may be able to ensure no other well loved family pet finds its way into a food can.
NOTE ON AUTHOR: Carol Gravestock-Taylor shows and breeds French Bulldogs. She and her family live just outside of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her Versace (Rebel) took Best of Breed at the 1997 Westminster show.
Carol has graciously consented to allow me to reprint her article.