You probably go a bit out of your way to select food for the family table. Maybe you worry about the astounding number of pesticides found on fruits and vegetables and only buy organic. Perhaps you want to support local agriculture and shop at Farmers Markets and/or purchase from a local food co-op. Or you are just trying to reduce your reliance on processed food, knowing it is implicated in the obesity and diabetes epidemics plaguing modern societies?
But what about your furry family members? Are you giving them the human equivalent of low-quality processed dinners? Before answering this question, let’s step back for a bit of pet food history.
Separate Dog and Cat Foods Are Relatively Recent
Dogs, domesticated over 16,000 years ago, thrived for centuries on table scraps, leftovers and their own scavenging for anything edible. The first commercial dog food, a biscuit, was created in 1860 just before the Civil War when dog breeding was starting to become an American pastime. However, the dog biscuit didn’t begin to catch on until around the turn of the 20th Century.
Modern manufacturing processes made kibble cost-effective by the late 1950s. That’s when major conglomerates such as Smuckers, Procter & Gamble, M&M Mars, Nestle, and Purina started producing dog and cat food under different brand names. These multi-national corporations still are responsible for the hundreds of brands sold in pet stores and on grocers’ shelves.
Marketing of specialty brands, many of them making various claims such as “real meat” and targeting specific demographic groups of pets like seniors and nursing mothers, grew in popularity over the next 40 years. In reality, many of these products are still made largely with inexpensive ingredients, most of which have no nutritional value.
Remember the food pyramid we learned in school? Grains were at the bottom and were supposed to make up the largest portion of our diet. But now we are finding that eating a diet made up of grains (which become sugar molecules in our mouths) and sweeteners like corn syrup and sugar is the root cause of obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, and cancer.
That pyramid is modified to a plate now to reflect new research and correct for the misinformation perpetuated by agribusiness and food manufacturing companies. These same human companies are often involved in developing the many types of pet food available on grocery and pet store shelves.
What About an RDA for our Furry Friends?
The nutritional needs for cats and dogs weren’t officially published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences National Research Council until the 1980s. AAFCO sets the equivalent of our human RDA (recommended dietary allowance). If a pet food manufacturer meets these requirements, they print a statement on the bag, box, pouch or can telling consumers the product inside is at least minimally meeting nutritional needs.
But even if the pet foods are minimally nutritious, most widely advertised and sold cat and dog food brands still use cooked grains as the primary carbohydrate ingredient. Would your pet eat plain cornmeal or a wheat-based cooked cereal if they had a choice? If you are trying to cut back on refined carbohydrates–shouldn’t your pet do it as well and for the same reasons?
Modern Changes To Dog and Cat Foods
When I first started “in dogs” as a show kennel manager in the early 70s it was almost a mantra not to feed table scraps. We believed the kibble in the bag was scientifically made to provide a complete nutritional meal. That has changed dramatically. In the 70s and into the 80s there was not the emphasis on profits at a cost to the consumer that we see today. We also didn’t see as many obese dogs then, either.
Along with human food emphasis on healthy ingredients, the tide is turning for dog and cat food, too. More and more companies these days make complete pet foods that are primarily meat and vegetables with no grains at all. Raw diets, which quickly faded after WW II as commercial pet foods became available, are popular once again. There are so many that almost all pet and most grocery stores will have a refrigerated section in the pet food aisle for commercially available raw diets.
Understanding how our human and canine/feline bodies process the food once it enters the mouth is rapidly changing. Nowadays we understand human bodies process nutrients better if we include probiotic-rich fermented foods along with a wide range of vegetables in different colors, antioxidant-rich fruits, free-range eggs, pastured, grass-fed meats and some grains. The same principals apply to our furry family members, too.
If It’s Good For Us, It’s Good For Our Pets, Too
Cats, who are undisputedly carnivores, need a different diet from dogs who are omnivores. But the above is basically true.
My German Shepherd loves to lick up dairy kefir (a fermented milk drink similar to yogurt) after I am done making a new batch. My cats also love kefir. But the cats will not touch a raw or cooked vegetable.
However, the dog patiently waits next to the counter for a tossed treat as I prepare fresh runner (pole) beans. Many owners of obese dogs use green beans as a healthy addition to a weight-loss diet because they fill the stomach without adding the empty calories grains do.
According to Polluted Pets, a 10-year old study by the Environmental Working Group, dogs are exposed to 40% higher levels of dietary chemicals than humans were then. These included additives and preservatives, rendered animal by-products, growth hormones, antibiotics, dyes and allergens that are consumed on a daily basis. As the toxic chemical load has grown for humans in the past decade, it has also grown for our pets. You can read more about the toxic stew we live in here and here.
Pet food manufacturers and sellers agree that today’s consumer wants human grade food for their pets, too. Millennials, who are quick to question corporate marketing claims and do their own research, are the drivers behind the emphasis on high quality and healthy pet food ingredients.
Bryan Nieman, brand director at Fromm Family Pet Food in Mequon, Wis., agrees. “The ease in which pet parents can access information through digital outlets and social media continues to drive awareness and prompt demand,” he said.
Regardless of what type of dog and cat food you set out for your furry family members, you need to see that AAFCO statement on the bag, box, pouch or can. Otherwise, there is no way to be certain that minimal nutritional needs are being met.
Do you feed a raw diet? Just kibble with maybe an occasional human food treat? Do you worry about the health of your pets? What dog and cat food questions do you have? Leave me a comment or question down below.