The Pet Food Charade -- Pet Food Marketing Targets Pet Owners Emotional Needs and Not Pets' Health
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Dogs happily drink from the toilet and snack on poop, and cats don't eat the prime cuts of meat from the mice they catch and leave over the organ meats, fur and bones. If our pets aren't all that discerning in what they eat, how do we know what's best to feed them? A great place to start is with Marion Nestle and Malden C. Nesheim's recently published book, Feed Your Pet Right, a new kind of shocking expose that primarily consists of shockingly good news when it comes to pet food.
The book addresses two major points: 1) Aside from meeting requirements for animal nutrition and profitability, much of what determines pet food ingredients and labeling claims is marketing to pet owners and not the needs of actual pets; and 2) pets can safely and healthfully eat many things that humans find utterly disgusting.
While optimal dog nutrition and commercial dog foods hardly contain toilet water and poop, pet foods generally consist of the parts of meat animals that humans won't eat. On labels, these parts are divided into the meat itself and meat by-products (and by-products sounds decidedly worse to the human reading the pet food label) but whether an ingredient falls under the category of meat or meat by-product, it's almost always a part of an animal that a human would not want to eat. And, according to Feed Your Pet Right, that's fine. Not only do dogs and cats not mind eating human leftovers, they've done it for millennia (just not in the form of commercial pet food) and some of these parts contain vital nutrients that are not contained in the cuts of meat humans eat.
The overall theme of the book is that any pet food labeled "complete and balanced" is fine to feed your pet, and it's also fine to cook your pet's food, provided you know exactly what you're doing (the book contains a helpful guide). Most of the variation among pet foods is simply marketing, and often the ingredients of high-cost premium pet foods bear little difference to those of low-cost brands. The book, does, however, help you parse out the differences between real and bogus labeling claims. For example, claims of added vitamin C are bogus, since dogs and cats don't need vitamin C. On the other hand, certain pet foods really can make a pet poop more or less, so claims related to this might be legit.
A significant exception to the notion that all pet foods are essentially equal is food formulated to reflect human values. If you are looking for food produced organically by a local farmer, Meow Mix and Alpo probably aren't your best bets. Your pet could thrive on the commercial brands, but obviously pet food has an impact on the world just like human food does and you might care to ensure that environmental harm, human rights violations and animal cruelty aren't ingredients in the food you feed your pet.
The most enjoyable aspect of the book was reading through the lengths marketers will go to in order to sell these products. Did you know there is actually bottled water for dogs? Many brands include token amounts of various meats for marketing purposes only, including, for example, a minute amount of chicken in order to claim "Chicken Flavor!" And one brand, Pet Promise, presented itself as free of by-products when, in fact, it wasn't. It avoided including any by-product ingredients on the label by listing the actual organs included in the food. That's legal ... but those organs are still considered by-products.