MYTH: Meat by-products are inferior ingredients, and they are bad for my pet.
FACT: When you read the description of meat versus meat by-product, neither one sounds too appealing! “Meat by-products” are defined as non-rendered clean parts of the carcass, which may contain organ meat, bone, and cleaned gastrointestinal organs. Compare that to the description of “meat” as an ingredient, which is defined by AAFCO as any combination of striated muscle, or muscle found in diaphragm, esophagus, tongue, heart, with or without overlying tissue (fat, skin, nerve, etc). By-products do not contain hair and hooves, both of which are often described on many blogs and forums as being the top ingredients of the most popular pet foods (fake news alert!).
The quality of by-products depends on the refining process used by the manufacturer of the pet food. This is where consumer education as well as manufacturer reputation comes into play. Ash content can be used as an indication of protein quality and digestibility. High ash content equals poor quality, and vice versa. Therefore, the presence of by-products does not indicate poor diet quality. Have you ever used the leftovers of a turkey carcass to make a post-holiday soup? This is essentially the same principle, described in terms of our everyday eating habits. In this situation, your soup contains “turkey by products” because the “rendering process” included cooking the carcass to make a broth.
More food for thought as I write this article. In the wild, animals typically will eat the internal organs immediately because it is inherently nutritious. There is also a lot of cultural diversity from country to country, when it comes to organ meat as a delicacy or common ingredient in regional cuisine. So before we let our feathers get ruffled over by-products, let’s think about what by-products truly are and how they are used around the world.
MYTH: Corn is filler and has no nutritional content.
FACT: Poor corn. Its reputation has been dragged through the mud, yet humans and animals have depended on it for generations. Corn is a grain, therefore capable of providing protein, fat and carbohydrate. Unlike its meat counterparts, corn as a protein source is not a complete protein, in that it does not contain all of the essential amino acids. This is the case for the majority of vegetable protein sources. This means that corn as a plant based protein source, must be combined with other ingredients that contain the amino acids that it lacks. From a digestive system’s standpoint, the body doesn’t care where the protein came from (plant or animal), it cares whether the amino acid profile is complete, and that the source of the protein is digestible. It’s true that meat protein is generally more easily digestible than plant protein, because it does not contain the cellulose layer contained in most plant ingredients. However, a healthy animal should have no difficulty digesting plant protein, such as corn, as part of their complete diet.
MYTH: Food preservatives are bad.
FACT: Let’s start with the definition of a preservative: a substance that inhibits or slows the growth of microorganisms. The primary ingredient in pet food (and any food) that leads to rancidity is dietary fat. Fats require preservatives to protect them from oxidative destruction that leads to food spoiling. These fats include animal fat, vegetable oil, and fat soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K. Preservatives are used to prevent oxidation (spoiling) of these ingredients which would cause loss of calorie density, and the production of otherwise toxic compounds. Preservatives in the form of antioxidants may be natural (Vitamin C, citric acid, rosemary extract, mixed tocopherols) or synthetic BHA, BHT, etc). All preservatives listed above have been found to be safe for long-term consumption, however if the use of synthetic preservatives still makes you uneasy, you are now armed with the information on how to search out diets containing only natural preservatives.
MYTH: All foods are nutritionally equal.
FACT: All kibble and canned food, are NOT created equally. This is a fact. True, they may look identical. One would be hard-pressed to believe that we can identify one brand of kibble in a “kibble line-up”, and the same goes for canned food. However, the reality is that the nutritional content of these diets varies substantially between brands and even within brands. It is so important to review not only the ingredient list, but the calorie density of every food that you choose for your pet. The calorie density, listed as kcal/cup, or kcal/weight, should be listed on the bag or can of food. Some diets are far too calorie dense for some of our moderate-activity level pets, thus perpetuating the pet obesity epidemic. This may seem overwhelming, however I am here to spread the good word: we are here to help! Come to your appointment armed with information about your pet’s diet and we can easily counsel you on a diet plan that includes HOW MUCH your pet should be eating based on their INDIVIDUAL nutritional requirements.
MYTH: The main ingredient in pet food is grain/cereal.
FACT: It’s true that grains are used in many pet foods as a source for protein, carbohydrates, fat and fiber. However, unless the diet is specifically vegetarian, it will most certainly contain animal protein. And even if it IS vegetarian, when the plant proteins are combined in such a way that they complement each other’s amino acid profile, then you end up with a perfectly balanced diet. This is where you, as the educated consumer, are armed with the information to make an informed decision regarding your pet’s nutritional needs. As mentioned previously: corn is not bad, and not all food is created equal. Knowing this, you can critically compare different brands of food and choose one that you and your veterinarian feel confident in feeding your pet.
MYTH: Home-prepared diets are easy to make for your pet.
FACT: They are NOT easy. I didn’t say impossible, just not easy. Let’s start with the basics. Commercially available pet foods were initially created as a nutritionally balanced, economical and convenient option for pet owners. Over time, the culture of pet ownership has changed, and the societal value of the human-animal bond has increased, and so has our desire to provide the best possible care for our beloved animals. In this same amount of time, many advances have been made in the pet food industry, creating an infinite array of diets to address any pet’s every nutritional need. You of course now know that not all pet foods are created equal, and as an educated consumer you can now pick the “good brands” from the “bad brands”. It is a combination of wanting the best for our pet, specific nutritional or medical requirements, and the fear and suspicion of the “bad brands” that inspires some pet owners to start making a home-prepared diet for their pet. It is always with the best intention in mind, but often is without enough guidance with regards to ensuring that the diet is balanced for long-term use.
From a medical perspective, a home-prepared diet can be very useful. Animals with multiple food allergies, or those that are in the process of an elimination diet. Animals with very specific nutritional requirements that refuse to eat the typically prescribed prescription diet. The list continues. However, one cannot cut up some steak, and add some rice and vegetables and call it a day. A very thorough nutritional consult with your veterinarian in required ensuring that you are on the right track to providing adequate nutritional support to your pet. We will often recommend secondary consultation with a veterinary nutritionist to design a number of recipes, including appropriate supplements, for long-term feeding.
There has been at least one retrospective study recently indicating that the majority of home-prepared diets are lacking in one or multiple departments when it comes to nutrients requirements, and so it is especially important to consult with your veterinarian on this issue before just diving in.
MYTH: Raw food is safe for all pets.
FACT: I would like to start this one with a quote form Dr. Glenna E. Maudin from the convention of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, “Few topics in the area of small animal nutrition are associated with more emotion than the feeding of raw foods to cats and dogs.” And boy oh boy, is that ever a FACT. Supporters of raw food diets propose that there are many health benefits associated with this method of nutrition. Non-supporters propose that the health risks associated with feeding raw ingredients greatly outweigh the potential benefits. The FACT in this case, is that we likely walk a fine line in the middle somewhere, and I could write a whole blog post about it. But that’s for another today, so let’s circle back to the myth: Raw food is safe for ALL pets.
Raw foods are not safe for immunocompromised pets due to the risk of bacterial contamination by organisms such as Salmonella, E.coli and Listeria. Raw food diets are often deficient in taurine, some essential amino acids and calcium (when not appropriately supplemented). And not all raw food diets are created equal, therefore some may be safer than others as far as long-term nutritional balance is concerned.
This is also the perfect time to modify the scope of this discussion to include the following statement: Raw food is not safe for all OWNERS. Any human in the household who is immunocompromised (receiving chemotherapy, taking anti-rejection medication, etc), who are senior citizens or infants, should not be in a household that feed the resident animals raw food. This is due to the inherent risk of food-borne illness that can be life-threatening to the populations listed above.
As I write this I can sense some feathers ruffling again, so please take a cleansing breath and keep reading. These are the risks. As veterinarians it is our duty to ensure you, as pet owners, are educated on the risks and benefits for any situation pertaining to your pet’s health. We are here to support you and counsel you as you navigate the tumultuous waters of pet nutrition. We want to help you choose the right nutritional plan for your pet, whether it is kibble, home-prepared cooked diets, or raw.
So today, let’s make a client-veterinarian pact. We promise will never make you feel uneasy for choosing a particular nutritional path for your pet. If you promise to understand that our one and only goal is to ensure your pet’s heath and safety. With this pact in mind, we can all agree to have open and meaningful conversations regarding our pets’ nutrition and healthcare for their very long and happy lives.
If you have questions about your pet’s nutrition speak with your veterinarian, or feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mauldin, M E. (2015). Separating Truth and Myth in Pet Nutrition. 67th Convention of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association proceedings.
Wortinger, A. (2015). Nutrition Myths. Wild West Veterinary Conference proceedings.