There are so many dog and cat foods on the market today - and all of them claim to be healthy. Bags are covered in pictures of chicken and meat, fruits, and veggies - complete with a good-looking dog or cat, front and centre. From one bag to the next, it's hard to tell the difference. But there is one place you can always tell the difference: the ingredient panel.
While it can help to know what good ingredients to look for in a quality food, it can also be beneficial to know what the red flags of bad quality foods are. Look for these indicators of poor quality ingredients in your pet's current food!
1. Grains Are First Ingredients
Ingredients in dog and cat food are listed by weight, with the ingredients listed first weighing the most and decreasing in order. Grains should never be listed first in your pet’s food. Cats are carnivorous animals who thrive on a diet that consists of large amounts of protein. Dogs handle carbs better than cats, but still have an undeniable carnivorous background.
Be extra cautious if the second ingredient is a meat, and then more grains are listed directly after that. Pet food manufacturers often throw off buyers by placing a meat in the mix to appear healthy and balanced.
2. Unidentified Meat
Many cheaper pet foods will list meat ingredients as non-descript, using the term meat meal, poultry, or fish. This means that the type of meat is inconsistently used, and usually means you are getting scraps from a variety of sources. These ingredients often include 4D animals (diseased, disabled, dying, or dead before processing), expired grocery store meat (packaging in-tact, as some plastic content is allowed!), zoo animals, roadkill, and can even include euthanized animals. Some of these may seem speculative or extreme, but the point is that these extremes are not outside of regulations for these vague terms.
Top offending ingredients are: ingredients with non-descript titles such as meat, animal, or poultry meal; meat and bone meal; blood meal; animal digest; beef and bone meal.
3. Cheap Fat Sources
In the same way that unidentified or very general meat sources can indicate a very cheap, inconsistent ingredient, unidentified fat sources also show your dog food manufacturer is cutting corners. These non-descript fats are of a very low quality and are typically rendered, which means they are cooked at extremely high temperatures, degrading any nutritional value that may have been there in the first place.
Other fat sources are named, such as beef tallow, beef fat, or lard, but these sources are also low-quality. While these fat sources are appealing to pets flavour-wise, they are all cheap by-products of rendering, and mostly void of nutrition. There are healthful, nutrient-rich, and tasty options such as chicken fat that should be considered instead.
By-products are what’s left-over of the animal carcass once meat is removed. It can include: organs, hooves, beaks, feathers, and bones. This type of product has high ash content and can include a lot of non-digestible waste, which just results in bigger, more frequent stools for your pet. These ingredients often contain no meat at all.
By-products can include healthy ingredients such as organ meat and mineral rich bone. However, the main problem with by-products is that these ingredients are inconsistent. You never know what your pet is getting. And, since pet food manufacturers are often looking to make the biggest profit, these are likely to be cheap, nutritionally void source – especially when found in the cheapest foods.
5. Artificial Flavours and Colours
There is no reason that your pet needs artificial flavours or colours in their food. These ingredients have been linked to serious conditions such as cancer and diabetes, and they have no health benefits! The truth comes out – artificial flavours and colours are added to foods for pet food companies to make money.
Cats and dogs love the taste of real meat. So, why would healthy pet foods require artificial flavour? The truth is that artificial flavours are used in pet foods to cover up the taste of substandard, spoiled or rancid meats, or a lack of meat entirely. Even the relatively cheap and flavourful broths are bypassed by ingredients such as sugar (often disguised under other names such as molasses or corn syrup).
Artificial colours are used only to attract pet owners. Colourful foods are more appealing to the consumer’s eye – but pets don’t care what their food looks like! Some artificial colouring has been linked to cancer and other health problems.
Common offenders are: flavour, corn syrup, caramel, propylene glycol (a sweet-tasting sister to anti-freeze), Blue 2, Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6.
6. Artificial Preservatives
Dry food needs to last on the shelf at the store. The longer a pet food lasts on the shelf, the less likely it is to expire and be a loss for the food company. Chemical preservatives are used in pet foods because they are cheap and make food last much longer than natural preservatives. Unfortunately, chemical preservatives can also be very damaging to pet health.
Be wary of unspecified fish meals or oils. As in meat, this ambiguity often indicates poor quality. Fish not destined for human consumption is pre-treated with the preservative ethoxyquin – a questionable additive that has possible links to several health risks, and no safety studies to back it up. And since the fish is treated before, this ingredient does not need to be listed on the pet food label.
Look for natural preservatives instead, such as mixed tocopherols, citric acid, and rosemary oil.
Some common chemical preservative offenders are: Ethoxyquin , butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propyl gallate, tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ).
Pet owners know that fillers are bad – but what pet food ingredients can be classified as fillers? Fillers are any ingredient added to pet food that has little nutritional value, but exist in quantities sufficient to bulk up food.
Some fillers are also low grade proteins, carbohydrates, and fibres, meant to bring pet foods up to minimum guaranteed analysis requirements. So they may be a protein source, just not a good one. This can make a poor quality food look like it contains more meat than it actually does, as we usually associate protein with meat protein.
Examples of fillers are: corn (and various types of), maize (also corn), peanut hulls, cellulose, apple or grape pomace, citrus pulp, dried beet pulp, oat hulls, rice hulls, wheat (or other) mills, brewers rice, soy.
8. Unidentified Sources
With the frequency of recalls from pet food ingredients sourced out of places like China, it is important that you know where your pet food ingredients come from. If a bag does not specify where ingredients are sourced, they are likely to be from inexpensive, cheap manufacturers, such as those found in China and other developing countries.
Manufacturing standards in Europe, Canada, and the United States are much higher than many other countries. While companies can specify a certain quality of imported ingredients, they have no direct involvement in regulation. They have no way of knowing that certain standards are being met consistently unless they test everything that comes into their facility (also highly unlikely).
While food safety mishaps can happen anywhere, they are less likely to happen where processes are monitored frequently at a high standard.
9. It's Very Cheap
OK, so this is technically not on the ingredient panel, but it is worth noting. While price does not always dictate value or quality, the lowest price item is always guaranteed to cut corners somewhere. Unfortunately, in terms of pet food, this means the cheapest, worst ingredients are included.
If you are feeding your pet the cheapest food you can find, you are going to end up paying for it in the long run – through vet bills, or health conditions resulting from poor ingredients or nutritional deficiency.
10. Fresh Meat is the First Ingredient, Followed by Grains
Pet owners know to look for meat as a top ingredient in their pet’s food, and pet food manufacturers know this. Fresh chicken, deboned chicken, or just chicken sounds whole and healthy. And it often is – but there’s a catch.
Fresh chicken (or another named meat) is not processed before it goes into your dog’s food. This means that the water content is high, which accounts for most of the weight. Since most of this moisture weight evaporates during processing, the actual amount of chicken protein in the finished product is less than it appears. If it were weighed after processing, the chicken would end up much further down the ingredient list. See how the way things are measured can skew the facts?
Not all foods with chicken (or another named meat) first on the ingredient list are red flags, though – this is very common in high-quality foods as well. Your red flag comes when a named meat, like chicken or beef, is high up on the ingredient list followed by 3, 4, or more different grains, or starchy vegetables and legumes such as peas and corn or soy. These foods have little animal protein. Most of their protein comes from inexpensive vegetables.
11. Ingredient Splitting
Ingredient splitting is one of the most notorious tricks that pet food manufacturers play in order to make their ingredient panel read better. Ingredient splitting is the manipulation of similar ingredients so that they can separate their weight and move those ingredients lower down on the ingredient panel. In the image above, there is an example of a food that uses sweet potatoes and potatoes for starch and carbohydrates. If they would have used just sweet potatoes or just potatoes, it likely would have made these ingredients show first in the ingredient panel over salmon meal. The other trick that they are playing here is that they have peas high up in the ingredient panel. This isn't inherently bad, but it will bolster the overall protein content without having to include as much protein from meat sources.
Ingredient splitting is a game that almost all pet food manufacturers play, so it isn't necessarily a sign that the food is bad. We include it in this list because it is important for you to know that pet food companies play this game so that you can make more informed decisions when you are reading your pet food's ingredient panel.
Why Quality Matters In Your Pet's Food
Quality matters. More and more studies are finding that nutrition has a big impact on our health - why should it be any different for our pets? Sure, exercise and other lifestyle factors are also important, but we can't deny the importance of a healthy, natural diet with plenty of nutrients from real, whole foods. Your pet will reap the health benefits of a quality diet, and will hopefully avoid the possible pitfalls of a substandard one - illness, disease, and cancer. For your pet's best health and best chance at a long and healthy life, start with a high quality dog food.