For some of us, perusing the ingredients list on our groceries has become second nature. We want to know what we’re putting into our bodies, generally avoiding harmful additives, seeking a nutritional balance that will allow us to feel better on a day to day basis so that we may live longer, healthier lives. It was only a matter of time before these concerns drifted into the pet food aisle–after all, who doesn’t want the best for their family?

Fortunately, FDA requires ingredients to be listed on all consumable pet products. Some dog and cat food manufacturers have made an art of disguising the true nature of the content of their kibbles and canned foods, using misleading terminology, tricky catchphrases, and brilliant packaging that fools the well-intending pet owner into thinking that they are buying and providing a healthy, respectable meal for their beloved four-legged family members. Often, these foods are all bark and no bite, made primarily of fillers that lack any real nutritional value, artificial colors and flavorings, and proteins that come from outrageous sources that no knowing, conscionable pet lover would ever feed their cat or dog. A little education is all we need to make good decisions for a happy healthy diet.

For example, like our own food, pet food ingredients are listed in order of quantity, from greatest to smallest. The first few on the list are usually the most prolific, and the most important. As dogs and cats are carnivores by nature, what we’d ideally like to see listed first are whole, natural proteins such as fish, chicken, duck, beef, etc. Some brands offer single protein foods, boasting just one variety of meat per package, while others may offer packages with combination proteins. Remember, rotating your pet’s protein is important to both its health and palate! After a main protein, we want to see fruits and vegetables, probiotics and enzymes, and unless your pet has allergies, some wholesome grains and/or legumes.

Some of the other terminology you may find in your ingredients list might be a little confusing, and some can be downright misleading. See below for a brief explanation on several words you might come across:

Chicken, Beef, Lamb, Fish, Etc: This refers whole meat, as in the flesh and muscle of the indicated animal. Often, we may see this is combined with a protein ‘meal’. Whole meats are an ideal source of protein for your cat or dog. However, avoid ambiguous terms like simply “meat” as we obviously have no way of knowing what kind of animal it came from.

Meal (Chicken, Beef, Lamb, Fish, Etc.): The remaining product after the water has been removed from a ground meat, through rendering, leaving behind a concentrated protein.

By-products: Meat by-products can include fats, organs, feet, beaks, hatchery discards, and any other parts of the animal carcass that are not considered suitable for human consumption. While some organ meats are rich in nutrients and beneficial to your pet’s health, we prefer to see such things listed individually among the other ingredients, i.e. “chicken gizzards”, rather than under this vague blanket term. As a general rule, we don’t like to see by-products in our own food, so we don’t want to see them in our pet’s food, either.

Animal: As far as blanket terms go, when it comes to avoiding an ingredient, this one takes top priority. “Animal byproducts”, or “animal digest”, can refer to any sort of animal. This includes roadkill, euthanized animals from zoos, and in the worse cases, euthanized pets from shelters and veterinary offices. While our laws have come to restrict these practices here in the United States, be extremely wary of pet foods and treats that come from countries where standards for pet consumables are at an all time low.

Human Grade: This refers to products that have been processed or rendered with the same FDA standards used in making food for people. For example, 4-D (dead, dying, disabled, or diseased) animals, roadkill, or animals who have been euthanized with pentobarbital–a chemical compound which remains in the body during the rendering process, are all permissible fodder in the pet food industry, but erring on the side of caution these contents are deemed unsuitable for human consumption. If your pet food boasts human grade ingredients, this means it is fit to be eaten by people, and is an obviously much healthier alternative to non-human grade products.

Fruits and Vegetables: Just as for people, fruits and vegetables are a good low-calorie addition of fiber in your pet’s diets. They are dense with vitamins and minerals, as well as a reliable source of antioxidants. Foods boasting organic fruits and veggies are best, as it helps to eliminate some exposure to harmful pesticides and herbicides. Since dogs and cats lack the enzyme needed to break down and ingest the healthy particles in fruits and vegetables, be certain that they have been cooked or pureed for easier digestion.

Grains, Rice, and Legumes: Some people choose to steer clear of all grains in their pets’ diets, as many of them can often act as allergens among some dogs and cats. On the other hand, some grains are specifically sought out, like lentils for their rich nutrition and high counts of fiber and protein, or rice for its sensitivity on uneasy stomachs. Again, pesticides and herbicides are a considerable factor, and organic grains are preferred. We must also take care that the grains come only after the meaty protein sources, as we are feeding dogs and cats–not cows! For example, below is the nutritional label for a very popular commercial dog food:

  • Ground yellow corn, chicken by-product meal, corn gluten meal, whole wheat flour, animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols (form of Vitamin E), rice flour, beef, soy flour, water, meat and bone meal, propylene glycol, sugar, tricalcium phosphate, phosphoric acid, salt, animal digest, potassium chloride, sorbic acid (a preservative), dried peas, dried carrots, calcium propionate (a preservative), choline chloride, L-Lysine monohydrochloride, Vitamin E supplement, zinc sulfate, Red 40, ferrous sulfate, manganese sulfate, niacin, Yellow 6, Yellow 5, Vitamin A supplement, Blue 2, calcium carbonate, copper sulfate, Vitamin B-12 supplement, brewers dried yeast, calcium pantothenate, thiamine mononitrate, garlic oil, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin supplement, Vitamin D-3 supplement, menadione sodium bisulfite complex (source of Vitamin K activity), calcium iodate, folic acid, biotin, sodium selenite.

Note how the very first ingredient listed is corn, followed by chicken by-product, and then more corn. We also see listed animal fat, many varieties of flour, sugar, preservatives, and a ludicrous number of artificial colorings. Preservatives and artificial ingredients are linked to allergies, skin problems, digestive disorders, and even cancer. Sugar only provides empty carbohydrates. In other words, the above is a fine example of what not to feed your pets, though the packaging and commercials that we see on television for this products may lead us to believe otherwise. Even the colorful kibble is meant to lure people, not pets. We promise, your dogs and cats really do not care what color their food is.

As conscientious pet owners, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves, to know when we’re being fooled, and to know that our options and resources are plentiful. Our pets’ daily diets should be given just as much consideration as our own. So take a moment to go over your dog or cat food label. Are they getting the nutrients and the proteins that they need to live the long, happy life that they deserve?