The Basics of Natural Pet Food

Why Your Pet Needs Natural Pet Food and How to Find It

Comparing different pet foods can be a daunting task, especially for those of us without veterinary training. Most people with animal companions are not well-versed on the dietary needs of our cats, dogs, gerbils, and birds, and as such it can be tempting to buy the cheapest pet food from the local grocery store in an attempt to keep costs low. But this kind of indiscriminate shopping may have negative consequences for your pet’s health, increase your pet care costs, and will certainly have a bigger impact on the planet, too. Finding natural pet food is therefore important for all pet owners.


Why natural pet foods are better than conventional brands

If you’ve ever read the label of your pet’s food, you may have been stunned by the number of ingredients used. What you may not realize are the health and eco consequences of these ingredients. The facts about conventional pet foods are pretty plain:

  • Waste byproducts: Many pet foods contain waste byproducts from the agricultural industry - things that are unfit for human consumption (which should say something of the quality). These can include hooves and horns, unborn animal babies, bones, udders, blood, and internal organs. Many of these hold little to no nutritional value and are added as filler - meaning your pet has to eat more of the food in order to be properly nourished.
  • Chemical preservatives: Conventional pet foods often add chemicals to their formulations as preservatives. These can include unhealthy chemicals like ethoxyquin, BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene). Natural preservatives are better - vitamin C (ascorbic acid) or vitamin E (tocopherol) for instance.
  • Artificial colors and flavors: Like the preservatives, artificial flavors and colors can pose health problems for your pets. Many of them are synthetically derived and have not been tested for safety.
  • Fillers: Other ingredients like cornmeal, oats, flour, or wheat are added to many pet foods to give them bulk, but too much of these ingredients will mean an imbalanced diet and poor nutrition.

In addition to questionable ingredients, conventional pet foods often rely on meat supplies from big business farms, which contribute to many serious environmental threats:

  • Raising animals for food contributes more to climate change than transportation in North America!
  • Manure run-off, high doses of antibiotics and hormones, and pesticides/fertilizers used to grow animal feed all contribute to significant water pollution in agricultural regions.
  • Livestock production requires huge land areas for crop production, grazing, and processing, and is often co-opted from indigenous communities as forests are clear cut to make room for the livestock.

There has to be greener, healthier ways to feed our pets! 


How to read pet food labels to find healthy pet foods

Labeling rules for pet foods in North America are pretty lax, leaving the consumer with a lot of homework to do in order to find a good, healthy pet food. Knowing how to discern what’s in your pet’s food is important as you look through your various natural pet food options. Use these pet food label reading tips to ensure you have a solid grasp as to what’s going into your pet’s body at dinnertime:

  • Net weight: This number indicates how much food is in the cat food bag or dog food can - an important stat for comparing cost per pound or kilogram.
  • Ingredient list order: All ingredients on a bag of dog or cat food should be listed in descending order according to weight (remember, though, that wet ingredients will weigh more than dry). Therefore, you want to see higher-quality ingredients listed first.
  • Nutrient analysis: This will provide you with the minimum (in the case of crude protein and fat) or maximum (for crude fiber and moisture) amounts of nutrients in the formulation - important for ensuring a balanced diet for your pet.
  • Feeding directions: Watch this section in particular to note how much of the food will need to be fed to the animal per day. Lower quality foods contain more fillers, which means you’ll need to give your pet bigger helpings for them to feel full and completely nourished. And the more food you feed your pet, the more he or she will poop, which means a bigger mess for you to clean up! Check out our article on pet waste
  • Naming rules: When naming their pet food, manufacturers must abide by three general rules when it comes to ingredient names:
    • 95% rule: If “tuna” or “chicken” or some other animal product is listed in the name of the food, it must contain 95% or more of that named ingredient (not including moisture content).
    • 25% to 95% rule: When a pet food contains between 25% and 95% of a particular ingredient, the pet food name must contain a qualifier such as “dinner,” “entrĂ©e,” “platter,” or “formula.” This is an indication of a lower quality food.
    • 3% rule: When a product name contains the word “with” it contains 3% or less of the ingredient named after “with.”

Though these label regulations are managed by the federal government (you can find detailed information about these rules through the US Food and Drug Administration), they are subject to state-by-state interpretation (in the US). There are many loopholes in these guidelines that make pet food names somewhat ambiguous for consumers - see the Environmental Working Group’s concerns about US labeling regulations.

Keep reading through Ecolife’s natural pet food articles to learn more about how to apply these label reading details when shopping for natural dog food and cat food, and ingredients for making homemade cat food and dog food (homemade dog treats, too!).


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