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The Truth About Pet Food

This article is something I just put together after weeks of discussing the biologically inappropriate nature of most pet food ingredients with clients. Their reactions compelled me to put it all in writing. I hope this paper helps you make the proper choices and motivates change in the industry. Please feel free to forward this page to anyone who has pets. It can be the difference between a pet living to be 5 or 25 years old. Note: Cats have been known to live 40 years and dogs 30 and yet the average age in this country is 13 and 12, respectively. What could be the single most important factor here? If you said “diet”, I think you’re right.

The Truth about the Ingredients in Pet Food

by Dogtor J


A client came into the exam room the other day with two Boston terriers, one that was about three years old and looking pretty healthy and the other being eight and the main reason for the office call. The latter was having both digestive and skin issues and had been for quite some time. They came to get a second opinion because previous treatments had been less than successful.

As I am prone to do, my first question concerned what they were feeding. They told me that they were feeding a popular brand, the commercials for which are all too familiar to anyone with a television. You have seen it: The vegetable and whole grains falling from the sky, leading all who are watching to believe that this food was a very healthy blend of all of the things we have come to accept as nutritious and necessary for us all. But sadly, most people are like these new clients in that they have never really read the ingredient label for this or any food and simply go on the perceived quality of the food. Marketing is quite effective, isn’t it?

I promptly told them that this particular food…unbeknownst to them…was one of the worst dog foods ever made. Once they put their teeth back into their mouths, I explained. They had not yet gotten my “food lecture” for which I have developed such a reputation. (Good or bad, I’m not sure but I have been told that I have a reputation now.) I quickly ran them through the “big 4”- gluten (wheat, barley, rye), dairy, soy and corn- and explained food intolerance using celiac disease as the model. Thankfully, they did not get the deer-in-the-headlights look that I so often get as I launch into this medical soliloquy. They, in fact, asked very intelligent questions and then proceeded to relate what I had said to their own health, something that excites me to no end. We could have spent hours on their medical history and afflictions but they left armed to deal with them in a more effective manner.

But when I printed out the ingredient label of this popular grocery store brand dog food, they excited me even more when they got visibly angered at what they saw. And they should get mad! We all should when we see that the marketing of these foods is barely- if at all- within the limits of the law when it comes to truth in labeling. It is certainly waaaay outside the realm of decency.

Here is the ingredient list. Remember that we are trying to avoid all wheat, barley, rye, soy, and corn. Also keep in mind that the ingredients must be listed in order of concentration in the food, with the highest levels listed first. Also keep in mind that the more ingredients there are in the food, the higher the “dilution factor”, meaning that the use of multiple grains, for example, will artificially elevate the meat or meat by-products to a position toward the front of the list. In other words, if they used only corn, then corn would be first. But, if they use corn, wheat, barley and soy, then something like chicken by-products may be higher in concentration than each of those individually but not if they used corn alone.

So now, here are those ingredients:


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, sugar, sorbitol, tricalcium phosphate, water, salt, phosphoric acid, animal digest, potassium chloride, dicalcium phosphate, sorbic acid (a preservative), L-Lysine monohydrochloride, dried peas, dried carrots, calcium carbonate, calcium propionate (a preservative), choline chloride, added color (Yellow 5, Red 40, Yellow 6, Blue 2), DL-Methionine, Vitamin E supplement, zinc sulfate, ferrous sulfate, Vitamin A supplement, manganese sulfate, niacin, Vitamin B-12 supplement, calcium pantothenate, riboflavin supplement, copper sulfate, biotin, garlic oil, thiamine hydrochloride, pyridoxine hydrochloride, thiamine mononitrate, folic acid, Vitamin D-3 supplement, menadione sodium bisulfite complex (source of Vitamin K activity), calcium iodate, sodium selenite.

First of all, note the main (animal) protein sources and their placement on the ingredient list. Again, by label regulations, the most abundant ingredient is listed first and the least is shown last. But, we must also take into account the “dilution factor”, which is a false elevation of the concentration of an ingredient due to the use of multiple similar ingredients that accomplish the same goal (e.g the use of multiple grains to artificially elevate the amount of meat in a particular formula).

With this in mind,we see that the first animal protein source is chicken by-product meal, not chicken or chicken meal. Chicken by-products are the ground, rendered parts of the chicken carcass, such as necks, breast bones, feet, and intestinal tract, not to include feathers, except in the small quantities that may unavoidably occur unavoidable in processing. Basically, it is what is left after the meat has been removed. The next animal protein source is beef, which is the eighth ingredient and well behind the corn, wheat, soy and rice. In fact, the beef is listed after the animal fat. So, for a basically carnivorous animal such as a dog, how does this food stack up to its natural diet? Not too well.

Secondly, I want the reader to see is the positioning of the dried peas and dried carrots relative to the other ingredients.

In this particular food, the commercials for which show vegetables and whole grains falling from the sky and the bags prominently display peas and carrots, these vegetables are listed after such things as sugar, salt, water, and added minerals. The fact is that there is more sugar and more salt in this food than peas and carrots. There is more water in this dry food than peas and carrots. There is even more L-Lysine monohydrochloride in this food than peas and carrots. So, how many vegetables can possibly be in this pet food? Yet, the commercials and bag lead one to believe that this formula is a healthier choice for your pet because of the vegetables it contains. Does this really meet the qualifications of what we like to think is “truth in labeling”?

The sad truth is that this food, like so many others, is loaded with the things that are doing harm to our pets (and many of us) while being devoid of truly healthful ingredients. Our pets need the phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables as badly as we do if, maybe even more so if we base things on the quality of the ingredients listed above.

Let’s try another food. This one is a popular formula among breeders and sold in the grocery stores and pet marts. The name of the formula includes the words “with Lamb and Rice”. I suppose from reading the ingredient list that the use of the word “with” is a legalism and justifies the placement on the formula’s list. The reader can decide.

Here is the ingredient list:


Ground Whole Corn, Chicken By-Product Meal, Wheat, Meat and Bone Meal, Animal Fat (preserved with BHA/BHT), Natural Poultry Flavor, Wheat Flour, Lamb, Rice, Corn Gluten Meal, Wheat Gluten, Potassium Chloride, DiCalcium Phosphate, Vegetable Oil (Source of Linoleic Acid), Carmel Color, Dried Beet Pulp, Titanium Dioxide, Vitamins (Choline Chloride, dl-Alpha Tocopherol Acetate [Source of Vitamin E], L-Ascorbyl-2-Polyphosphate [Source of Vitamin C*], Vitamin A Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate [Vitamin B1], Biotin, d-Calcium Pantothenate, Riboflavin Supplement [Vitamin B2], Vitamin D3 Supplement, Vitamin B12 Supplement), Minerals (Zinc Sulfate, Copper Sulfate, Potassium Iodide), Added FD&C and Lake Colors (Yellow 6, Blue 2, Red 40, Yellow 5).

Look familiar? The thing to see here is the placement of the lamb and rice. Note that the lamb comes after natural poultry flavor. How much lamb can there be in this food? Once again, the grains make up the bulk of this food and even with five different ingredients derived from grains, there is still more natural poultry flavor (“chicken squeezin’s” as one client termed it) in this food than lamb or rice. Also note the use of artificial colors in both of these food formulas. Do the dogs really care what the color is?

But what about cat foods? (errrrrrh). Yes, most cat foods are even worse, especially when it is taken into consideration that this species is considered an obligate carnivore. They eat meat. The biggest decision of the free-roaming domestic cat would be whether they will have a squirrel, a mouse, a rabbit or a bird for dinner. Can’t you just see them “stalking” some corn? And yet, the vast majority of commercial dry cat foods are loaded with the “big 4”.

Here is the ingredient list of one of the most popular dry cat foods at the grocery store:


Corn meal, Poultry by-product meal, Corn gluten meal, Animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols (form of Vitamin E), Powdered cellulose, Salmon meal, Animal liver flavor, Soybean hulls, Malt extract, Calcium carbonate, Phosphoric acid, Salt, Choline chloride, Potassium chloride, Taurine, Vitamin E supplement, Zinc sulfate, Ferrous sulfate, Manganese sulfate, Parsley flakes, Niacin, Added color (Red 40, Yellow 5, Blue 2)…

…and other vitamins and minerals as seen in the other formulas.

In this formula, note that the salmon meal is listed after powdered cellulose. Also, note that the parsley flakes come after zinc, iron, and manganese. This is the case in a food about which the manufacturer’s Website print advertising boldly states that our formula “contains a special blend of ingredients- including the wholesome grains and garden greens she craves.” Do cats really crave grains?  (Only if they have become addicted to them from eating gluten-based cat foods.) Isn’t it a major stretch to call this amount of parsley “garden greens”?

After the big pet food recall, this same pet food giant came out with their “naturals” line. Let’s take a look at it:


Chicken meal, Corn gluten meal, Soybean meal, Brewer’s Rice, Animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols (form of Vitamin E), Poultry by-product meal, Corn meal, Chicken, Salmon, Ground Whole WheatSoybean hulls, Malt extract, Brewer’s Dried Yeast…

……and other vitamins and minerals as seen in the other formulas.

The good news is that this food has an “upgraded” protein source in the form of chicken meal but is the ingredient list quickly deteriorates into the usual fare of unnatural and downright harmful “big 4” components. At least this one does not contain dairy products like so many others contain. We took all of the dairy our of pet food almost twenty years ago and for very good reason. Why it is making a comeback in a number of misguided manufacturer’s formulas is almost beyond me. But this blunder is understandable when we grasp that they decided to start making pet foods wheat-based twenty years ago in the face of current veterinary knowledge clearly stating that wheat was the number two food allergen behind dairy. Perhaps they, too, were deceived by the crazy notion that lactose is the real culprit in milk.

The good news is that there are other pet food formulas that are much better than those above. One simply needs to read the labels and read them carefully, taking the ingredient list rule of diminishing quantity in mind. Also, look for key words like “lamb”, “lamb meal”, “chicken” and “chicken meal” rather than the by-product version of those components. Then look for a food that is devoid of the “big 4”- all gluten (wheat, barley, rye, dairy , soy and corn). If the food also contains significant quantities of veggies and fruits then the manufacturer is at least making an attempt to create a balanced formula. The bad news is that the kibbling process (production of dry food) makes it very hard for delicate phytonutrients to survive. As it is still necessary to add fresh fruits and vegetables to the pet’s diet to make it more appropriate, I would never opt for a food with added vegetables if that formula still contains any of the “big 4”. It would be much better to get a “clean” food (one devoid of the big 4) and add fresh (raw or steamed) vegetables and fruits. We can give them any of the fruits and veggies that we eat except for grapes, raisins, and onions.

I truly hope that this helps people sort through the jungle (or quagmire) we call the pet food industry. I also hope that it motivates- even angers- the reader into doing something proactive in the way of contacting pet food manufacturers or sharing this vital information with friends, contacts, and loved ones who have pets.

It is time for this situation to change. (“It’s way past time”, many would say). The pet food giants have had their time of taking full advantage of our nutritional ignorance. Whether the manufacturers are simply ignorant or incredibly greedy is another topic altogether. But we as consumers do not have to be so unknowledgeable in these matters. Nutrition is not as hard to understand as some would think. We simply have to eliminate the bad things and consume the good things. It takes a little thought and research to do the former and some willpower to do the latter but it can be done. For the pets, it is easy: Buy dog food A instead of dog food B (or better yet, home-cook for the pet) and we’re off and running. For those people who are afflicted, it is a bit more complicated…but still very do-able.

We do have the destiny our health and that of our pets in our own hands. That should be good news.

Dogtor J

John B. Symes, D.V.M. (aka “Dogtor J”)

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