Pets Peeved: Sneaky Additives In Pet Foods

People dye their white dogs various colors…I don’t know why…It kind of freaks me out, like Rob Corddry in clown makeup.  All I ask is, if you’re gonna freshen up Fifi’s look for the season, please use natural, non-petroleum dyes.

I recently found out that some of us well-meaning pet owners are unknowingly dying our pets on the inside too.  My daughter and I did some snooping at our pet store and found that loads of cat and dog “treats” are dyed with petroleum food coloring (Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6).  Many pet treats look good enough for humans to eat (pet “candies”, “cookies”, and “smoothies” are hot this year).  As it turns out, they are nearly on par with human junk food.

Now I started this blog first and foremost to share our own food coloring sensitivity story, but our awareness sort of exploded from there.  The more I researched, the more I realized how poorly regulated our food system is…so it stands to reason that the state of pet food would be equally dire.  Our own diet overhaul this summer naturally led to closer examination of what we are feeding our cats, after one cat was biting off chunks of fur and developing large scabby areas.  Her reaction necessitated a change in food.  Seems the universe was trying to tell me something in 2011!  

Checking for baddies in our cats’ food has caused me to question everything else I see on labels now – like synthetic flavors, GMO’s, processed fats, “flavor enhancers”, etc.  We learned that pet foods also contain propylene glycol (antifreeze…banned from cat food due to anemia, still used in dog foods), caramel color (ammonia, sulfur), and carcinogenic preservatives like BHA and BHT.  This made me wonder how many other pets out there had allergic reactions due to synthetic food additives.

Jeezy Creezy.  If you think quality control for our food is bad, it gets way worse for pet foods.  Fluffy and Fifi aren’t turning their dry noses up at their often reformulated food just because they are cultured connoisseurs with refined palates, nooooo.  Their zeal for “self cleaning” debunks that theory right off the bat. Their snobbery may be your first clue that something just ain’t right here.

And their overall well-being is a clue, too.  Maybe there’s a reason for the shift in popular pet characters from Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, to Bucky Katt and Cujo (I’m a Scratchy fan myself, that poor guy just can’t ever win).  After eating all the crap we’ve fed them for the last 50 years, our animal friends have gone from lean and frisky hunting machines to fattened, bratty Garfields (not a fan).

Knowing the dangers of food coloring, I started only researching petroleum-dyed pet treats for this post.  But I learned that dyes are just one of many awful pet food ingredients.  So I’m going to share what I’ve learned with you, but be warned…If you’re eating, pregnant, easily grossed out, vegetarian/vegan, overly patriotic, or just a normal person with human sensibilities…read on with caution…


The multi-billion dollar per year pet food industry goes hand in hand with the human food industry.  Many popular pet food brands are now owned by top human food manufacturers such as Colgate-Palmolive, Proctor & Gamble, Del Monte, Nestle, and Mars Inc.  There is a very practical reason for this:  Waste products thrown out from the fishing, meat, and poultry industries as unacceptable for human consumption are conveniently put into pet foods.  Anything that is not considered “human grade” is cheaply re-purposed, and therefore increases profits.  Sound familiar???  Profit over public health, hmmmm.

The rejects include grains covered in fungi and mold (mycotoxins), chicken feed, slaughterhouse offal from diseased carcasses (which can sit around for days and host E. coli and Salmonella)…and…holding back the upchuck now…euthanized sheep, cats and dogs. The FDA actually found pentobarbital, the most common pet euthanasia drug, in a study of pet food.   I had a “Soylent Green is PEOPLE!!!” moment when I read that one…

Gives new meaning to the phrase pet food.  But it gets worse.

The good news is, pet food companies no longer use roadkill in their products  (yay!).  The bad news is, the “animal proteins” (labelled as “by-products”) in modern pet food come from animal heads, feet, bones, blood, intestines, ligaments, lungs, liver, spleens, fat, and…oh dear…unborn babies (awwwww….).

Similarly disturbing is the fact that this scrapple is not always tested with actual feeding trials.  Apparently, a pet food label can claim it’s tested as long as its composition is similar to a tested formula. Instead of feeding trials to test digestion, absorption, and safety in real animals, manufacturers do chemical analyses to ensure their products fit certain “nutrient profiles”.  State officials perform casual tests to ensure only that nutrient ratios are what is stated on the label (percentages of fat, protein, water, fiber – no testing of actual ingredients).

Some manufacturers try to falsely boost protein content by adding gluten meal, rice protein, and corn gluten, because it’s cheaper than using real animal protein. One unconscionable example of this practice happened when Chinese pet food manufacturers added melamine to falsely boost protein in nutrition profiles. This reportedly resulted in the sickness and deaths of thousands of pets around the world, and spurred subsequent large scale recalls.

There’s more than just questionable protein to worry about.  Foods high in starchy vegetables and cereal grains are low quality, this we know. Did you know that pesticide and fertilizer residues on grains are NOT regulated for pet food?  GMOs – genetically modified organisms  – are in common pet food ingredients soy and corn.

Unfortunately, a higher price tag does not mean higher quality.  There is a practice called “co-packing” in the pet food industry, which saves manufacturers money on ingredients purchased in bulk.  Several brands are made by the same few companies through special contracts.

The way in which pet foods are processed is cause for concern as well.  It can start before the ingredient even reaches the factory.  For example, the US Coast Guard apparently requires that fish meal be treated with high levels of the livestock feed preservative/pesticide/rubber preservative called ethoxyquin before being transported on ships.  Ethoxyquin (made by Monsanto) has been linked by vets and breeders with reproductive issues, liver problems, allergies, and cancers.

In a sick twist of irony, the Monsanto company themselves have reportedly placed labels on containers of ethoxyquin warning people to wear protective eye and skin gear when handling it, and that contact with this substance can cause skin and respiratory irritation.  I can almost hear SNL weekend updaters Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers now… “Really?!…Really…

Also of note:  When pet foods are processed at high heat, amino acids and sugars produce a carcinogenic compound called acrylamide.  You’ve probably heard about this in human food too – particularly french fries and other deep fried starches – it’s called the Maillard Reaction.  Not to mention, the high heat destroys lots of the good stuff pets need.

And with all the attention given to BPA leaching into human foods from plastic lined cans lately, you may be horrified that your pet’s canned wet food is often sterilized at high heat, right in the can.  Who knows what all these chemicals are doing to our pets and their offspring?

If you change to a higher quality pet food, beware of labeling tricks right on the front of packages.  Lots of companies put “nature” or “natural” in the product name itself, but its ingredients are not required to be natural for them to use that name.  From our recent experience, I found out that a rather expensive brand called “Natural Balance” caused a severe reaction in one of our cats.  She was throwing up more and licking herself bald from a scabby skin rash.  As soon as we switched to Solid Gold Indigo Moon cat food, her fur stopped shedding, skin stopped flaking and it healed beautifully.  I can touch her former hot spots without making her irritated.  

I was curious after writing my post about Petrol Peas, because the Natural Balance food which caused the allergic reactions contained peas.  I called to ask where their peas came from, but they declined to share their sources.  They only stated that some peas, fresh or freeze-dried, came from “other countries.”   They did share that their vitamin C and taurine comes from China, because the last plant in the US closed a few years ago.

So it seems that it’s best to either make your own pet food, or try to buy organic and/or natural pet food.  You can make your search a little easier in pet stores by choosing APHIS European certified food.  Animal Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) European Union (EU) only imports pet foods made with supposedly “human grade” ingredients.

But still, read those ingredient labels!  Natural and organic foods don’t use “by-products” but may include chicken bone as the “meat”.  Chicken and turkey meat should be the first ingredient on the label.  Choose foods with probiotics like acidophilus, or add them yourself.  Look for chelated minerals because they are easier to absorb.  Some natural preservatives include Vitamin C, Vitamin E, clove oil, and rosemary oil.  Avoid BHT and BHA, just as with human foods.  

Keep in mind that without all those freaky chemicals and “rubber preservatives”, natural pet food shelf life is half that of the Frankenstein stuff (6 months, as compared to 12 months).  This is something to think about with batch size,  if your pet eats less on a more nutritious diet.

For more information on how pet food is made, contact individual manufacturers or the Pet Food Institute.

For health and feeding issues contact the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine or Born Free USA.

Pet dietary suggestions can be found in the AAFCO’s Official Publication (Association of American Feed Control Officials), which is revised annually.

Keep your pets safe in the home with a toxic food guide, found here.

Check for recall information here.  Report adverse reactions to foods to the FDA here.

Pet food recipes!

Mindful Nourishment:  How To Make Homemade Cat Food
Yummly Nibbles & Bits: Pamper Your Pet With Homemade Treats
Raising Cats Naturally: How To Care For Your Cat The Way Nature Intended
Celeste Yarnall’s raw food recipe for cats and kittens
Celeste Yarnall’s raw food recipe for dogs and puppies

If you have the means, please consider donating either a bag of high quality food or a batch of homemade goodness to a pet rescue food bank or a shelter this holiday season.  Locate a shelter by searching here.

Do you have any DIY pet food recipes to share?  Post them in a comment!



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