Keeping tabs on the ever evolving, fast-changing matter of FOOD

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Part 1 in a series 

Once there were essentially two options: wet or dry. Today food choices for your furry family member abound, and choosing can be confusing! Which is best? Why such different opinions among raw feeders and kibble feeders, home-made feeders, and veterinarian recommendations? In this series we’ll debunk some of the common misconceptions about various feeding methods, share some of the pros and cons, and leave it up to you to choose what’s best for your baby.

As many people will tell you, they came about feeding their pets a certain way because of an incident that changed their thinking. For me, I made a change when trying to eliminate allergy problems in my Dane. For others, it was the food recalls. The list of reasons people feed what they do are lengthy. This is what I know: each person must make the decision based upon what he or she believes to be best, and fits within his or her lifestyle. And, the recommendations and practices are evolving every day. What really matters is meeting the nutritional needs of your pet. 

This month we’ll talk about commercially canned food and dry kibble, two of the most readily available food sources for domesticated pets, and the most popular for decades. Compiling this article brought two immediate realizations: 1) There are a lot more foods out there than most of us realize, and 2) there is more to feeding your pet than what shakes into the bowl.

The whole process led me to umpteen websites for manufacturers of popular foods to finding food types I had never heard of, and then to scientific articles that illustrate just how far our pet culture has come and continues to evolve. There are a few key points though, that will hopefully provide you with the requisite resources should you want to investigate your choices further.

Pet food injects many billions of dollars into the economy each year. The American Pet Products Association estimates “$47.7 billion will be spent on pets in the US” in 2010, with $18.28 billion of that on pet food. Further, many surveys indicate that an overwhelming majority of pet owners consider their furry friends (or hairless as the case may be) no less than family. No wonder this industry is facing constant pressure and expectations by consumers to provide high quality and safe products.

After the large-scale recalls of 2007, the FDA and individual companies began looking closer at what went into the food that ultimately lands in someone’s food bowl. “Food quality is one of the most important issues APPA members face at the international level as more and more products are imported and exported from country to country,” says the APPA. “Increased quality assurance protocols and regulatory oversight by manufacturers are necessary to ensure there is no repeat.”

The beginning of dog food

England circa 1860. A dog biscuit was produced, representing the first commercially-prepared dog food. Since that time, scientific studies and feeding trials sponsored by thousands of companies have eaten up time, money, and intense effort to produce the products available today. 

But it’s not as simple as what’s for dinner. The decision of kibble or canned; raw or home-cooked; pre-made raw or a combination leaves many pet guardians stumped. What’s best? What does my pet need? What if he has allergies? What if she is overweight? Fighting cancer? Is afflicted with chronic UTIs? And don’t forget dental and joint health, skin and coat, ears . . . and the list goes on. 

All of these are very real concerns for pet parents — if not now, possibly in the future. One thing readily agreed upon is a high-quality diet of quality ingredients meeting the “complete and balanced standards set forth by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (” offers pets an opportunity for better health now and throughout life. These standards indicate the protein, fat, fat- and water-soluble vitamins, and mineral content that should be contained in every product. 

Another important agency committed to providing pets and guardians with products meeting pets’ complex nutritional requirements since 1958 is the Pet Food Institute (PFI).

The scoop on kibble

Reports from the PFI indicate 60% of America’s pet caloric content is comprised of dry kibble. Kibble is typically manufactured using techniques like those used to make puffed cereals for people. In a nutshell, the ingredients are mixed, formed into dough, heated, and put through an extruder, the equivalent of a giant meat grinder. The dough cooks at high temperature and pressure, then goes through a shaping die. The temperature out of the extruder puffs the kibble pieces. Finally it’s dried to a moisture content low enough to prevent spoilage, sprayed with flavor enhancer, then packaged and labeled, shipped and distributed.

Just can it

Making canned pet food is simpler. The ingredients are combined in a mixer, then poured into their final packaging (can, pouch, or tray). Containers are sealed and then cooked to kill organisms such as mold, bacteria and viruses. The containers are then cooled, labeled, packed, and distributed for sale. 

But what’s IN it 

Why do we read some labels and recognize every ingredient, and others . . . not so much? Good question. Here’s what some additives do in pet food: powdered cellulose and vegetable fibers have proven effective for caloric density, fat reduction, and bulking in canned food. For dry, cellulose fibers improve texture and shape, and may also aid in the extrusion process. These ingredients are commonly added to “people” foods, too.

Wisdom from the pros

Just as we work to put the right things into our own bodies, we want the same for our pets. So we ask, “What is it and where did it come from?” Companies like V-Dog are making even more pet food options available. David Middlesworth, owner of V-Dog and longtime vegan, discovered V-Dog Crunchy Nuggets several years ago at a conference in Scotland. He says that protein derived from sources other than animals is perfectly acceptable nutrition for dogs — perhaps even superior. 

Veterinarian Dr. Ron Hines of Texas says, “Although dogs prefer meat-based foods, they can exist on vegetable proteins as long as other missing nutrients and amino acids are added.” V-Dog food includes ingredients such as quinoa, oats, whole wheat, and whole corn, plus supplements including taurine, l-carnitine, and flax seed. The ingredients are human grade, and Middlesworth reminds us that anecdotal evidence points to longevity when consuming a diet high in plant-based items. 

Solid Gold is a longtime leader in natural and holistic animal nutrition. In fact, the company was founded in 1974 with the sole purpose of increasing the longevity of animals through high-quality nutrition. The founder, Sissy Harrington-McGill, must have been onto something, because natural and holistic are certainly buzzwords today. While ingredients for Solid Gold are selected from around the world, high quality, safety, and an avoidance of chemicals, preservatives, and unnatural ingredients are a given with every product. Formulas are updated as new nutritional research becomes available, and products are manufactured in the USA. Selections are diverse for both dogs and cats, in canned and kibble. 

Another expert, Chanda Leary-Coutu of WellPet, manufacturer of Wellness, Eagle Pack, Old Mother Hubbard, and Holistic Select, says that focal to WellPet’s mission is “natural foods with recognizable ingredients.” The company recognizes that people are more aware than ever of what they are purchasing, specifically checking labels for known allergens (wheat, wheat gluten, soy), artificial flavors, colors, and synthetic preservatives, and meat as the first ingredient. Ingredients such as boneless chicken, New Zealand lamb, cheddar cheese, spearmint, apples, carrots, parsley, sweet potatoes are oft-included in their products — things you or I could identify or may eat. Eagle Pack was co-developed with champion sled dog teams for performance purposes. In other words, it was built to feed dogs that needed to perform at their peak.

Getting to the bottom of the dollar

One common misconception has been that purchasing from a vet or paying a high price means you’re giving your pet the best, but that’s not always the case. Not long ago, most foods readily accessible came from a scant few companies and were sold at the grocery store. Now there are scads of specialty pet stores, home delivery, websites, veterinarians, and chain pet stores carrying brands galore at varying price points. Dr. Hines does infer that generic and lower-priced foods use a lesser quality protein than their pricier counterpoints, and this difference goes to your pet’s health. He notes, “Excluding premium, niche, and specialty brands sold through pet shops, the quality of dog foods is reflected directly in the price you pay.” High-quality ingredients (catch the theme?) and the ability to ensure consistency from batch to batch costs companies — a direct correlation to their investment in your pet’s well-being.

Making the choice

Given a choice, many pets will to choose canned over dry. Why? It’s often more fragrant and palatable. No different than pancakes over dry cereal, I suppose. But is it wise to let your pet choose? Many doctors agree that dry food is better for oral health. Little dogs especially struggle with tartar buildup and decay. Cost is a consideration, too, as kibble offers a much greater caloric density which translates to filling up on smaller portions.

Kibble is richer in nutrients due to its higher dry matter content; canned food contains 75% water.

In some cases, specific medical reasons may necessitate feeding one over the other. Crystal formation in the bladder afflicts some animals, and canned foods can combat its return. Other medical issues greatly reduce a pet’s appetite and nutritionally-unique diets have been developed by some companies in canned formulas to aid in maintaining the health of those pets. Together, you, your vet, and your pet should choose the best selection for your specific requirements and lifestyle. 

Other foods have been developed for other reasons, and their ingredients reflect that purpose. This month, we’ve looked at just a few examples of foods, their history and development, the philosophy of pet food design, and what is available. But canned and kibble are not the end of the pet food train. Next month we’ll talk about homemade and raw diets, giving you the scoop and controversy on how these options play into the pet nutritional picture.


Kennedy Morgan is a Portland-area dog mom, customer service manager for a small software company, and now freelance writer. Kennedy, her Dane, Vegas, and new addition, a Pomeranian, Leo, can be found playing with their many Dane friends (and their people) at weekly Portland Great Dane Community meetups. Contact her at Photo is Vegas (Apache Vegas Rose)