When Gabriel, a 10-year-old rescue cat from Chinatown, tucks into his morning meal, you won’t see any Friskies or Meow Mix in his bowl. Ahi tuna and duck are more the ticket.
“I think there’s more than enough pesticides and chemicals and that kind of stuff in human food,” says Gabriel’s owner, Jason Lanum, on a recent expedition to the Urban Pet, a Los Angeles specialty pet store. “I eat natural food, and I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t give it to my cat.”
These days, our pets may be eating better than we are. Big-box pet stores and precious pet boutique shelves are increasingly stocked with gourmet edibles that are corn-free, wheat-free, locally sourced, byproduct-free, free-range, minimally processed and raw. Many come with homey, inviting labels, and some look palatable even for humans. At Petco, a number of locations now have a wood-floored store-within-a-store for natural foods.
And if you think your pet’s diet is still lacking, you can bolster it with supplements — containing brewers yeast, alfalfa, blueberries and more — that promise shiny coats, bright eyes and limber joints.
As more of us turn toward more healthful foods, we’re doing the same for our pets, and the market has caught on. “If there’s a trend in human food and supplements, you’ll see it on the pet food aisle,” said Bob Vetere, president of American Pet Products Assn., based in Greenwich, Conn. “Gluten-free, vitamin supplemented, breed-specific, senior formulas — all of these have taken over the pet marketplace, and we’re seeing the competition increasing.”
It’s a matter of debate whether these foods are appreciably better for pets than the standard mega-brands — but just as with debates on human foods, passions can run high. Some pet owners are sure that the mega-brand foods are wreaking havoc on our pets’ constitutions, and some veterinarians aren’t too hot on them either, while other vets think they’re just fine.
“From the scientific point of view, is there objective evidence that any commercial diet leads to a better outcome than any other?” says Dr. Tony Buffington, a professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Ohio State University. “If there is, I’m not aware of it.”
Fully 72.9 million homes — 62% of U.S. households — own a pet, up from 56% in 1988, the American Pet Products Assn. has reported. And we spend big bucks on our furry, winged and scaly friends: Retail pet food sales were $18.4 billion in 2010, up 2.8% from 2009, according to the Packaged Facts, a market research company, and natural pet food sales were $1.5 billion in 2009, up from $689 million in 2005. The company predicts that sales of natural foods will probably outdo overall pet food sales in the next five years.
The cost of natural foods can be significantly higher: A 6.6-pound package of Evo grain-free dry cat food, for example, sells for about $19, compared with roughly $10 for a 6.3-pound bag of Friskies.
Simply put, our attitude toward pets has evolved, says Dr. Nancy Scanlan, a practicing veterinarian and executive director of the Maryland-based American Holistic Veterinary Medical Assn. “More owners are treating their pets like one of the family.”
They seek food they believe is more wholesome and natural compared with large commercial brands. They want food free of byproducts (animal parts such as feet, ears and snout), food they hope will alleviate allergies or gut problems, and think that grain-free food or raw food (sold frozen or dehydrated) are healthier options for animals who wouldn’t eat corn in the wild. Many owners moved to specialty foods after the 2007 recall of brands found to be contaminated with melamine.
“Consumers are starting to demand more from pet food companies,” says Lucy Postins of San Diego, who started a line of dehydrated raw pet foods in 2002 after trying to feed her then-puppy a homemade raw food diet to eliminate preservatives. (She soon tired of cleaning up a kitchen “covered in blood and broccoli and all sorts of awful things.”) Her business, the Honest Kitchen, sells to 2,100 U.S. stores. It uses free-range chickens and cage-free turkeys and no genetically modified organisms.
Customers are more educated these days, adds John Sturm, vice president of marketing for Petco. “We see more people walking into the store with printouts.”
Pet foods are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which requires the food to be safe, produced under sanitary conditions and bear truthful labels. The agency also makes sure manufacturers back up any claims on the packaging, such as “controls tartar” or “eliminates hairballs.”
The food is also overseen by the Assn. of American Feed Control Officials, a voluntary organization made up of local, state and federal agencies. It sets the definitions for ingredients — if meat is listed, for example, the kind of meat has to be specified — and sets minimum and maximum amounts for certain ingredients and nutrients. Some states have additional requirements.
Sometimes, in fact, pets may be sold short by more “natural” and healthful-seeming options. A January review of five raw dog and cat food diets in the Canadian Veterinary Journal — two commercial and three homemade — found that three out of the five were low in calcium and phosphorus and two were deficient in potassium, magnesium and zinc. The authors concluded that raw food may hypothetically be a nutritional risk for pets (though better studies are needed) and that it may also pose a risk of infectious disease to both pets and people.
But other times, paying more dough may pay off for a pet. A 2002 study in the American Journal of Veterinary Research compared meat meal to less-expensive corn gluten meal (a byproduct of corn milling that is a common ingredient in major pet food brands) as a protein source in dry cat food. After feeding the different foods to eight healthy adult cats (evenly split between males and females) then analyzing their urine, the researchers found that meat meal was more digestible than gluten meal, and absorption and retention of nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium were better with meat protein too.
But just as is the case for organic foods for people, specialty pet foods are not immune to recalls due to contamination with E. coli or salmonella. In February, for example, the FDA announced that Texas-based Merrick Pet Care (makers of minimally processed, preservative-free pet foods) issued a recall of a pet treat because of potential salmonella contamination (no animals were reported ill).
And buyers should beware when reading labels — just as they should in the grocery store. Just because a pet food markets itself as “grain free” or “byproduct free” doesn’t necessarily mean it will make a difference to an animal’s health, says Dr. Jennifer Larsen, a veterinarian and professor of clinical nutrition at UC Davis.
“Food doesn’t have to prove health benefits,” she says. “Unless an individual pet has a specific documented intolerance to a certain type of grain, there’s no advantage.”
Furthermore, a “grain-free” food isn’t necessarily higher in protein, Larsen adds. “It can still contain ingredients such as tapioca and peas. Often those diets are simply high in fat.”
In some cases, vets say, there are legitimate reasons to choose specialty foods, such as meeting the nutritional needs of old age or treating allergies.
Celiac disease, which causes gluten intolerance, is present more often in certain dog breeds, such as Irish setters. And vets generally agree that some dogs and cats can have intolerances for certain grains such as wheat and corn; this can cause diarrhea or vomiting, and pet owners may not always recognize the cause.
How does a pet owner filter though all this information? Since every animal is different, experimentation may be in order to find the right food, says Scanlan, the holistic vet. “But just because something should be good for them doesn’t mean it is. There is no such thing as ‘the’ best diet.”
Instead of trusting pet store employees, Scanlan suggests owners talk to their vet, learn to read pet food labels and check out studies in peer-reviewed journals. And should they want to upgrade their pet’s food but find they just can’t afford to, they shouldn’t feel guilty.
“Feeding them [a common brand] is better than dumping them on the street,” she says. “You give them the best care you can.”