Evie Bear was stricken when she learned her cockatiel, Eyropia, had contracted heavy metal poisoning. Ultimately Eyropia died, and Bear was further distressed when she learned the bird had acquired the disease from her diet.
Bear began to pore over pet-food literature. She found the information bewildering, believing the regulations too lax, the labels too deceptive.
Bear was determined not to make the same mistake twice. She started to feed her chihuahua, Lionel, a raw diet, which she now prepares herself. A rescue dog, Lionel had come with a lot of problems: diarrhea, vomiting, bald spots. After a few weeks on a raw diet, Lionel’s coat grew shiny, his bald patches filled in, and his diarrhea and vomiting diminished, Bear says.
Cathy King, a veterinarian who specializes in traditional Chinese food therapy, says animals often benefit from natural diets.
“When (owners) see the difference, they are just delighted and the animals are so happy to be getting real food,” says King, owner of Kaw Valley Natural Pet Care. “It just creates a very positive bonding experience.”
King prepares meals for her own pets — four cats and a dog — in the same way she would prepare a meal for her family. She buys all of the ingredients at the grocery store, then cooks a dish for her dog, and feeds her cats a mix of raw meat, organs and vitamins.
King believes that part of any animal’s diet should include whole foods.
“They receive the same benefits that people get from eating fresh foods,” says King.
King asks her clients to blend in at least some nonprocessed foods into their pets' diets.
But why the move to natural?
Many pet food products at the grocery store are crammed with nutritionally deficient items, says John Leach, a pet food and supply specialist who has worked in the pet industry for more than 40 years.
Leach says people need to read the ingredient list and labels on their pet foods.
Pet food companies follow a set of rules put in place by the Association Of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). By AAFCO's rules, pet food labels must adequately reflect product ingredients. But AAFCO's rules are not well-known, and labels can often seem ambiguous. For instance, if the name of a cat food is “Tuna Cat Food,” the can must contain 95 percent tuna. Comparatively, if the name of the food is “Cat Food with Tuna,” there only needs to be 3 percent tuna in the product.
Products with two or more ingredients follow more nuanced rules: If a can of cat food is named “Tuna and Beef,” there must be more tuna than beef, as tuna is the prominently featured ingredient in the label.
“(Pet food companies) can play all sorts of tricks with those labels,” Leach says.
One trick is to list a meat as the first ingredient, but then split similar ingredients like yellow corn meal and corn gluten. If added together the corn ingredients might overtake meat proportionally, but the ingredient list is manipulated to make meat seem the most dominant.
Another trick is to load products with filler like feathers, sawdust and wheat gluten to increase protein without adding meat. An ingredient often used as protein filler is wheat gluten, which was responsible for the pet food recall in 2007. Pet food products containing wheat gluten imported from China were pulled off the shelves because they contained aminopterin, a chemical that caused massive renal failure and death in many household pets.
“Animals do need to have fiber in their diets, but there are higher-quality sources for fiber than that,” says Leach.
What we feed our pets matters, says Leach. If animals aren’t able to eat the right foods, it will show in their coats, eyes and skin.
To ensure you’re feeding your pet the right diet, the first step is to read the labels.
“If meat isn’t the number one ingredient (in cat food), it is probably not a high-quality diet for your cat,” Leach says. “Cats are obligate carnivores. They have to have meat... It is essential to cats because meat contains taurine, which is an essential amino acid.”
Instead of being rich in meat, low-grade cat foods are packed with corn. Higher-quality pet foods will list a specific meat as the first ingredient. For instance, the ingredient list will say “chicken,” not “chicken byproduct.”
The jury’s out on whether dogs are carnivores or omnivores, but they, too, need a lot of meat.
Chicken is the most commonly used, as it is a high-quality but affordable protein source. But some experts think dog food allergies can be protein-related, Leach says. One thought is to rotate the protein source so the dog does not become allergic.
Bear alternates the sorts of meats she feeds Lionel. Chicken, beef, tripe, pork and lamb are some of the meats on his menu.
Bear follows the Prey model, which consists of 80 percent raw muscle meats, 10 percent raw bone and 10 percent raw organ (5 percent of which is liver).
“It's very easy to learn about bone feeding, and if you are really concerned, just grind them or use a human grade bone meal supplement as a replacement,” says Bear.
Those who don’t have time to read the literature, but still want to raw feed, should go to specialty food store and purchase already prepared frozen diets, says Leach.
“I would advise people against trying to formulate their own foods simply because my concern would be that the animal isn’t getting a balanced diet,” he says. “If you want to take the time to do a lot of reading, and buy equipment for measuring things out, you can do that yourself... but most people do not want to spend the time it takes to do something like that.”
King says that she’s seen clients cry after feeding their pets unprocessed foods — the benefit is just that rich. But you have to be very responsible about it.
“The biggest problem people face, is they start out great and then they drift,” says King. “You have to make sure the diet is balanced and make sure you don’t drift.”