Organic Pet Foods, Unleashed

Cat and doggie dining is going all natural these days as people embrace the
health benefits or organic chow for their precious pets.

By Susan Weiner

April 2006

If you knew that your food was consistently laden with antibiotics, hormones, pesticides and fillers, would you eat it, let alone enjoy it? Probably not. But many of us—as well the majority of pet food manufacturers—have expected our pets to love it. Is that any way to treat man’s best friends?

Lately, however, everything from pesticide-free grains and vegetables to free-range chicken and beef has been finding its way into pet food, and pet lovers are buying it up by the bagful. Since 2003, new pet products labeled “organic” or “natural” have more than doubled and the category will top $1 billion by 2009, double the 2004 market share, estimates industry journal Packaged Facts. That may be just a portion of the $14.5 billion owners spend annually on dog and cat food. But companies are chomping at the bit to persuade consumers that organic is worth the price, which can be more than double the cost of regular pet food. Organic food is an investment in the health of our animals and, like humans, they are living longer than ever.

Buyer Beware

Ready-made dog and cat food is relatively cheap and convenient, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that commercial pet foods were introduced in the US. Commercially prepared kibble has become the standard diet for pets, but it’s a far cry from a dog or cat’s natural diet. It’s easy to forget that playful Spot and cuddly Mittens are descendents of wild animals who evolved over thousands of years to thrive on a specific diet. Dogs have short intestinal tracts designed to quickly and efficiently digest meats, and cats are “obligate” carnivores intended by nature to hunt small rodents and birds.

Carbohydrates, in fact, are a cat’s worst enemy; her digestive tract is simply not designed to absorb them.

Conventional pet food manufacturers may brag that their foods are brimming with quality meats, vegetables and grains, but a close look at the ingredients used often tells a different story. In lieu of fresh meats, many manufacturers use meat meal or byproducts, which encompass everything rejected for human consumption, including beaks, feet, hooves, feathers, horns and entrails. Even worse, the pet food industry utilizes product ingredients from animals known as “4D”—dead, dying, diseased and disabled.

Fresh vegetables are rarely included in conventional pet foods, and fillers like ground yellow corn, gluten meal and wheat impart no nutritional value for dogs and cats—they even present potential health hazards, including constipation, diabetes, diarrhea and obesity. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that 25% of US dogs and cats are overweight. Many brands contain dubious ingredients, such as artificial colors and flavors, and chemical preservatives like BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin which have been linked to health problems commonly seen in pets.

In fact, conventional pet foods are loaded with so many unsavory ingredients, says Susan Davis, CCN, that switching from mass-produced to organic or all-natural dog and cat foods is fundamental to avoiding common pet health problems, including allergies and cancer. The Los Angeles-based certified clinical nutritionist treats ill pets with a range of holistic formulas and supplements.
“I’m less concerned about going organic than getting good quality ingredients,” explains Davis, referring to the synthetic junk found in most pet foods. “Organic is the ultimate, but just getting pets to eat food not loaded with wheat, corn, soy and fillers is vital.”

As more consumers learn about industrial-style agriculture, the more they lose their appetite for cheaper conventional foods. Unlike livestock brought up under organic conditions, conventional farm animals are raised in intense confinement, fed a diet that includes slaughterhouse waste and manure, and subjected to hormone implants, antibiotics and pesticides. The environmental effects are far-reaching, as animals raised on so-called “factory farms” produce extraordinary amounts of manure that pollutes air and leaches into drinking water. “I’d encourage pet owners to use organic food for the sake of the environment as well as animal health,” asserts Jeff Lydon, executive director of the Tompkins County SPCA in Ithaca, New York.

Food Fix

Still, the number one reason to buy organic for your beloved companion remains health with a capital H. “Diet is the most important thing you have to monitor for your pet,” says veterinary consultant Phil Brown, DVM, who formulates pet foods for Newman’s Own Organics. “I can’t, in good conscience, go out and have organic produce [for myself] and feed my pet foods laden with chemicals and pesticides. People who live that organic lifestyle want the same option for their pets.”

More than 70% of ingredients in Newman’s Own pet products is certified organic by a third party, confirmed to be free of GMOs, antiobiotics, hormones, chemical ingredients, artificial preservatives, colors and additives.

Switching your four-legged companion to an organic diet will boost the animal’s immune system and your pet may live longer, claims Brown. But what if Rufus is an older dog who seems to be doing just fine on cheaper kibble? “If you smoked as a teenager, would you be better off if you continued smoking?” asks Brown. “If an animal is fighting off chemicals, their energy doesn’t have to go there anymore. Organic food is more expensive, but you end up with a healthier pet with a nice skin and coat, and, in the long run, lower vet bills.” If you’re not prepared to make a full-time organic commitment to your pet, try taking small steps. “There’s nothing wrong with adding some organic vegetables to your dog’s bowl, especially if your dog is overweight,” says Brown.

Nutrient-dense, organic foods tend to be more filling, so pets eat less, says Sharon W. Sherman, president of PetGuard, Inc., which offers a line of USDA Certified Organic dry and canned dog and cat food products and treats, in addition to vegetarian and vegan foods for dogs with food sensitivities. “As many pet parents are aware, obesity in pets can lead to a host of other medical concerns,” says Sherman. “A diet void of hormones and metal contaminants but rich in antioxidants and nutrients may be more beneficial towards building and maintaining a healthy immune system to protect against obesity, heart disease and cancer in animals.”

There is little dispute among medical experts that there is a strong correlation between healthy eating habits and longevity, and more veterinarians—and consumers—are echoing that same thought in regards to pet health. “Pets are just as susceptible to the effects of excessive chemicals and heavy metals, sweeteners, salt and additives as humans are,” says Sherman. “The more we question the effects of artificial substances and toxins in our own diet, the more we need to understand just what we are feeding our pets. As that question is answered, more and more consumers are embracing the convenient option of purchasing organic pet foods.”

Treat Time

When it comes to snacking between meals, even dogs and cats want to get in on the action. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturer’s Association, 88% of dog owners and 65% of cat owners give their pets treats, spending an average of $68 a year on dog treats and $43 a year on cat treats.

Just as sales of organic and natural pet foods are skyrocketing, ever-increasing natural pet treat manufacturers are reporting similar success. When Margot Kenly founded Seattle-based Blue Dog Bakery in 1998, there were no natural or organic pet products on the market. Launching an all-natural dog treat at a time when consumers rarely pondered pet food was no small feat. “Today, people are looking for natural products for their dogs,” says Kenly. “They care about what they put in their own bodies, and they care about what they put in their dogs’ bodies.”

Made with only a handful of all-natural ingredients with no animal byproducts, preservatives, artificial colors or additives, Blue Dog Bakery offers crunchy and chewy low-fat dog treats. Cat treats are in the works, as is an entirely organic product. An added bonus: Natural and organic treats don’t contain calorie-heavy meat meal, meat byproducts, corn gluten meal or tallow, which helps your pet keep her puppish or kittenish figure.

Anyone who cares about their own well-being knows that convenient is not always best. Just as fresh, organic foods are better for your health, those same foods are better for your pets’ well-being. Weighing out the benefits of cost and convenience over quality of ingredients and controlled preparation can produce big rewards in the health and longevity of your cherished companion.

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