What are you feeding your best friend?

A few months ago, our dog, Nya, stopped eating the dog food we had been buying for her. She would eat it eventually, and she didn’t act sick, so I suggested maybe she was just tired of eating the same dog food. After all, we’d been buying that particular brand for a long time, and I figure dogs, like humans, probably tire of eating the exact same thing all the time.

So Justin and I started buying her different brands, choosing foods based on price only. She liked some better than others. One brand had long, green tube-shaped kibbles that Nya did not particularly enjoy-she spit them out all over the kitchen floor. And there weren’t just one or two of these per bowl. It was more like dozens of green tubes all through the kitchen and dining room. Cleaning up after her was tiresome, but it actually became comical by the time she finished the bag.

Recently, I spent the weekend with my sister, Rhonda, and regaled her with the tale of Nya’s picky palette. She listened intently, but then she asked me a question for which I did not have an answer: “Do you know what’s in that food?”

Well, no. I didn’t. Actually, I’d never thought about it either.

“That is terrible food for Nya,” she went on. “Did you know that pretty much all of the major brands”-she rattled off a list of several of the most popular dog foods- “are some of the lowest rated when it comes to pet nutrition?”

With this country’s high level of obesity and poor health, healthy eating remains a major focus of our government. We are all taught that a diet rich in whole grains, lean meats, fruits and vegetables will keep us healthy. Reading product labels is helpful in making informed, healthy food decisions. People on special diets usually browse through the list of ingredients as well. As educated consumers, we want to know what we’re putting in our bodies.

But pet food seems like an afterthought. In today’s tough economic times, families with pets typically choose the most cost efficient food for their budget. Besides-did you notice those cute pictures on the bag with little lamb chops and veggies and fruit? That’s a great meal for your furry friend, right?

As my sister and I talked, I learned several unfortunate, and scary, truths about dog food. The pet food industry is unregulated, meaning manufacturers can put as much filler as they want in food, add artificial vitamins and preservatives, and cut it into cute little shapes to make it appealing to the humans who buy it for their pets. However, most of what goes into pet food today comes from a rendering plant.

The word render means “to extract oil from fat, blubber, etc., by melting.” And what sorts of things are rendered? Things like rotten or spoiled meat, sometimes including the styrofoam wrap; dead, diseased, dying and disabled cattle; old restaurant grease and road kill. Cancerous tissue, tumors, blood clots and carcasses with high levels of pesticides (in amounts that exceed FDA limits) are also rendered. Remember, the pet food industry is not regulated. These things are not fit for human consumption, yet it’s perfectly fine to feed it to our best friends.

I’m willing to bet that the majority of us have never bothered to read the ingredients on our pet’s food. I’ll admit, I was guilty of that too. But go pick up that bag of dog food and take a look at the first few ingredients. One of them is probably “meat and bone meal” and others probably have the word “by-products” in them. These ingredients are made from the undesirable parts of the carcass-the parts left over after removal of the lean portion for human consumption-so what your pet is really eating includes beaks, feet, feathers, hair, blood, organs, head, bones and ligaments. Sometimes labels will actually name the animal (i.e., chicken by-product meal) so you can at least identify the animal. If the manufacturer doesn’t know the animal, or doesn’t want to say, they use the more generic “meat by-products” label.

This information mortified me. And as I did more research, I learned that some dog foods add salt and sugar for taste (because meat and bone meal alone probably aren’t so appealing to your pet). High salt and high sugar are bad for your pet just like it’s bad for you. And one very cheap but popular brand has tested positive a few times for the chemical that is used to euthanize pets. Another bad ingredient for your pets is corn meal, which is the leftover parts of corn after the good stuff has been removed. This filler has no nutritional value for the animal and is actually difficult for them to digest. Wheat is also a non-essential ingredient and is the leading cause of food allergies in dogs.

I was really surprised by the amount of information available on this subject when I conducted online research. This really is a harsh truth, one that’s going to be difficult for a lot of pet owners to accept. When money is limited, people make sacrifices, and that includes buying cheap food not only for themselves, but for their pets as well. But let me reiterate once again: pet foods are NOT regulated, so that cheap pet food is significantly worse for your pet than cheap, but FDA-regulated, food is bad for you.

Most people only have one or two dogs. These are your pets. They can’t read labels, but you can. They trust you to take care of them. After I discovered all of this information, I decided I didn’t want Nya eating anymore beaks or feathers.

Unfortunately, there’s a higher price tag on better pet foods with better ingredients. But you can do enough research and determine what works for you. Some of the pricier brands go for upwards of $50-$60 per 20 to 25 pound bag; some of the more reasonably priced ones break down at about a dollar per pound.

So what ingredients should you look for? One of the best ingredients is meat “meals” (like chicken, turkey, duck, bison, etc.). Meat is good too (as long as the word by-product isn’t after it), but if you see the word “chicken meal” that means the chicken was dehydrated first and the proteins are more condensed. If you want to pick a good pet food, this will be near the top of the ingredients list. Eggs are also a good protein source for pets. For good carbs, look for potatoes or sweet potatoes. Barley, oatmeal and rice are some good, easily digestible grains you want to see on labels. However, be aware that brewers rice, rice bran and rice flour is not the same-these are over-processed filler. For the best fat sources for heart health, look for fish oil and flaxseed oil in the ingredients.

Perhaps this might seem like a lot to digest as a pet owner (pun fully intended), but I urge you to do some research of your own. I made the decision to spend a few extra bucks on better food for Nya. She seems to love it, and I feel better knowing that she’s eating something more nutritionally beneficial to her health.