In my holistic veterinary practice, I’m continually striving to educate my clients that by feeding their pets "nutritionally complete and balanced" dry or canned food, they may be involuntarily providing a daily dose of toxins that otherwise unlikely to appear in foods consumed by humans. With this knowledge, I challenge them really consider why they are feeding pet foods containing “feed-grade” ingredients in the first place.
First, let’s get some background on the multitude of issues that have stemmed from people electing to feed pet food to their canine and feline companions.
In 2007, an international pet food crisis caused dogs and cats to suffer kidney failure and even death after eating foods containing wheat gluten contaminated with melamine. The foods had been produced in China. This tragedy prompted U.S. pet owners to finally become more observant of the ingredients and nutritional value of commercial foods they had been so faithfully feeding to their companion animals. After all, if meals are built on the foundations of being cheaply produced and containing less than bioavailable ingredients, how will your pet’s physiologic needs be met?
Contained in most commercially available dog and cat foods are a plethora of feed-grade ingredients. Dr. Janice Elenbaas, founder of Lucky Dog Cuisine, clarifies the meaning of feed-grade as being "any ingredient not fit for human consumption, including moldy grains and 'allowable' levels of plastic and Styrofoam. These are not acceptable in my (human) food, so why should they be acceptable in dog’s diet? It’s no wonder that one in two dogs is being diagnosed with cancer."
Additionally, the ingredients in feed-grade foods include parts from animals that are dead (not from being slaughtered onsite), diseased, dying, and disabled (the "4Ds").
In Buyer Beware: The Crimes, Lies and Truth About Pet Food, Susan Thixton shares text from the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act (FD&C Act), Section 402. Adulterated Food:
A food shall be deemed to be adulterated — (a) Poisonous, unsanitary, or deleterious ingredients … (5) if it is, in whole or in part, the product of a diseased animal or of an animal which has died otherwise than by slaughter.
This makes it sound like our pets’ safety as pertains to consumable foods is strictly overseen by the FDA, but that’s not the case. According to the FDA Compliance Policy CPG Sec. 675.400 Rendered Animal Feed Ingredients:
No regulatory action will be considered for animal feed ingredients resulting from the ordinary rendering process of industry, including those animals which have died otherwise than by slaughter, provided they are not otherwise in violation of the law.
These laws sound contradictory, and Thixton concurs in stating that "the FDA Compliance Policy is a direct violation of The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act." As a result, companies putting 4D animals into foods do not incur any regulatory or legal repercussion. Such policies do not bode well for the overall health of millions of pets (and some people) eating non-human grade ingredients.
What about the toxic effects of moldy grains? According to Toxvet.com’s John Tegzes, VMD, Diplomate ABVT (toxicology):
“Aflatoxin is a mycotoxin most commonly associated with corn-based pet foods. Even very small amounts of aflatoxin can cause serious illness in dogs, often progressing to death. Aflatoxin primarily affects the cells within the liver and results in overwhelming liver failure. If the dose ingested is very high, pets may also develop sudden kidney failure. Even with treatment, most of these dogs will die. Chronic, low-dose exposures to aflatoxin can suppress the immune system and cause cancer.
Although it is impossible to see mycotoxins in grains, laboratory tests can identify their presence before the grain is incorporated into feeds. The FDA established specific guidelines about the amount of aflatoxin that can be detected in grains and still be used in either animal feeds or human food products. The allowable amounts in animal feeds are consistently higher than that for human-grade foods, therefore using only human-grade grains in pet foods will help reduce the incidence of poisonings in our pets”.
With such potential for pet foods to create a toxic effect, why do companion animal owners feel these are the best available nutritional options? Fortunately, companies that produce pet foods made with human-grade ingredients are emerging to satisfy the demands of consumers seeking options similar to home prepared food.
The standards for nutritional content as dictated by Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) create a challenge for pet owners who are interested in feeding home prepared foods. Unfortunately, society has been misled to believe that our pets will suffer detrimental health effects if protein, fat, carbohydrate, fiber, vitamin, and mineral ratios are not specifically commensurate with industry standards. In extreme cases (100 % meat/bone diets, etc.) or with pets already dealing with illness, this has some validity. Otherwise, feeding a home prepared diet has many nutritional advantages over commercially available feed-grade sources even if the home prepared version is not 100 percent "complete and balanced."
I would rather feed my dog a combination of moist, human-grade, muscle meat protein, whole grains, and fresh vegetable and fruit options having a somewhat varying or unknown cumulative nutrient content rather than any commercially available dry or canned option made with feed-grade ingredients. This perspective is controversial in the veterinary profession, but my beliefs are based on ongoing clinical experience and common sense.
In my practice, if a client seeks to feed home prepared foods, I suggest a diet specific to my patient’s needs is formulated by veterinary nutritionists at the UC Davis Veterinary Medicine Nutrition Support Service. Alternatively, I recommend using a reputable service like Balance IT. I prefer these guidelines, as the truly give the client an excellent foundation for ingredient options, portion control, and food preparation and safety.