Pet Food Company Finds Startling Findings — But What Did They Do With It?

dogs eating fresh meat

Story at-a-glance

  • The processed pet food industry would like everyone to quit “hyping” the importance of protein and meat in dog and cat diets
  • Ignoring the ancestral diets of canines and felines, Big Pet Food argues there’s no scientific research behind the need for carnivorous pets to eat animal meat
  • Nature prescribes that cats must, and dogs should, eat diets high in animal protein for long-term health and wellness
  • Animal sources of protein, including eggs, are better nutritionally because they contain all the essential amino acids
  • It’s important to note that not all animal protein is digestible and assimilable for your dog or cat, for example, beaks, hooves and feathers

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Much to the dismay of the processed pet food industry, protein continues to be an ingredient of great significance to dog and cat parents. According to a pet food industry journal:

“The hype over protein for pets — including the related hype over meat first, fresh meat, high meat levels, ancestral diets, you name it — seems to continue and grow unabated, despite the fact that, until recently, not much research has existed to back the label claims and rampant internet proselytizing.”1

It’s true there’s very little pet food industry research into the benefits of diets high in meat/fresh meat for dogs and cats. I suspect it’s because most of the major pet food producers are happy to continue to use waste from the human food industry as the primary source of animal protein in their products. Those waste products undergo a rendering process. According to a 2004 report made to Congress titled “Animal Rendering: Economics and Policy,” sources for the raw products of the pet food rendering industry include:

“… [M]eat slaughtering and processing plants (the primary one); dead animals from farms, ranches, feedlots, marketing barns, animal shelters, and other facilities; and fats, grease, and other food waste from restaurants and stores.”2

So in case you thought the rendered ingredients in your dog's or cat's food came only from (presumably regulated) slaughterhouses or animal processing plants, now you know the truth. Susan Thixton (Truth About Pet Food) often writes about why the FDA overlooks illegal ingredients in pet food.

Big Pet Food Says: Protein and Meat in Pet Diets Are Being ‘Hyped’

How is it that processed pet food companies consider the interest in protein content and real meat in dog and cat diets to be hype? It really makes me wonder if they understand that domesticated dogs are scavenging carnivores just like their ancestors and cousins in the wild, and housecats are obligate carnivores just like wild cats.

Dogs and cats haven’t evolved biologically in terms of their digestive tracts. In the wild they hunt the food that nature and their bodies tell them to eat, which is the fresh meat (and other body parts) of prey animals. Just because pet food producers are in the business of creating cheap and convenient processed diets built around biologically inappropriate ingredients doesn’t make discussion about the food dogs’ and cats’ bodies are designed to eat hype.

Why the Right Kind of Protein in the Right Amount Is so Important to Your Pet’s Health

Proteins are often called the "building blocks of life," essential to the survival of animals, and found in every organism on the planet. Here are some facts about protein from the Weston A. Price Foundation:3

  • It is essential to a healthy heart and body
  • Animal sources of protein, including eggs, are better nutritionally because they contain all the essential amino acids (amino acids are called the "building blocks of protein")
  • Too much poor-quality protein and too little protein can be damaging to the body
  • Protein isn't stored in the body like fat — it must be eaten daily
  • The one nutritive substance that stands before all others is protein

Your pet's body is literally made of protein, including his bones, muscles, arteries, veins, skin, hair and nails. The tissues of his heart, brain, liver, kidneys and lungs are made of proteins. Proteins oxygenate the blood and transport fat and cholesterol throughout your pet's body. The enzymes in proteins help to digest the food he eats, synthesize essential substances and break down waste products.

Proteins in combination with sterols produce hormones that regulate the sensitive chemical changes that take place constantly within your pet's body. And the chromosomes that will be passed on to your pet's offspring (and that were passed on to him) include proteins in their structure.

Plant Versus Animal Protein

One of the reasons processed pet food producers have an issue with real meat is that it’s much cheaper to use plant protein than animal protein in their products. That’s why they make statements like this:

"The protein in pet foods can be supplied by animal sources, plant sources or a combination of the two. Common animal-based protein sources used in pet food include chicken, lamb, fish meal, and beef; while common plant-based protein sources include corn-gluten meal and soybean meal."4

This statement suggests animal protein and plant protein are equivalent forms of nutrition for dogs and cats. This is absolutely not true. Dogs and cats need 22 amino acids to be healthy. Dogs can synthesize (make) 12 of those 22; cats can synthesize 11. The remaining amino acids must come from the food they eat.

Omnivores (e.g. humans) have the physiological ability to turn plant proteins into the missing pieces needed for a complete amino acid profile. To a very limited extent dogs can do this, but a cat's body isn't equipped for it whatsoever.

Why Cats MUST Eat Animal Meat and Organs

Cats must eat animal meat and organs to meet their nutritional needs, and plant-based proteins (grains and vegetables) simply aren't a good substitute. Felines lack the specific enzymes necessary to use plant proteins as efficiently as animal proteins. The proteins derived from animal tissue contain a complete amino acid profile. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Plant-based proteins don't contain all the amino acids critical for the health of an obligate carnivore.

Why Dogs SHOULD Eat Animal Meat and Organs

A major pet food company conducted a study several years ago that examined how the type of protein fed to adult and senior dogs affected body composition (muscle versus fat). The dogs were fed diets with varying amounts of protein from chicken and corn gluten meal.5

Dogs in one group were fed a diet of exclusively chicken; the rest were fed diets with decreasing amounts of chicken and increasing amounts of corn gluten meal. Compared with the dogs fed 100 percent chicken, the dogs fed the other diets had:

  • A decrease in lean tissue
  • An increase in body fat
  • Decreased levels of blood proteins that are universal markers of a well-nourished body

The same company did another study focused on the decline in body composi­tion and muscle-specific proteins in aging dogs.6 Senior dogs were fed a 32 percent chicken-based diet, a 32 percent chicken and corn gluten meal diet or a 16 percent chicken-based diet.

The dogs fed the 32 percent chicken-based diet had better body composition than healthy young adult dogs, and identical muscle-specific protein levels. Neither of the other two groups of senior dogs (those fed chicken + corn gluten meal or the diet with just 16 percent chicken) had similar results. The pet food company concluded that feeding dogs diets containing primarily animal-based protein sources provides several benefits, including:

  • Helps to maintain muscle mass
  • Reverses some age-related changes in skeletal muscles in senior dogs
  • Enhances the long-term health and well-being of both adult and senior dogs

Interestingly, despite the company's conclusion years ago that animal-based protein is the best type of protein for dogs, it doesn't appear they've incorporated their study findings into their dog food formulas. A quick glance at the ingredient lists for several of the company's senior and mature adult dog foods reveals corn meal and a variety of other plant-based ingredients at the top of the list.

Important Note: Not All Animal Protein Is Digestible

Protein quality is extremely variable, including protein sourced from animals. There are highly assimilable and digestible proteins that are easy for your pet's body to absorb and use, and there are proteins that are impossible to digest. For example, beaks, feet/hooves, hides, tails and snouts are 100 percent animal protein, but all 100 percent is indigestible.

All protein has a biologic value, which is its usable amino acid content. Eggs have the highest biologic value at 100 percent. Fish is a close second at 92 percent (though I don't recommend feeding most fish to pets on a daily basis). Feathers, as you might guess, have zero biologic value. Soy is very poor nutrition for pets and I recommend avoiding it, but it has a relatively high biologic value of 67 percent. Soy can adversely affect thyroid function, as well as be allergenic and estrogenic.

Both soy and corn (which is typically genetically modified, allergenic and heavily contaminated with glyphosates) are included in many popular commercial pet foods because they provide a cheap way for pet food manufacturers to boost the total protein content on the guaranteed analysis printed on the label. Digestion and assimilation are not measured for pet foods, so manufacturers can include other types of protein that have no biologic value for the species of animal eating it.