Full disclosure: I come from a family of cat people. Growing up, we always had at least one cat and these days, my parents have three. Every one of us, my parents and my two siblings and I, tend to shower them with love and let them get away with murder—literally. I once caught my mom in an embarrassing Freudian slip calling the “cats” the “kids.”
Unfortunately, a lot of my mom’s love manifested itself by feeding the cats every time they sat, saucer-eyed, in front of the cabinet that holds their food. After I moved to Brooklyn, I felt helpless as my beloved cats waistlines ballooned (Simon, a big orange tabby and the largest of the three, tips the scale at 22 pounds). My mom would buy industrial wet and dry food for them because it was inexpensive and, according to her, “It’s what they like.” My work as a sustainable food advocate led me to draw parallels between what was happening to my cats and our industrial food system—and in an effort to educate my mom and prepare myself for the inevitable day that I too will become a cat owner, I began to take a deeper look at the pet food industry.
What many pet owners may not realize is that animals' diets are often linked to health problems including obesity, heart and digestive problems, organ failure, premature aging and lack of energy in dogs and cats. And just like its human equivalent, the production of the vast majority of pet food also contributes to climate change, animal welfare problems, labor issues and in general, an unsustainable food system.
Conventional pet food is also packed with chemicals: in addition to protein, it contains fillers, colorants and a variety of synthetic substances to improve taste and extend shelf life. In Marion Nestle’s Pet Food Politics, she writes about how in early 2007, phone calls began trickling in to veterinary offices with reports of cats and dogs getting sick after eating food produced by Canadian pet food manufacturer, Menu Foods. That was the first sign of the China melamine pet food scandal and eventually, the largest recall of consumer products in U.S. history. The culprit was an industrial chemical called melamine, usually used to make plastic dinnerware. Chinese manufacturers had fraudulently added melamine to wheat and rice protein ingredients in pet foods -- and, as was later discovered as the scandal unfolded, to milk in infant formula and processed pigs, chickens and fish intended for human food-- to make these foods appear to be higher in protein than they actually were.
The melamine scandal exposed many ugly realities of industrial pet food—many of which mirror truths of industrial human food. “Most pet food companies are run strictly as a business, strictly to make money. It has nothing to do with nutrition or sustainability,” says Ira Manhoff, The Honest Kitchen’s Tri-State Sales Manager for the greater NY area, “A lot of the food recalls we had in pet food all point to this.” Since 2007, there have been 998 pet food products recalled— and many of these recalls were direct reactions to the deaths of many beloved animals. According to Manhoff, they were the result of corner cutting and lack of regulation in the pet food industry, and of the corporate mentality that people will feed their pets whatever product they put out, because they can make it affordable (while still making major profits). “The cost is going to come out somewhere,” Ira says. “If you don’t spend it on good food then you're going to get hit with vet costs and more importantly in the suffering of animals -- and that’s priceless.”
As pet owners have begun to question the food they find on pet shop shelves, many are turning to homemade food for their cats and dogs, trading in processed foods for grass-fed beef or free-range chicken dishes with sides of organic veggies. Even vegetarians, like Ecocentric blogger Dawn Brighid, have begun experimenting with home cooked meals involving meat for their littlest loved ones. It should be noted, however, that this isn’t exactly the easiest task to accomplish-- cats and dogs have specific nutrient requirements and careful attention must be paid to ingredients when it comes to home cooked meals.
In recent years, pet food companies like The Honest Kitchen, Raw Advantage and Karmahave sprung up to provide pet food that addresses not only the quality issue, but the environmental impacts of ingredients as well. Greenopia.com has these three listed as the top Green pet food producers—and none of them were involved in any of the pet food recalls. It’s because each vendor has exhibited a true dedication to supporting a local and sustainable food system—paying careful attention to where they source their ingredients. Each uses a high percentage of organic products and The Honest Kitchen is certified by the FDA as human grade, human edible food.
Since my family (special thanks to Dad) approached my mom with healthier, more sustainable alternatives to industrial pet food, my mom has started buying the aforementioned brands. Just like changing your own diet, changing the way you feed your pets is a learning process that takes some time to get right. As for myself, once I convince my roommate to get allergy shots and she convinces me our backyard is enough playroom for a puppy, I plan to adopt a dog or cat of my own and now believe I am armed with the information I need to make healthy food choices for my future feline (maybe canine) family member. So all you pet owners out there, remember, when it comes to feeding your pets and your family right, a better diet will protect not only your health and the health of your pets (side note: protect your wallet from medical bills), but also the health of the environment.