How to Decipher Pet Food Labels

Pets | | May 18, 2010 at 8:24 am
Chip Sammons and his companion.

Chip Sammons and Allie, his 11 year old rescue.

The rain is coming down hard as I drive up to the humble storefront of Holistic Pet Center in Oregon City. Chip Sammons greets me and takes me to his office. His desk is wedged between shelves of veterinary, nutrition, dog, cat, biology, animal physiology and anatomy books, and stacks of file folders containing what I soon find out are thousands of articles of research studies on pet health. On the wall are pictures of his family and himself with many different dogs and cats. This man loves pets.

How did you become a pet food expert?

I had a Boxer 40 years ago who died of cancer at only 4 years of age. I felt that part of the death of this dog was my fault and I wondered if I could have done anything differently, like fed the dog differently. The veterinarian said, “No, and all foods are about the same.”

At this time, I didn’t know much about dog food, but his answer just didn’t seem right to me. This drove me to research the pet food industry. What I found out, horrified me. I found out it was legal to use certain ingredients including the bodies of cats and dogs who had died of cancer. These were called the 4D meats or the dead, dying, diseased and disabled meats of animals and pets that had been euthanized.

Is this practice of using the 4D meats still legal?

It is still legal to use meats from euthanized animals who were sick and/or dying in pet food! The first big news investigative exposé was the 1990 two part article by San Francisco Chronicle staff writer John Eckhouse. He was the first journalist to make the word renderers better known. In his article Mr. Eckhouse explains how millions of dead cats and dogs are sent to rendering plants every year to be processed into pet food and cosmetics. Even though the pet food companies were, as they claimed, “recycling,” the rendering process involves using harsh carcinogenic or cancer causing chemicals to breakdown the nutrients that make their way back into pet foods. Chemicals that persist from the rendering process include creosote, phenol and euthanizing agents like pentobarbital, and pesticides from flea collars.

Photo by muahace_dc.

Photo by muahace_dc.

What would be the ingredients to avoid when you’re looking at pet food labels?

It‘s a very similar to what you look for on food you’re buying for your family.

  • Artificial preservatives
  • Artificial colors
  • Artificial flavors
  • Nitrates
  • By-products
  • Sugars

These are the ingredients that cause cancer in pets. I was concerned with what could cause cancer.  I never intended to open a pet store, but in 1988, I opened Holistic Pet Center as a place people could buy quality and healthy pet food. My dream was to make a store in which people could purchase and thing and not make a bad decision. The exclusion list was the absolute criteria for anything I carried in my store. All products are safe and not cancer causing. Even twenty-two years later, I still use the same criteria for the products in my store. It’s a simple concept, but a very good way to ensure health and quality.

What is natural flavoring?

Natural is a tricky word because it doesn’t have a definition. Natural flavoring can mean almost anything. Sometimes it means natural and sometimes it doesn’t. I know what it means because I talk to the individual manufactures.

What are some of the signs and symptoms pet owners can look for if they are suspecting a food intolerance or allergy?

Some signs of a possible food related problem are redness on the belly, licking the feet, hot spots at the base of the tail, eye discharge, scratching on the chin, or “my dog/cat is constantly itching or scratching.” Another common phrase I hear is, “My dog has continual ear problems,” or I often have people ask, “Do you have something for my dogs ears?” My first question for pet owners who’s pets have these symptoms is, “What kind of food are you feeding them?”  Our experience is that when you get a pet on a more hypoallergenic formula that the problematic allergic symptom natural goes away.

Why are grains used in pet food?

When Ralston-Purina first made pet food and cereal, they used extruders. Extruders are long machines that compact the food, dehydrate it, and sometimes even bake or cook it, so that by the end of the line out pops kibble or cereal flakes. The only way to make the kibble stick together and not crumble into dust was to use some glue food substance. In the case of kibble and cereal flakes, gluten from certain grains was used in 1954 to produce the first dry dog and cat food. It took almost forty years for the first no grain dry pet food to come out in 1993.

What is ash content on a pet food label? Why is this listed on pet food?

Ash is not an added ingredient. Ash is literally what you would end up with if you burned the food. If the pet food has more by-products, there will be more ash. You want to look for the lower the ash content, the better. In fact if you are considering a good quality pet food, you shouldn’t have to look at ash, because it will have a low ash content. In other words, there will be very little by-products.

What are by-products?

By-products are anything other than meat. By-products include, according to the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials), beaks, feathers, hair, hides, hooves, feet, eyes, bones, etc.


Photo by Hamed Saber.

Photo by Hamed Saber.

Are organ meats considered by-products?

Yes. This is where my expertise for evaluating pet food products comes in handy. I actually have visited almost all the pet food manufacturer facilities to see what exactly the put in their food. Organ meats are considered by-products, but the ancestral diets of cats and dogs did include organs. In fact many scavengers and predators prefer organs for the nutrient density. Organ meats are great.

A lot of the good companies use organ meats in their by-products. The problem is the FDA does not allow the differentiation between by-products from animal parts like beaks and feathers, and by-products from organ meats. This lack of a clear by-product definition is a result of the FDA not allowing any one company the ability to claim something that other companies could not claim. Organ meats cost a lot more than chicken beaks. If a company lists kidney and liver on the front of the package, their ingredient list has to list it as by-products.

What other things should pet owners look for on labels?

So just to recap:

  • Nothing from the primary list like the artificial colors, preservatives, and flavors;
  • No by-products
  • No sugar. In fact cats don’t even have a sugar or sweetness receptor. Sugar can be listed as sugar, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose.
  • No nitrates. Nitrates were actually banned by the FDA in the 1950s but the FDA never enforced the ban in pet and human food.  We all know that and it has been shown that nitrates cause cancer. The meat industry said that it would cause a major nutritional deficiency because people would not buy meats if they were grey. Nitrates are used to keep meat red in the grocery store. Also, the meat industry argued that if meat were not kept artificially red, truly decaying grey meat would not be easily discernible and many more people would get sick and die.

Look for part 2 next week as Chip and I discuss the controversial raw food diet, natural flea control, and dental care for your canine’s canines.

GibranDr. Gibran Ramos completed his six year training and internship in Naturopathic and Chinese Medicine at National College of Natural Medicine. Dr. Ramos helps patients transform their lives and optimize their well-being at a private practice in Portland, Oregon.

Related Posts with Thumbnails Tags: , ,


  1. This is really great. I can’t wait for part 2! I have a question that isn’t exactly related to pet food labels, but is there really a danger in giving pets human food? I’m thinking of feeding my beagle one of those canned chicken liver things just to add flavor to his usual dog food. That being said, if dogs don’t have sweet taste receptors, why do they seem to prefer human food more than their dog food? i.e., they jump on us and beg at the dinner table, etc.

  2. Chip Sammons says:

    Dogs do have the sweetness receptor, but cats don’t.
    Human food in the form of raw good choices is great! But that doesn’t usually include table scraps which are often processed, cooked, and loaded with spices that aren’t particularly good for dogs. We’ve got some great books that can help you find the best choices!