Toxic Dog Food Ingredients 

RARELY, in a traditional veterinary situation is diet discussed at length as a viable reason for common health issues in cats and dogs.  The major pet food companies (Hill’s, Royal Canin, Purina, and Mars) all contribute to the education our veterinary professionals receive during their schooling and training, however this leaves some gaping holes in the very complex and necessary area of pet care.  This, in turn, contributes to a lack of a comprehensive approach to wellness through good nutrition, supplementation, and life-long overall health.  It is also a major contributing factor to the astronomical number of pets currently on prescription medications in the United States – prescriptions that could (in a vast majority of cases) be eliminated by proper care and feeding from the beginning with these precious pets.

When deciphering pet food labels, many ingredients have scientific sounding names with no explanation for why they are necessary to pet health and diet.  Many of these ingredients are synthetic, preservatives, emulsifiers, bulk additives, and/or not at all healthy for pets whatsoever.  Knowing what to look for can make all the difference in the world to pet breeds with a propensity to cancer, diabetes, or other compromising health issues.  Because a pet’s diet rarely varies, there is a cumulative effect when their food includes harmful ingredients.  Over time, what started out feeding very well can compromise a dog’s entire system and cause them to become intolerant to their own environment or even certain foods.  This will manifest as skin, ear, or digestive issues, hot spots, open sores or feet licking.  

Let’s take a look at a few of these concerning ingredients…

We’ll begin with a case study.  M.  came to me greatly concerned for her two small dogs, stating that they both “have severe allergies”.  When I asked her what she was feeding her two little dogs, she was excited to say “Fresh Pet”. This is not an inexpensive food and is touted as a far better option than kibble or canned food. It sounds great, after all, FRESH is the first word in the name, so it must be good.  Fresh Pet is advertised as “fresh meat” and “fresh veggies” which are cooked and then refrigerated.  It is packaged in a rolled-up food log in a refrigerator in the grocery or pet store.  I wanted to learn more, so I began my research – for myself as well as M and her pups.

This was no small task.  My first search was of the company’s website. I will give them credit for explaining the ingredients in the food.  However, I was looking for clear and concise transparency.  I struggled to find even truth in the information provided.  Nowhere on the website does it provide just how much real meat is in this food. Reputable dog food manufacturers will always tell you the percentage of actual meat in their products.  The next red-flag concern for my client were three very concerning ingredients – CARRAGEENAN, NATURAL FLAVORS, and SALT.  These were followed by a litany of synthetic ingredients.  SO much to unpack… but let’s start at the beginning.

Carrageenan is red leaf algae.  It is an additive which, when added to foods including pudding and dairy products causes gelling and thickening.  Carrageenan has been found to be highly inflammatory and toxic to the digestive tract in both humans and pets, and some claims state that it may be responsible for colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and even colon cancer.  In animal testing, it has been found to be a massive inflammatory to the digestive system and known to cause cancer or stomach tumors.  When this ingredient mixes with the high acidity in a dog’s stomach, the resulting compounds can become quite toxic. It has been banned for use in food products in many countries in the world, as studies continue to be conducted on its safety, yet the US has yet to make that leap.

M. feeds her dogs nothing but Fresh Pet – no treats, no table scraps, no other foods that could produce an adverse reaction in their systems.  The concern here is that it has caused extremely high alkalinity.  Alkalinity at this level can cause struvite kidney stones – extremely costly or deadly urinary stones that are very common in smaller dogs and/or dogs with hair rather than fur.  Small-breed dogs are the target demographic with Fresh Pet pet food.

The next ingredient to cause me to pause is known as “natural flavor”.  This is a widely-recognized euphemism for monosodium glutamate, or MSG.  While MSG is added to human food commonly in Chinese food, canned soup, processed or frozen foods as a flavor enhancer, it is added to pet food in much the same way.  MSG in the long term is addictive and has several additional harmful effects on both humans and pets alike.  MSG contributes to obesity in animals and is a known irritant to a dog’s system, causing itching and irritation.  It can triple a dog’s insulin levels and is a suspected neurotoxin, associated with chest pain, headaches, mood changes and other severe reactions in humans. The makers of Fresh Pet do not disclose at all what this is or where it comes from. 

Simply stated, MSG is an unnecessary additive used to ensure the continued palatability and attraction to the food we feed our pets.

In the pet food industry MSG is hidden under many ingredient names. MSG gets by the FDA and USDA because it is indeed “natural.”   While it is a “natural” flavor enhancer, MSG can also appear under other names, including: 

  • “Natural flavoring” (e.g. chicken flavor)
  • Any type of protein isolate (e.g. soy protein isolate)
  • Any type of textured protein (such as textured vegetable protein)
  • Autolyzed yeast
  • Hydrolyzed yeast
  • Yeast extracts or yeast nutrient or yeast food
  • Soy extracts
  • Soy concentrate
  • Sodium caseinate or calcium caseinate
  • Disodium inosinate or disodium guanylate (which are flavor enhancers effective only in the presence of MSG)
  • MSG (monosodium glutamate)
  • Monopotassium glutamate
  • Glutamate, glutamic acid, or free glutamate 

 Salt is never a good product in any daily-fed pet food. Salt is unnecessary to dogs for palatability and in fact causes skin irritations including seborrhea and dermatitis – more commonly known as dandruff or dry coat – as well as a long list of other health concerns related to the heart and internal organs.  Inclusion of salt in a food of this type ensures frequent urination in an effort to counter-balance the effects of the high alkalinity (and possibility of kidney stones) brought on by the carrageenan.  It creates quite a merry-go-round of symptoms and placebo-like panaceas (or prescription medications) to counter-act them. 

She really believed she had made a healthful choice for her furbabies.  She wasn’t feeding dry kibble, which she had taken the time to research and deemed not sufficient for her pups.  She was truly stymied by the unfortunate side effects of the unnecessary ingredients in her food.  Unfortunately, such ingredients don’t stop there.  

A stroll down the pet food aisle at my local big-box store yielded further concern for me as I scanned the colorful bags and nutritional panels on several popular dog foods and treats.  These additives are buried in the ingredients, difficult to pronounce, and even more difficult to decrypt.  Here’s my list of the top attention-grabbers:

BHA/BHT:  Used frequently in combination with one another, BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are added to pet food for the purposes of preserving the shelf life of meat FATS and colorants.  Both BHA and BHT are classified as carcinogenic (cancer-causing) and have proven to cause both liver and kidney damage in laboratory rats.  

DL-Methionine:  Methionine itself is a naturally-produced and very necessary amino acid which comes from meat and fish protein.  DL-Methionine, however, is a synthetic doppelganger for Methionine.  It is added to pet foods and treats that have substituted proper meat proteins with vegetable proteins, such as wheat, corn, soy, or low-calorie foods intended to replace meat.  This additive is used much like MSG, in an effort to make foods that would not otherwise be palatable for pets into something attractive to them.  Like MSG, it has shown a propensity for becoming addictive to cats and is not at all an appropriate alternative to actual meat protein.

Ethoxyquin: Developed by Monsanto in the 1950’s as a pesticide, Ethoxyquin is produced exclusively in China.  A preservative, Ethoxyquin is NOT added in the food production process.  It is, however, found in farmed fish, poultry, and eggs, as it is included in the foods for these protein sourced animals.  Originally used to keep fats shelf-stable, it is now banned in human food for its cancer-causing properties, as well as its contribution specifically to both kidney and liver cancer.  Dogs who have been fed a consistent diet including Ethoxyquin suffer major digestive inflammation.  In 2020 alone, pet deaths attributed directly to Ethoxyquin numbered in the hundreds.  

Because Ethoxyquin arrives to pet food manufacturers already in the meat protein sources going into their foods, AAFCO does not require these manufacturers to include it on the label of their products.  (Although I was able to find it listed on some Purina products.)  Sadly, the only way to know for certain whether your pet’s food contains Ethoxyquin is to contact the manufacturer directly.

Unfortunately, the pet food industry has become a landmine field of false information and non-transparency.  Your pet deserves better!  Because they cannot speak for themselves, we are the best advocates for our pets.  We are here to help you navigate the myriad choices when feeding your pets and provide safe, informed options for all your pets’ needs.  We seek only to provide you with natural solutions to get and keep your pets’ immune system on a healthy path using a balanced, healthful diet as well as ethically-sourced treats, supplements, vitamins, and products which can easily be fact-checked on the internet.  While we appreciate and support the holistic veterinary medical community, we also believe that expensive office visits and prescription drugs may not need to be the only answer or your first course of action to address easily-corrected issues. Many of the pharmaceuticals you may be recommended have very negative side effects or other lasting and detrimental influences that compromise your pets’ life span.  All-too-often, for example, “seasonal allergy medicine” isn’t just seasonal; your pet may be left on it for months or even years, compromising and eventually destroying their sensitive digestive biome and skin.

Ask yourself a few simple questions, like: did your pet have these issues when you brought them home as a young puppy?  Were they fine for several years of life and this is now a recent issue?  Were they dropped at a rescue because of these behaviors or their health issues?  So often, the answer you will find to this is NO, they were fine for years.  Not much (if anything) has changed when it comes to their environment.  Or YES, they were sick when I got them.  Allergies would have manifested nearly since birth; anything that “develops” over a long period of time would be the result of a weakened immune system caused by improper and deficient diet.

What M. finally realized is that feeding a diet high in preservatives, chemicals, and processed products – whether kibble or highly-processed “fresh” food – was not the answer.  The true answer, she found, was a 90% raw meat (including organ meats!), 10% fresh fruit and vegetable diet was the only appropriate way to reverse and correct her pets’ issues once and for all.  For all dogs under 25 pounds, this is a completely appropriate diet. 

Knowing what is in your pet’s food is key to keeping them healthy.  Discuss this with your veterinarian.  Ask questions.  Read labels.  Do your research.  We have done all of these things.  We have the solutions through foods and supplements we have vetted and use ourselves.