I wrote something of this in a forum post in the Katahdin Commons a week or so ago but, knowing that not everyone reads the Katahdin area discussion forum, I decided to expand upon that post in the form of an article in the Magic City Morning Star, which is considerably more widely read.
As many of you may be aware, I have been away from Millinocket for nearly two years. During my short time in Levant, and longer time in North Carolina, I worked as a pet nutrition specialist for a pet food company, which I won't name. Long before that, as the owner of five cats (who doesn't go in for the pet parent nonsense), I had made an effort to feed my cats right, wanting them to remain healthy, happy, and as free of veterinary bills as possible for as long as could be reasonably expected. In that, I have enjoyed some success; one of my cats died of cancer while we were in Levant, but she was a couple of months short of being twenty-four years old, and was very healthy for all but the last couple of months of her life. Two of her daughters, who are with me still, turned eighteen last December. I have another eighteen year-old too, whom I took in when she was nearly two, after having fed her as a feral cat for the first couple of years of her life. Her daughter, our youngest, was born in Millinocket shortly after we moved here in the spring of 2001.
One of the sisters developed an allergy, either to corn, soy or wheat, at the age of twelve, the symptoms being dry skin, hotspots and a loss of fur, as a result of licking due to itching. At the time, it was very difficult to find a cat food that had no corn, soy or wheat, as these ingredients are very common in pet foods. Though not well digested by dogs or cats, they serve as a sort of a filler. While corn, in particular, has nutritional value, if it is not well digested, as is the case in dogs and cats, it is very low in digestible nutrition, and serves mostly to fill litter boxes. In other words, corn, soy and wheat are not the best you can do, even for cats that aren't allergic to the stuff.
When I last lived in Millinocket, I was unable to find anything locally that Lydia, the cat with the food allergy, could eat without losing her fur. PetCo, in Bangor, carried only two brands that would work, one of them manufactured by the company that I later went to work for. In the absence of local choices, I drove to Bangor a couple of months and ordered other foods online. When we returned to Millinocket in April of this year, I had expected much of the same. In fact, I brought thirty pounds of kibble and a couple of cases of canned food with me. I was pleased to find that I was wrong. Hannafords in Millinocket now carries some excellent choices in cat food.
First, some basics about choosing a pet food, in no particular order.
Cats are obligate carnivores. By their genetic makeup, cats must eat meat in order to thrive. Cats may eat other foods, such as vegetables, grains, or fruit, but they must eat meat as the main source of protein. Commercially prepared vegetarian diets for cats include the specific components of the meat that cats require, but I don't recommend them. God never intended for your cat to be a vegan.
|From front to back: the sisters, Cutie and Lydia; and in the back, Bird - all eighteen years of age. Obadiah doesn't care much for canned food, preferring kibble.|
Dogs are carnivores also, but they are not obligate carnivores. These means that they can survive well on a carefully designed vegeterian diet, especially if eggs and milk products are included. On the other hand, as they are natural carnivores, meat is probably a better choice.
In general, when you are deciding on what sort of protein your cat or your dog will do best with, consider what they might realistically be eating if they were in the wild, then make room for your own quibbles; that's only fair, since you're paying the bills after all. In all honesty, the healthiest meal for your cat is probably a freshly killed mouse or bird. But for most of us, that won't do; we don't want to send them out hunting, nor are we likely to bring live mice and birds home for them to devour on our living room floors. That's where the quibbles come into play.
They are not in the wild, so it's reasonable to make allowances. Still, if we consider the things that they might otherwise be capable of hunting on their own, we are more likely to arrive at a source of protein that they will be able to digest. My cats don't hunt; or when they do, they use catch and release methods. Even the one that I took in as a feral adult brings critters into the house unharmed. The last spring that I was in Levant, she brought in at least thirty frogs, and I think some of them made the trip more than once. My eight year-old pounced on a bird a few months ago, held it for a few moments, then lifted her paws and watched it fly away.
Nevertheless, the nutritional principle remains valid, I think. With some exceptions, that is what you will see in commercial pet foods. Both cats and dogs will digest poultry well, which is why you will see chicken and poultry as common ingredients in pet food. A dog, or at least a pack of dogs, might run a deer or a cow down in the wild, so dogs are going to do a better job of digesting beef or venison than cats will. You will see both beef and venison used in cat foods as well, and I wouldn't rule it out as an alternative choice for my cats but, as a primary source of protein, I'd go with poultry and fish over beef and venison, as far as my cats are concerned.
As for corn, I grew up on a farm and I can tell you that we never worried about either a dog or a cat getting in the cornfield. If they ate anything that they found in the cornfield, it would be a bird or a rodent that they found there. They weren't eating the corn.
While cats and dogs have different nutritional requirements, the principles of nutrition are pretty much the same. This article is written primarily with cats in mind, and I won't be specifically reviewing any dog food formulas, but most of what I have to say about cat food here will pertain to dog food as well, and most of the manufacturers that make a good cat food will make a good dog food also, but that's not necessarily true. Always review the ingredients to be sure.
Make your choices in a dog or a cat food as you would your decisions in what to feed your baby or your young child. Whenever possible, give them something that they like but don't let them make all of the decisions. You can read the ingredients; they can't. Manufacturers of the cheaper brands of pet foods generally use a larger amount of animal fat, artificial flavorings or other ingredients designed to give taste to something that your pet would otherwise refuse to eat. They also use sugars and empty calories in order to addict your pet. My cats love some of the foods that I now refuse to feed them. Given a choice, my cats would probably choose to eat some pretty awful stuff, just as your child might opt for McDonalds or candy over the choices that you give them.
Instead, let them choose from among healthy foods that you have selected, and you will be able to find healthy foods that they like. Cats tend to be pickier than dogs, but they also change their minds often so the food that they turn their noses up at today might be one of their favorites next month. Still, you will probably come across some healthy choices that your pet won't eat. The Organix brand is one that my cats consistently don't like, but that doesn't mean that your cat won't love it, or even that mine won't like it at some later point in their lives. Organix has very good ingredients but, since I throw more of it away than they eat, I don't buy it often. Again, yours may love it so don't rule it out.
|Good choices in dry food that can be found at Hannafords.|
Canned or kibble
I used to believe that kibble was the best thing for my cats, and some good arguments can be made for kibble, not least among them being price and convenience. Equally good arguments can be made for canned foods, however. Since my cats are older, I worry about them getting enough water. With four cats, it's hard for me to determine whether each cat is drinking enough water so I have opted to feed them both canned and kibble, allowing them to get at least some of their necessary water from the canned food. Plus, one of the sisters is taking a supplement for the early stages of arthritis and it's easier for me to get her to take that when I mix it in with her canned food.
Raw or home-prepared
Some people choose to feed their pets raw foods, and I won't argue that this is an unhealthy choice, as long as it's carefully balanced to meet their dietary needs. Others opt to cook fresh chicken, fish, or other meats for their pets, along with brown rice and other ingredients, and this might also be a healthy choice if done right. However, because both these options tend to be time-consuming and troublesome, most people give up on these ideas before long.
I won't argue that organic is not potentially a healthier, more nutritious choice, than foods that are not made from organic ingredients. Do you eat only organic foods yourself? Do you feed only organic foods to your children? If so, then it might make sense to extend this to your dog or your cat. Otherwise, I don't know that it's reasonable to feed your pet better than you feed yourself or your own children. I have found a couple of organic formulas that my cats like well enough but they are not overly fond of any of the organic foods that I can buy locally.
Organic foods are no doubt better for your pet than non-organic alternatives, but you can have a very healthy cat or dog even if you do not elect to go this route.
Premium or store brand
I can understand the hesitation to pay significantly more per ounce for a premium brand of pet food, especially if your cat or dog seems to be doing well on a much cheaper store brand. I've been through that, so I get it. Sadly though, by the time we realize that our pet isn't doing so well anymore, it is too often too late to reverse the damage that poor nutrition may have contributed to. Cats, in particular, hide their illnesses well, so well that unless you know what you're looking for and are paying close attention, by the time you realize that something is wrong with your cat, it's too late to do anything about it.
I recommend that you get past the per-ounce mindset, in determining how much money a particular brand of cat food is costing you. Rather, you should look at how much it costs to feed your cat. Some people who have switched to premium brands on a trial basis are unaware that they don't have to feed nearly as much volume when the protein concentration is denser, as you will find in most premium brands. Not all, but most cats will recognize this on their own and, after the first month of being converted to a better brand of cat food, will begin eating less. Dogs are not quite as good at this, since many of them will eat whatever amount of food you set in front of them, while cats are more likely to walk away when they've had enough.
I had a customer once who, after switching her dog from an inexpensive store brand to the premium brand that was being sold by my employer, came to me a month later with three complaints. First, our food was costing her more. Secondly, her dog was gaining too much weight. Third, she didn't think that her dog liked our food as well as he had liked the cheaper brand because, while he at first ate everything that was put in front of him, he was now leaving some of it behind. Other than these perceived problems, she told me that her dog's coat looked much better, that being one of the main reasons that she had decided to try a better brand of dog food to begin with. Other than a slight weight problem, she felt that her dog seemed healthier, happier, and more active than he had been before. Since I couldn't do anything about the price per ounce, I questioned her about the other problems and learned that she was feeding far too much. Since her previous brand of dog food was primarily made of corn, it was necessary for her dog to eat a lot of it because the digestible protein was so low. Despite what she thought, her dog probably liked the food, which was why he was eating more of it than he needed to, leading to a slight weight gain; but even at that, he couldn't eat it all, given the high protein density, so he was leaving some of it behind, which led her owner to think that he didn't like to the food.
|I fed Bird since she was a kitten but took her in, as a feral adult, when she was about two. She's eighteen now, a couple of months younger than Cutie and Lydia.|
All three problems were at least partially solved. Yes, our food cost more per ounce than her previous brand but she didn't have to buy as much of it, which offset the higher cost considerably. Cutting back on the amount of food that she put in her dog's bowl, his weight was brought back under control and he ate everything that was put in front of him.
While a premium brand will cost you more per ounce, you won't have to buy as much of it because so much less of it will go to waste, and have to be scooped out of your litter box or off of your lawn, which is nice also. Another plus is that a better food will lead to a healthier animal, and a healthier animal will make for a better pet, one who will be with you a lot longer, and not have to make as many trips to the veterinary office, which goes further to offset the higher costs of a premium food.
One word of caution, however. Some expensive pet foods are no better, or even worse than cheaper store brands, so always read the ingredients.
Ninety percent of what is contained in a bag or can of pet food can be found in the first three or four listed ingredients. This doesn't mean that the rest of it is unimportant but when a label brags that the food contains "real chicken" and chicken is the ninth listed ingredients, the manufacturer isn't lying but there isn't much chicken there. Look for meat as the first ingredient in a pet food.
Meat by-products are the portions of the meat that are unfit for human consumption. True enough, your dog or your cat probably doesn't care. But you should, because there is a reason why we were designed to prefer particular cuts of meat; for the most part, this is because these cuts are the ones that yield the highest digestible nutrition. For these reasons, I don't buy anything that uses meat by-products as an ingredient.
Commonly found in cheaper brands of pet food, animal digest can be described as a cooked-down broth made from unspecified parts of unspecified animals. I would never feed a pet food that lists animal digest as an ingredient.
I would also watch for, and rule out, any formula that includes artificial preservatives or coloring.
Brown rice is healthier and more easily digested than white rice but, since white rice is cheaper, it's more often used in pet foods. Brown rice has an additional quality that helps cats to digest ingredients that they might otherwise have trouble with so, while I wouldn't rule a pet food out entirely because it uses white rice, given a choice I will choose brown over white. If I didn't have a cat that was allergic to it, I would probably feed them something with corn, soy or wheat once in awhile, as a change in their diet, but I wouldn't make it a staple in their diet, for reasons mentioned earlier.
In reviewing specific foods, I will include only those that I consider to be reasonable choices.
I saw only three brands of cat food kibble at Hannafords that I would consider to be a reasonable choice for your cat, and only two particularly good choices, but two is enough. The better ones are: Organix, manufactured by Castor & Pollux, based in Oregon; and Harmony Farms, which is produced by a company headquartered in Connecticut. Newman's Own makes a kibble that certainly isn't your worst choice but it does use soy and sorghum, which is closely related to corn. Pet Promise makes a good canned cat food, but its kibble uses brewer's rice as the second ingredient, then corn gluten meal and soy. It wouldn't be the worst choice in the store, but you can do a lot better than that.
In a kibble, I have been feeding Blue Spa Select, which I buy at Petco in Bangor, but if I'm running low and don't feel like making a drive to Bangor, I wouldn't hesitate to pick up a bag of Organix or Harmony Farms, the latter of which is actually the store brand made by the same company that produces Spa Select, and is similar in most ways.
In canned food, the choices are even better. I found twenty different canned foods, from six different manufacturers, that would be healthy choices for my cats. If my cats are representative of felines in general, they change their minds from one week to the next about what they like and what they don't like, so I won't include any taste tests here. Rather, I'll reserve my comments to the listed ingredients, concentrating on the first few but mentioning other significant ingredients that might appear later. In many cases, a listing of the first few ingredients will suffice, given comments that I have made earlier in this article.
Now, for the specific brands, in no particular order.
Newman's Own is an excellent brand as far as its ingredients go. Based in California, one hundred percent of the company's profits go to charity, according to company literature. Unfortunately, a large portion of this is used to fund various environmental preservationist organizations that put people out of work, so I wouldn't buy it. Being the ethically conscious felines that they are, my cats would probably refuse to eat the stuff.
In a kibble, Hannafords carries Newman's Own Organics Premium Cat Food, Advanced Cat Formula, for Active or Senior Cats. In order, the first few ingredients are: organic chicken, chicken meal, organic soybean meal, fish meal, organic sorghum, organic peas, organic brown rice, organic millet, organic rice, organic canola oil, ... and so on, with nothing scary that I can see. This is not the best choice, as far as a kibble goes, because of the soybean meal and the sorghum, which is closely related to corn. Even if it weren't for the ethical concerns, I wouldn't buy very much of this stuff, but a small bag every now and then probably wouldn't hurt anyone.
However, this brand includes six different formulas of canned cat food, none of which contain any of the things that I am particularly concerned about.
- Organic Beef for Cats: I wouldn't feed this as a regular part of their diet, not just because of the late Paul Newman's affinity for enviro-nazi causes, but also because I don't believe that beef is the best thing for them. As an alternative change of pace, howevever, it's not a terrible choice. Other than a long list of minerals, its only ingredients are the first two listed, organic beef and organic beef broth. In general, that's another thing you might want to look for in a canned food, as the use of broth rather than plain water for processing will tend toward a higher nutritional value and taste.
- Organic Liver for Cats: The ingredients are organic beef liver, beef broth, and a list of minerals. My comments are the same as above.
- Chicken and Salmon Formula for Cats: The first few ingredients are: organic chicken, sufficient water for processing, chicken liver, salmon, ocean whitefish, organic brown rice, ...
- Chicken and Brown Rice Formula for Cats: Organic chicken, sufficient water for processing, chicken liver, ocean whitefish, organic brown rice, ...
- Turkey Formula for Cats: Organic turkey, sufficient water for processing, turkey liver, ocean whitefish, organic brown rice, chicken, ...
- Turkey and Vegetable Formula for Cats: Organic turkey, water sufficient for processing, turkey liver, organic brown rice, sweet potatoes, ...
Harmony Farms guarantees that none of its recipes will contain animal by-products, artificial preservatives, colors or flavors. Its pet foods are gluten-free, and they never use corn, soy or wheat. Based in Connecticut, the Harmony Farms grocery store brand canned foods are largely the same as its more expensive specialty product, sold in pet supply stores as Blue Spa Select, for cats, or Blue Buffalo, for dogs. Both its kibble and its canned foods are good choices.
While the company produces others, Hannafords carries only its Chicken and Brown Rice Recipe kibble. The ingredient list includes chicken, chicken meal, whole ground brown rice, whole ground barley, oats, chicken fat, rye, menhaden fish meal, ... and so on, including such ingredients as alfalfa meal, ground flaxseed, whole cranberries, dried kelp, and chickory root extract. It's good stuff.
There are four different formulas of canned food in this line.
- Tasty Tuna Entree: The first few ingredients are tuna, fish broth, chicken, chicken liver, ground brown rice, ...
- New England Seafood Feast: Ocean fish, fish broth, chicken liver, brown rice, shrimp, carrots, ...
- Tempting Turkey & Chicken Entree: Turkey, chicken broth, chicken, chicken liver, ground brown rice, ...
- Country Chicken Entree: Chicken, chicken broth, chicken liver, ground brown rice, carrots, ...
Produced by Castor & Pollux, an Oregon company with a good reputation in the pet food industry, Organix is as good as any that you'll find anywhere. You won't find any corn or wheat in any Organix product, nor do they use meat by-products, or artificial nasties. There are other varieties of Organix cat food kibble, but I think Hannafords carries only its Adult & KItten Feline Formula, the first ingredients of which are: organic chicken, chicken meal, organic peas, organic brown rice, organic barley, potato protein, organic chicken fat, salmon meal, organic flaxseed, ...
There are two formulas of its canned food carried by Hannafords.
- Organic Turkey, Brown Rice & Chicken Formula: The first ingredients are organic turkey, water sufficient for processing, organic brown rice, organic chicken, organic chicken liver, ...
- Turkey and Seafood Formula: Organic turkey, salmon broth, organic chicken liver, organic brown rice, organic chicken liver, ...
I had never heard of PetGuard, a Florida company, until I moved back to Millinocket and found it in Hannafords, which carries two of its canned formulas, both of which my cats like well enough. PetGuard makes a good kibble, but I didn't see it on the shelves at Hannafords. The first ingredients in its PetGuard Premium Cat & Kitten Dry Food are: fresh chicken, chicken meal, brown rice, sunflower oil, oatmeal, chicken fat, fish oil, ... and so on, with no meat by-products, corn, soy, wheat or artificial nasties.
As far as its wet food goes, there are two excellent choices on the shelf at Hannafords.
- Premium Feast Dinner: Chicken liver, beef, beef broth, kidney, rice flour, ...
- Savory Seafood Dinner: Mackerel, water sufficient for processing, salmon, ocean fish, rice flour, ...
I was also unfamiliar with this brand until I found it at Hannafords. However, the ingredients in its canned food look good, with none of the nasties. Hannafords stocks one of its kibble formulas; unfortunately, its dry food doesn't look very good, with the second, third and fourth ingredients being brewers rice, corn gluten meal and soy flour. Nutritionally, the Pet Promise kibble is roughly the equivalent of Science Diet, but that's not saying much, Science Diet being an overpriced junk food for pets.
There are two formulas of Pet Promise canned cat foods carried by Hannafords, however, and they are both worth looking at.
- Ocean Fish Formula: Ocean fish, chicken, fish broth, chicken liver, brown rice, ...
- Chicken Formula: Chicken, chicken broth, chicken liver, brown rice, ...
Lastly, there is Brandon Farms, a New Hampshire company. Brandon Farms produces a regular and an organics line of dry food for cats. I think I saw its regular kibble on the shelf at Hannafords a couple of weeks ago but I'm not certain, and didn't find it there today. If so, I wouldn't buy it; as the second ingredient is ground corn and the fourth ingredient is corn gluten meal. Its organics line of dry cat food is good though, the first ingredients being: organic chicken, chicken meal, ground barley, organic ground oats, organic brown rice, fish meal, ... and so on, with no corn, soy or wheat.
Hannafords carries four formulas of the Brandon Farms canned cat food, each of which are said to be 95% meat, and any of which I would - and have - fed my cats.
- 95% Beef & Liver: Beef, beef liver, meat broth, tricalcium phosphate, ... Don't worry about the tricalcium phosphate; it's a mineral, used as a nutritional supplement and as a firming agent found in most cat foods. It appears here as the fourth ingredient only because, being 95% meat, the first three ingredients represent a higher percentage of the total food.
- 95% Salmon, Mackerel & Sardines: Salmon, mackerel, salmon broth, sardines, chicken liver, ...
- 95% Chicken & Chicken Liver: Chicken, chicken broth, chicken liver, guar gum, ...
- 95% Turkey & Turkey Liver: Turkey, turkey broth, turkey liver, guar gum, ...
You will find additional choices in healthy pet foods if you want to drive to Bangor, at either Petco or Pet Quarters, or perhaps some others that I'm not aware of, but it's not necessary to leave Millinocket in order to feed your pet healthy foods. You can find them at Hannafords, and for that I am quite pleased. Although I do drive to Bangor for the Blue Spa Select kibble, I have bought a few bags of Harmony Farms from Hannafords. More significantly, I buy nearly all of my canned cat food at Hannafords.
|Good choices in canned cat food that can be found at Hannafords.|