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The Ruff Report: Pricey foods may actually be bad for your pet

Pet parents who feed their dogs and cats those more expensive natural, organic and holistic foods that are touted as better may find this hard to stomach, but a leading veterinary nutritionist says they are no healthier or safer than conventional chow and may even be less nutritious.

In many instances, these pet foods - which can cost twice as much - have the same ingredients as regular food, but the natural preservatives used in them may result in the quality of the food degrading more quickly, according to Dr. David A. Dzanis, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.

"There is little scientific basis to show that natural products are safer, healthier or more nutritious," Dr. Dzanis said during a presentation titled "Pet food myths and fallacies" at an annual conference of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

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"In fact, some have questioned the ability for natural preservatives to prevent product degradation as effectively as the synthetic, which if true, could lead to spoilage, loss of nutritive value and potential adverse effects," Dr. Dzanis added.

Natural pet food

Many pet owners mistakenly assume that natural pet products contain better ingredients and are safer than conventional pet foods, but in many cases they basically contain the same ingredients at a much higher price, Dr. Dzanis states.

Under Association of American Feed Control Officials guidelines, a natural product must contain no chemically synthetic ingredients, according to Dr. Dzanis. However, many natural pet foods do contain some synthetic trace nutrients like vitamins, minerals and taurine (a heart supplement) to formulate a complete and balanced product. Makers of natural pet food can do this because the AAFCO allows use of a disclaimer such as "natural with added vitamins and minerals" to qualify the addition of synthetic nutrients.

"Thus, the bulk of ingredients in a 'natural' pet food and a traditionally formulated pet food may be the same," Dr. Dzanis explained.

By definition, natural pet foods cannot have chemically synthetic non-nutritive ingredients - such as artificial preservatives, flavors or colors - so natural preservatives - such as mixed tocopherols (extracted) or citric acid (fermented) - are used, Dr. Dzanis stated. But these natural preservatives can be less effective than chemical ones - like synthetic ethoxyquin or propyl gallate - thus the natural food may spoil and lose its nutritional value.

Organic pet food

Organic foods, which differ from natural, are frequently are touted as free of pesticides and hormones, given the consumer the impression that they are safer for pets, Dr. Dzanis states.

Organic refers to a system of production and manufacturing for ingredients and products. For example, organic grains must be grown without genetic engineering or use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. Organic beef must be from cattle allowed daily access to outside areas and fed organic feeds with no antibiotics, steroids or other drugs. These and other requirements are codified in U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program regulations, according to Dr. Dzanis.

"However, these rules are not considered by NOP as a means to ensure safer, healthier or more nutritious foods, Dr. Dzanis states. "In fact, there is no regulatory distinction in the tolerable levels of pesticides, drugs or other residues allowed in organic versus conventional products (even though lower residues may in fact be a result)."

NOP approval is simply a confirmation of the organic production process, Dr. Dzanis states. "The purchaser is left to his or her own determination as to whether the costs merit the perceived benefits."

Holistic pet food

No rules or definitions exist for a pet product to be labeled holistic, which pretty much leaves a consumer on his own to make a determination on whether a holistic food's ingredients are any different or better from a conventional pet food, according to Dr. Dzanis.
"Notwithstanding its consumer appeal, there are no regulatory definitions or standards for a holistic pet food above or beyond any other pet food. Thus, use of the term has no effective meaning," Dr. Dzanis states.


The Ruff Report is a column that appears on, a blog written by Joseph A. Reppucci, a retired editor from The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Massachusetts. Mr. Reppucci worked as a reporter and editor on major daily newspapers in the Boston area for more than 30 years. He is the author of the book, The Hunt of Her Life, a heartwarming story about his once-in-a-lifetime rescue dog. Find it on and


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