What's Up Doc?

Revisiting Pet Food Myths

By Maury Docton, DVM

It seems as if time is standing still when it comes to battling misinformation and mis conceptions in pet food marketing. For as long as I have been involved in “Enhancing the Well-Being of Dogs and Cats...”, the same mantra of “By-Products are bad and corn is bad” has continuously circulated through the retail category.

It is not enough that there is well-researched, scientific justifications for the use of these ingredients; competing companies can influence consumers without any sup­porting evidence for their counter-claims. The use of these ingredients is supported by many external experts, as expressed in the pinnacle of dog and cat nutrition Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 4th Edition, Hand et al. 2000, p140.


  1. Chicken meal and chicken by-product meal contain high quality protein that is digestible and palatable. Chicken meal contains mostly chicken necks and backs, which means it contains more ash (burned minerals) than chicken by-product meal. This may make it less desirable for use in formulations where controlling the mineral content is indicated.
  2. Chicken by-product meal is a slightly more concentrated protein source than Chicken meal, the inclusion of internal organs enhances the levels of amino acids.
  3. Many by-products offer superior palatability over the muscle meats used in chicken meal for dog and cat food because the increased fat levels are a natural palatant.
  4. In a review of over 200 cases of food related allergies in dogs, less than 3% were related to corn; over 70% were caused by beef, wheat, and dairy products.


Corn is a nutritionally superior grain because it provides a highly available source of complex carbohydrates and substantial amounts of essential amino acids and fatty acids, providing more of the nutritional building blocks the pet needs for repair and maintenance of its body.

  • Ground corn meal is highly digestible
  • Alternative carbohydrate sources can directly affect appetite & weight gain
  • Corn minimizes blood glucose response to help maintain a healthy weight and blood sugar level

Similar endorsements for the use of these ingredients have been published in a myriad of nutrition journals and textbooks for many years; there is a reason we use these high quality ingredients in our foods.

Consider This

From a business perspective, market change is a fact of life. The significance and depth of the change is what establishes the differentiation between the superficial or “fad” and a substantive market trend. Currently the pet food market is experiencing a push toward “all-natural”, “holistic”, and “organic”, the significance of which is still to be determined. The question becomes, is there an actual benefit to an “all-natural”, “holistic”, or “organic” diet?

How AAFCO defines “natural”

“...derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources... not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices”

Consider this, loosely interpreted, this definition could include:

  • tobacco
  • marijuana
  • cocaine
  • feces
  • urine

Would any of these “all-natural”, “holistic”, and “organic” sources be considered healthy additives? Of course not. So it is apparent that regulatory work is needed to define the true beneficial use of these terms. Also noteworthy is the fact that nowhere within the definition are plant and animal by-products excluded. Not only are they “natural” but, they contribute valuable nutrients as ingredients in human and animal foods.


The term “holistic” is not distinctly defined by any of the regulatory agencies as a classification for food. This is particularly noteworthy in pet food because all diets sold commercially must be “Complete and Balanced” for a designated age or activity level. This is the equivalent of providing a diet that meets all the nutritional needs of that particular animal; in other words a “holistic” dietary approach.


Organic food is produced with renewable resources, conserving both soil and water without using conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients; bioengineering; or radiation. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards.

“there are no strict requirements for organic pet food right now and many companies are taking advantage of the laxity in definition and lack of enforcement”

Whether organic food provides any additional safety or nutritional value is still being debated by experts and even the USDA refuses to take a position. It is also important to note that there are no strict requirements for organic pet food right now and many companies are taking advantage of the laxity in definition and lack of enforcement. For example, calling a food “organic” when in fact only one ingredient (the grain source or animal protein source) may truly meet the criteria.

There is tremendous confusion surrounding the significance of these terms. Wide-spread use without substantiation has forced several government and “watch-dog” consumer groups to become involved; this will result in more education and clarification as to what these terms really mean to the consumer. But, for now usage of these terms require your consideration.