Are Corn and Meat By-Products Really That Bad?

Cat with food in veterinary hospital

It is important to know what is going into your pet’s food bowls.  As our pets’ role in our lives is growing, so is the number of pet food companies and all the associated marketing.  And there is a LOT of marketing out there!  It is important to keep in mind that there is a lot of leniency on what can be written on the pet food bag.  For example, the words “Natural” and “Holistic” have no definition that companies need to comply with.  This means anyone can put these words on their label to make the product seem healthy without being any better than another product.  Labeling and marketing are in part what drives some of the crazes and misconceptions in the pet nutrition world.

There is currently a fad in marketing that grains, corn, or other products are just “fillers” or are not good for your pets.  Fillers would be described as something put into a food with no nutritional value.  Corn is definitely NOT a filler product.  Corn, when cooked and processed correctly is highly digestible.  Corn is a great source of linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid, and vitamin E, which is a fat-soluble vitamin and antioxidant.  Corn also provides a large quantity of amino acids essential for pet health.  Corn should not be the only ingredient or the only protein source, but it can be an important ingredient in a pet’s diet.

Food allergies are also an important concern when selecting pet foods for dogs and cats.  Corn, having protein components, could be something a pet is allergic to.  However, corn is not considered one of the top allergens for pets.  Top allergens in dogs are beef, wheat, and dairy products.   Top allergens in cats are fish, wheat and dairy products.  Other more common allergens than corn are chicken meat, chicken eggs, and soybeans.  These ingredients should be a concern if your dog or cat has signs of food allergies such as skin irritation, excessive licking or chewing, and/or chronic diarrhea.  Speak with your veterinarian if you are concerned you pet may have a food allergy.

Some companies play off the notion of dogs and cats are primitive animals that need large quantities of whole meat.  Americans, in general, consider this to be just the muscles of the skeleton alone.  In fact dogs and cats, as well as their ancestors and wild counterparts, consume nearly all of the prey animals that they kill.  This would include the intestinal organs (which are mostly smooth muscle), liver, kidneys, heart, lungs, bits of bone and cartilage.  In the wild this would also include anything inside the digestive tract that was consumed by the herbivore they are munching on.  This means these predators are eating a lot of pre-digested vegetables and grains.  Dogs and cats in a wild setting need to eat all these different parts to get a nutritionally balanced diet.  So it is important for pet foods to contain some vegetables, starches or grains, and something more than skeletal muscles.  The term meat “by-products” refer to the parts that are left over when you carve off the skeletal muscle for use in steaks, filets, and hamburger patties that humans tend to eat.  So, by-products can contain less desirable cuts of meat like, cleaned intestines and organs, as well as some tendons and bone chips.  Certain things are not allowed to be included in the by-products such as hooves, antlers, or feces.

The term “by-products” refers to the parts that are left over from the production or manufacturing of another item.  For example, molasses is a by-product of sugar manufacturing.  The term by-product has no bearing on its nutritional or monetary value.  Other countries are keener to use a greater amount of the whole animal for food, either for humans or their pets without the stigma attached to it.  Take a look at “natural” chew toys and treats for dogs:  You’ll see tendons, knuckle bones, dehydrated liver, and bully-sticks (which are dried bull penises!)  All of which are considered by-products of meat production.  Additionally, meat by-products are important sources of nutrients which are required to be present in pet food to meet the AAFCO certification standards.

AAFCO or the Association of American Feed Control Officials is a regulatory agency to make sure that there is a level playing field amongst all the pet food companies.  If you see the AAFCO certification logo or claim on the pet food label you can be sure that it is safe and meets the nutritional requirements for the stated life stage.  These stages are growth (puppies or kittens), reproduction (usually referring the pregnant or lactating mom), or maintenance (adult animals).  Not all pet food companies chose to participate in AAFCO regulations, so you’ll want to make sure the type you buy does.

You’ll notice that there is no life stage of senior in AAFCO regulations.  This term can mean anything on a pet food label.  “Senior” to some companies means there is a higher fat content and more easily digestible food for older pets that have trouble absorbing nutrients and have been losing weight.  Other companies target older pets have lower metabolisms and don’t exercise as much and provide a low fat diet.  Make sure to check the Kilocalories/cup (Kcal/cup) if you are thinking of switching from an adult to a senior food.

There are so many choices it can easily become confusing.  The important qualities of any pet food that you chose is that your pet likes and wants to eat it, that it appeals to you, it is AAFCO certified, and that it doesn’t cause and gastrointestinal upset (smelly gas, chronic diarrhea or vomiting).  Keep in mind that part of the reason there are so many options is that there are no single right choices for every animal.  As always, you are more than welcome to ask your veterinarian if you have questions about different products or what is best for your pet’s specific needs.