TOP #3: Safety of Commercial Dog Food Brands

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For my third episode of Theory of Pets podcast I've had the opportunity to discuss one of the most important topics for all of us pet owners – dog food. Today, we are shedding some light on this subject matter and review all types of dog foods, talk their safety and importance of specific nutrition for canines.

I was fortunate to have two industry professionals join me for this episode. Adrian Pettyan and Pamela Pettyan, founders of Caru Pet Food, a family-owned line of all natural homemade like foods and treats for dogs and cats.

As we dig through all matters related to dog food, Pamela and Adrian explain the importance of high quality natural nutrition for pets, how this directly affect dogs and their health and lifestyle, and list many factors that pet owners should be aware of when choosing the best food for their dogs and cats.

In this episode, we also cover all the dangers of feeding canines regular commercial dog foods, what stuff should be avoided and why. You'll learn why it's dangerous to make your pet food decision based on prices alone and specifically which ingredients in today's top selling commercial dog food brands are most harmful to dogs.

Listen to the episode in the video above and find the full podcast transcript below. For more, visit this episode's post on the official Theory of Pets website.

Safety of Commercial Dog Food Brands
(podcast transcript)

Safety of Commercial Dog Food

Samantha: Hello everybody and welcome back for another episode of Theory of Pets. This week I'm really excited because I think dog food is one of the biggest things that pet parents question. Dog food and treats are certainly the biggest expense that we have for our dogs and it's the most important thing that we do day to day for our dogs is feed them and select what we feed them.

I get a lot of questions, I hear a lot of people asking, and I myself have actually spent hours and hours researching dog food and different dog food and treat products. Different ways of making dog food, different diets, things like that to find out what would be the best for my dogs, and to be able to give information to other pet owners about what would be a good fit for their dog maybe.

First of all when we talk about pet food I really encourage people to have a conversation with a canine nutritionist or with your veterinarian, and your reason for that is because like everything else feeding your dog is very dependent upon what your dog needs. What his nutritional needs are, and different variables for your pet that are specific to him.

Things like age, weight, breed, activity level, obviously any kind of food allergies, that's all going to really make a difference in the type of food that's going to be best for your dog.  It's something that you should speak with someone that either is, a) a canine nutritionist and can examine your dog and have a conversation with you and decide what would be best for your dog; or your own veterinarian who's known your dog and understands his veterinary background and can give you advice on the best types of food for his breed, his weight, his size and of course his individual health needs.

That's something that I first of all I just want to get out there if you're thinking about switching your dog's food I highly recommend you do research on your own, listen to me and the things that I say or other people who have done some research and understand the pet food industry, listen to things like this podcast with experts in the pet industry. If you are thinking about a specific brand of dog food, look into that brand of food and listen to what the creators have to say, listen to why they made the food, how the food is made and different things like that. But before you make a decision and before you make that change have a conversation with your vet or a canine nutritionist.

The other thing that they're going to give you advice on is how to transition your dog from one food to another. I think one of the most common mistakes for pet parents is that they will just transition, they find a better quality food and they think “I'm just going to switch my dog to this because it's going to be better for him,” but it actually can be harmful to his health to switch from one food one day and then just switch over 100% to the new food the next day.

Switching can be very harmful for his digestive tract, so you don't want to do that, you actually want to mix very gradually, so you're going to do like 25% of the new food to 75% of the old food, then may be a 50-50 mix, and then go 75-25 the other way until it's finally a hundred percent of the new food. And your vet or a canine nutritionist and walk you through that, and of course that is going to vary also depending on the diet that you start from compared to the diet you switch from.

If you're feeding a very low-quality commercial grade kibble and you want to go to a high-quality raw dog food, that’s obviously a very big change that means to made very gradually over time. So your vet or a canine nutritionist can help you decipher that as well and make a plan to switch your dog.

This week I talked with the creators Adrian and Pamela, they are the founders on Caru Dog Food, and Caru is  C-A-R-U, I will link their website in the show notes on TheoryofPets.com so that you can find them there and you can also just Google Caru, which is C-A-R-U Dog Food, and that will pop up for you. And Caru is actually the name of their dog, that's where the name of the company came from, and like a lot of small business owners they got started because they had a need in their own family and they wanted to feed their pet a top quality food.

They created a brand of dog food that went very well for them obviously, and now the brand is steadily growing. So I wanted to speak with them about some of the things that in the pet food industry some of the things that we should be looking for as pet owners, some of the things that are going to be the most beneficial to our dogs and some of the things that we should also stay away from, and they also obviously gave me some great information about Caru and their brand and that type of food, so that something that you might be interested in. You can listen and you will get some great information about the brand itself.

I initially started talking to them when we first got on the phone we actually had a conversation about Super Zoo, the Expo that just happened. That's a pet industry expo and they have everything from food to treats and that kind of stuff, so I spoke with them a little bit about that and the things that they saw there. They explained that to me, and my first question was, the biggest one I think was just you know as pet parents what should we be looking for in the food that we're feeding our pets, there are so many choices out there. How do you decide which one is going to be the right one for your pet? What are some of the major things that we look for? And this was the response that I got:

Adrian: Knowing the quality of the ingredients that are used is very very important. For instance, Caru uses high quality human grade ingredients, but you know there is… in pet food there is the use of sort of B-grade products. Another issue… danger point would be commercial foods may contain artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, and these types of ingredients actually can facilitate allergies, and that's a concern.

And of course you know many of your readers and listeners are probably aware that commercial foods may contain meals and animal by-products, and to clarify what that means is when an animal is slaughtered for food production, the lean muscle is cut off for human consumption and the meals from animal by-products are really the remains, leftovers, and you can have bones and organs, blood, hoofs, beak, et cetera.

And the concern about that is protein levels may be high but the protein quality is not that high, and also the nutritional quality of the by-products and meals can vary from batch to batch.  So those are probably some of the key points and danger points in commercially available foods that we're aware of.

Samantha: Sure, and as I mentioned I think that pet parents are becoming more aware of that, are starting to get more like the raw diets becoming more popular, people are looking for organic products, natural products for their pets. We talked about those differences and those dangers in commercial pet foods, so what does Caru bring to the table that's different than some of the other commercial and traditional kibble that we're used to?

Pamela: Well the thing that Caru brings to the table is the quality, our stews are hundred percent human food grade made in a human food plant, and they're really the closest thing to homemade cooking that you can find commercially for your dogs.  How we started?

We started cooking for our own dog and the food that we produced is very much that same recipe only we've made sure the vitamins and minerals are adjusted to that it completely balance for dogs. So it has that home-cooked texture and that's really what Caru brings to the table. We've got the quality, the taste of home cooking and the nutrition that goes along with that.

Adrian: But just to add to that Samantha, when people look on labels when buying premium food, I think some of the things they should look for is they should look for a top quality animal product with protein as the first ingredient. And of course the entire Caru line has an animal proton as the first ingredient, and it should be a maned animal ingredient. It should be beef, chicken, pork, something like that rather than just animal protein, and again of course Caru has… if it's a beef stew then it keeps the flavor that way.

And of course as I mentioned earlier, none of our products contain meat by-products or poultry by-products. Caru has a whole vegetables and fruits, and you really want to look for an easily recognized ingredient that you can easily pronounce. Pam and I come from the human health care backgrounds so we've learned to speak some of the human health tongue twisters, but even we struggle when we look at some of the labeling of pet foods and they really becomes a bit of a challenge, a) to pronounce it, and if I can't pronounce it or if we can't it we don't understand what it really is. And of course in our products, in Caru's products all of the ingredients are recognizable and very simple to pronounce.  We have a limited ingredient deck.

Probably the other things that make us sort of unusual or a high quality premium brand is we don't have gums, artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives.  And for instance a gum may be a concern just because it's really empty calories, and actually some gums depending on how they're made can cause digestive upsets. Xanthan gum for instance can be made from soy or wheat or corn and that can trigger an allergy. And so we don't use any gums. I think the only other thing is we're US sourced, we're US produced, and truly our food looks like food that pet owner eat, in other words just like people food.

Samantha: It's interesting that you mention the Xanthan gum, that's a common ingredient that I see in commercial dog foods and I know right now there's also a lot of worry from pet owners about allergies, a lot of dogs are being diagnosed with food allergies, you're seeing a lot of foods that are no-wheat, no-corn, no-soy, so it's interesting that you mention that some of those may be corn or soy can be disguised almost in the ingredient list under another product name that could still trigger that same food allergy that you're trying to avoid.

Pamela: Exactly. What happened actually with Caru, our dog, is he was allergic to soy and we didn't realize it was the soy, and it was in the vitamins and minerals that he was given in the food where soy is usually the carrier for those vitamins and minerals, and so it was only after our own trial that we figured out what the trigger was for him, and so we make sure when we're producing our food that the carrier of our vitamins and minerals is not soy-based, is not something that can trigger an allergy or that type of reaction in dogs.

Adrian: And just to help your audience understand what we mean by a carrier, vitamins and minerals are used in such minute quantities that in the order to manufacture a food and add these vitamins and minerals you kind of need to bulk up the vitamins and minerals so that when you go to measure it you have something to measure otherwise it becomes so minuscule to add it, you really struggle to as a manufacturer to add it in. So we use carriers, sort of an environment, a material that helps expands the vitamins and minerals so that you can measure accurately and you can add them.

Soy seems to be the primary carrier, but in fact for instance we use tricalcium phosphate which is a very neutral ingredient and really reduces the risk of any kind of allergen, and ultimately pets can be allergic to just about any ingredient given enough, much like humans, if you have too much of it it can trigger an immune response.  So the tricalcium phosphate is a mineral that is used by pets and actually becomes very stable, and it's a low allergen ingredient.  So hopefully that helps your audience understand what we mean by carriers.

Samantha: Wonderful. Thank you for explaining that. I think the one thing that I initially noticed when I jumped on the website for Caru, the photographs; and as you mentioned, it looks like human food. You use human grade products and for example you have the new line of stews that look like a stew that I would prepare for my family, for my human family, so that I think is a really wonderful thing for pet owners compared to obviously what we're used to is either dry kibble or even traditional wet canned food, doesn't look like anything that would be appetizing to us. So I think that's a nice thing for your buyers to see that a food looks like something that they would eat themselves and you can feel a lot better about feeding that to your dog.

Pamela: And we've actually had people e-mail us and tell us that they've left it in the fridge, and they've taken it out of the box, put it in a Tupperware, left it in the fridge and their spouses come home and eat it and “Hey honey, you forgot…”

Samantha: Now that brings about a great question. Obviously without the use of some of those artificial ingredients and the artificial preservatives that are in traditional foods, how do you preserve your food so that they will last on store shelves?

Adrian: The food itself, the stew which we're speaking about is actually cooked in what is called an aseptic process. So that's just a big fancy term that means the food is cooked in a kettle but it's cooked at slow low temperatures just to get it thawed. A lot of the ingredients a still raw but the meat is pre-cooked so that it will reduce the risk of any microbial growth or microbial dangers.

Once the food is thawed they sterilize the packaging material, it's put under a controlled environment, so a very sanitary environment much like surgeons having a very sterile room to do surgery on the patient, very similar process of having a sterile room and a sterile process.

The food is actually filled into the pack and then the pack is still sealed under that sterile environment, and then it's cooked, slow cooked right in the pack.  Many people don't realize that our food is actually cooked right inside the pack, and that process is known as an aseptic cooking process, so there is no need to add preservatives in order to keep the food healthy and safe.

Samantha: Actually one of my questions was your packaging, I obviously looked on your website and there is such a difference in your packaging, so I was hoping that you would explain that. So that's wonderful. How long will the food last when somebody purchases it and brings it home if they open it and say they don't use all of it?  I know sometimes for a smaller breed or something like that maybe they won't use the whole package, will it last in the refrigerator for a few days?

Pamela: What's great about our packaging is you can easily reseal the box, you don't have to put it into something else, and it will stay in the fridge in that box for five days once you've opened it.  So if you've got a small dog one box will last you five days, which that usually is eaten up in no time.  And then what's next about our packaging is well there are no BPAs in the lining of the packaging, so again it's super safe and clean for dogs.

Samantha: I've written about a lot of products that are coming out now, those BPAs and then the… I guess I would say toxic things that are in packaging now. One of things I would like for our listeners to understand is how dangerous those are because they leach into the food or the toy or whatever might be inside the packaging, if it's dog treats it's going to leach into those and get into your dog's system that way, so I really wanted to point that out about Caru Food because that's so important to me.

It's one of those things again like the ingredients that some commercial brands will sort of hide those harmful ingredients under other names in their ingredient list.  You know the unsafe packaging is the same way people don't realize that maybe the food is healthy but it's the packaging that could have a negative impact on their dog's health as well.

Adrian: Absolutely correct. And you know again we've learned through human health that BPAs are endocrine disrupters, meaning they affect the endocrine system meaning the hormone regulating the body, and that can promote or lead to cancers.  And certain breeds for instance are prone to cancers, so having an ingredient like BPA in the packaging that leads to leads to other, as you said Samantha, could be a real problem.  And of course Caru made a point of selecting packaging material that doesn't have that particular chemical in the packaging material.

Samantha: Sure, that's wonderful. It's certainly… you know there are many things that you guys have done that set you apart from the more traditional brands, and that's one of the ones that definitely stood out to me as well, and I think it's one of the things that again pet parents just don't realize.  So I applaud you guys for doing that because that's really wonderful. So we've talked about the dangers and kind of what makes Caru different…

What should dog owners be looking for when they're shopping for a dog food?

I think probably the most common thing that people look for is price, obviously a healthier dog food is going to be more expensive so they end up kind of getting the bottom of the barrel type dog foods because they're looking at price only, what would you recommend are some of those things that people should be looking for or even some of the things that they should be noticing and trying to stay away from?

Pamela: Well I would say they should look for the protein as the first ingredient. I know there are so many brands out there where meat or poultry is not the first ingredient, and it is so important that they get enough protein our dogs the cats.  They want to make sure that that's the first ingredient.

You want to make sure, again because of the allergy issue, that it's grain-free, that it's all natural, you don't need all those extra preservatives, those artificial ingredients in the food.  You want to make sure there's no by-products or poultry by-products…meat or poultry by-products.  And I think you want to look to see that there's whole fruits and vegetables and that everything that's on the label is easily pronounced.

Other things I look for when we were looking is you want to see that it's made in the US, it just gives you a quality standard for the manufacturing. And also that some of the ingredients are GMO… or all the ingredients are GMO free. And then if you've got a dog that has allergy issues, exotic proteins are something then you might want to look for, because again if the dog hasn't had that protein then they're less likely to have an allergy to it.  So that's something that you would be looking for to help feed your dog.

Samantha: And I know you guys use some of the more common protein sources like beef, but what would some of those exotic proteins be that you guys offer?

Adrian: Well we have two new formulas coming out. One is chicken with duck, so duck is a nice protein, either combined with chicken or on its own. Lamb would be a great product. We have a turkey and lamb recipe, both are going to be white potato free and they have pumpkin with lentils as sort of the backbone to the stew.

I think, you know there's an interesting concern that we hear over and over from both retailers and other pet owners, “My dog is allergic to chicken,” yet we know the chicken is still the number one seller as a protein, and so the concern is, is it really chicken that's the allergen or is it potentially other ingredients like the BPA, like soy, like those low quality ingredients, the fillers and the gums and those types of things?

It's our view that that's probably the more common allergy trigger because the animal was never intended to eats gums as neither was humans, but they were intended to eats chickens and beef and a variety of other meat.  So that's our view on it.  So again duck, lamb, venison, those are all wonderful alternative proteins.  Pork is a great alternative protein. We have a lovely low-allergen stew pork, because most people don't feed pork to their dogs traditionally.

Samantha: Absolutely. That's a unique protein source. I don't hear about that a lot being used in dog food, so that's very interesting.

So I just have one more question for you guys. Do you taste the food? Have you tasted the food?

Pamela:  Yes. And you know what? It's really good when you're in the plant and it's just produced, that's the time I like it the most. It's warm, it's from the kettle, it's delicious.  You can heat it up out of the bag when you got it at home and it's still good. But I must admit the best time I like it is right fresh from the kettle.

Samantha: I'm not going to lie to you, looking at some of the photos online and some of the stews especially, it looks like something that you could sit down on a cool fall day and just enjoy a package of that food.

Adrian: Indeed you can Samantha, and then in fact if you think it, it's probably healthier to eat than those fast foods that so many of us eat. I mean non GMO, grain-free, gluten-free, et cetera, et cetera. You know we pay far more attention to our pets than we do to our own health.  So it is a wonderful food to eat, especially when it's warm.

Samantha: It is interesting to think of it that way. As I mentioned in the beginning it seems to be this wave now of pet parents being very concerned about what they eat.  But it never ceases to amaze me that I'll have a conversation with somebody one day about things to look for, things not to look for, different recommendations that I would give for pet food, and then they tell you that last night they at McDonald's or another fast food chain. So it's funny that we pay so much attention to what we feed our dogs but we don't pay the same attention to what we eat ourselves.

Adrian: Exactly. What we hear from some consumers is that we can select what we put in… we have a choice but our pets do not, so we need to be sensible. And coming back to the terrible melamine, 2007 melamine crisis, I think that really made pet parents aware that they need to pay attention to what they feed their loved fur puppies.

Samantha: Absolutely, that's a great way to put it. That was wonderfully said. I just want to thank you guys, that's all the questions that I have for you unless there's anything else that you would like our listeners to know either about your brand or about dog food in general.

Adrian: Well thank you very much for your time and interest in Caru Samantha, and please do let us know if your audience or if you should have any more questions. Of course you can be reached at Carupetfood.com, or we have a toll-free number which is 855-330-2278. And again, thank you very much.

Pamela: Thank you very much

Samantha: That was my interview with Adrian and Pamela from Caru Dog Food, and I hope you guys enjoyed that. I certainly learned some things and I hope you did as well about pet food and things that we should be looking for and should kind of steer away from in the pet food industry. Certainly dog food is one of those things that is always evolving, new diets are coming out, things are changing in the pet food industry so I am always keeping my ears open for that and I will certainly be doing more interviews of other people, other experts that are either CEOs of companies or veterinarians, canine nutritionists and people that obviously I would call experts on pet nutrition and pet food.

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Samantha’s biggest passion in life is spending time with her Boxer dogs. After she rescued her first Boxer in 2004, Samantha fell in love with the breed and has continued to rescue three other Boxers since then. She enjoys hiking and swimming with her Boxers, Maddie and Chloe.