The Ethics of Dog Food
8.5 million UK households have a dog whilst 7.4 million have a cat. In 2014 UK consumers spent a total of £2.4 billion on cat and dog food.
But as Julian Baggini put it in The Independent earlier this year:
“We are famously a nation of animal lovers. And yet our love for animals appears to stop at our pets’ feeding bowls. Interest in free-range meats for humans is growing, but the only animal welfare that seems to count when buying pet foods is that of the beast being fed. Scan the shelves of the pet food aisle and you’ll struggle to see anything carrying an assurance of higher livestock welfare, such as an RSPCA Freedom Food label or organic certification.”
Responsible husbandry is an issue largely ignored by the pet food industry and pet owners. Only one of the mainstream brands offer anything with higher welfare labels – Waitrose sells three varieties of organic pet food. Whiskas, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons used to sell organic varieties but no longer do.
We feed our free-range cats factory-farmed chicken. Photo credit: Carola Schubbel
CIWF’s chief executive, Philip Lymbery, put it this way:
“How many pet owners would be shocked to learn that their beautiful sentient creature is being fed on the misery of another? Sadly, the pet food industry helps prop up factory farming by using meat and by-products from animals all too often kept in the most appalling conditions. There is a real need for the pet food industry to look closely at the ethics involved in the ingredients it may be using.”
John Burns, the owner of Burns pet food company, however, claims he could not go free-range tomorrow because “the ingredients are not available in any quantity. If the human food market in free-range expanded enough, then perhaps that could happen. Anything that happens in pet food follows from the human food.”
Ingredients, Nutrition and Labels
According to the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, manufacturers use raw materials which are by-products of the human food chain and come from animals which have been passed as fit for human consumption. The labels use anthropomorphised descriptions to appeal to pets’ human owners – broth, pâté, chicken and asparagus, roasted chicken and beef entree...
The ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight. They can be indicated using category names such as ‘meat and animal derivatives’, ‘cereals’, ‘derivatives of vegetable origin’. Alternatively, ingredients can be listed by their own individual names. If particular attention is drawn to a specific ingredient (e.g. With Chicken), the percentage of that ingredient component must also be listed.
If the packaging says ‘Chicken & Rice’, the named meat minimum content must be 26%. But, if it says ‘Rich in’ chicken the minimum must be just 14% and ‘flavoured with’ or simply ‘With’ will contain a bare 4% minimum.
More often than not, on most mainstream brands you’ll see ‘Meat and animal derivatives’ listed as the main ingredient. ‘Animal derivatives’ are anything other than the muscle tissue or ‘meat’ and may mean internal organs, bones, poultry heads, feathers, hooves and feet.
Whilst it might seem to make sense to use up these by-products, it also may mean that your pet is not getting the nutrition that it need. Cats and dogs need the right amount of protein and the non-specific label ‘meat and animal derivatives’ may be hiding ingredients that are low in protein and hard to digest. Alternatively, it might be hiding high grade protein – you just don’t know.
The percentage of protein shown as ‘Analytical Constituents’ on the label is, unfortunately no help. There might be a high percentage of low quality indigestible protein. Look at the ingredients label and if chicken or lamb or identified organs are listed first then they are a good source of protein but if meat derivatives or by-products are listed first they may be a less good source of protein.
Grains and cereals are another one of those generic sources of proteins that may be high or low quality and are used by many manufacturers as a filler. Other ingredients in pet food may include sugar, salt and artificial colourings, even though dogs, for example, are largely colour blind.
Factory Farmed Rabbits
A 2014 undercover investigation by animal welfare charity Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) revealed that rabbit meat, probably assumed by most of us to come from the wild, is actually from factory farmed rabbits.
There are no EU-wide laws against intensive farming of rabbits and the vast majority of rabbits killed every year in Europe for their meat live in the type of battery cages that were outlawed for chickens in 2012.
Julie Sanders of the Four Paws animal welfare charity, said: “... rabbit is the second most intensively farmed animal in the EU, with almost 326 million rabbits slaughtered every year for their meat ...”
Northern France is where most of the UK’s rabbit meat comes from. One undercover investigator said: “In France, 99% of rabbits used for meat are kept in factory farms without access to the outdoors. They’re kept their entire life in cages with wire floors. The density is approximately one A4 sheet of paper for one rabbit.”
Purina, part of Nestlé, said it had instigated an audit of all its suppliers. Mars Petcare, said it was “really concerned” about caged farming and added “as a precautionary measure we will reassess the situation with our rabbit suppliers and will make any changes necessary”.
Asda said it had axed rabbit from its own-brand pet foods last April (although it was still on sale on its website in October 2015), Waitrose said it began phasing out its own-brand rabbit at about the same time, and Sainsbury’s, Tesco and the Co-op said they had plans to phase it out. Morrisons said: “We are raising Four Paws’ concerns with our suppliers.”
Avoiding rabbit varieties is one solution but choosing organic also ensures that there are no factory farmed animals in your pet food.
Four Paws have launched a petition calling on UK supermarkets to stop using caged rabbit meat in their pet food. In the long term, they would like to see an EU-wide ban of caged rabbit farming.
CIWF is calling on the European Parliament and all 28 European Agriculture Ministers to demand legislation to end the use of cages in rabbit farming. Sign a petition on their website and join their ‘End the Cage Age’ campaign.
The only ethical labelling on the mainstream brands is when MSC-certified fish is included, denoting fish from sustainable sources. The following brands sell varieties containing MSC fish: Sheba, Cesar, Whiskas and Gourmet. Yarrah only uses MSC fish.
Though the issue of sustainably sourced, MSC-certified fish has been addressed by some companies in the pet food industry, virtually no attention has been focused on the labour that supplies that fish. A recent report in the New York Times told of brutal conditions for forced labour or ‘sea slaves’ in the Thai fishing industry. In the USA, consumers have filed a lawsuit against Nestlé and Mars for importing fish-based pet food from Thai Union Frozen Products that allegedly is part of a slave labour and human trafficking problem.
Nestlé said it was looking into the issue and would publish its findings later in the year.
By 2020, Mars plans to use only non-threatened fish caught legally or raised on farms and certified by third-party auditors as not being linked to forced labour. Other pet food companies using non-MSC fish may well be sourcing from the Thai fishing industry. Two companies, MPM Products and Town & Country, state on their boxes ‘Product of Thailand.’
Experts also argue that pet food companies need to reduce the prime fish in their products.
Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at University of York and the author of ‘Unnatural History of the Sea’, said: “Clearly it’s more sustainable using certified products than uncertified ones, but what makes me uncomfortable is we are feeding so much fish protein to pets when there isn’t enough fish in the world to give everyone a healthy amount of fish in their diet.
“I say this as a cat owner: pets are definitely second rate when it comes to eating fish, and should be largely fed by the trimmings market.”
According to global fisheries expert Giovanni Turchini, a good thing you can do is resist the urge to turn your cat into a greedy gourmet. ‘Luxury’ fish should be off the menu. Cats are very happy with less problematic by-products from the fish filleting industry – ironically found in own-brand canned food perceived as downmarket.
Some pet food makers label their tuna-based pet food as ‘dolphin friendly’ but this does not mean that the tuna is fished sustainably or that the fishing methods are friendly to other sea life.
Is Palm Oil in Dog Food?
The palm oil in your pet food can take the form of glycerin and propylene glycol, sometimes even just pure palm-oil.
A 2011 report for the UK government also found that more than a tenth of all the world’s palm kernel meal – a lucrative by-product of the production of palm oil – is fed to British animals, including cats and dogs. The report found that while retailers and manufacturers of branded foods are rushing to buy certified ‘sustainable’ palm oil that does not destroy the rainforests, animal feed manufacturers show “little awareness of sustainability”.
British imports of sustainable palm kernel meal are precisely zero. No RSPO-certified palm kernel meal had been purchased when the report was written in 2011.
Brands not using palm oil: Ami, Benevo, Yarrah, Burns, Harringtons, Meowing/Barking Heads, V-Dog and Wagg.
Brands only using certified sustainable palm oil: Hill’s, Nestlé Purina, Mars, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and the Co-op.
All the other brands either used non-certified palm oil or had no clear palm oil policy.
Read our Palm Oil report
GMOs in Dog Food
Meat products produced from animals fed on GM feed are not required to be labelled. Large quantities of GM soya and maize are imported into Europe, including Britain, as animal feed.
A 2008 Soil Association report estimated that around 60% of the maize and 30% of the soya in the feed used by dairy and pig farmers is GM.
Yarrah only make organic (and therefore GM-free) products. All varieties from Ami, Benevo and V-Dog, and Penlan Farm veggie dog food are certified by the Vegetarian Society so are also required to be GM free.
None of the other companies could guarantee that the meat in their pet food was not from GM-fed animals.
Furthermore, Nestlé Purina PetCare spent $120,000 in 2014 and Mars Inc. spent $1.12 million in the first half of 2015 lobbying against the labelling of products containing GMOs in the USA.
Animal Testing of Dog Food
The majority of pet food manufacturers no longer use invasive animal testing methods for their pet food but they may still keep captive animals in research centres for non-invasive tests. Companies that do this or did not clearly say that they didn’t, receive a mark in the Animal Testing column.
The following brands in this guide were on PETA’s list of ‘Non–Animal-Tested Companion Animal Food’: Ami, Applaws, Barking Heads & Meowing Heads, Benevo, Burns Pet Nutrition Ltd, The Co-operative Food, Encore, V-Dog, and Yarrah Organic Petfood. They did not receive a mark nor did companies who only conduct palatability tests in the pets’ home settings.
There are two ways to ensure higher standards of animal welfare when buying pet food: buy organic or buy vegan or vegetarian.
Organic Meat and Poultry
The only animal welfare standard we found on pet food sold in the UK was the organic standard.
The Soil Association’s organic standards exceed standard industry practice and include prohibiting confinement systems, ensuring bedding and/or environmental enrichment, ensuring free-range access with shade and shelter, specifying stunning and slaughter practices and monitoring welfare through outcome measures.
Organic farm animals:
- Must have access to fields (when weather and ground conditions permit) and are truly free range.
- Must have plenty of space – which helps to reduce stress and disease.
- Must be fed a diet that is as natural as possible and free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
- Must only be given drugs to treat an illness – the routine use of antibiotics is prohibited.
- Cannot be given hormones which make them grow more quickly or make them more productive.
- Must not be produced from cloned animals.
- According to EU law, only food that has been made from 95%+ organic ingredients can be certified as organic.
The following brands are totally organic throughout their ranges: Yarrah.
The following brands offer some organic varieties: Burns, Benevo, Waitrose.
Vegan and Vegetarian Dog Food
Dogs are omnivores so they do not have to rely on eating meat as they can find all the nutrition that they require from non-animal sources. Vegan commercial dog food is much more available than vegan cat food.
PETA UK advises: “For a smooth transition, start by mixing vegetarian food with the meat-based food. Gradually increase the vegetarian portion and decrease the meat-based diet over one to two weeks. Most dogs’ and cats’ health improves on a vegetarian diet, but be sure to monitor your animal closely to be absolutely sure that the new diet is agreeable. If not, you may need to switch to a different brand, try supplementing commercial food with fresh whole or raw foods, or go back to the meat-based food.”
Some people wonder if it’s “unnatural” to omit meat from the diet of a dog or cat. But to feed them the meat that they would naturally eat, you would have to serve them whole mice or birds or allow them to hunt for themselves. A natural diet for cats and dogs is certainly not the cooked cows, pigs and lamb found in conventional food.
Totally vegan brands: Ami dry cat and dog food, Benevo dry and wet cat and dog food, V-Dog dry dog food
Some vegan varieties: Yarrah wet and dry dog food, Burns Penlan Farm vegetarian dog food.
Make Your Own Dog Food
Another way to make sure your pet food has the highest animal welfare standards is to make your own. You can then, of course, source organic and free range meat or leftovers. This equally applies to vegetarian or vegan ingredients.
Vegecat and VegeDog are powdered vegan food supplements that can be added to food that you prepare. Get recipes from their website.
Price comparison of dog foods
We have compared the prices of our best buys (Yarrah, Benevo and V-Dog) against a couple of mainstream brands found in the supermarkets and a couple of premium mainstream brands.
Is Dog Food Harmful to the Environment?
Pouches, bags, boxes or tins?
For wet cat and dog food the choice is usually between plastic pouches, aluminium foil trays or tin cans. Increasingly, pet food comes in plastic pouches because they are a convenient single serving. But from a recycling point of view, tin cans and foil trays are better. Pouches are usually foil laminated with plastic and being such a ‘mixed material’ renders them currently non-recyclable.
Dry food usually comes in cardboard or paper bags but the bags might be lined with plastic. If so, they usually have a recycling symbol with the number 81 inside it and the words C/PAP indicating ‘composite paper’. This makes them non-recyclable like the pouches. You could strip out the liners or stick with dry food in cardboard boxes.
If the dry food comes in a plastic bag, you may be able to recycle it with carrier bags at the major supermarkets. Look for a recycling label on the packaging.
Aside from the animal welfare impacts, meat-based pet foods have serious climate and other resources implications. One thing to reduce your pet’s carbon footprint is to minimise the meat in your pet’s diet.
Feeding your animal leftovers, or scraps from the fishmonger or butcher that would otherwise be thrown out, is another good way to reduce their impact on the planet.
Buying dry instead of wet pet food is also more ecologically friendly as much of the weight of wet food is actually water. Earlier reviews of pet food in Ethical Consumer however, have found some readers opposed to dry foods on health grounds.
Where environmentalists and animal welfare campaigners may find common ground is in the notion that we should stop breeding animals as pets, and instead only give homes to animals in need. If you provide a home to an unwanted animal it could be argued that you aren’t creating any overall additional impact. And given that many cats and dogs are put down every week in animal rescue centres due to a lack of available homes, many consider it irresponsible to let your pet breed.
If you’re looking to home a dog try: