Holistic pet foods are, often reflexively, considered by many to be the healthiest pet foods available. The term ‘holistic pet food’ floods the marketing materials of some very good—and not-so-good—pet food manufacturers and pet supply retailers. If you perform a Google search using the phrase ‘holistic pet food,’ you’ll get back about 425,000 results. But, the question still remains, what is the definition of ‘holistic’ and how is this term being applied in the pet food industry?
The term ‘holistic’ is derived from the Greek word ‘holos,’ which means ‘all,’ ‘entire,’ or ‘total.’ It implies that the sum properties of a system (e.g., a body, the universe, the environment, etc.) can only be explained adequately if all its parts are considered in unity instead of on an individual basis. Or, as Aristotle summarized it, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ Truer words have not been written . . .
The principle of ‘holistic medicine’ has been recognized and applied intuitively by many cultures, from incipient complex Neolithic societies (and probably the Paleolithic groups that preceded such societies, though the evidence for this is lacking) to the present day. Although the holistic approach was eventually lost to the majority of people in the Western world for quite some time, eventually the concept was rediscovered, initially by ‘holistic’ physicians, who realized that one cannot heal the whole person if one considers only the part of the body that shows the most obvious symptoms of disease. Modern heath care systems in the West, which often consider drugs, developed by the pharmaceutical industry, to be sufficient to fight disease—or rather the most evident symptoms of disease—are certainly prime examples of the antithesis of ‘holistic medicine.’
In addition to holistic physicians, increasing numbers of veterinarians have come to see the importance of the holistic approach in the treatment of their animal patients. For example, what’s the good of recommending repeated administration of a stool softener to an animal that is chronically constipated without ultimately addressing and correcting the underlying cause of this symptom? In many cases, this would simply amount to evaluating the animal’s diet for possible causes of the condition. The same applies to other diseases, such as eczema, which are often caused by simple food allergens. In the case of eczema, why would one assume that a topical cream would resolve the underlying cause of the problem, when a common pet food additive, such as gluten, might be the real culprit? A topical treatment might indeed alleviate the major acute symptoms, but the afflicted animal is certainly more than simply its skin, and the irritation is obviously being caused by a factor that goes well beyond the overt imbalance expressed in the skin.
Holistic treatments look beyond the surface veneer of disease symptoms, and a good holistic veterinarian will always inquire about a pet’s diet in the course of a medical exam. A pet’s diet is one of the most prominent factors determining states of both health and disease. Considering that the vast majority of a vertebrate’s immune system is located in the intestines, it is understandable that diet is supremely important for maintaining good health in both pets and humans. Moreover, if the food being eaten regularly is loaded with toxins, eventually the body will be affected, organ-by-organ. Although symptoms may only become obvious in one location, it is conceivable—and even likely—that more than one organ will be knocked out of balance. Initially, the animal might become less active or perhaps more aggressive; then, the excretory, and perhaps other, systems might function differently than before; finally, the disease might present itself in the form of a symptom for which there is a name, and, along the lines of standard practice, some form of drug treatment will be initiated which covers the symptoms. Alternatively, one might consider the fundamental causes of the ailment and treat the animal holistically.
Here’s where holistic pet foods come in. As food is a major determining factor of pet health, the concept of a food that nourishes the entire system becomes not only understandable in light of this, but also extraordinarily important as a major means of disease prevention. Now, of course, any sincere attempts undertaken by pet food manufacturers to offer holistic pet foods is laudable—perhaps even the highest ethical endeavor in all of the pet food industry. Why do I use the phrase ‘sincere’ attempt? Well, quite simply, the term ‘holistic pet food’ is being exploited excessively, much as the terms ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ have been misused for some time. Clearly, the majority of pet food manufacturers that use these terms misleadingly know better. Here’s an example that illustrate this point:
A company claims that their products are holistic ‘because they know how dearly customers love their pets.’ However, if you read their ingredients list carefully, you’ll find that they use, among other things, meat meals (i.e., meals of chicken, pork, duck, lamb, fish), chicken fat, and egg products, combined with grains, corn, gluten (a cheap protein substitute for carnivores), and a slurry of synthetic vitamins and minerals which have been added so that the product can be called ‘complete’ or ‘balanced,’ as per AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) requirements (read more about the somewhat arbitrary ‘required’ nutrient levels at http://www.onestaorganics.com/blog). Before final packaging, this formulation is treated with high heat, either through baking or heated extrusion into treats and kibble.
So, what’s wrong with so-called ‘meat meals’ and ‘egg products?’ Well, even meat meals derived from USDA-grade meats are an indeterminate combination of parts of the slaughtered animal, and might include everything that even hungry animals would otherwise naturally reject. If problems such as widespread food-related disorders or food allergies should arise from consumption of a product containing the meat meal in question, it would be difficult—perhaps even impossible—to determine precisely what component of the meal was responsible for the problem or where the component in question came from.
Meat meals are cheap—even those derived from animals that have been raised for human consumption, because such meals are produced from the waste products of the human food industry. As you might imagine, the prime parts of slaughtered animals are sold for human consumption, and what’s left is ground up for the meat meals used by the pet food industry. Now, to get back to the example I mentioned above, the company I cited and,
indeed, all companies that use so-called meat meals—are certainly aware of the difference between what they use and high quality cuts of meat. This becomes evident when the company I cited as an example advertises one of their products that contains no meat meals, as containing ‘90% real meat!’
Why should it be necessary to include chicken fat as an ingredient in a product made with chicken meal? Doesn’t real chicken include fat? If the chicken meal used by many manufacturers even remotely reflected what was actually contained in a representative part of the chicken, why would there be any need to add chicken fat to a product—claimed to be ‘holistic’—that contains as its first ingredient chicken meal?
Use of the phrase ‘egg products’ means that entire eggs, including any adhering dirt and/or feces, are contained in this common pet food ingredient. Of course, in nature many animals would eat (almost) all parts of their prey, and they might even occasionally get exposed to some feces and dirt when eating an animal or egg. However, they certainly wouldn’t have to choose their prey or egg among the inhabitants of overcrowded pig, cattle, or lamb farms, or chicken and turkey batteries, where birds are not only kept in inhumane and stressful conditions, but also treated with prophylactic antibiotics and hormones, which negatively impact the quality of any derived pet food ingredient.
Some people might argue that animals in nature eat whatever they find and are still generally healthier than our pets, so why would it be bad if to include meals or their ugly cousins, by-products and rendered materials, in our pets’ diets? Well, again, in nature, animals don’t eat animals that spend their overmedicated, stressed lives trying to survive until they meet their all-too-often inhumane fate. Putting aside humanitarian concerns for a moment and taking a purely pragmatic view, the stress-induced hormonal changes such travails induce could easily reduce the quality of any pet food ingredients derived from farm animals raised under poor conditions. Since predators in the wild generally prey on other ‘wild’ species, these predators are not chronically exposed to the stress hormones and synthetic drugs found in many farm animals, and thus, are probably healthier than our domesticated pets.
The ingredients used by the self-proclaimed ‘holistic’ pet food manufacturer mentioned previously include grains, which are known to be allergens for many dogs and cats. Now, the inclusion of a high percentage of grains in cat and dog foods doesn’t sound particularly holistic, does it? Prepared grains and legumes have their rightful place in the hopefully very carefully balanced diets of vegetarian pets, and this clearly obviates any dilemma regarding the killing of one animal for the sake of another that happens to be a pet. Of course, the question of what to feed cats and dogs—animals that clearly evolved from carnivore species—does present precisely this sort of dilemma. Certainly, feeding these pets foods derived from certified organic, humane raised farm animals is healthier and, from a humanitarian point of view, more ethical than relying on conventionally produced, meat-based, pet food products.
Holistic claims in the pet food industry are becoming more common. One company claims to offer the ‘first true holistic pet foods’ and a ‘holistic approach to pet food.’ All of this sounds good when you first read it, but the fact is, this company uses chicken and fish meals, as well as not well prepared grains, in their dog and cat food products (they don’t use any organic or human-grade ingredients). All of their products are baked, heat-extruded, cooked, or canned. The fact that they also add chicken fat and chicken flavor to their products, which are largely based on chicken and chicken meal, would suggest that the chicken and chicken meal they use are derived from animals that don’t have sufficient fat to render their meat flavorful or even palatable. This is a plausible conjecture if you think about the taste of the typical, ‘over the counter,’ battery chicken products from your local grocery store. The pet food company in question attempts to improve the nutritional quality of their products by adding not only the slurry of premixed vitamins and minerals required to call their foods ‘complete,’ but also a mixture of purportedly bioactive bacteria. But, in the end, considering their choice of inferior ingredients, no amount of ‘after-the-fact’ supplementation will render this company’s products holistic in any sense of the term.
Another company claims to ‘use a holistic approach to prevent disease and to support the natural healing process.’ Let’s look at this company’s ingredient lists. Again, just more of the same: chicken meal, egg product, grains, added chicken fat and flavor. This company has a grain-free line of products for cats and dogs, but unfortunately, these so-called ‘complete balanced’ diets are meat meal-based as well. This company does offer a few certified organic, human grade ingredient dog products that might be considered holistic. Unfortunately, even these products contain some less than well prepared grains. But, considering the very limited range of choices, these products are certainly healthier than most.
Well that got boring fast. But the important take-home message here is that many companies use low-quality—even allergenic—ingredients in the products that they claim are holistic.
There are a few, perhaps marginally better, options when it comes to holistic pet food products, but these have drawbacks as well. For example, there is a company that claims to have a ‘holistic approach to pet care.’ This company offers what they say are the ‘world’s best natural pet care products for dogs and cats, which have been the “Gold Standard” in holistic pet care for over 20 years.’ The company further claims to ‘. . . use pure natural ingredients in optimum formulation to stimulate the body’s ability to heal and maintain itself.’ This certainly sounds like a great holistic endeavor. But let’s see if they live up to their claims. Although the company does not use human-grade or organic ingredients, they do use whole meats instead of meat meals, by-products, or rendered meats. All of their products are either baked or canned, neither of which represents the most wholesome preparation of pet food.
Although they do not include wheat, corn, or gluten among their ingredients, they do use other not well prepared grains and whole eggs, which can be allergens for dogs and cats and compromise their vitamin balance. Even their ‘natural foods for sensitive cats’ include grains.
In some products, this company seems to use essentially the a mix of vegetables (the same regardless of the type of pet for which the food is intended), instead of the usual vitamin/mineral mixtures. In other products, the typical vitamin/mineral mixture is used, sometimes in combination with a mix of probiotics. Interestingly, even in products where chicken is included, chicken fat is still added. Soy sauce is added—presumably to enhance flavor—as well as a few, not-too-horrible, preservatives, including copper gluconate. Copper gluconate is a common feed additive used to increase shelf life and provide copper as a nutrient. Although copper gluconate is considered to be safe, long-term ingestion at levels higher than those required for maintenance of normal metabolic status may lead to chronic hypercuprosis, a condition in which copper is accumulated in the liver until it is released into the bloodstream, resulting in acute vascular haemolysis and, potentially, death.
This example brings into focus the benefits and risks of adding isolated nutrients—many of them synthetic and of low quality—to pet food. Although the so-called minimum and maximum levels of such additives are based on what is believed to be required or safe, how do we know that long-term consumption of such supplementary ingredients is safe for a particular pet? Each pet is an individual, and as such, is different. Even siblings may differ in their metabolic requirements for nutrients. Exposed to the same levels of vitamins or minerals, some pets may be more prone to developing negative side effects due to vitamin or mineral overdose, while others may actually develop deficiencies while being on the same vitamins or minerals.
Critics will argue that there isn’t any need for pets to eat human-grade ingredients. A corollary of this argument is that it’s a terrible waste to discard animals that can’t be eaten by humans. First of all, one could ask why there are slaughtered animals that aren’t fit for human consumption in the first place. There is obviously something very wrong with the way these animals were raised if, at the end of their miserable lives, they’re too ridden with disease to be fit for human consumption. This state of affairs should be particularly troubling for a society that professes ethical and humane core principles. Moreover, the standards for human-grade ingredients preclude the use of very low quality ingredients such as byproducts, rendered meats, or animal fats (generally a concoction of fats derived from whatever animal can be legally used for animal feed; and here, the law allows for the use of tumors or animals euthanized at research labs and shelters). Conventional feed-grade, non-organic ingredients, such as eggs and meats, do not have to comply with USDA standards. Since both animals and chicken eggs may be raised specifically for feed purposes, it is reasonable to wonder precisely what the difference is between these feed-grade ingredients and ingredients deemed fit for human consumption. The source animals for feed-grade ingredients are certainly treated no better than animals used for human consumption, where at least the USDA may inspect feed lots and slaughtering houses, albeit not frequently enough. Here, it’s important to note that there are significant quality differences between feed-grade and human-grade produce, and such differences could determine whether particular products stimulate allergic responses in sensitive pets.
Why do I bother to highlight a company that calls its foods ‘holistic,’ but at the same time uses little or no certified organic ingredients? For one thing, it’s a good illustration of how misleading certain holistic claims can be. Given that organic ingredients are generally healthier (i.e., more nutrient-dense and less toxins) than their conventional counterparts, the holistic claims of this last company I mentioned—which doesn’t offer much in the way of organic ingredient-based products—should be interpreted as dubious at best. Most conventional ingredients contain toxic pesticide or herbicide residues, hormones, antibiotics, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Organic agriculture embraces a much more ‘holistic’ philosophy of land use, and organic manufacturing processes are by definition less toxic than conventional ones (to read more about this, go to our website, www.onestaorganics.com). So, stated simply, to use conventional ingredients in products that are marketed as holistic is a contradiction in itself.
There are a few legitimately holistic pet foods made from exclusively human-grade ingredients that are not processed using high heat. Although, in many cases, these products contain the usual slurry of premixed vitamins and minerals, at least they are more in accord with a holistic approach. The companies that manufacture these foods generally offer grain-free options for both dogs and cats. And occasionally, they even use organic, or at least hormone- and antibiotic-free, ingredients. But, always keep in mind that, in the absence of USDA certification, such claims can be hard to verify.
In conclusion, both bad and middle-of-the-road quality pet food companies use terms like ‘holistic’ or ‘natural’ to describe their products quite often with the justification that they don’t add clearly toxic preservatives (which, by the way, are used quite widely in many conventional food products for pets other than cats and dogs). These would-be holistic companies ignore the fact that meat meals that contain certain organs (e.g., gall bladder) are not ideal for consumption by certain pets. They also ignore the distinction between human-grade and feed-grade ingredients and do not seem to worry that animals raised for the pet foods they produce often are treated inhumanely throughout their lives. They ignore the fact that, nowadays, many dogs and cats are sensitive to certain ingredients, such as grains, that can cause full-blown allergies. They ignore the fact that certified organic ingredients are demonstrably healthier and more holistic than conventional ingredients. They show little concern that refined ingredients and isolated nutrients may be very unhealthy for your pet. And finally, such companies ignore the fact that high heat destroys nutrients.
Why would companies that are legitimately interested in selling truly holistic pet foods ignore all these simple obvious facts? Well, the simple answer is that such companies are not particularly motivated by the promotion of your pet’s good health. Although some small pet food manufacturers may genuinely lack the information, the majority of manufacturers shy away from the cost associated with producing truly holistic pet foods. Let’s face it: ingredients that are human-grade, organic, whole food-based, and of the highest quality are more expensive than conventional varieties, and this added expense would decrease company profits. So, as pet owner, it is up to you to choose the foods that are best suited to your pet’s needs. If good foods are more expensive, you’ll just have to weigh the expense against the value of your animal’s health. But remember this: being thrifty in the short-run by buying cheap, poor quality foods for your pet will likely lead to great expense much later, when your animal—too long on a poor diet—needs to have more frequent veterinary care. When it comes to pet foods, you get what you pay for.
Pet foods that are truly holistic not only not do no harm, but actually support the body’s endeavor to remain fully functional, and in doing so, support the animal’s overall wellbeing and happiness.
The best holistic commercial pet food choices are those that contain certified organic, human-grade ingredients, and are not heat-treated (fresh-frozen or gently dehydrated products are generally the best options). Avoidance of excessive refined grains and other potential allergens, combined with a confidence in the quality of ingredients to keep supplementation with isolated nutrients down to the absolute required minimum, would make for the best truly holistic pet food available today. Of course, such a food has yet to be created . . . but please stay tuned for developments at www.onestaorganics.com!