Pet food companies specialize in making their particular product sound like it’s the answer to keeping your pet healthy, happy, and thriving. They use slick pictures and attention-grabbing phrases, and they’ve turned commercial pet food into a multi-billion dollar industry. However, no matter what the brand’s marketing department tells you, processed pet food, from its ingredients (including preservatives) to how it’s made, isn’t a good source of nutrition for your pet.
Why do I say that? Well, there’s issues with the ingredients themselves. There’s issues with the quality of those ingredients. There are problems with how the kibble is processed. And, there are chemical toxins—preservatives— that can severely and negatively impact your pet. In fact, 6 of the most common preservatives found in commercial pet food (what I think of as the pet food industry’s 6 dirty little secrets) are toxic, and all of them are dangerous to your pet’s health.
Why pet food companies use these preservatives
The preservatives I want to bring to your attention here have some things in common. They’re cheap, they’re readily available, and they’re favorites of pet food companies. The kibble and treats that contain them are sold in grocery stores, large pet stores, vet offices, and even some smaller boutique pet stores.
It’s important to understand that pet food companies frequently use spoiled meat and rancid fats in their food. They have to be able to cover up the smell that goes along with using these spoiled and rancid products. Otherwise, you wouldn’t feed the food to your pet! These preservatives, especially the first two we’ll look at, are excellent for this. Remember, pet food companies often use 4-D (dead, dying, disabled, or diseased) meat to make the pet food; while this practice isn’t allowed in meat and food intended for human consumption, the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine is well aware of and does nothing to stop the practice in pet food. And because processed pet food may sit on a shelf for a long time before it gets used, pet food manufacturers need to make sure that it stays smelling nice, and that it maintains the color pet parents have come to expect, so people will still feed it to their pets. Unfortunately, while these preservatives do the job well, they also expose your pet to a whole host of health problems.
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) is found in pet food and even some human food. Studies have shown BHA to have adverse effects in many areas, including allergies, behavior, brain function, liver and stomach cancer, cell abnormalities, and increases in the formation of fatty tumors. Like many toxins, BHA is what’s known as a bioaccumulative substance, meaning that it is absorbed by the body at a faster rate than it is lost through the processes of catabolism and excretion. That means that, when it is fed over time, the body cannot flush it out, and it builds up and puts an additional load on the liver and kidneys.
Like BHA, studies have shown that BHT (butyl hydroxytoluene) can negatively impact the liver, can lead to tumors, and may be carcinogenic. The MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for BHT indicates that it may be toxic to blood, the liver, and the central nervous system. It also warns against ingesting BHT or allowing it to come into contact with the skin or eyes. The MSDS also warns against inhaling BHT, and says it may cause dizziness, weakness, headache, confusion, temporary loss of consciousness, respiratory depression. As if that isn’t enough, it also says that prolonged or repeated ingestion may affect the liver, kidneys, thyroid, adrenal gland, blood, and cause issues with behavior. It may also lead to allergic reactions. And, according to the MSDS, it is classified as hazardous by OSHA. I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sound like something I want my pets eating! BHT is actually banned from baby food in the US, and it is banned from food completely in the UK and Japan; this suggests to me that it’s known to cause serious issues. Vitamin E has been shown to preserve just as well as BHT, but it’s much more expensive, which means that pet food companies wouldn’t make as much of a profit—so, in most instances, they don’t use it.
Ethoxyquin is another preservative that pet food manufacturers regularly use in food and treats. However, unlike the other preservatives listed here, Ethoxyquin isn’t added directly to the food, and therefore won’t show up on the ingredients list. It’s used by many companies as a preservative in fish meal. It has been used as a pesticide, and is classified as a hazardous chemical by OSHA. The USDA lists it as a pesticide, and containers containing Ethoxyquin are labeled as “Poison” on the containers. This stuff is no joke! It can cause (in alphabetical order) allergic reactions, behavior issues, bladder cancer, deformity in puppies, infertility, kidney cancer, organ failure, stomach tumors, and skin issues. Like BHA and BHT, Ethoxyquin accumulates in the body faster than the body can eliminate it, so when fed day after day, it can cause significant and severe problems.
Propyl Gallate is generally used in conjunction with two of the other preservatives we discuss here: BHA and BHT. It has been shown to cause stomach irritation, liver and kidney damage, and it may be carcinogenic. It may also be an endocrine disrupter, and lead to thyroid tumors, brain tumors, pancreatic tumors, and adrenal tumors. Just like with all the other preservatives I’m mentioning here, it just doesn’t seem like anything I want to give my pets.
Sodium Metabisulfite (try saying that one three times fast!) is next on our list of preservatives to watch out for in processed pet food. Among other things, it can depress the central nervous system, and it can also cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Some dogs and cats (and humans) are particularly sensitive to sulfites, and in those individuals, Sodium Metabisulfite can cause shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, swelling of the skin, tingling sensations, and shock.
Finally, TBHQ, or Tertiary Butylhydroquinone, is actually a form of butane (butane!). I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that I absolutely don’t want my dogs or cat ingesting butane. Like the others, it’s used in food to delay the onset of rancidness and extend shelf life—exactly what pet food companies need when making kibble and canned food. Ready for the laundry list of issues that TBHQ has been shown to cause? The list includes delirium, dermatitis, DNA damage, stomach cancer, hyperactivity, nausea, restlessness, collapse, and vomiting, to name a few. It has also been shown to be an endocrine disruptor.
It’s true that some studies haven’t found evidence of the issues other studies found. However, I question who funded those studies. And, given how many do show major health issues, is it worth the risk? Not to mention, is it worth all the money you’ll probably end up spending on vet bills trying to figure out and fix what’s wrong with your pet? I for one wouldn’t expose my pets to risks like this when there are safer, better things for them to eat.
What you can do
The preservatives I included here are very common in many brands of pet food and treats. When you think about it, it seems crazy they’re allowed in any food, whether human or animal, and yet there they are. And yet, the preservatives themselves—as harmful as they may be—aren’t the biggest part of the picture. The fact of the matter is, by continuing to include preservatives in the pet food they sell to well-meaning pet parents, pet food companies are impacting our pets. The end result? Our pets’ health suffers while pet food companies make billions. The best way to break this cycle and help your pet truly thrive is to avoid feeding these things to your dog or cat and instead feed them what they are designed to eat—a species-appropriate raw food diet of raw meaty bones, organs, and glands from animals that are hormone and antibiotic-free. Despite the slick claims of the pet food companies, a diet of balanced, varied raw food is what will truly support your pet so he or she can flourish and thrive throughout their whole life.