If you have pets, you know that they are more than just animals; they’re a part of your family. Their companionship is comforting, their energy at times abundant, their love unconditional. 

While the cost of care and feeding for our furry friends may add up, we tend to spare no expense when it comes to everything from toys and treats to medical procedures and vet visits. 

Pet owners spend an average of $60 billion a year on their pets. Of that, more than $23 billion is spent on pet food. Television inundates us with commercials featuring adorable dogs and cats with owners professing that their pet “deserves the best” and that’s why they feed them brand X, Y or Z. 

Are you being fooled? 

A recently-released documentary has taken to task the commercial pet food that millions of us feed our pets every day.  “Pet Fooled” shines a not-so-positive light on the commercial pet food industry and its lack of proper regulation, enabling brands to incorporate ingredients that are actually detrimental to our pets’ health. The 80-minute film delves into the issues surrounding the industry and asks the question, “Is what’s inside as good as the shiny outside label leads you to believe?”

Dr. Barbara Royal and Dr. Karen Becker are both integrative veterinarians and featured prominently in the film. Dr. Royal is the author of “The Royal Treatment”, an integrative guide to the holistic and natural ways to take care of your pet, and says that the commercial pet food selections are often confusing to customers. “The pet food industry tells us what to feed our pets based on what they want our pets to eat,” she explains.

For instance, in many commercial pet foods, one of the first ingredients is corn, chicken by-product or wheat. Dr. Royal says these ingredients are cheap for pet food companies to use. “Those are the ingredients that cause diabetes, arthritis, skin infection and weight issues,” she says, “and they can all be linked to one simple thing … diet.”

It started with kibble

During World War II, there was a moratorium on using metal for canned dog food because metal was needed for ammunition. Processing food into kibble enabled it to be bagged, and no one realized that in doing that, they were robbing their pets of proper nutrition. 

The rules guiding commercial pet food are generous to the industry. Any product containing the word “dinner”, “nugget” or “formula” only must contain 25 percent meat. Add in the word “with” and the requirement is three percent. And throw in the term “flavor”? Little to no meat. 

Even more shocking, those “by-products” you see on that pet food bag are what’s left over after an animal has been slaughtered and all the edible parts have been removed. The industry doesn’t have to disclose the source of the by-products, which can come from euthanized animals, road kill or farm animals that simply died. These by-products are combined with other fillers and ingredients along with some synthetic vitamins and minerals in rendering facilities and sold as “quality” pet food. 

In the raw

So what should you feed your pet? “Raw food,” says Dr. Becker, who in addition to being one of Chicago’s top vets is an expert on wildlife rehab and pet nutrition. “Raw food is weird to a lot of people, but it will make a huge difference in your pet’s health.” She uses the example of dogs and how these carnivores evolved from the wolf. “Their DNA is 99.9 percent the same as wolves,” she says. “The only thing that’s changed over time is how they look, not their nutritional requirements that keep them healthy.” 

Critics say that raw diets are hazardous and can make your pet sick, but according to Becker, this is simply not true.  These critics cite that there are pathogens and bacteria in raw meat, but animals are equipped to process raw meat, and their stomach acid can neutralize any pathogens or bacteria that could be present in the raw food.  Commercially prepared raw diets come in the form or frozen patties or nuggets so they are safe and easy to use.

The trend toward health

Royal and Becker are optimistic that more awareness will bring about change. “The big pet food players will remain – much like McDonalds,” said Becker. “But as McDonalds has stayed in business, health food stores like Whole Foods have grown in recent years. Same for the pet food industry.”  Smaller pet food companies are beginning to thrive as the awareness grows and independent pet stores are able to offer raw, dehydrated or alternative diets that aren’t found in the big box stores. 

Be wary of “grain-free” dry food because carbohydrates and high heat processing are the issue – not grains. While manufacturers are migrating away from including grains such as corn and wheat, they are instead using other starch ingredients such as potato, tapioca, pea by-products, or chickpeas. This not only cooks out all the natural vitamins and enzymes, but causes the food to exceed 40 to 50 percent in total carbohydrate content – meaning almost half the dog's diet is composed of non-essential simple sugars.  

A healthy balance

There’s no argument that a raw food diet is costlier than commercial dry pet food. Becker says it’s a balancing act. “Feed your pet the best possible food you can. Consider a higher quality dry food and maybe one meal or a snack of fresh food. It’s not about perfect – it’s about knowing that you are increasing your pet’s health when you can feed it a biologically-appropriate diet.” 

Pet Fooled is a wakeup call to all pet owners, and its content is both educational and at times shocking. The film is available to view on Netflix, iTunes, Vimeo and Amazon.com.