I recently had one of the most incredible experiences of my career. I was invited, along with some other pet supply owners and pet professionals, to western Pennsylvania to learn how one pet food company, Answers Pet Food, does what they do.

I’ve visited and toured other manufacturing facilities, but this was different. We weren’t just shown where the finished product ends up, in a clean room facility getting packaged. Rather, we were taken to several farms to watch how the chickens, goats, cows, and pigs lived. We saw where they grow their organic vegetables. And we met the farmers who did all of it.

We learned how they are a part of Global Animal Partnership (GAP), an organization, in summary, of farmers, scientists, retailers, manufacturers and animal advocates whose main purpose is to make sure the animals are treated with respect from beginning to end. GAP farms comply with strict regulations that allows the animals a humane experience, being able to come and go freely rather than being penned their entire existence. They are also fed species appropriate diets. The cows, for example, are grazing and eating grass that is not treated with pesticides. The chickens get to forage for bugs in the fields for hours at a time. Ultimately, the end result is a humane life, treated with respect until it’s ended for pet food. For that and many other reasons, Answers is arguably the best pet food in the country.

What we were able to experience is a “farm-to-bowl” movement. Answers Pet Food was the first of it’s kind to deliver this sort of product to the pet food consumer. Anyone who has watched Pet Fooled, the documentary that came out in 2016, or the famous Super Size Me from 2004, might be surprised that there are companies like Answers today. These films highlight how much our country has shifted how we grow food for humans and our pets. Natural, organic agriculture has made way to the mass-production, pesticide-laden, animal cruelty existence that has become our new normal.

Just after returning from this trip came news that the FDA is investigating taurine levels in dry pet food. They are trying to determine if foods high in vegetable starch, such as some grain free foods, could be contributing to Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), a potentially deadly disease for dogs and cats. We all agree that dogs and cats are carnivores with high amino acid requirements. The amino acids necessary for longterm survival are only found in animal protein, including muscle, heart, kidney and liver.

To allow a dry (kibble) food to cook appropriately, it cannot be 100% meat, so starch of some sort must be added. In the more recent past, corn, rice and wheat were predominantly used, but then about a decade or so ago there became a big push to remove glutens from the diet, realizing that our dogs and cats cannot process them. This is when we began to see foods being made with other starch binders such as potato, sweet potato, peas, lentils, garbanzo beans and tapioca starch.

It’s very important that this research is completed and the foods that are deficient are either fixing their mistakes or are taken off the market. What I am seeing, however, are blanket statements that “grain free foods are bad for pets” and “boutique pet foods are contributing to Dilated Cardiomyopathy”.

We are getting many questions from concerned pet owners every day about this and I can see why. Honestly, it comes down to reading and understanding pet food labels. It is agreed in the pet food industry that foods high in vegetable starches rather than animal proteins are not species appropriate. In other words, dogs and cats, without a doubt, need a food high in good, quality animal proteins and low in starch. When the first ingredient is not a high quality (by-product free, meal free), the food is not adequate. The ingredients are listed in order of weight, so you need to see animal protein as the first, hopefully second and even better yet, third ingredients in the food. If vegetables, such as peas, lentils, potatoes, tapioca, rice, wheat or corn are listed in a number one spot, avoid this food, as it will have less high quality protein.

So, it’s my assessment that the issue here is not specifically about grain free foods. The concern is about quality of ingredients inside that bag. Because grain free foods are now the predominant food on the market, particularly in natural pet food, the news is confusing the pet owners in to thinking that every grain free food is inadequate. This isn’t necessarily true.

We see our role in our animal community as educators and is the exact reason we exist with two natural pet supply stores. Feeding our beloved pets species appropriate diets is not just important, but it’s our duty as pet owners to understand what it is they need to live long, healthy lives.

The pet food industry is not unlike other industries, as there are excellent companies and then there are those attempting to capitalize on pet owners. It is my opinion that there are brands trying to fool the pet owners in to believing their foods are high quality, when in reality, they are exactly the opposite. These are the foods to be concerned about.

So, what to do now? If you feed a kibble, read the label. Feel free to come in and ask any one of us to help you decipher the ingredients, as we are more than eager to help you. We do this all day, every day and help give you ideas on what you can do to make any changes, be it a new food, a food supplement, or more.

We can help you with transitioning pet food from one brand to another, we can offer suggestions about adding taurine rich treats to add to the daily routine, and we can help you understand the role of raw food and it’s importance to your dog or cat’s diet, even if it’s not every day.

The cause is not lost. Rather, it’s us understanding and honoring the nutritional needs our pets have.

I applaud Answers and am eagerly watching other small pet food companies who are making great efforts as well. It is Answers, and others like My Perfect Pet, Open Farm, SmallBatch and Farmina amongst others, that take great care and pride in what they are creating for our cats and dogs.