Myths and truths about ‘fillers’ in pet food - Dr. Marty Becker


Myths and truths about ‘fillers’ in pet food

Thursday, May 10th, 2018 | By Dr. Marty Becker

Dog looking at camera standing by green bowl

Does your pet’s food have “fillers” in it? And can you tell from the ingredient list?

My clients and the pet owners who write me have a lot of questions about the ingredients contained in their pet’s food. I love this, as it shows they want the best for their pets, and are looking for answers. (Although I often say my clients and readers are the best pet owners in the world, so this may not be the norm!)

Pets, like people and other animals, don’t have a requirement for particular ingredients. What they – and we – need are nutrients. Ingredients are just the vehicle for the nutrients, and also contribute to the food’s taste and form.

Even sugar, which is an ingredient I don’t want to see in a pet’s food, isn’t really a “filler” – it’s there to make the food taste better to the pet. It has a purpose, albeit one that’s not good for the pet.

In the same regard, ingredients that are currently getting a bad rap, like corn, are not “filler,” either. Corn is a source of an essential fatty acid (“essential” means the body can’t make it; the nutrient must be supplied in the diet).

Other ingredients, such as fish meal, serve multiple purposes. It’s a source of protein, and also of Omega-3 fatty acids, so important for skin, joint, and even brain health. Or consider wheat gluten – a source of protein, as well as an ingredient that gives pet food some of its “mouth appeal” for our pets (just as it does for us).

So, if at least some of the things often condemned as “fillers” are actually useful or even necessary for our pets, how can we judge what should be in their diets? And what can the pet food label tell us?

Starting with the most obvious, our pets need protein. They also require a certain number of calories (although I’d argue most pets get too many of those!), along with fats, vitamins, and minerals. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) requires cat foods to include 25 essential vitamins and minerals, and dog foods to include 23. Those are some of the chemistry class-sounding ingredients on the pet food label.

However, as I’ve explained before, it’s not really possible to fully evaluate a pet food simply by looking at the label. It’s a good place to start, but you need to follow up by researching the manufacturer, looking at:

  • Their reputation in the industry
  • How they’ve handled past pet food recalls or other challenges
  • Their response to you if you contact them with questions
  • Where the food is made
  • What safety and quality assurance protocols and testing are in place

Finally, I’ll make my usual plea to keep a line of communication open with your veterinarian about your pet’s nutritional needs, weight, and your pet food questions. Together, you are the experts on your pet – and you’re much better off playing as a team!