Have you felt trapped in the pet food maze? I have! I experience overwhelmed when I research what pet foods are best for my dogs and cats. So I asked pet food expert Terri Grow to share her version of “Pet Foods 101.”

Here’s my interview with Terri Grow. And enjoy the discussion highlights below.

Navigating the Pet Food Maze with Terri Grow and Maribeth Decker


Species appropriate pet food

People don’t always remember who is living with them or who they’re feeding. Cats and dogs are carnivores. They need higher meat proteins, organ meats, higher fats, and minimal carbohydrates than humans.

Dry foods, especially indoor or weight management formulas, add fiber so that the cat or the dog feel like they’re full. But they’re not getting good foods.

Dogs versus cats

Dogs utilize more carbohydrates, higher vegetables, but cats are obligate carnivores. They eat prey. Cats needs zero carbohydrates. Dry food high in carbohydrates is counterproductive for their health, longevity, weight management, and so forth. And cats convert carbohydrates in dry food to fat. This may lead to an obese cat.

Picky cats

Cats are imprinted with their foods very early on. Rescue cats are often fed dry foods because of the lowered costs. Those foods are flavored with palatants. Palatants are also used to “addict” your cat to that food. Even canned foods use “natural flavorings” to manipulate cats’ palates.

Move them to fresher foods

Use palatants to your advantage. Crush up your dry food and sprinkle it as a topper on the food you want to move them to – canned, raw or lightly cooked foods. A lot of companies are coming out with toppers now.

Moisture is important

Did you know water in their food is more absorbable for our cats and dogs? Cats particularly don’t hydrate well by drinking like we do.

So cats need foods with moisture in them. If a cat is only fed dry food, they may become clinically dehydrated. This causes urinary/kidney issues.

Change takes time and patience

For instance, it took Terri a year to get one of her office kitties off dry food. And the minute he could break into a bag of dog or cat food, she would literally see his eyes dilate. It was like watching an addict!

Trends in pet food mirror trends in human food

The problem is cats and dogs are carnivores, not omnivores like humans. Remember who you’re feeding. Food must be species appropriate.

So what’s the trend for humans? Increased fruits and vegetables, high fiber, gluten-free grains, plant-based diets.

Grain-free pet food

At first glance, going grain-free makes sense for carnivores. Then we find out grain-free pet food’s been implicated in some heart conditions in dogs. HOWEVER, newer research indicates there may not be a connection. Read more here. The jury’s still out.

More fruits and greens

A lot of animals do very well with fresh greens. But dogs tolerate more fresh fruits and greens than cats. Cats can tolerate a little bit if it’s processed properly. But avoid highly processed foods.

Different digestive tracts

Dogs and cats have a very different digestive system than ours. Theirs are 25% of the length of ours. They don’t really have that ability to break down a lot of fibers. Their bodies are designed to get the food in and get it out. They’re scavengers and hunters.

Available pet foods

  • Dry food. It’s highly processed. It’s the least expensive food but also has some of the least interesting or appropriate ingredients.
  • Canned foods.
  • Dehydrated foods. You’re going to need to add the water.
  • Freeze dried raw. It’s extremely popular because it’s more shelf stable and easy to travel with. Even the freeze-drying process helps with the taste; it actually enhances the food. It’s a great topper because it’s so flavorful.
  • Lightly cooked. Answers the concerns of feeding raw foods.
  • Terri mentions that there are two primary types of raw foods, HPP’d (High Pressure Pasteurization) and true raw. But there are several other safety protocols to reduce pathogen risks to zero tolerance, including fermentation.

Work within your budget. You don’t have to stick to just one.

How to read labels to find out what’s in your pet’s food

Don’t be swayed by what’s on the front of the package. Read the ingredient list on the back. The ingredients are listed in descending order by amount in the food before it’s cooked.


Flavors don’t mean that there the ingredient is a major part of the pet food. For instance, we might assume “tuna flavor” means there’s tuna in the pet food, but it’s just the flavor of tuna, not the fish.

Hiding carbohydrate percentages

So as you review ingredients, the first should be meat, preferably the first few are meat. Keep looking. Notice if the carbohydrates are listed separately. When you add those percentages up, carbohydrates can outweigh the meat.

Protein calculations – canned versus dry

When you review the guaranteed analysis, canned percent may be less than freeze dried, or dry. The canned may be 8% protein; the kibble or freeze dried may be 30 to 40% protein.

But you’re comparing wet food to dry, so you need to do a conversion. A quick ROUGH way to compare to the dry matter is multiply the canned percentage by four. Canned is actually around 32% protein. Better, right?

By-products and meals

By-products can be made from organ meats or not so healthy remnants. Unfortunately, labeling does not allow a clarification of what is used for the by-product or a meal. For a better choice, make sure the by-product or meal is labeled as a single source, such as pork by-products or chicken meal versus “meat” by-products or meat meal.

Still, in some instances, those by-products may be better than grains or beans.

The pet food company matters

Companies that are doing the right thing are proud of that fact. You can call or email them and ask questions.

For instance, one brand will tell you where their products and ingredients come from. If a company gives you the runaround, avoid them. If the company won’t talk to you, avoid them. You are the consumer, it is your job to be your animal’s advocate.

Longevity of our pets

The best thing we can do is try to offer them the best diet. That’s the most important thing. Food is the foundation for longevity as well as the best health.

What’s the best diet?

Feed them species-appropriate food. Offer the best food that’s available that’s not going to break your budget.

Listen to the whole interview here. We  also discuss:

  • How pet food companies got where they are
  • Human grade pet food
  • Plant-based diets

pet sage pet food

For nearly 25 years, Terri Grow has provided solid, fact-based answers to the questions clients present each day through dogged research.

Her passion for advancing feline health was fueled by successfully helping clients employ species appropriate diets, herbal and nutritional supplements, and nourishing healthy feline and canine lifestyles.

Terri consults with folks on pet food issues. Visit her website at terrigrow.com.

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