Many pet owners have come to realize in recent years that when it comes to their processed food, their pets have begun to act like heroin junkies. From extreme anxiousness, to excessive vocalizations and acting out, to what appears to be full blown panic attacks, pets awaiting their next fix of pet food can sometimes look like a scene out of Trainspotting. The reason seems clear: Pets are now seemingly addicted to their commercially processed pet food. The stories are everywhere. And it is not just our imagination…
The secret sauce in addictive pet food
Commercially processed pet food usually contains some kind of base carbohydrate, assorted proteins and fats, sugars, a source of fiber, antioxidants or other preservatives, emulsifiers (which keep the fat in the food and prevent it from separating), vitamins and minerals, and coloring agents. More expensive versions may also contain probiotics or digestibility enhancers like chicory, as well as enzymes, anti-parasitic compounds and even minerals to promote shiny coats or prevent the build-up of tartar on teeth.
But there’s also something else–the secret sauce that makes some versions highly addictive to pets–and lucrative business for Big Pet Food corporations and stakeholders. Just like Big Food has been doing with processed food for humans, commercially processed pet food is filled with chemical additives especially engineered to get your pets hooked. “Big Pet Food is a multi-billion-dollar industry which invests heavily in research into “palatants” – ingredients that make our pets want to eat their products. And from potently smelly chemicals usually found in rotting meat to an additive commonly added to potatoes to stop them discoloring, the quest to make the most scrumptious pet food has led to some surprising insights.” (source)
Domesticated pets’ sense of taste is generally less discriminating than humans, but having high amounts of olfactory receptors, dogs, cats, rabbits, rats, gerbils, hamsters and some other pets are hardwired to be super sensitive to how food smells. In short, our pets are highly attracted to smells with high levels of other animals’ odors. The trick for Big Pet Food manufacturers is to create pet food that is highly appealing to pets that find the smell of roadkill, horse poop and vomit irresistible, while not making their human companions gag.
Additives common in pet food include putrescine and cadaverine, colorless chemicals produced naturally by the breakdown of proteins. They’re largely responsible for the revolting smell of rotting flesh – and cats love them. They are often actively added to cat and dog food, either as offal extracts or lab-made additives. (source)
MSG, Hydrolyzed Proteins and Volatile Compounds as “Flavoring”
A recent study identified nine volatile compounds in common pet food flavorings that are linked to how delicious they are to dogs, including heptanal, nonanal, and octanal. They all have strong, fruity odors.
Calcium-based flavorings have also been found to be particularly popular with carnivorous animals, which discern its presence via receptors in their mouths that evolved to detect calcium. Big pet food companies have already begun targeting this discovery with cocktails of flavour-enhancing chemicals.
Additionally, like the exceptionally common additive in human processed food, hydrolyzed protein is commonly used in pet food because it imparts a flavor similar to that achieved by meat or vegetable stock. It is used for the enticing smell of many brands of kibble and often comes with MSG, which is produced as a by-product. (source) MSG is used by scientists in laboratory research studies in cases where they want to entice lab animals to eat more.
The synthetic food additive pyrophosphate, common in highly processed human food to stop ingredients from discoloring, has been found to drive cats bonkers. Referred to as “cat crack” by R&D scientists developing pet foods that pets will want to eat, is believed to be highly addictive to cats because it intensifies the flavor of amino acids.
The Costs and Remedies to Pet Cravings
There is something perverse about feeding our pets food that is actually triggering cravings and crazy, additive-like behaviors. The main reason is that we are setting up a situation of pet suffering–and that is just plain cruel. Aside from that, there is the fact that some of these additive-laden pet foods are causing pets to eat more than they should. There is a growing problem of weight gain and obesity in pets, with more than half of cats and dogs in the U.S. overweight or obese. This excessive poundage has serious consequences for the health and well-being of pets. Veterinarians say that being overweight can aggravate joint disease in pets. It can also lead to Type 2 diabetes. Overweight conditions in pets can aggravate heart problems and other existing health conditions, and can even shorten their life span.
To stop the addiction-like reactions and overeating by your pet you will need to keep a log of what brands and flavors of pet food appear to be triggering problem behaviors. Be mindful that when you initially switch the pet food away from the one your pet is obsessed with, the new food may be met with resistance, so you may need to experiment with various brands and flavors before your pet returns to a normal relationship with his or her food bowl. If your pet’s addictive-like relationship with a certain food has caused them to eat more food than needed and they have gained weight, talk with your veterinarian about the best foods for weight loss and how to accurately measure the food given so that your pet still gets the necessary nutrients while losing excess weight.