Fish in Dog Food, Cat Food – the Good, and the Bad

Fish in dog food, cat food – the good, and the bad. Do you know what makes fish or a fish by-product healthy, or unhealthy for your dog or cat? There are many pet foods and treats that contain fish – but not all of the fish used in these products is truly health supporting.  

Fish can offer many health benefits as a rich source of protein, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids. Consuming fish on a regular basis can contribute to optimal brain health, digestive health, heart health, joint health and more. Regular consumption of fish can help prevent arthritis, cancer, dementia, renal problems, and many other inflammatory diseases. The essential omega 3 fatty acids in fish can play a significant role in the maintenance of good psychological health, and can help speed healing. Conversely, poor-source fish, and fish-based products can contribute to the acquisition of ailments and serious diseases.

Fish is a very popular ingredient in commercial pet food – dry food, canned food, and raw food. If you are feeding your dog or cat a food that contains fish, or fish by products such as fish meal or fish oil, I recommend that you take a few minutes to review the source and type of fish in your dog’s food. The same holds true if you are giving your dog homemade food that includes fish.

Don’t allow your decision on what fish-included product to purchase to be influenced by 1persuasive advertising tactics, 2pet store staff advice, a breeder’s advice, your 3veterinarian’s advice, 4price-point or popularity. At worst, your pet’s health can be adversely impacted. It is always best to make your decision from a place of informed knowledge…

Fish in Dog Food and Cat Food – the 'Good'

Deep, Cold, Open Water
Deep, cold, open water – for example the Atlantic Ocean, the waters off of the Alaskan coast, and the Norwegian coast are less contaminated than other bodies of water. Fish that live in these cold deep waters have a high body-fat content rich in EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids and the lowest levels of contaminants. If you want your dog or cat to consume fish for the amazing health benefits offered by high-levels of omega-3 fatty acids look for product that contain only wild or wild caught, cold water fish.

The Species of Fish Matters
The species of fish that offer the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids are: salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, lake trout, Alaskan halibut, sardines, and herring.  If you are feeding your dog fish because your dog has allergies to red meat and poultry – consider using several types of fish to get the best nutritional profile possible – i.e. look for a combination that yields the highest level of protein plus the highest level of omega-3 fatty acids. Wild-caught from clean water salmon, snapper fish, swordfish and tuna offer the highest levels of protein. The fish offering the best omega-3 fatty acids are wild or wild-caught from clean water salmon, sardines, lake trout, swordfish, halibut (Alaskan), herring (Atlantic and Pacific), and mackerel. In making a selection, you should also consider mercury contamination…

Mercury Contamination
It is important to select fish that is relatively low in mercury contamination. Cold water wild or wild-caught fatty fish, not currently endangered from over-fishing and lowest in mercury are: Arctic char, crawfish, herring, Pacific flounder, Pacific sole, tilapia (low in Omega 3, high in omega 6), wild Alaskan Salmon, wild Pacific salmon. The highest mercury contamination for wild and wild caught fish occurs in: Atlantic halibut, golden snapper, king mackerel, marlin, pike, sea bass, shark, swordfish, and tuna (albacore). Fish from the high-mercury contaminated category should not be consumed more than one time per week. Pregnant and lactating dogs and cats, puppies and kittens should not be fed any high mercury contaminated fish.

Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)
The wild and wild caught fish lowest in POPs is Wild Alaskan Salmon and California salmon. POPs are pollutants that exist in the environment which bioaccumulate in the body of humans and non-human animals. POPs are toxic substances that pose extreme health hazards to humans, animals and the environment. PCB’s and DDT are two examples of POPs. You can read more about POPs here.

Whole Fish
Whole fish from clean, cold open waters offers the best quality, low-contaminant nutrition and are preferable to farm-raised whole fish or fish meal – both of which contain toxic contaminants.

Fish in Dog Food and Cat Food – the 'Bad'

Farm Raised Fish
Many dog food products contain fish, and fish derivatives (i.e. fish meal or fish oil) sourced from farm raised fish. Consumption of farm-raised fish increases your dog’s and cat’s toxic load, and while this may not result in short-term health issues, it can result in multiple long-term health issues including a long-list of 5inflammatory diseases. I recommend that you take a few minutes to read about the multiple inflammatory agents that your dog or cat may consume when eating a product that contains farm raised fish.

Fish Meal
Fish meal was at one time exclusively a by-product of the fishing industry, and up until the early 1900’s was used mainly as a fertilizer for farmer’s fields. Today, there are three basic categories of fish meal – fish meal made from fish caught specifically to make fish meal; fish meal made from the by-catches of another fishery; and fish meal made from the leftovers (undesirable offcuts and offal) of made-for human consumption fish products. Fish meal is used by both the pet food industry and animal feed industry. Fish meal can offer concentrated protein, but it can also be a dangerous source of toxins.  Fish meal is also used to feed farm raised fish, and in the preparation of certain antibiotics. The quality of a fish meal depends on many factors such as the source of the fish (i.e. is the fish meal made from farm-raised fish or from cold, clean water wild or wild caught fish, or from wild or wild-caught fish in contaminated waters). The fish used in the making of fish meal tend to go rancid quickly - in order to prevent rancidity from occurring some producers of fish meal use toxic and inflammatory chemical preservatives such as ethoxyquin, sodium nitrite and sodium nitrite with formaldehyde. If you are feeding your dog or cat a product that contains fish meal do your research and make sure that the fish meal used is ethoxyquin-free. I recommend that you read more about -ethoxyquin here. High heat cooking of meat-protein (including fish) creates a chemical reaction in which carcinogens are formed. Most fish meal is made by cooking, pressing, drying and grinding the fish. This means that most fish meal is highly processed at the fish meal plant even before it gets to the pet food manufacturing plant where it may be cooked again at least once if not a third time during the dry food or wet food manufacturing process. For this reason, fish meal is not a substance that I am pleased to see in any pet food.

Often Used in Pet Food BUT are Low in Omega 3 and High in Contaminants
A few examples, used by the pet food industry because they are readily available and inexpensive…
Basa (also known as catfish or pangasius). Catfish is typically farm raised or imported from contaminated waters of Vietnam. Talapia is typically farm raised. It is low in Omega 3 fatty acids. It is a ‘vegetarian’ fish (a fish that does not eat meat) which makes it less expensive for the fish farms to feed. Farmed Talapia is typically fed soy and corn pellets sourced from GMO corn and soy. GMO corn and GMO soy is high in herbicide residue; GMO corn has been proven to cause the growth of tumors – making farm raised tilapia an even more undesirable fish in my opinion.

Canned Fish
Metal cans and can lining material contains toxens (i.e. PCBs) that do leach into food preserved in the can. For this reason I do not recommend feeding your dog or cat canned food on a daily basis. In addition, most canned fish is cooked at high temperatures prior to canning. High heat cooking triggers the formation of carcinogens in the food. For this reason, feeding your dog or cat canned fish on a daily basis is not something I recommend you do. Using canned fish infrequently presents a much lower risk to health.

The bottom line - fish can be very good for your dog or cat, but not if the fish is contaminated with multiple toxins!

1 For example: the use of trendy words on packaging and in promotional videos, commercials (i.e. ‘omega-fatty acids included’, ‘supports coat and skin health’, ‘hypo allergenic dog food rich in omega 3’, ‘all natural’, ‘holistic’, etc.); packaging has attractive photos (i.e. a healthy, happy dog, fresh, appetizing looking food ingredients), etc. All of these things are marketing gimmicks designed to leave plenty of room for ‘interpretation’ by you the consumer and by the product manufacturer. If you assume you do not look at the obvious and underlying details. The pet food industry takes great advantage of the consumer’s gap in knowledge to assure large profit often at the expense of your dog’s health.

2The majority of pet food store employees get their diet and nutrition ‘training’ from the same pet food manufacturers, whose product is for sale in their place of employment – the pet food store. The opinion you are getting from the staff person is typically not based on objective thought or fact.

3The typical veterinarian spends one week only in a four year veterinary sciences course studying food and nutrition for pets. In that one week of study on food and nutrition, typically 80% to 100% of the course material and media is supplied by the big pet food manufacturers. In addition, during the 4 year course the same pet food manufacturers provide ‘for free’, pet products to the students for their own personal pets. After graduating from the veterinary sciences course, the student may open their own veterinary practice, or become a partner at an already establish veterinarian hospital, where the same manufacturer’s pet food will be sold – both parties (veterinarian and manufacturer) making a tidy profit from sales. The same is true for most veterinarian hospital in-house animal nutritionists. Unfortunately in the majority of cases, this situation is not one that fosters broad-perspective knowledge-based objectivity regarding diet, food and nutrition.

4The cost of a product is not an indication of the actual appropriateness and quality of a product and its ingredients. While it is true that very inexpensive products are often poor quality, many high-priced products contain listed and hidden problematic ingredients as well.  

5Inflammatory diseases – for example: arthritis, asthma and other allergic symptoms, autoimmune diseases, colitis, Crohn’s disease, dementia, inflammatory bowel disease and other gastrointestinal diseases, thyroid problems and multiple types of cancer.

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Article and graphics by Karen Rosenfeld

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