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Know The Content Of Your Pet's Food

"I fed my cat the wrong food, and it killed her."

Heather Lyons, of Elgin, Ill., says her cat, Gizmo, ate food tainted with melamine. It's an industrial chemical found in wheat gluten made in China, and its presence triggered the largest pet food recall in history

"The vet told us she had kidney failure," Lyons said to The Early Show's resident veterinarian, Dr. Debbye Turner Bell. "A couple of days later on the news, I saw the massive pet food recall."

Lyons says when she realized the food she thought was safe and of high quality killed Gizmo, "It made my stomach turn."

She returned to buying canned cat food. Even so, she's still not quite sure what's in the cans -- like millions of Americans.

Pet food is big business, Bell reports. Americans spend $16 billion on it every year.

But many owners probably have no idea what that food is made from.

And, says Bell, the huge pet food recall of 2007 reminded us what we don't know about the contents of pet food can hurt our pets.

One woman in the Prairie Wolf Dog Exercise Area in Lake Forest, Ill., told Bell she had "no idea" what's in her dog's food. When told the third ingredient is beef byproducts, the woman admitted she doesn't know what that means and, "I wouldn't want to know, I don't think."

Bell remarked to another woman, "If I told you it's whole carcasses, and could include beaks, feathers, might be a little manure -- it's just all been cooked in a big vat..."

"That would make me sick," the woman interrupted Bell.

Legally, Bell explains, byproducts can include part of the lungs, brain, blood, stomach and intestines. And 64 percent of the people surveyed recently by Wellness Pet Food didn't know the contents of meat byproducts.

"I feel bad," the first woman in the park continued. "I mean, outside of my husband and my kids, he's like one of the most important things in my life, and I... I don't know what I'm feeding him (my dog)."

Dr. Edward Moser, a veterinary nutritionist, says pet owners need to care about ingredients: "When you look at a pet who's not receiving adequate nutrition, the things you see are dull, discolored eyes, watery eyes, red eyes. You see poor skin and coat condition."

Turner observed that, "It's really important to read the ingredients on the label. And the first few ingredients should be words you understand, like meat, grain, fruit or vegetables. And avoid a brand that has too many of the four "A"s: artificial ingredients, preservatives, flavors, and colors. And if your pet has a sensitive stomach, avoid foods that produce allergies: corn, wheat, dairy, eggs, soy and beef. Of course, none of this matters if the food we feed our pets is not safe."

What's more, says Dr. Marion Nestle, the author of "Pet Food Politics," pet food is "regulated in the most bizarre way. There's no real oversight of national regulation for pets, except for a few things that are on the labels of the cans and packages."

And that, says pet advocates, is how melamine ended up in pet food in the first place.

And it's why Heather Lyons, the one whose cat died, joined a class action lawsuit against Menu Foods, the manufacturer that sold the melamine-tainted wheat gluten.

"Basically," she says, "what I want to happen is the government to regulate the pet food better. I don't really care about the money; I just want to make sure everyone has a safe pet."

The reality is, most pet food isn't going to kill your pet -- unless, of course, there's some contamination in it, Bell says.

She adds that wet food simply has a higher water content than dry pet food. "If your pet tends to overeat, wet food is not the best, because they love it and want to eat a whole lot of it! A dry food for a normal healthy adult animal, particularly dogs that are active I think is the best. Use the wet food as a treat. If you have a picky eater, use the wet food."

And the best advice should come from "your veterinarian. Work out nutrition plan and the number of calories your pet gets. Obesity is a huge problem for people and our pets and we have to be careful about that."