What Should I Feed My Pet? Don't Let Marketing Confuse You

A large number of smaller manufacturers also have come into the market, particularly those selling “niche” pet foods (often described as super premium according to the above definition), and have enjoyed rapid growth. These foods often are sold at pet specialty stores whose personnel are trained to market their attributes.

The attributes marketed, however, may only convey selected information to people in order to influence their emotions and (purchasing) behavior. What has been selectively left unsaid, consciously or not, is that the marketer (or manufacturer) rarely offers objective, externally verifiable evidence to demonstrate that these attributes actually do lead to the better outcomes, in terms of the nutritional health of the pet, that are implied.

Nutrients, Not Ingredients, Are Key

For example, individual food ingredients often are marketed as present or absent with the implication (but without the evidence) that their presence or absence will lead to a better outcome in the pet. However, the likelihood that the presence or absence of an ingredient will affect the outcome in the pet is small for a number of reasons. First, animals need nutrients, not ingredients. Ingredients only serve as the vehicle for nutrients. What determines the outcome in the animal is the presence of all necessary nutrients in appropriate amounts in proper balance for the animal that the diet is designed to feed. This need is the basis of the “complete and balanced” language in the nutritional adequacy statements on pet foods that are required in the U.S. by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Second, there is no objective way to determine the exact nature of the ingredient (more on this in a future article), the amount of it contained in the food, or its quality from the ingredient list on a pet food label. Disclosure of this information is not required by AAFCO or any other regulatory agency, so one just has to take the word of the manufacturer.Without this information, ingredient names cannot help one predict the nutritional outcome in the pet of feeding a particular food.

Don’t Confuse Marketing With Nutrition

Fortunately, none of the marketing attributes appears to make much difference to the outcome in the animal, given the available evidence among the nation’s pets. By that I mean that the number of documented cases of nutritional deficiencies, toxicities and imbalances (which is what AAFCO statements are intended to minimize) in pets in the U.S. appear to be vanishingly small. This is not to say that problems with pet foods are not identified and reported — they frequently are. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains a website called How to Report a Pet Food Complaint where consumers and veterinarians may report problems with pet foods. They also report pet food recalls and withdrawals investigations based on these reports.

Contaminants, Not Deficiencies, Are the Problem

As of the end of September, 31 recalls and safety alerts have been reported for cat or dog foods and treats in 2013, only one of which was for “the possibility of low levels of” a nutrient in a food. No cases of deficiency in an animal fed the food were identified. Only one of 26 reports was related to a nutrient in 2012. The overwhelming number of reports were for salmonella contamination of commercial foods.

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