Pet Food on Shelf

Many of our clients and some veterinarians report great confusion when buying or recommending pet foods for healthy pets. The bewildering number of foods and the claims made for them can cause people’s heads to spin. Much of the confusion can be cleared up by understanding the way these products are marketed.

The goal of marketing is to increase the profit of the company — this is the “American way” that has made us so successful. Marketing consists of offering consumers products with attributes that specifically appeal to the customer. The appeal may be to a practical need or to the customer’s ethics, philosophy, etc. Certain attributes, such as “cleaner,” “whiter,” “fresher,” “cheaper,” etc., may be directly observable. Other product attributes, like “natural” or “organic,” may not be so easy to verify, and ingredient attributes, such as “grain free” or “real meat” (beef, chicken and related ingredients), are marketed with the implication that these attributes will lead to a desired outcome.

Premium Isn’t Always Better

Some $19 billion reportedly was spent on pet food in 2012, an increase of more than 50 percent since 2000, despite the intervening recession. Another social phenomenon that has occurred over the past decade or two is the increasing change in perception of cats and dogs from “pets” to “family members,” particularly in more affluent households. Packaged Facts recently estimated that about 10 percent of the pet food sold in the U.S. is “super premium” (defined as priced 20 percent or more above the category average), and 30 percent is “mass premium” (priced 10 to 20 percent above the category average).1 Note that the definition of “premium” was based on the price rather than any proof of higher nutritional quality of the diet, let alone performance (meaning some measurable indicator of health or well-being) of any pets fed the food.

Pet food purchasing decisions result from a complex sequence of influences. These include internal influences, such as consumers’ individual knowledge, attitudes (philosophical, political, ethical), personality, lifestyle, etc. External influences (culture, group affiliation, life situation) also play a role, as do various marketing influences, such as the attributes ascribed to the product, promotional materials, price and level of service provided by the manufacturer.

Given the competition for consumer dollars and the profitability of pet food, it should come as no surprise that some of the largest consumer products companies in the world make pet foods, as shown in the table below:

Where pet food comes from

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.

Additional evidence of the nutritional safety of contemporary pet foods comes from comparison of incidents of diet-related nutritional problems in two recessions. When I was a senior veterinary student in 1980-81, there was an economic downturn that led to pet food being sold in plain white bags with the words “Dog Food” or “Cat Food” stenciled on the bag. Some pets, only young growing dogs in my experience, developed skin problems, probably because of inadequate amounts of zinc in the food. Fast-forward 30 years to the more recent and much more severe and prolonged recession wherein, to my knowledge, not a single such case has been reported.

Confusion Is Unnecessary

So the confusion over pet foods seems to be much more related to the psychological and business aspects of marketing, which in turn may be the result of a market glutted with satisfactory foods desperately trying to differentiate themselves in the mind of the consumer. There need be no confusion. In a similar market situation — table wine — my wife makes purchase decisions based on her aesthetic preference for the label, which generally results in an excellent outcome. Based on the available evidence, a similar strategy seems reasonable for pet foods. In other words, you should feel comfortable buying most any food that includes an AAFCO claim appropriate for your pet while understanding that most of the reasons you will be prompted to buy it are based on marketing.


1. Pet Food in the U.S., 10th Edition.

Dr. Tony Buffington, DVM, MS, PhD, DACVN, is a professor of clinical sciences and an adjunct professor of urology at The Ohio State University. He is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. His interest in the role of stress and disease in companion animals and humans led him to study clinical nutrition issues in small animal patients as well as lower urinary tract disorders in cats.