Petfoodology

the scientific study of pet nutrition by veterinary nutrition specialists and experts.

Pet Food Decisions: How Do You Pick Your Pet’s Food?

Pet Food Decisions: How Do You Pick Your Pet’s Food?
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When talking to pet owners, I’ve been struck by how passionate they are about their dog or cat’s diet and the choices they’ve made – whether it’s a homecooked or raw meat diet, treats or supplements, or the many other pet food trends and practices I’ve seen over the years.  It’s no surprise that we love our pets and spend lots of money on them (more than $75 billion estimated for 2019, with $31.68 billion spent on pet food).1  Persuasive marketing claims about nutrition, diets, and ingredients have made it challenging for even the best-intentioned pet owners to make good decisions.  In one study, dog owners reported that choosing the right food for their dog was the most difficult part of pet ownership.2  There are now pet foods with every buzzword: “ancient grains,” “grass-fed,” “holistic,” “superfoods,” “free-range,” “no byproducts,” and “no peas or lentils.”  The confusing and often conflicting information has caused pet owners to make decisions not on facts, but on marketing, with results that can be harmful to the pets themselves (in addition to stressing out the owners!)

I’ve been a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist® for more than 20 years and have always been fascinated by people’s decisions and beliefs about pet food and nutrition.  I’ve done multiple studies to better understand why pet owners make the decisions they do about their pets’ food.  We published our latest study earlier this year.3  My colleagues, including an applied economist who researches the economics and policy of food and nutrition, and I conducted a study to gather information from pet owners on the factors that affect their dog and cat food purchasing decisions.

We had more than 2100 responses (which should have told me something about how enthusiastic pet owners are).  For me, the most interesting finding from the whole study was that many – more than 40% – of the people we surveyed indicated that buying healthy food for their pets was even more important than buying healthy food for themselves!   And almost every respondent put buying their pets’ healthy food on at least equal footing as seeking it for themselves.  This emphasized to me how devoted people are to their pets and how this gives us a tremendous opportunity to put this passion to effective use by providing evidence-based information to help pet owners buy the best and healthiest food for their pets.  We want pet owners to be able to select what is truly the best food for their pet – not just the food with the best marketing and the most buzzwords.

Common Mistakes in Selecting Pet Food

Do you do base your decision on any of the following?

  1. The ingredient list. Many pet owners select diets based on ingredients in the ingredient list that sound good to them, rather than on the diets that are most nutritious and made with the best nutritional expertise and quality control. Remember that pets need nutrients, not ingredients.  You can learn more about information in the ingredient list that is helpful and what can cause more confusion from our past Petfoodology posts.
  2. The most persuasive labels. Most of the information on the pet food label is marketing, rather than factual information.  Just because diets contain ancient grains or superfoods doesn’t make them the best options for your pet.
  3. Ratings websites. Current ratings websites base their ratings on marketing information (or myths), not on which diet has the best nutrition or quality.
  4. Recommendations from the pet supply store: Your veterinarian can help you select the best food for your pet.  Pet supply store employees may be promoting the food that has the highest  profit margin, the store’s private label brand, or the ones with the best marketing, rather than what is really the best food for your pet.

If any of these are part of your decision-making process, you might be falling victim to pet food myths and misinformation and not really selecting the optimal diet.

Making Good Decisions for your Best Friend

You love your pet, you’re passionate about her nutrition, and want to feed her the best diet possible.  What can you do to ensure you’re buying what is really the best food for her?

  1. Talk to your veterinarian. In our study, veterinarians were the most common primary source for nutrition information and were also rated as the most important source.  Not every veterinarian likes discussing nutrition as much as we do, so if it’s not your veterinarian’s favorite topic, schedule an appointment with a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist® (some will even do remote consultations with owners) .
  2. Ask important questions about your pet food – most of the important factual information you need is not on the label, such as whether they employ qualified nutritionists or use rigorous quality control practices, but this information should be available from the manufacturer. Some of the important criteria from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association have been compiled in a tool from the Pet Nutrition Alliance (updated annually).
  3. Be a skeptic about nutrition on the internet. The internet can be a tremendous resource but also can be an unreliable source of myths, misinformation, or even completely false information.  Learn to be a more objective user of the internet, especially for pet nutrition topics.  Researching the site’s author and sources of information, as well as discussing the information with your veterinarian can help you to avoid common pitfalls with nutrition on the internet.

At Petfoodology, we understand your love and passion for your pets – we feel the same way!  And we want you to feed the healthiest and most nutritious food possible.  But we want you to use your passion responsibly so you can make better decisions about your pet’s health and nutrition.  It’s important to make your decision on facts, not on emotion and marketing.  We hope you’ll continue to read Petfoodology – we’ll help to keep you aware, educated, and or armed to make good decisions.

1American Pet Products Association. Pet industry market size and ownership statistics.  Available at: https://www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp.  Accessed December 16, 2019.

2PetFood News.  Dog owners have difficulty choosing pet food (October 8, 2015). Available at: http://www.petfoodindustry.com/articles/5407-survey-dog-owners-have-difficulty-choosing-pet-food.  Accessed December 16, 2019.

3Schleicher M, Cash SB, Freeman LM. Determinants of pet food purchasing decisions.  Canadian Veterinary Journal 2019;60:644-650.

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Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVN

Dr. Freeman is a veterinary nutritionist and a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. She is on the cutting-edge of science, with hundreds of articles in prestigious journals, speaking engagements at national and international conferences, and awards for her scientific achievements. However, she also is passionate about providing objective and accurate information on pet nutrition to veterinarians, pet owners, and other animal enthusiasts.

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