golden retriever with a mouth full of carrots as part of pet food marketing

Are you selecting your pet's food because it looks appetizing to you? Pet food marketers hope so.

Pet food marketing is a really big deal. Creative advertising for the next "new and improved" thing often influences our choices. Should I be feeding Fido a "Paleo" diet, a gluten free diet, a meat by-product free diet? Does my dog want to eat like a wolf and my cat like a mountain lion? Are corn and soy bad? Are tapioca and quinoa good? How much of that ingredient list the pet food is actually directed at me? Am I buying pet foods based on my own tastes? What about nutrition? What's a pet owner to do?!?

Let's face it. Fido and Fluffy do not do the grocery shopping. Pet food marketing is not directed at our pets. It is their human counterparts that marketers need to entice into spending those big bucks. Today, pet food marketing has become more and more trendy.  You now can find quinoa kibble on the shelf, along with pet foods accented with blueberries, pumpkin and spinach! The latest trend in pet food marketing now seems to be moving away from the meaty "wolfie and mountain lion foods" and toward trendy, "more eco-friendly" vegetables and plants.

A Pet Food Marketing Story.

Here is a  classic example of expert marketing. Newcomer to the pet food market, Blue Buffalo, first touted their pet food products as "all natural" and with no meat by-product meals. The term "natural" when applied to pet food, or human food for that matter, is almost meaningless, but can increase the price you pay at the check out counter by 50%. If it costs more, it must be better - Right? "Natural" does not mean "healthful". (Poisonous mushrooms are just about as "natural" as it gets.) But the "all-natural" advertising strategy worked. The new company gained a big chunk of the market share. Of course, Blue Buffalo was sued by Purina and lost. Because the Blue Buffalo pet foods did actually contain a large portion of meat by-products meals they were guilty of false advertising. But does that mean their food was not nutritious?

What Are Meat By-Products and By-Product Meals?

By-products are those part of the animal that we humans prefer not to eat. Internal organs would be an example. Many of these by-products are highly nutritious (and form a major part of our pet's wild counterparts' diets).  A by-product meal is the result of heating, grinding up, and removing water from these edible but not humanly appetizing parts. “There’s really nothing wrong with feeding those kinds of products to animals,” says Dr. Cailin Heinze, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist at Tufts University. “Organ meats actually have much more nutrients in them than muscle meats." But pet food marketers have convinced many of us that these by-products are "yucky" and that our pets deserve better. There is a disconnect between advertising and actual nutrition. Advertisers made having "meat" and not having by-products in pet foods seem more healthful. Nutritionists for pets state emphatically that this is not true.

What About Plant Products in Pet Foods?

New plant products are making an appearance in pet foods.  The standards of soy and corn meal gluten have been relegated to the "unpopular kids" category by pet food marketers. However, these plant products provide high protein levels at a low cost. New products like quinoa and tapioca have been popping up in pet foods. Of course, pet food manufacturers don't mind charging pet owners significantly more for these trending food sources.

Some marketers are now playing on the "Sustainable" card, to justify the move back to grains and plants. While the carbon footprint of grains is less than the equivalent weight of that hamburger on your plate, consider this: The meat and by-products that go into animal food are often the parts of that same steer that the humans do not want to eat. Eliminating the use of these by-products and by-product meals from pet foods would mean more waste. There could be an actual increase the carbon foot print to provide human grade beef for our pets as well as ourselves.

The Bottom Line:

Read the label on your pet food.  Most importantly, be certain it has an AAFCO seal. The Association of American Feed Control certifies foods tested and shown to provide adequate nutrition for the pet life stages as listed on the label. Cats have different nutritional requirements than dogs, so you should not feed your cats and dogs the same food. Certain health conditions can be better managed using therapeutic diets recommended by your veterinarian.

Be aware that just because a product you think is helpful (or healthful) is listed on the label, it does not mean that the level of that product is high enough to be considered therapeutic.  It just says there is "some" of that product in the food. The order of ingredients on the label corresponds to the relative amounts, highest to lowest, of the ingredients in the food.

When the label says "Contains...." those ingredients are in the food.  If the label says "Contains One Or More of the Following..." it means that any one, some, or all of those ingredients are present, usually determined by cost and availability to the manufacturer. That becomes especially important if you are trying out novel foods to prevent a food allergy. Those listed ingredients may come and go in the food, making it difficult to determine which, if any, are causing your pets allergic reaction.

Finally, the best lecture ever I attended presented by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist summed it up: "If it is working, don't change it".  My pets have been eating the same brand of pet foods for years. They have good health and shiny coats.  Guess I will pass on the quinoa!