How Marketing and human nature shape our pet food choices
The change in mindset from pet ownership to parenting has not only shifted our attitudes about our furry family members over time, but has also been crucial in defining pet food industry trends.
Premiumization and humanization trends – also known as anthropomorphism – in pet parenting are two key drivers in the explosion of options in the pet food market. For this reason, the pet food market is heavy influenced by human nutrition. In turn, these two rising trends are boosting demand for alternative, organic, premium and custom-made pet food products.
But are the alternatives better?
Our knowledgeable Cabbagetown clients are proactive about health and exercise, not only for themselves, but for their pets, too. There is a small segment of pet parents that see a disparity between nutritional recommendations for humans to eat fresh, wholesome, organic, GMO-free, unprocessed foods and the unattractive, foul-smelling wet or dry food that they’re feeding their pets. Emotionally invested pet parents sometimes find the difference difficult to rationalize.
def. Anthropomorphism: the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object.
Combine this emotionally-driven desire with the incessant bombardment of information from the mainstream media, social media and advice from friends and you could easily fall into diet analysis paralysis. As with human diet trends, misinformation can turn into popular belief with alarming ease.
How does a pet parent navigate the options?
Choosing the correct diet for your pet includes the following factors:
- Age and Size: Nutritional needs are different between puppies and adults dogs; large breeds vs. small breeds
- Pet Parent Lifestyle: How much time is available to spend for shopping and food preparation?
- Food Allergies: Some pets are allergic to specific proteins or ingredients.
- Activity Level: Service dogs have different caloric needs than house pets.
- Palate Pleasing: Pet food has to taste and smell good – not to you, but your pet.
Marketing and Well-meaning Pet Parents
There are some genuinely valid reasons for pet parents to be skeptical of Big Pet Food. Like human food, the pet food industry has had issues with recalls, contaminations, ingredient substitutions and misleading packaging. It’s not hard to blame pet parents when they look at alternative diet regimens outside the mainstream when these issues get amplified.
Because regulations are thinly enforced, pet food budgets are heavily allocated towards advertising and marketing, in lieu of research. The proliferation of choice floods the marketplace making it difficult for pet parents – and veterinarians alike – to sort through the massive quantity of ‘noise’ in search of an optimal diet for their pets. Our veterinarians are trained to help cut through the noise.
In addition to the noise, long-term peer-reviewed studies on pet nutrition are difficult to come by. There isn’t a ton of evidence-based, clinical studies that to show that commercial pet food offers the best nutrition. Conversely, there is an even larger data gap lending support to non-traditional diets, such as raw food diets. Marketplace confusion reigns.
Unfortunately, economics don’t support investment in large-scale research for pet nutrition when the return on investment is driven by marketing budgets. There has been plenty of research for production animals because these studies are directly connected to human food supply.
There are outliers in this regard. Prescription diet companies – like Hill’s, Purina and Royal Canin – strive to understand how to maximize companion pet nutrition and thus spend significant sums on R&D to determine the best outcomes for pets, whether they’re healthy or have chronic conditions.
Regardless, large-scale, peer-reviewed pet nutrition studies remain elusive across the board. There simply aren’t enough widely-accepted industry studies on how commercial diets impact the long-term health of our furry family members. Until more research materializes, we will continue to rely on the expertise of those who have made concerted efforts to research and test – our trusted prescription diet providers.
Alternative Diets for Pets
We will touch on three types of alternative diets for pets. This is by no means a complete examination of the options available, but these tend to be the most dominant alternatives to off-the-shelf, commercial options. This list is NOT something we advocate, but we also respect the deep beliefs that some pet parents adhere to – this dietary decision is a very personal choice to be made ONLY by the pet parent.
1. RAW FOOD DIETS
What are the benefits of raw food diets for pets?
Advocates of raw food diets offer two seemingly compelling arguments: a health-based claim that their pets have more energy, glossier coats, better dental health, healthier skin and smaller poops. The evidence backing these observations is anecdotal, at best. To date, no published peer-reviewed studies exist to support claims made by raw diet advocates.
They also contend that the diet more closely resembles the diet that their pets’ wild, pre-domesticated ancestors consumed. Probably true, but humans overall health and life expectancy would be considerably compromised if we consumed the same diet as our hunter-gatherer ancestors. This belief does not account for biological, evolutionary and dietary changes that have complemented domestication over the millennia. Today’s pets show little behavioural resemblance to the dogs and cats we currently share our lives with.
Q: What is a raw food diet?
A: As the name implies, it is food that is not cooked prior to feeding your pet – usually a dog. A raw food diet usually includes some (or all) of the following:
- muscle meat from other animals
- whole or ground bones
- organ meats, such as liver and kidney
- raw eggs, vegetables or fruit
- dairy products, such as unpasteurized yogurt or milk
Q: What are the risks of a raw food diet?
There are two primary risks. First, is the risk of nutritional imbalances – this applies to both home-prepared and commercial raw food diets. Secondly, is the risk associated with bacterial or parasitic contamination. Food poisoning – specifically salmonella – is a concern for humans in the household. Proper handling of raw foods is crucial for reducing the risk, but safety cannot be guaranteed.
Q: What is American Veterinary Medical Associations (AVMA) – the big brother to our own Canadian version CVMA – policy on raw diets? Does this apply to ALL raw food fed to pets or just a certain type?
A: The AVMA does not outright discourage this diet; it only addresses processes required to eliminate pathogens in raw or undercooked animal-source protein, including meat or products from chickens, turkeys, cows, pigs, sheep, fish, deer, buffalo, or any other animal source. It also includes raw, unpasteurized eggs and milk.
Q: When preparing raw food, what safeguards are needed to protect against bacteria and parasitic contamination?
A: Safe food handling practices for raw animal products:
- Practice good food hygiene and sanitation.
- Consider cooking the raw food before feeding it to your pet, if eschewing commercial foods is your goal
- Select products that have been treated to remove pathogens when purchasing commercial raw diets
- A damaged raw food product container should not be purchased
- Keep food frozen until ready to use; refrigerate or pitch leftovers.
- Avoid any cross-contamination by keeping the raw meat meant for your pet separated from meat intended for your family,
- Do not handle raw meat intended for your pet in the same area(s) or use the same utensils or equipment used for preparing food for your family.
- Never allow cooked food to come into contact with raw meat, unless they are then cooked at temperatures to kill bacteria.
- Wash vegetables and fruit prior to feeding.
- Wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw food.
- Clean pet dishes, surfaces, cutting boards and utensils on the reg
- Thoroughly control insects and pests that may be drawn to raw meat as they can spread contamination.
2. HOMEMADE ORGANIC DIETS
Intuitively, it makes sense that an organic diet made with natural ingredients, such as beef, chicken, lamb, peas, spinach, carrots and blueberries would achieve the best possible outcome for your pets’ overall well being – just like it would for us.
def. Projection: the attribution of one’s own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people or to objects
As a result, some pet parents have the view that a home-cooked, organic diet is safer, more natural and healthier than a commercially available diet. They’re not necessarily wrong – it just pre-supposes that a well-balanced, organic diet for humans is comparable and beneficial within another species. Again, this view is led by the factors mentioned earlier: anthropomorphism and projection, as well as overabundance of marketing messages. It’s certainly possible this diet is ideal – there just isn’t enough peer-reviewed science to offer substantial proof.
Perhaps the biggest drawback to this diet alternative is that purchasing, preparation and cooking for your pet is very demanding on your time and finances. If you are fortunate enough to undertake such a formidable task, then you’re one of the lucky ones. Organic recipes for pets proliferate online to keep the options fresh. Alternatively, you can take the time element away and subscribe to a fresh, pet food service delivered right to your door.
Sounds like a great solution, right?
Before you dive in, it might be informative to review some of the drawbacks.
- Most homemade or subscription diets do not undergo the scrutiny and rigorous testing applied to prescription diets. Nor do they address the unique nutritional requirements needed for your specific – sometimes chronic or hereditary – pets’ circumstances.
- Pets may have their own philosophical view. In Western society, we expect variety in our food choices. Pets don’t hold the same attitude. Most are perfectly comfortable eating the same food day after day – as long as it meets their nutritional requirements, feeding times are consistent and it tastes good.
- There’s a limited quantity of organic meat and produce available for subscription plans, never mind the expense at the your local Loblaws or Whole Foods these days. High quality, organic ingredients are difficult to procure for pet food makers because of high demand for organic products in the human market. Unfortunately, what’s allocated for the pet food market is generally lower quality.
3. GRAIN-FREE DIETS
Commercial dog food brands started making grain-free options because pet parents demanded it.
The shift away from grains can be traced back to a recall of tainted Chinese kibble in 2007, as documented by the New York Times. It was found that wheat gluten from a single pet food supplier of kibble was contaminated with melamine. This was bad – it’s a compound purported to negatively affect kidney function.
That article was enough to create worries about wheat – and more generally, grains – to veer away from science into myth. Through a mix of self-proclaimed pet nutrition experts and well-meaning social media users whose failure to do the research presented their opinion as factual and scientific.
This myth about dogs and grains spread in much the same way that trends that fuel such things as juice cleanses or paleo diets have spread virally for humans – via the internet.
To provide an idea of the viral spread of misinformation, less than one percent of North Americans have celiac disease – a damaging autoimmune response to gluten. In 2012, as much as 30 percent of the United States population was reducing their gluten intake, despite the lack of scientific evidence that gluten is harmful in most people. A large number of those people applied the same logic to their pets. By the end of 2017, grain-free diets account for 44% of the pet food market.
In the few years since the explosion of grain-free diets, reports began to surface about a rare heart condition in dogs called Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). This went beyond breeds that have a genetic predisposition to DCM. Research at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still ongoing, but the common link to this condition appears to be a diet heavy in peas, lentils, chickpeas and potatoes – carbohydrates intended to replace grains.
If a client truly embraces a belief about a certain type of diet, it’s difficult to shake them out of their faith with factual arguments. Whether or not their devotion is grounded in nutritional science, they are nonetheless devoted.
The psychology behind their beliefs is easy to understand – pet parents are passionate about their beloved pets. The challenge in veterinary medicine is trying to dispel these hardened beliefs or misinformation, especially when a (new) pet owner is emotionally invested.
We respect our client’s choices, but also feel it’s important to take a holistic view of your pets’ well-being, minus the outside marketing noise.
We’re here to be your trusted nutritional advisor.
Our veterinarians are independent thinkers and recommend products they feel will best serve their patients’ and clients’ needs. We encourage all of our clients to have an open, honest discussion with our veterinarians about your pet’s nutritional needs to find the optimal diet for your pet.