At a Columbia supermarket last week, this was a very short list of prices you could pay for pet food:
- Meow Mix Tender Centers Chicken and Salmon (13.5 pounds) — $15.32
- Blue Buffalo Tastefuls Adult Cat Food (10 pounds) — $29.98
- Pedigree Adult Complete for Dogs (18 pounds) — $15.98
- Purina One Smart Blend for Dogs (16.4 pounds) — $27.48
In one local pet store, a bag of boutique dog food cost $90 for 15 pounds.
Like most commodities, pet food has become increasingly expensive. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, inflation has pushed the cost of pet food up 7.4% during the last year.
At the same time, cat and dog owners are blitzed with advertisements promising health benefits for their pets if they buy higher-end brands.
These ads especially target the millennial audience, now the highest percentage of pet owners in the country.
Pet food marketing campaigns are designed to appeal to the owner’s emotional attachment to a dog or cat and the desire to take exceptional care of them.
A wave of information about pet food that is free of grain, artificially colored and contains preservatives has left many pet owners wondering whether animals can thrive on basic commercial brands.
But how much do owners really need to spend for food to ensure that their pets are properly cared for?
The bottom line answer: If essential nutritional standards are met, owners can spend as little or as much as they like on pet food without compromising the animal’s health, according to Dr. Bob Backus at the MU Veterinary Health Center.
The higher cost of some pet foods may reflect more costly ingredients or better packaging, but that doesn’t mean they’re better for your animal.
“Generally, more grains and carbohydrate ingredients will be present in lower-priced dog food,” Backus said, but this doesn’t mean they are bad.
“They also have a functional need to hold the kibble together,” he said.
“There are a multitude of ways to give your pet what they need,” said Backus, a board-certified specialist in veterinary nutrition. “Dry or wet food from a supermarket is perfectly adequate.”
Scientific nutritional standards have been established for the commercial pet food industry that address the safety, ingredients and labeling of animal food.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials, a coalition of state, local and federal officials, has established those nutritional standards for pet food. While the association cannot approve or ban any product, the brands themselves can declare their consistency with the standards for nutrition set by the association.
Low-cost pet food
Common brands for pets include Purina Dog Chow, Iams, Meow Mix, Friskies by Purina, Pedigree and Ol’ Roy. Typically, these foods are sold in larger bags and cost $2 or less per pound.
A growing concern among pet owners is the carbohydrate intake from oats, grains and starches in commercial food.
The AAFCO gives a recommendation for growth and percentages of protein and fat minimums that pets need for growth or maintenance, Backus said.
Many pet labels will have a statement indicating the product meeting or exceeding these minimums.
When companies boast of their food being “free from byproducts,” this can potentially confuse buyers who may see that claim as an advantage. Meat or chicken byproducts, however, are not harmful to pets.
When a label specifies “meat byproducts” or “poultry byproducts,” it means organs and bones are in the food, according to the AAFCO. With chicken, it means the heads and feet as well.
These byproducts go through the same heating process as other pet food ingredients, making them suitable for consumption.
The association also notes that the calcium in these ingredients make them good sources of nutrients for animals and still yield nutritional value.
“It is a functional term applied to anything outside of the primary meat,” said Backus; “However, all byproducts aren’t the same.”
“Good companies will have better sourcing and specifications of quality control.”
Expensive pet food
Brands claiming to have higher protein content, better ingredients and fewer byproducts are targeting owners who believe spending more guarantees they’re taking better care of their pets.
High prices can sometimes increase the perceived value of a product, a common marketing practice.
Sometimes marketing techniques can go too far. Last year, a class action lawsuit was settled in Canada after plaintiffs representing 4,000 members claimed Blue Buffalo’s advertising was false and misleading.
The lead plaintiff claimed the company’s “True Blue Promise” that “products contain no poultry byproduct meal, corn, wheat, soy, or artificial preservatives, colors or flavors” had no scientific basis.
Many high-priced brands of pet food are not sold in supermarkets but can be ordered via online sources such as Chewy and Amazon.
At chewy.com, a 6-pound bag of Instinct Frozen Raw Patties Grain-Free Real Beef dog food, for example, costs $40. Orijen high-protein, grain-free dog food costs $99 for a 25-pound bag on Amazon.com.
Is it necessary to spend the extra money? Higher costs can indicate better quality of food, Backus said, but a pet can get a balanced diet from ordinary supermarket food.
“There are a couple reasons people become suspicious of pet food,” Backus said, “and one of them is a concern for natural ingredients.”
“There’s a misconception that dogs need high protein for their diet, but any protein above what they need for growth and maintenance is burned as energy and isn’t necessarily needed,” he said. “It could be substituted for fat or carbs.”
Raw food diets
A trend toward raw food diets for pets is becoming evident in frozen or freeze-dried form. While raw diets are relatively new to the market and largely niche, Backus said these diets may actually be risky.
“It is true that cooked food reduces the nutrients, but most foods, canned and kibble, are cooked only enough to kill any microbes or prevent them from growing and still provide adequate nutrients,” he said.
The food consists of whole food ingredients including raw fruits and vegetables, raw cuts of meat and fish and unpasteurized milk. A pet can contract harmful bacteria like E. coli or listeria in raw food products, he said.
“You can never guarantee every piece of meat is bacteria-free,” he said.
Along with the unpredictability of bacteria growth in a raw product, it can also transmit pathogens to a household.
“Your pet may be able to withstand the bacteria without any issues, but it does not stop those pathogens from being transmitted to the rest of the house,” Backus said.
This can be especially dangerous for pet owners who are immunocompromised.
For these reasons, raw food diets are rarely backed by veterinarians, Backus said, nor are they commonly recommended.
An alternative to supermarket brands may be necessary when a pet develops sensitivities or allergies. Backus calls this a therapeutic diet tailored to the pet to relieve them of ailments they are experiencing.
Pet owners Steve and Diane Hirt have two dogs, Winston and Willow. Winston has certain health conditions that cause severe itching, Diane Hirt said.
“He would shake his head and ears so furiously that he would start to bleed,” she said.
A veterinarian recommended a special brand of food to try and cure the itching.
“That food was around $100 a bag,” said Steve Hirt, “and when you buy two bags per month, you can imagine, it got pretty expensive.”
But after Winston didn’t make much progress with the new food, the Hirts took him to see a specialist in pet dermatology.
“We found out he was allergic to grass,” Diane Hirt said.
“As of now, both dogs are doing well and have a good routine,” Steve Hirt said.