By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
I talk quite often on the topic of pet food marketing and how the pet food industry pulls out all the stops to appeal on an emotional level to dog and cat owners. Marketers and advertisers across every industry use emotional appeals because although they are intentionally manipulative, they are remarkably effective.
It hasn't escaped the notice of pet food companies that over the last few decades, dogs and cats have evolved in the eyes of their owners to full-fledged members of the family. These days many people refer to their pets as their best friends or even their children, thus the popularity of terms such as "fur babies" and "fur kids."
The pet product industry has seized on a huge and growing opportunity to market every conceivable type of dog- and cat-related product, the vast majority of which are designed to appeal to humans. Sadly, whether the product makes sense or is healthy for the pet is often not even a consideration.
The reason I like to bring this subject to your attention every so often is help you separate fact (reality) from fiction (marketing) when it comes to caring for your pet, and especially when it comes to feeding your animal companion. There are an infinite number of tricks pet food advertisers use to make low-quality, biologically inappropriate processed dog and cat food seem appealing.
Recently I ran across a paper created by processed pet food giant Diana Pet Food titled "In pursuit of happiness for dogs and their owners: Measuring Pet Food Emotional Performance."1 This eight-page report or "scientific release" as they call it, gives us a peek behind the curtain at pet food marketing manipulation strategies.
Are Your Dog's Emotions a Good Judge of the Quality of His Food?
When processed pet food experts use the term "pet food emotional performance," they're talking about how pets react to a specific food, and more importantly (to them), how pet owners interpret the reaction of their pet to the food. According to the report, Diana Pet Food scientists are able to measure the effect of food on dogs' emotions:
"… [T]he level of pleasure brought by a food can be assessed by measuring physiological parameters such as variations in heart rate, and is also recognized by owners through certain behaviors displayed by their dog."
It's obvious the end game here is to help pet food producers create processed pet food formulas that cause a response in dogs that makes their owners go out and buy those formulas. But here's the problem. Many dogs, especially domesticated dogs who've been living around humans for tens of thousands of years, go crazy for foods that are absolutely terrible for them. One of the best examples is chocolate, which is actually deadly.
If you were to offer your pet a nice big piece of dark chocolate, which I know you would never do because it's highly toxic to dogs, he'd probably show you all kinds of "emotional" signs of excitement and happiness as he gobbled it down. And then within a short period of time you'd be rushing him to the emergency animal hospital, hopefully in time to save his life.
My point is that a dog's perceived happiness and excitement about certain types of food isn't necessarily a good indicator of what's healthy or even safe for him to eat. This is especially true of pet dogs. Wild dogs have a better sense of what they should and shouldn't eat, and limited options compared to family pets.
Designing Dog Food to Elicit a Desired Emotional Response
For their report, the researchers tested the response to two types of kibble (K1 and K2) on a group of 21 dogs whose heart rates were measured at a testing center, and another group of 71 dogs whose behavior was measured at home by their owners. The authors of the report don't give even the slightest hint as to the ingredients in the two kibbles, but since we're talking about dry food, we already know the formulas are biologically inappropriate.
Kibble K2 won the "emotional performance" contest over kibble K1, and most importantly to the researchers, 74 percent of the dogs' owners said given the option, they would feed K2 in the future, compared with 54 percent for K1. Kibble K2 is potentially a bigger moneymaker for pet food companies than kibble K1.
Of course, what's missing entirely from both the intent and outcome of this study is concern for the nutritional quality of the two diets. We can assume both formulas meet AAFCO minimum nutritional standards, but those standards don't take into account the biological appropriateness of ingredients, or how digestible and absorbable they are.
Pet food formulator Steve Brown tells a story during his lectures about his days many years ago formulating dry diets for big pet food manufacturers. He was touring a large manufacturing plant with his dog, Zach (who had not yet eaten that day). They stopped alongside the extruder where warm kibble was coming down the line headed for the spray of "top coating."
Steve offered Zach a handful of freshly produced kibble because he knew Zach was hungry. But Zach wouldn't eat the kibble, which shocked Steve. Zach only ate the kibble after it had been sprayed with the palpability enhancer, convincing Steve dogs were being tricked into eating food they normally wouldn't eat.
Pet food manufacturers guard their palatability enhancing "top coat" recipes as top secret information, and as you can see, for good reason. It's this addictive slurry of animal digest, fats (including rendered and leftover grease from human restaurants), synthetic flavorings, salt and missing nutrients that trick dogs into eating the biologically inappropriate food.
As a pet parent, it's important to be aware that like every business, the pet food industry exists to make money, and spends big bucks developing new and creative ways to interest consumers in their products. Big Pet Food's number one concern is sales. That's why your number one concern must be to provide your pet with optimal nutrition. This means refusing to be influenced by beautiful, persuasive marketing campaigns featuring happy, excited dogs rushing to food bowls overflowing with kibble.
How to Shield Yourself and Your Dog From Pet Food Marketing Hype
The best nutrition for your dog will never be found in a bag or can of processed food, no matter how hard the pet food industry tries to convince you otherwise. Optimal nutrition for your pet is a balanced fresh food diet, fed raw or gently cooked, either homemade or commercially available.
Raw food contains all the enzymes and phytonutrients that are typically destroyed during extensive pet food processing. Homemade food also gives you the flexibility to include a lot of nutritional variety in your pet's diet.
If you don't have the time to prepare homemade meals for your pet, an alternative is a commercially available nutritionally balanced raw food diet. Again, it's critically important that the diet be balanced. For a list of additional considerations when selecting a prepared raw pet food, I encourage you to review my updated list of best-to-worst pet foods, as well as my three-part series on raw food diets.
Since commercial raw diets are a fast-growing category of pet food, you should be able to find a food that fits your requirements, with the added convenience of not having to make the food yourself. The downside, of course, is the cost. You're paying to have someone else do the work for you.
As with all pet food manufacturers, you'll want to investigate the company you're buying from to make sure you're feeding the correct product for your pet's specific nutritional and medical goals.