Dog and Cat Food Labels: Marketing Tricks That Cost You Money

Written by Jan on March 24, 2009 – 10:11 am

My good friend Dr. Jean Hofve, veterinarian and former Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the American Holistic Veterinary Organization, has kindly allowed me to post a great article she wrote on how marketing can obscure the truth about what’s in your dog or cat food. I think you’ll really enjoy this article and her website LittleBigCat.

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A trip down the pet food aisle these days will boggle the mind with all the wonderful claims made by manufacturers for their particular products. But what’s the truth behind all this marvelous hype? You might be very surprised…let’s take a look.

1. Niche claims. Today, if you have an indoor cat, a canine athlete, a Persian, a Bloodhound, or a pet with a tender tummy or itchy feet, you can find a food “designed” just for your pet’s personal needs. Niche marketing has arrived in a big way in the pet food industry. People like to feel special, and a product with specific appeal is bound to sell better than a general product like “puppy food.” But the reality is that there are only two nutritional standards against which all pet foods are measured (adult and growth/gestation/lactation)—everything else is marketing.

2. “Natural” or “Organic” claims. The definition of “natural” adopted by AAFCO is very broad, and allows for artificially processed ingredients that most of us would consider very unnatural indeed. The term “organic,” on the other hand, has a very strict legal definition. However, some companies are adept at evading the intent of these rules. The name of the company or product may be intentionally misleading. For instance, some companies use terms like “Nature” or “Natural” in the brand name, whether or not their products fit the definition of natural.

3. Ingredient quality claims. A lot of pet foods claim they contain “human grade” ingredients. This is a completely meaningless term—which is why the pet food companies get away with using it. The same applies to “USDA inspected” or similar phrases. The implication is that the food is made using ingredients that are passed by the USDA for human consumption, but there are many ways around this. For instance, a facility might be USDA-inspected during the day, but the pet food is made at night after the inspector goes home. The use of such terms should be viewed as a “Hype Alert.”

4. “Meat is the first ingredient” claim. A claim that a named meat (chicken, lamb, etc.) is the #1 ingredient is generally seen for dry food. Ingredients are listed on the label by weight, and raw chicken weighs a lot, since it contains a lot of water. If you look further down the list, you’re likely to see ingredients such as chicken or poultry by-product meal, meat-and-bone meal, corn gluten meal, soybean meal, or other high-protein meal. Meals have had the fat and water removed, and basically consist of a dry, lightweight protein powder. It doesn’t take much raw chicken to weigh more than a great big pile of this powder, so in reality the food is based on the protein meal, with very little “chicken” to be found. This has become a very popular marketing gimmick, even in premium and “health food” type brands. Since just about everybody is now using it, any meaning it may have had is so watered-down that you may just as well ignore it.

5. Special ingredient claims. Many of the high-end pet foods today rely on the marketing appeal of people-food ingredients such as fruits, herbs, and vegetables. However, the amounts of these items actually present in the food are tiny; and the items themselves are usually scraps and rejects from processors of human foods—certainly not the whole, fresh ingredients they want you to picture. Such ingredients don’t provide a significant health benefit and are really a marketing gimmick.

It’s a jungle out there…Pet food marketing and advertising has become extremely sophisticated over the last few years. It’s important to know what is hype and what is real, so you can make informed decisions about what to feed your pets.

*** More information on what pet food labels really tell you can be found in Dr. Hofve’s article, Selecting a Good Commercial Pet Food.  Also see the Dogs4Dogs.com web page Dog Food: What to Feed and Why.  Your dog’s health is at stake.  Check out Dog Food: 10 Scary Tricks, to be published soon at Blog4Dogs.

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24 Comments to “Dog and Cat Food Labels: Marketing Tricks That Cost You Money”


  1. Diantha Grainger Says:

    I find food labels whether it is for humans, dogs or cats very confusing to the point that I don’t really trust much of what is stated on labels. This article has provided me with more information on what to look for and be aware of. Thanks.

  2. Jan Says:

    I’m glad you benefited from Dr. Hofve’s article. Learn more about labels at http://www.dogs4dogs.com/food.

  3. Jenny Weeks Says:

    The best dogfood I’ve ever found is online at GreatLife4Pets.com. Elliott Harvey is a Master Herbalist and he has guided me thorugh idfferent issues with my dog, Scully. Using this food, the herbal cleanse he recommends- has kept my two dogs and cat youthful and full of energy. My vet can’t believe that Scully is like a puppy- he’s over 10 years old..and hegave up on Scully a long time ago. I never did…and thanks to Elliott Harvey, I never had to make the decision that all pet guardians dread. He’s still with me and happy.

  4. Pamela Myers Says:

    Absolutely loved your article! There is so much truth in that, ergo your title Now if more people would just read it and ask more questions 🙂

  5. Jan Says:

    Thanks! I love everything Dr. Hofve writes. I hope also you’ll take a look at http://www.dogs4dogs.com/food and http://www.littlebigcat.com for more articles.

  6. N C Dog Training Says:

    Great article! It’s a shame that these companies use a play on words and the letter of the law to confuse pet owners. Why not just make food with healthy and better ingredients?

  7. Jan Says:

    Thanks! I’m glad you liked Dr. Hofve’s article. She’s brilliant and so plugged in. And yes, it’s a shame…it’s a crime, that all labeling isn’t transparent. I also wish that more of us would actually readlabels. It would revolutionize dog, and human, health care.

  8. Natural Pet Care Says:

    Great post! I love that you are taking the time to write about pet care. This is something near and dear to my heart. Take care.

  9. Dry Dog Food: How to Safely Store and Handle Kibble | Blog4Dogs Says:

    […] articles you might enjoy: Dog and Cat Food Labels: Marketing Tricks That Cost You Money by pet nutrition expert Dr. Jean Hofve’s, my Dog Food: 10 Scary Truths and my […]

  10. Jirmz Says:

    My vet recommends dried fish products (intented for dogs) as well as fresh vegetables. My puppy loves both and is in excellent health.

  11. Lucy Postins (posted by Jan from Lucy's email) Says:

    I felt compelled to let you know that the term ‘human food grade’ is not totally meaningless in every regard. The Honest Kitchen is the first (and to my knowledge only) pet food manufacturer to actually have approval from the FDA to use this term legally on our product labels, because our pet foods are actually made right alongside human foods like breakfast cereals and bakery mixes. We had to provide affidavids form every single one of our suppliers as well as the production facility to demonstrate this to FDA in a process that took many months. We also won a court battle against Ohio department of agriculture who had refused to license our products because of the human grade claim but in the end it was ruled that The Honest Kitchen did in fact have a right to truthful, commercial free speech.

    While there are a lot of manufacturers who do bandy about the term ‘human grade’ or other loose terms like ‘table grade’, we do feel that we have gone one step further in terms of actually ensuring our products are actually ‘edible’ meaning they can safely be consumed by people. Every ingredient we purchase for our products is selected form the human food chain and production is under inspection for human foods, too. Humans actually taste our products as they come off the production line, we eat them here at the office during R&D meetings and my young daughters are always diving into the R&D ingredients for a snack whenever they come to the office

    Just wanted to give you a little insight on why we use the term at THK!

    Best regards,

    Lucy Postins
    Founder, The Honest Kitchen
    http://www.thehonestkitchen.com

  12. lin Says:

    Jan, do you recommend Halo pet products, such as their canned foods? I’m currently using Iams and I know it’s not good for my dog. I would like to switch and have been looking into the Halo foods. Unfortunately I can’t make my dog’s food myself at this time, but I’d like to know he’s getting proper nutrition. Thanks for the help!

  13. Jan Says:

    Lin, Halo has a good rep. Canned beats dry. But I’m not a fan of feeding just one brand. Your dog will develop deficiencies. Check out the brands at http://www.dextersdeli.com, my friend’s health food store for pets. She has lots of good brands. Remember, fresh is best, then comes dehydrated or frozen, then canned, then dry. Make the switch slowly. There’s a lot more info in my book and at http://www.dogs4dogs.com/food

  14. Debbie Says:

    Jerry, my poodle who past away a year ago used to get diarrhea alot from eating commercial or factory dog food. When we learned about organic dog food it’s not just veggies,and grains, its made with organic chicken, turkey, lamb or beef. Organic means free from pesticides, toxic chemicals and fillers, which can cause diarrhea, skin allergies, cancer and other health issues.
    When we put Jerry on organic dog food, with in 2 weeks the brownish tear stains under the eyes that dogs get from eating commercial dog food went away and the diarrhea stopped and he never got it again. He felt better, had more energy and looked good! When you look for organic, its has to have either the green or black USDA Organic label. When we got Pepper, our new 2 year old Maltese from our Vet which was dropped off by it’s owner because they didn’t want him anymore. When we went to see him, we fell in love with him and took him home. He was under weight only 7lbs, had allergies, brownish tear stains under his eyes and not alot of energy. His previous owner was feeding him commercial or factory dog food. We started feeding him organic dog food both can and dry. The tear stains went away, he gained weight, he’s 11lbs now, has alot of energy and his allergies went away with in a month. Even though Jerry had a bad heart, being on the organic food which is less stress on the body, less toxics and more nutritious enable him to live longer. Most dogs with this heart condition die around 8 or 9 years old. Feeding Jerry organic dog food and our love allowed him to live 13 years.

    Here’s a little story about Jerry and a rabbit!

    In the months before he died, we would get rabbits in our yard and he would chase them, they would always get away under the fence. He would run really fast and bark like his heart was perfect. I was worried because he did have a bad heart. but I let him do it anyways because he really enjoyed it. The bunny got away under the fence and the only thing was left was a piece of fur. After that, every time we let Jerry out, he would run over to where the bunny was and look for him. My husband and I and my vet, believe that the organic food, our love and the medication near the end made it so he could live to a ripe old age of 13.. Bye for now.

  15. Thermal Imaging : Says:

    cat foods should be high protein and should be soft to with lots of dieatary fiber:,~

  16. Can Crusher · Says:

    cat foods should always be high in protein and also in dietary fibers so that they are always healthy *-*

  17. maggiey Says:

    Awesome post. I just wanted to say thanks for your efforts!

  18. Cruz Kucek Says:

    Hello There. I found your blog using msn. This is an extremely well written article. I will make sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your useful info. Thanks for the post. I’ll certainly comeback.

  19. Paula Says:

    People must be made aware of the presence of copper sulfate in most commercial dog foods: they use this as a cheap preservative and it is a fungicide: it destroys the liver!! If the company gets copper sulfate in some ingredient from another source, they don’t have to list it!! Beware!

  20. Kelley Bumgarner Says:

    It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d without a doubt donate to this outstanding blog! I suppose for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward to brand new updates and will share this blog with my Facebook group. Chat soon!

  21. Jan Says:

    Kelley, if you really want to contribute to our efforts, please sign the petition at http://www.change.org/petitions/veterinarians-fully-inform-us-before-vaccinating-our-dogs-and-cats

    Thanks.

  22. What You Don't Know About Dog Food - The Scary Truth | Alternative Animal Natural Pet Products Says:

    […] Poopless: The Straight Scoop on Dog Care.(Read an excerpt about dog food myths.) And check out Dog and Cat Food Labels: Marketing Tricks That Cost You Money and Dog Food: What to Feed and […]

  23. Sarah Says:

    I was wondering on your opinion of “newmans own” dog food it sees the best I’ve found so far for a kibble type commercial brand. And it’s certified organic I’ve bought regular and a extra protein one and all profits go to charity’s I think. My cat even tried to eat the dogs food when we buy it. And normally she looks at dog food as not food at all. My dogs seemed healthier good weight and happy. I feel like for that type of food it’s the best I’ve found.

  24. Jan Says:

    Sarah, I’m not really a kibble fan, so it’s hard for me to advise. It is always over-cooked. Here’s a good article: http://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2015/11/08/best-to-worst-pet-food-types.aspx?x_cid=youtube Both dogsnaturally magazine and whole-dog-journal also publish lists. The Honest Kitchen makes a good product if your dog likes it.

    Sorry.

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