Pet food: are 'premium' brands worth the money?
Are the claims made by pet food manufacturers really the cat’s pyjamas?
“Naturally crafted” with an “irresistible taste”. From some of the claims on pet food packs, you might think Fido’s dinner sounds better than your own.
We fork out millions each year on pet food. In supermarkets alone, more than $420 million was spent in the 12 months to May 2021, up 4.6 percent on the previous year.
Here’s what you should consider when choosing pet food – and the claims you can take with a grain of salt.
What to look for
When you pick up a pack of pet food, check for a reference to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This organisation sets nutritional standards for pet food that are internationally recognised (see “AAFCO standards”).
Pet foods that meet AAFCO standards can claim they’re complete and balanced. A complete food has all the nutrients required to sustain your pet. Balanced means the nutrients are present in the right ratios.
Look for a food that’s either formulated for your pet’s life stage or suitable for all life stages.
According to AAFCO, cats and dogs share the same three life stages:
growth (kitten and puppies)
gestation and lactation (pregnant and nursing animals)
maintenance (adult animals).
Some “treat” products come in packaging similar to standard pet food. They’re OK for the occasional treat but aren’t designed to provide everyday nutrition and are unlikely to meet AAFCO standards.
You’ll find plenty of claims on pet food packs, often similar to the health and nutrition claims that turn up on the foods we eat.
If your pup’s a little plump, you can buy “healthy weight” or light formulas.
These products have fewer calories than standard options. But by themselves, they’re unlikely to solve your pet’s weight problem.
Just like humans, an overweight pet is better off having fewer calories and more exercise.
Grains, such as maize and rice, are often added to pet foods and can be the next largest ingredient after meat.
Grain-free foods are marketed as replicating the “natural” diet of cats and dogs, and therefore better for their health. It’s claimed the animals can’t tolerate a carbohydrate-rich diet, which can cause allergies and other health problems.
However, cats and dogs can digest grains, and there’s no evidence they’re particularly problematic in the animals’ diet.
According to Nick Cave, associate professor in small animal medicine and nutrition at Massey University, grains are no more responsible for food allergies than any other common ingredient in pet food.
Clean teeth, fresh breath
Most cats and dogs have some periodontal (gum) disease by the time they’re two years old. It’s caused by the build-up of plaque and tartar in the animal’s mouth.
You can find pet foods offering to help tackle the problem by scraping plaque off your pet’s teeth with each bite. However, the best way to reduce plaque is to brush your pet’s teeth on a regular basis.
Dental foods or treats may help but vets recommend you get your pet professional dental care if you don’t want to brush its teeth.
Teeth extractions are expensive, so prevention is better than cure.
Some pet foods tout collagen or a “synergistic blend of ingredients” to support the joint health and mobility of your pet. Ingredients may include omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, chondroitin or green-lipped mussels.
When it comes to your pet’s joint health, the animal’s weight is the biggest factor. Moderate exercise and keeping your pet at a healthy weight will help keep joints moving.
Prescription formulas for pets with joint problems are available from vets. Talk to your vet about whether these are appropriate for your pet’s condition.
There’s a range of products targeted at owners of “mature” or senior pets. But most cats and dogs can eat adult formulas for their entire life.
The age at which a pet is considered senior depends on the species and breed. That’s why there’s no AAFCO life stage for senior pets.
Dr Deborah Linder, associate professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in the US, said senior pet foods are “extremely variable” and formulated according to each company’s “nutrition philosophy”.
A 2020 US study found senior pet food for cats and dogs had more fibre than regular adult formulas. However, the study found senior formulas had the same number of calories as adult versions so the added fibre wouldn’t make any difference.
If your moggy needs “hairball control”, there are products offering to help with that too.
There’s more fibre in hairball formulas to help the cat process the hair. For example, Iams Proactive Health Hairball Care boasts a “tailored fibre blend (including prebiotics and beet pulp)” and has 32 percent fibre. That’s about four times the amount in standard products.
Veterinarian Fiona Esam, welfare and operations officer at the charity Companion Animals New Zealand, said these formulas can help but aren’t a fix-all. For hairball problems, a formulated product is best used in conjunction with regular brushing, she said.
Raw food debate
Any talk of pet food at the dog park will eventually lead to the benefits of raw food. Raw food advocates claim it’s “natural” and that Whiskers should eat like his ancestors.
Touted benefits of a raw food diet range from keeping teeth clean to maintaining a healthy immune system. Dr Lorelle Barrett, veterinary manager for companion animals at the New Zealand Veterinary Association, said there’s no scientific evidence raw food diets provide greater health benefits.
Some studies have shown raw meat is typically more digestible than cooked meat but that’s about the extent of it.
If you want to buy your cat or dog a commercial raw pet food, pick a product formulated to meet AAFCO requirements. Not all of them fit the bill.
Be aware raw food comes with a risk of food-borne infectious disease, such as salmonella and campylobacter. If the raw food includes bones, there’s also the risk of tooth damage and obstruction or perforation of the animal’s stomach or throat.
Supermarket vs pet store products
Should you fork out for the premium brands at pet stores or grab a budget brand at the supermarket?
Budget vs premium dog food
We bought Baxter’s Adult Casserole with Real Chicken, Rice and Vegetables ($3.50 for 1.2kg) at Countdown and compared it with a tin of Eukanuba Adult Chicken, Rice and Vegetables Dinner ($4.29 for 375g) from Animates.
Both brands have been formulated to meet the nutrition profile for adult dogs set by AAFCO.
The main difference is in their ingredients. Eukanuba has more protein and more calories, and the recommended serving size is smaller. However, each serve is still more than double the cost of the budget brand.
At supermarkets, premium brands are more likely to claim real meat as the main ingredient.
Esam said products with more protein are typically more expensive than those higher in carbohydrates.
Budget vs premium cat food
We compared a box of Essentials Adult Dry Cat Food Chicken and Seafood Flavour ($4 for 1kg) with Purina One Tender Selects Blend with Real Chicken ($8.50 for 510g).
Chicken is the largest ingredient in the Purina product. The Essentials pet food lists carbohydrates as the largest ingredient, followed by meat. Both products are formulated to meet the same AAFCO standard.
Esam said another factor influencing price is the amount of money the company spends on research. If it employs nutritionists and scientists alongside vets to formulate food, those overheads will bump up the price.
Marketing also influences the price point at which a product is sold. Products perceived as “premium” command a higher price, regardless of whether they’re nutritionally any better for your pet, Esam said.
Pooches’ penchant for peanut butter
Peanut butter is a classic treat for dogs. It’s a good source of protein and good fats for your pooch. Spread in a hollowed-out chew toy it will also keep your dog entertained.
But there’s a big difference in what you can pay.
A 380g jar of Mutt Butter at the supermarket was $7. It’s 100 percent peanuts but more expensive than a 375g tub of Pams No Added Salt Smooth Peanut Butter ($2.29). The Pams butter is 98.5 percent peanuts, with the rest made up of soybean oil. Both products are fine for dogs and humans.
Avoid peanut butters that include xylitol (a sugar substitute). Consumption of the artificial sweetener is toxic for dogs and can be life-threatening.
To meet AAFCO’s definition of “complete and balanced”, pet food manufacturers must either put their product through a controlled feeding trial or formulate their food to meet a prescribed nutrient profile.
Feeding trials are the best way of determining a pet food’s nutritional adequacy. Here, a colony of cats or dogs is given the test food as its sole diet. The colony’s health is monitored for any nutritional deficiencies. If the product passes muster, it can claim on its label: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [product X] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [all life stages or a specific life stage].”
Manufacturers can also opt to formulate products based on nutrient profiles that, on paper, should provide a complete and balanced diet. This method is cheaper and quicker than feeding trials. Pet foods that meet this mark can claim: “[Product X] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Food Nutrient Profiles for [all life stages or a specific life stage].”
There’s a third AAFCO statement, which sometimes appears on pet food “families” with the same nutritional basis, but minor formulation changes. It reads: “[Product X] provides complete and balanced nutrition for [all life stages or a specific life stage] and is comparable to a product which has been substantiated using AAFCO feeding tests.”
Can you recycle the packs?
Pet food tins and cardboard packaging can be recycled. Only plastic containers with recycling numbers 1, 2 or 5 are widely collected throughout the country.
Dry pet food bags can be dropped off in soft plastic recycling bins at participating supermarkets and other stores.
By the numbers
Last year, Companion Animals New Zealand released the results of a survey on pet ownership. It found:
64 percent of Kiwi households own a pet, second only to the US at 67 percent.
59 percent of people who don’t own a pet would like one.
74 percent of cat and 78 percent dog owners consider their pet a family member.
there are 1.2 million cats and 851,000 dogs in the country.