Pet Owners Confused About Cat and Dog Nutrition, petMD Survey Finds

Published Jan. 15, 2013

The Top Five Misconceptions about Pet Nutrition

By Jennifer Coates, DVM

January 4, 2013

petMD recently conducted a survey of owners on the topic of pet nutrition. The results revealed some confusion regarding the nutritional needs of dogs and cats and how to ensure that the products we buy meet those needs. Understanding how to feed our pets properly is critical to their well being. This knowledge gap is worrisome, but also represents an opportunity for improving the health and longevity of our beloved companion animals. 

The survey’s top five findings were: 

1. Misunderstood Terms

Fifty-seven percent of the pet owners who responded rightfully look to pet food labels for information about the type of ingredients included in their pet’s food. However, what is written on the label is not always straightforward. Much of the language used on labels is tightly controlled and regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), but the definitions are not easy to come by. 

Take the word “by-product,” for example. The majority of respondents to the petMD survey believed that animal hair, teeth, and hooves are included in meat by-products, and that is simply not the case. AAFCO regulations expressly do not permit these body parts to be included in a by-product used in pet food.

2. The Importance of Feeding Trials

The majority of owners look to the label to learn about what is included in their pet’s food.  However, the survey also showed that pet owners fail to look for key quality information also included on the label. All AAFCO approved pet foods must display a statement indicating how the pet food manufacturer determined that particular diet would meet the needs of pets. This can be done in one of two ways: via a computer program or by actually feeding the food to dogs or cats. Feeding trials are a far superior method for determining whether or not pets will thrive on a particular diet. Nonetheless, only 22 percent of people taking the survey said they look at pet food labels to see if the diet has undergone a feeding trial. 

3. Misidentifying Potential Allergens

Pet food labels can be a good source of information, but only when combined with a basic understanding of pet nutrition. For example, more than 40 percent of owners taking the petMD survey responded that grains are common allergens in pet foods, with more than 30 percent of respondents specifically implicating corn. On the other hand, only 6 percent of owners identified meats as potential allergens. In fact, the situation is exactly the opposite.

In a literature review1 of 278 cases of food allergy in dogs where the problem ingredient was clearly identified, beef was far and away the biggest culprit (95 cases). Dairy was number two at 55 cases. Corn was actually a minimal offender coming in with only 7 cases. The situation was similar for cats. Of the 56 cases that were looked at2, 45 feline food allergies resulted from eating beef, dairy, and/or fish, while corn was responsible for only 4 cases.

4. An Under-Appreciation of Balanced Nutrition

The petMD survey also revealed that some owners under-appreciate the importance of balanced nutrition. The value of protein seems to be understood; 69 percent of respondents indicated that protein was an important nutrient for pets. What is perplexing, however, is that only 2 percent named fats, 3 percent named carbohydrates, and barely over 25 percent named vitamins and minerals as important nutrients for pets. 

To satisfy all the nutritional needs of dogs and cats, pet foods must provide all of these ingredients in the right balance. Too much of one or too little of another can be harmful to a pet’s health.

5. Skepticism of Label Accuracy 

Less than 30 percent of the petMD survey respondents believed that labels completely list all of the ingredients in pet food. In fact, AAFCO regulations mandate that every ingredient contained within a pet food be included in the ingredient list, in order from the biggest to the smallest contributor, by weight.

Misconceptions surrounding pet food and canine and feline nutrition can lead owners to make ill-informed choices about what to feed their companions. Your veterinarian is the best source of information about what to feed your pets. He or she can take into consideration their unique combination of lifestage, lifestyle, and health to make individualized diet recommendations.

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Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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