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The great pet food dilemma

Pet food companies are using the pet humanization trend to turn huge profits

Organic. Holistic. Grain-free. All natural. Premium. No fillers. Human grade.

These are just a few of the buzzwords used to persuade pet owners to buy specific brands of pet food. A two-sided coin emerges. On the heads side, you have passionate pet owners who care deeply about their pets, and are looking for products that mirror their own beliefs. This doesn't seem like a bad thing, right? Turn the coin over, however, and you find pet food companies using this "pet humanization trend" to turn huge profits. And that's where the waters get murky. Pet food is a highly lucrative facet of the American economy. Pet food companies have huge advertising budgets, some of them with false label claims, and possible medical problems have resulted. What does this mean for pet owners?

Choosing pet food is HARD. 

According to an article in, the US pet food market is expected to reach $30 billion in 2022. The number of brands of pet food has increased 71% since 2011 and now totals 630. And the US pet food ingredients market is projected to grow to $13.3 billion in 2023, versus $10.4 billion in 2018. According to, a major pet food company spent nearly $100 million on digital, print, and TV advertising in the last year. Advertising campaigns such as this drove Americans to spend over $38 billion on pet food and treats in 2020, says

Take away: Pet food means big money.

Factor in the fact that no regulations exist on the use of those beloved buzzwords, which has landed some pet food companies in hot water on a legal aspect.  One in particular, (who shall remain nameless, but is the #2 selling food brand on Amazon currently) not only failed to keep grains out of their "grain-free" foods, but was also found to use "misleading ad practices regarding claims about rival products," according to the The Seattle Times.

Take away: Ad claims are not promises, but in reality just a sales pitch.

On a more serious note, some of the buzzwords like "grain-free" are persuading pet owners to unknowingly buy foods that are harmful to their pets. An article published by The American Veterinary Medical Association states that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received 1,100 adverse event reports of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) since January 2014, and that 93% of dogs with DCM in 2019 were being fed diets high in peas and/or lentils, and 91% ate grain-free food. Flip that coin over again, and you have pet food industry representatives claiming insufficient data to link DCM with certain types of diets or ingredients. While there is still more research to be done, the numbers support at least some correlation.

Take away: Choosing the wrong pet food can be harmful to your pet.

How do you choose? Here are 5 easy steps to follow when selecting your pet's food.

1. Your veterinarian is your best resource for specific food recommendations for your pet. In some cases, they may rely on the help of veterinary nutritionists. They do not mind answering food questions, and usually appreciate you for asking!

2. Don't blindly buy into advertising buzzwords you see on TV, social media, etc...Just because a company has a large advertising budget, doesn't mean they produce what they promise. And likewise, just because ingredients are cast in an unfavorable light by competitors, doesn't make them unhealthy ingredients. Research pet food companies, their past history, and their reputation before you decide to support them.

3. Know the needs of your pet. There are not nearly as many pets allergic to grains as your TV would have you believe. In fact, somewhere around only 25% of pets have a true diagnosed allergy to grains (less in my own personal experience with allergy testing.) Allergens higher on the list would be protein sources, like meat and dairy. Your pet may not have allergies, but need a specific food formula based on their breed, lifestyle, and medical conditions. (Revert back to step #1)

4. Be aware of the health ramifications pet food may have on your pets overall health. There is still more research being done, but know that a link between certain grain-free foods and heart disease has a strong following amongst veterinarians and the FDA. For more information on the possible link between pet food and heart disease, use credible websites such as the ones listed below.

5. Last but not least, if you decide to make your pet's food at home, contact a board-certified veterinary nutritionist for guidance. Helpful websites include and to help pet owners avoid any pitfalls that may come with homemade diets.

About the author: Stacey Smith, DVM graduated from Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2006 and chose to remain in her hometown of Sand Springs where she met her husband. After serving Tulsa and the surrounding area for more than 14 years, Dr. Smith became the proud new owner of Brookside Animal Hospital in April of 2020.

Helpful Websites