Just one of the articles from Pet Care Pro Quarterly, IBPSA’s digital magazine for pet care services professionals. Read the current issue online here.

If you are somewhere over 10 years old, then you’re old enough to remember a time when pet food options were more limited. When, for better or for worse, making a decision on what to feed your pet didn’t feel like a life or death decision. When walking down the pet food aisle at the grocery store or into a pet supply store didn’t feel like tumbling down a rabbit hole into a dizzying array of natural this! Wild that! All enticingly packaged with bold colors, plump chickens ready for slaughter and lush vegetables ripe for harvest, flowing streams, leaping salmon, and wolves. So many wolves.

Today, pet food recalls feel unfortunately commonplace, almost expected. The website DogFoodAdvisor.com regularly sends out free dog food recall email alerts and posts recall notices for its more than 124,000 followers on Facebook. But, in 2007, a pet food recall rocked the world. There is a Wikipedia page dedicated to just the “2007 pet food recalls” that details the recall of pet food adulterated with melamine that ultimately killed or sickened thousands of pets. More than $12 million (USD) was reportedly paid on more than 20,000 legal claims in the United States and Canada. It is this year – 2007 – that many mark as the turning point for pet food. News of the pet food recall and pet deaths grabbed headlines and pet owners paid attention. What exactly were they feeding their pets? In response, pet food companies put more focus on more options – if only in branding – and more “natural” ingredients. Which is where we find ourselves today.

Pet Fooled, a documentary released earlier this year “exposing the inner workings of the commercial pet food industry,” takes a hard look at pet food branding and manufacturing. Advisory: skip the popcorn while watching the “animal byproduct” scenes. While it definitely has a raw food bias, the film does bring into focus the extraordinary number of choices we face today when it comes to pet food.

When faced with so many choices – and so many wolves – how do you decide what to feed not only your pets, but the pets in your care?

While the independent certification examinations of pet care providers conducted by the Professional Animal Care Certification Council (PACCC) don’t address pet food specifically, they do test a pet care provider’s knowledge of nutrition such as monitoring food intake and output (bowel movements), what to do food-wise in the event of diarrhea, and special needs food administration for pets on prescription diets.

As a pet care services provider, do you have an implied duty to educate your clients about the best pet food – the best nutrition – for their pets?

IBPSA recently conducted an informal survey of approximately 50 association members on the subject of pet food. The responses – all anonymous – reflected not only the sheer number of available brands on the market, but also the diverging opinions when it comes to educating pet owners about pet food choices. Bearing in mind that survey results were analyzed on scratch paper and using an iPhone calculator app – informal – the following summarizes what was learned from the responses.

Survey says…

Almost half of the survey respondents indicated that most of their clients (95-100%) provide their own food. Providing food was usually a result of a forgetful pet owner or running out too soon. Around three dozen different brands of food were mentioned as the “in-house” pet food for both feeding and for retail sale (about 50% of respondents offered retail). Mentioned pet food – and pet food philosophies – ran the gamut from Pedigree to BARF (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food). The one brand mentioned the most often was Fromm with a variety of Purina labels and Taste of the Wild just behind. The most common reason cited for why a particular food was used was to avoid “tummy troubles”. The path of least resistance to the pets eating the food and not suffering ill effects was the overall theme with one respondent noting a particular food was used because it was the “McDonald’s of pet food”.

A few mentioned a brand’s research and reputation, but being “high quality” was the most common term, often in association with “grain-free”. Some, with perceptible disappointment, noted that a brand they had used and liked previously was no longer used due to a pet food recall even if it had been a while since the recall. A few proudly served locally manufactured brands and even “homemade food” from local vendors.

IBPSA is committed to education for members, but how did members feel about educating pet owners when it comes to pet food?

When asked “If clients provide their own food, do you ever provide any food education or make recommendations if you believe their pet’s diet could be improved?”, the answers ranged from “No, it’s not our place to educate the client” to “Constantly. It’s one thing I’m passionate about.” Our scratch paper and iPhone calculator numbers revealed more than half said “yes” they do educate. Common reasons cited to do so included a pet’s weight and not great looking poop (basically). About one-third of respondents fell into a rarely to sometimes category of pet food education, while just over 10% were an unequivocal “no”.

For those in the “yes” category, some seemed frustrated by pet owners that didn’t want to hear about it because they just wanted the “least expensive” or had succumbed to thinking the “worst food is the best because of the faulty advertising.” Quite a few weren’t just in the “yes” category they were in the “YES!” category. Seeing too much low-quality food used by clients, one is even “developing a brochure on nutrition and how to choose a good food.” One makes pet food and nutrition “a regular part of our screening process. We talk about brand, feeding amount and frequency, probiotics and other supplements. We often also recommend a raw diet.” And speaking of raw, one noted that 10% of their client base was on raw food, another that “raw food does very well, we currently have 5 freezers.” One is “about to be certified as a BARF specialist.”

How to choose?

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where –”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

When Reviews.com aimed to rank the “best dog food” they noted their research team included ten people working full-time on the project for over 1,400 hours. According to the reviews-dedicated site, they built a list of 11,000 people with connections to the dog food industry, worked with over 20 experts including veterinarians, dog trainers, animal behaviorists, university researchers, and authors. They surveyed 300 dog owners, gathered a list of over 8,000 search queries to find what matters most to dog owners, read and analyzed 72 of the most popular articles and studies on dog food, and compiled a list of 2,223 formulas from 115 brands to review their ingredients. Their extensive research ultimately resulted in a list of “10 of Our Favorite Dog Food Brands”. For the curious, the list is available at www.reviews.com/dog-food.

Given all of the choices available today, deciding on pet food can feel like it needs a team of researchers working around the clock to make the right decision. But, based on the survey responses, it’s clear that deciding which way you want to go – No tummy troubles! Grain-free! Raw! – tells you which way to go.

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