Something to Chew On: Filling the gap

Here's some good news for our industry, courtesy of a survey recently commissioned by Petco : Nearly 80% of US pet owners say they feel confident their pets' food is healthy and nutritious.

The bad news? Only 43% of respondents say they understand how to evaluate the nutritional value of the food by looking at the ingredients on the label, and only 41% know which ingredients are most nutritious.

Citing a "disconnect between pet parent confidence in the nutritional value of their pets' food and their ability to evaluate petfood by reading package labels," Petco is trying to fill the gap by launching a national pet nutrition education campaign online and through its more than 950 US retail outlets.

In-store "experts"

Petco's mid-September survey reached 527 US adults with at least one cat or dog in their household. Other findings included:

  • 83% of respondents consider the nutritional value of their own food to be critical or important;
  • 79% place the same level of emphasis on their pets' nutrition; and
  • Only 39% say they know the differences-nutritionally or otherwise-among petfoods labeled basic, premium, natural and organic.

That last point is one of the areas Petco attempts to address with its education program. The key component is an army of more than 2,000 "staff nutrition experts"-at least two per store-who have received what the retailer calls a comprehensive pet nutrition training and certification course developed by "internal and external nutrition experts."

The program also includes consumer pet nutrition workshops scheduled for all US Petco stores on November 14 and a library of pet nutrition articles, plus other information (such as a "food finder") online at .

All the materials are based on guidelines the retailer has developed to help pet owners make more informed decisions about petfood purchases:

  • Recognize that humans, cats and dogs have very different nutritional needs;
  • Understand your pet's unique needs (age, breed, activity level, specific conditions);
  • Learn how to evaluate a petfood label;
  • Determine the primary ingredients and protein sources; and
  • Understand the combination of ingredients is more important than any single ingredient.

A positive step

Those guidelines seem sensible, but questions and concerns do arise: The online articles come across as fairly simplistic and vague, without any attribution of sources. Nor does Petco provide any information on the background or qualifications of the experts who developed the staff course, so it's difficult to judge their level of understanding and expertise. But for any of us who have walked into a pet store and encountered an uninformed clerk cluelessly guiding consumers' petfood purchases, any type of training and education is a positive step. I applaud Petco for taking the initiative.

The retail giant is not the only one stepping up. In October Veterinary News Network ( ) launched a website for pet owners called . The main features are a forum/community section for posting questions (often with vets responding), plus an Ask a Veterinarian service for pet owners to receive specific answers to pet health questions for a small fee. The site also includes articles and videos on pet health topics, including nutrition-for example, an article on the homepage titled "Feline Food Controversy Confounds Cat Lovers."

Opportunity to engage

While that article is well balanced and generally positive about commercial cat food, this type of content and site seem to present a chance for our industry to engage veterinarians and pet owners. I would argue the Petco education program provides a similar opportunity. Even with these admirable efforts, consumers (and many vets) still have wide gaps in their pet nutrition understanding-and who better to fill them than experts who live and breathe this knowledge every day?

We need your help!

Petfood Industry is seeking input for two upcoming articles:

  • Has your company reached a significant anniversary or other milestone in the past year or two?
  • Do you know of a rising star or unsung hero in pet nutrition?

For either article, please send a brief paragraph or two or a reference for further information to .

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