Surveys conducted by the pet care website petMD.com show that many pet owners are confused about pet nutrition, petfood labels and ingredients and, more importantly, their own pets' nutritional needs. While the overall results may not surprise anyone in our industry, some of the individual survey findings might provide beneficial insights on how to address the problem.
The most recent petMD survey, just released last week, revealed that while 57% of pet owners surveyed said they read petfood labels for information about the food's ingredients, they often misinterpreted that information, particularly misunderstanding terms (especially "by-products"), the importance of feeding trials, allergens (more than 40% of respondents identified grain ingredients as the most common allergens, particularly corn, without understanding that proteins are often allergens), the importance of balanced nutrition and label accuracy.
Specific to that last area, more than 70% of respondents said they believe petfood labels do not list all the ingredients, when in fact Association of American Feed Control Officials requirements mandate that all ingredients are listed.
If it's any consolation, these survey results might be better than those of a 2011 petMD survey (this one conducted in conjunction with Hill's Pet Nutrition), which showed that 90% of dog owners do not know what proper nutrition is for their dogs. Further, 88% of respondents to that survey said they know what to look for on a dog food label, yet only 10% know the recommended portions of key nutrients.
A caveat with these surveys: Nowhere could I found any report of the methodology used or questions included that led to the results; so it's difficult to understand how petMD arrived at the conclusions and percentages. But I think we can trust the general picture that the surveys paint of most pet owners struggling to understand pet nutrition and how best to feed their pets -- and, consequently, just how much work our industry has to do in terms of consumer education.
Part of the problem lies in a distrust of our industry among certain consumer segments, for a variety of reasons, valid or not. "Pet parents have learned to be wary of information supplied by petfood companies," writes Melody McKinnon, founder of AllNaturalPetCare.com, on her blog. (Note: She also blogs periodically on this site.) "Now it’s time we learned to be wary of the other dark side of the pet industry: the people who profit from frightened, loving pet parents."
By the "dark side," she's referring to the Internet being rife with "people who represent themselves as experts in pet nutrition, when in fact they are misinformed or deliberately trying to frighten pet parents. Shocking and scaring people brings website traffic and sells books, products and subscriptions. There is much to be concerned about when it comes to petfood, but a considerable amount of the information provided online is simple fear mongering."
Fortunately, McKinnon comes to our industry's defense: "It’s easy to get caught up in the outrage and believe the big, bad pet industry is out to squeeze every dime out of consumers, even if it means hurting animals. While that may be true of some companies, one has to consider that it simply isn’t profitable to manufacture food that would harm pets. It isn’t worth the risk of losing the trust of pet parents. Any petfood company with an ounce of business sense knows that."
McKinnon also helps by giving consumers tips on finding solid pet nutrition information. But I believe our industry has a responsibility to step up and do more, too. Not all consumers are wary of information supplied by petfood companies, so a very basic step is to be sure your website and promotions include as much information as possible that is objective (not just touting your own brands and products) and science-based, yet explained in layman's terms.
Another crucial link, I believe, is with veterinarians. Most pet owners turn to their vets first for information, including about pet nutrition -- despite the fact that many vets really don't have much nutrition knowledge or training. About 18 months ago, I received an email from a veterinarian who had happened upon Petfood Industry by chance and had subscribed; he emailed me to say how embarrassed he was to discover how little he knew about nutrition and petfood, even though he had been advising clients on those subjects for years.
In a follow-up phone conversation, he confirmed what I had heard from many others previously: Veterinarians receive very little nutrition education or instruction in vet school. He also made an interesting observation that I had never considered: The veterinary profession is similar to how the human medical profession was a couple decades ago, ignorant of how nutrition is really the foundation of good health. As he pointed out, it used to be that when you visited your doctor for a physical or treatment for an illness, nutrition was rarely addressed, because physicians usually had very little nutrition knowledge. (And, in fact, research into consumer knowledge of human nutrition shows wide gaps.)
But that has started to change; now doctors are more aware of and knowledgeable that good nutrition is a prerequisite to good health, and they're telling their patients that. And a good portion of patients are starting to believe that and take a lot more interest in what they eat, the ingredients in the foods they buy and make and where their ingredients and food come from.
For those consumers, that same interest is spreading to what they feed their pets, and therein lies an opportunity for our industry. Let's take advantage of that interest by supplying objective, science-based nutrition information to consumer pet sites, publications and other media. Let's figure out a way -- perhaps a collaborative industry program -- to educate existing vets and make nutrition a core part of every veterinary school's curriculum.
Those are all big tasks. Are we up to the challenge?