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Dishing on Pet Food

Melissa Brookshire, DVM, has years of expertise in consumer relations issues impacting the pet food industry. Founder of North River Enterprises, Brookshire and her veterinary team provide customized consumer support solutions. She writes on timely industry topics impacting consumer relations.

Pet Food Market Trends / Pet Food Ingredients
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Everything I read about pet food online isn’t true, but …

August 30, 2016

I think the headline above could apply to an entire series of topics, from ingredient definitions to pet nutrition. But today I am focusing on online complaints.

Every single day, I talk to pet food consumers who have looked online to find out if there is a problem with the food they have been feeding, before they contact the company. One of the most commonly mentioned websites is ConsumerAffairs.com. This site has been around for quite some time and has been collecting reviews and complaints about all sorts of products, not just pet food. Companies can choose to pay for a subscription to control the content that appears on their pages. For those that choose not to pay, it is a crap shoot as to what might appear.

When you search a particular brand on this site, midway down the page, a box says, “How do I know I can trust these reviews about XYZ brand?” It states that 572,721 reviews on this site are verified. It does not say how many reviews are not verified, but I can tell you that of the four pet food brands I searched, only the two brands that were paying to be “Consumer Affairs Accredited” had verified reviewers posting on their page. I also searched some brands that I use in my own home (unrelated to pet) and did not find verified reviewers on any of those pages.

So, is paying to control the content the way to go? The first pet food brand I looked at had over 1,000 reviews and a 5-star rating overall. Every post on the first page was a 5-star positive rating. The second brand I looked at had just over 300 reviews with a 2.5-star overall rating. Its first three reviews were all 5-star reviews but from 2015. Scrolling down a bit, I saw a 1-star rating from late August 2016, followed by a 5-star rating from earlier this month.

Then it got interesting. There were a series of posts grayed out, with lines striking through the text (still able to read it). These reviews were marked with a large red X and said, “Factual basis uncertain.” Other reviews/complaints had a large green checkmark with “Resolved outside Consumer Affairs” inscribed in the icon. Obviously the subscription has not done much to elevate the overall rating for this brand, but it has limited the negative posts, which have a prominent position for brands that do not have a subscription.

Flabbergasting pet food reviews

On to the brands that don’t pay the fees. The first had over 1,500 reviews and just under a 2-star rating. The reviews on this page were in chronological order, and the first two were positive reviews, giving the brand five stars. The rest of the page had more than 20 1-star reviews, describing a variety of illnesses supposedly caused by the food itself.

Some of these reviews were just flabbergasting. A 1-star review described a dog that started having soft stools, progressing to diarrhea over a four-month period. Yes, four months. The owners thought maybe he got into something, so they put him on a bland diet and then reintroduced the food, which brought the diarrhea right back. Not sure when they thought he might have gotten into something, four months ago? So, finally a trip to the vet, and prescription food and medication has resolved the issue. Two months after they tried the home remedy of a bland diet.

Seriously? You let your dog suffer for six months before going to the vet and you are blaming this on the brand? Of course, who knows if this is a true story, but if it is, I would be embarrassed to post it. It is not uncommon for dogs to develop dietary intolerances to ingredients or combinations of ingredients. There certainly can be a problem with a batch of pet food; we all know this happens. But, the same problem is not going to happen over multiple batches of food manufactured over a six-month period.

Looking at the fourth and final brand, there were more than 1,100 reviews and an overall rating of just over one star. The first page that appeared had more than 25 1-star reviews. Reading through them, one in particular stuck out to me. According to the post, after feeding this food, the dog developed brown saliva that was staining things. The owners switched foods and the problem resolved. And oh, by the way, the dog had a tumor on its tongue that was removed prior to switching brands. Do you think maybe the tumor had something to do with the brown saliva? No, it couldn’t be; had to be the food.

How to respond in this age of information

People love their pets. They are family members. I don’t think that if your child had diarrhea, you would wait six months before heading to the pediatrician. Pets get sick. In some cases, it could be caused by something that went wrong with the pet food. In other cases, it could be caused by the food but unrelated to a problem with it; that food is simply not right for that pet, even if it had worked well in the past. Sure, some pets can eat the same food every day from weaning until they pass away at a ripe old age, but that is not always the case, and pet parents don’t always understand that. They also don’t seem to always understand that what they read online may not be an accurate representation, often saying “I know everything I read online isn’t true, but…”

So, is it worth it to pay to control the content on these sites? I personally don’t think so. This is just one site of many, albeit a highly visible site that customers can easily find when they google “complaints about brand X.” I suppose if you have an unlimited “damage control” budget, paying this site and the next site and the next site might be feasible. But when does it stop?

In this age of information, companies must choose their messaging platforms wisely. They must be committed to positive messaging and certainly be committed to transparency when something goes wrong. If these posts are concerning, money might be better spent by going through the complaints posted on some of these sites and having your veterinarian debunk them. Another valid approach is simply to say, “We are aware of this site and the posts that you have read. We have no way to verify whether any of the information, good or bad, posted there is valid. We can only investigate issues and concerns that are reported to us, which is why we have a phone number, website and Facebook page, etc.”

Many consumers want to know that you hear them, that you will look into their specific problem, and that you have quality and safety programs in place to prevent a food-related issue from occurring. When you can honestly tell a consumer that a particular batch had 2,000 bags (or 1,000 or 4,000, whatever it may be) shipped to “X” different locations and not a single other issue has been reported, you can turn the conversation away from these posts that “say exactly the same thing that my pet is going through.”

In the 13 years I have worked in veterinary customer support for the pet food industry, there have been vast changes in nearly every aspect of it, from the types of ingredients being used to the food safety systems in place to the modes of communication we use. Personalized customer support is extremely valuable, but not always recognized as such.

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