Home Podcast TOP #29: Why Is Premium Dog Food So Expensive?

TOP #29: Why Is Premium Dog Food So Expensive?

As more pet owners realize the damage artificial ingredients in pet foods can do to our dogs and cats, many of us begin looking for better quality products and ingredients. Today more than ever before organic, natural and human-grade dog foods are the first choice for many owners, but what makes all this premium dog food so expensive, and is it worth the cost?

In this podcast episode, I'm welcoming back pet nutritionist Dr. Jennifer Adolphe, PhD of Petcurean to shed some light on the quality of different types of dog foods, and what makes their cost jump up. We've previously discussed the humanization of pet foods with Dr Adolphe, and talked about the current trends in the industry. This new conversation is closely tied together to inform pet owners about premium quality dog food brands and expose some of the issues of sustainability in the pet food industry.

Listen to the episode in the video above and find the full podcast transcript below. For more, visit this episode’s post on the official Theory of Pets website.

Why Is Premium Dog Food So Expensive?
(raw podcast transcript)

Why Is Premium Dog Food So Expensive

Hey guys, I've got a great interview for you today. If you remember one of my previous podcasts, I spoke with Dr. Jennifer Adolphe. She is the pet nutritionist for Petcurean.

Petcurean is a premium pet food company for dogs and cats and they've just released a new line called Gather. And Gather is made with certified and organic ingredients and it also focuses on sustainability. Sustainability is something in the pet industry that I don't think a lot of pet parents are aware of, so I wanted to talk to Dr. Adolphe today about sustainability — organic, quality pet foods, different kinds of high quality pet foods and why those products are more expensive. Why they're a little bit harder to come by. I think a lot of times when we're thinking about a diet for our dog, obviously we want to feed the best and highest quality nutrition but sometimes the cost of that just outweighs the benefits for lack of a better term, that we see in the dog food.

So Dr. Adolphe spoke with me today again about Gather, their new line what makes a pet food a high quality pet food — what the things are that we should be looking for when we are purchasing pet foods. And then again just about sustainability and those organic, healthy, natural ingredients.

So I will let you guys listen to the interview and then I'll come back.

Interview with Dr. Jennifer Adolphe, PhD

Samantha: Last time we spoke about the humanization of pet food and we're seeing that trend in the pet industry now. So we're seeing more and more pet owners feeding natural, organic, higher quality. We have the paleo diets for pets now, so we're seeing that humanization. Can you give our listeners just a quick recap of that trend and why it's becoming so popular?

Jennifer: Yes, for sure humanization of pets and pet foods does seem to be continuing on the upswing and we think it's because pets are increasingly being viewed as important members of their family, and people really want to feed their pet the same way that they feed themselves.

So there are lots of terms that we see in the human world that translate into the pet world, including high protein, low carbohydrate diet, gluten free, or grain free diet, limited ingredient diet or in the human world this translate to clean label diet and vegetarian diets are also becoming more popular.

So people really want to feed their pets the healthiest foods possible. And these trends that are seen in the human world transition into the pet world. One of the things to think about though is whether the trend really applies to pets and we still need to make sure that pets are being feed, the nutrients and all of the nutrition that they require, as they are not fury little humans and they do have different nutritional requirements. And so it's important to make sure that the food is meeting all of those requirements.

One of the biggest trends right now in both the human and pet food world is sustainability, transparency and organic ingredients. And so we see in the news almost daily, stories about extreme weather conditions and consumers really want to take some control over that. So the food choices that they make is one way that they can do so, both for themselves and for their pet, so that they can minimize their ecological effect.

So in 2013, Petcurean launched a new brand of pet food called Gather for dogs and cats. Our thought process behind Gather was to create a new kind of pet food that uses the ingredients with a sustainability focus. So we, searched for farmers, growers, fishers to really focus on sustainability to provide the ingredients for Gather. And we are really excited to launch this product.

So it has been out now for about a year and it's really exciting to see how people are excited about feeding their pet a food that has a sustainability focus..

Samantha: Absolutely, and I know, it's made of organic ingredient, as well, and that's a big focus for a lot of pet owners, because they are looking at the health aspect. But they're not thinking on the sustainability aspect of where those ingredients coming from, and are they from sustainable resources, are we using resources for our pets that should be being used for people, things like that, are questions on the sustainability front.

I think it's something that hasn't quite come fully into light yet, and I was really excited, to hear about Gather, and just hear that there's now a line of pet food that's focusing on that sustainability. It is, like you said, a growing trend, so I think over the next few years, we're going to see a lot more focus on sustainability. It's definitely becoming more popular, and I definitely expect to see that continue to grow.

Jennifer: Yes, I would agree, it's definitely becoming more and more of a focus.

Samantha: When we use these higher quality ingredients, organic, natural ingredients, and you're focusing on ingredients that are from sustainable sources, it increases the expense of the food. And unfortunately, I hear so many people all the time, when they're asking questions about dog food, the number one concern always seems to be price.

A lot of people shop just simply based on price, they'll grab the cheapest thing on the shelf to feed their pets. So it is a huge factor, of course we're all on budgets. So, can you explain why these products… they are more expensive, I should say the sticker price is more expensive, which is why most people are looking at. When you look at the actual cost of the food, that you can feed less of these higher quality diets, and things like that, the expense isn't as extreme, but people don't realize that. So can you talk a little bit about the expense of these products?

Jennifer: Yes, for sure. There's many factors that go into the cost of food, both for humans, and our pets, and one of the primary factors is the type of ingredients that the food includes. And so the ingredients that are in higher priced pet food, do cost more than some of the lower priced food. For example, an ingredient like chicken meal, which is a single source meat protein that's common in pet food is significantly more expensive than a similar ingredient like poultry by-product meal.

So that's one of the main factors that contribute to the cost of pet food. And then when you look at certified ingredients, like organic or Marine Stewardship Council certified seafood, the cost is increased further because of the added expense of getting those certifications. The entire supply chain needs to comply with these standards that is set out by the certification, and that usually involves expenses for the grower, the farmer, the producer, throughout the supply chain in order to comply with those standards. And then in addition to that, in order to obtain that certification, third party auditors need to come in and perform audits to ensure compliance, and there is a cost, of course, associated with that as well. So the more contacts the certification has, the more cost which is associated with it.

So organic is actually quite an involved certification. It's a long process to be in compliance with the organic standard. And so, as you can see, when you're shopping for your own groceries, organic foods are a lot higher costs than the non-organic foods, and that has to do with the type of growing methods, the actual certification audits themselves, etc. So when you're looking at pet foods the same applied.

So if you have organic ingredients in that food, you're paying for that certification and that philosophy that…of organic, and you've made that decision to feed your pets a higher priced food because of the meaning behind those ingredients.

We also know that the demand for organic ingredients continues to be significantly higher than the supply, and we all know from economic 101 that when demand out-stretch supply, that the prices go up. So it's quite an involved process for farmers to transition to growing organic, so there's significant time and financial investment and so that comes across in the sticker price. It's really comes down to making that decision to feed an organic product or a premium product with those premium ingredients.

Samantha: Absolutely. You made some really excellent points that I think a lot of people don't really think about. And it's funny that when we're shopping for our own food at the grocery store, we do take into account those things. But then when we turn around and shop for pet food, we tend to not think as much about supply and demand issues like that increasing the cost of our pets' food. So some great points there.

I think the other things that people need to think about, is, and it can be difficult to do but, comparing the price per serving of the food that you buy instead of just the price per bag. Obviously bags run in different sizes; you can buy 25 pounds or 35 pounds of dog food at a time. And then the serving size, whereas a lower quality food, you might have to feed 2 cups a day, a higher quality food, you don't have to feed as much, so you might be able to only feed 1 cup a day of the more expensive, healthier product. So the cost per serving is actually much lower than what it would be with a cheaper product.

Jennifer: Yes, and also on that note, something to think about, is that we're approaching about 50% of the pet population being overweight or obese. That really means that pet parents are tending to overfeed their pets. So if you take some time to figure out the ideal amounts of food that your pet needs to maintain an ideal body weight — and we have information on our website at petcurean.com about we have what are called body score charts to help pet parents identify if their pet is at an ideal body weight. But if you can dial in how much you are feeding your pet, you can probably cut back a little bit, so that it's not as expensive to feed your pet because you're feeding less food to maintain that healthy body weight.

Samantha: Absolutely, obesity is becoming an epidemic for humans and for people. So I always, if I get the opportunity to touch on obesity, I always try to because it is becoming such an issue. So just for anyone that's listening that might be interested in looking at those body score charts, I'll link to those on our website as well, so they can click on there and jump over and see those charts. Because it is so important to make sure obesity, which is a huge topic for another day, but it leads to so many health issues with your pets. Also, obviously, expense is a factor — if you're feeding less, you're not paying as much for your food. I will link to that so people can get that information from petcurean.com as well.

Jennifer: Great, yes, and maintaining a healthy body weight also keeps your pet healthier, which helps to avoid veterinary expenses as well.

Samantha: Absolutely.

Jennifer: So it's multi-faceted.

Samantha: Absolutely. Now to get back to the ingredients, the higher quality ingredients. We have seen so many pet food recalls in recent years, a lot of dog foods and a lot of dog treats. There was the big issue with ingredients coming from countries that have limited regulations such as China. I think that brought to light, and a lot of pet parents are realizing now that the regulations on pet food are much less strict than on human food. I think that a lot of pet owners had the idea that the government regulates pet food, so they must regulate it the same way that they regulate human food, which is absolutely untrue. I think a lot of these recalls are sort of bringing that to light. Are the regulations for organic/healthier/natural ingredients more strict than the regulations on the pet foods made with lower quality ingredients?

Jennifer: So the regulations for pet food are the same across the type of food, or the type of ingredients. But what is different between certified ingredients and non-certified ingredients, such as an organic certified ingredient, is that the organic certified ingredient has to go through kind of another level of scrutiny. And that in order to get that certification, the supply team has to undergo that third party audit in order to ensure compliance with the organic standards. So although the regulations themselves don't change, the process of getting that certification for the ingredients is different.

And just to clarify, in the US, there actually are involved regulations for pet food, and we know as an industry, there's always room for improvements in both the human and pet food regulations and food safety. But The Association of American Feed Control Officials in partnership with the FDA does set the regulations for pet food. So when you're choosing a pet food, it's important to consider the type of food safety stuff that the company has in place to ensure production of high quality and safe foods. So looking at the company's website or contacting them directly for this information is important.

Something else to consider, is that companies that export around the world to lots of different countries, must meet the regulatory standards of all those different countries. Each country has slightly different regulations, so if a company's exporting around the world, then that just adds to the level of regulatory scrutiny that the product must undergo. And so this is an added insurance policy from a consumer perspective.

So checking into that, looking into the manufacturer behind your dog or cat food is an excellent way to ensure added level of food safety.

Samantha: Excellent. That's great advice. If you have, let's say two bags of dog food, one, on the label, says, “Made with organic ingredients” and the other says, “Made with certified organic ingredients,” is that the same thing or different?

Jennifer: The term organic is a controlled term, so you can't use the term “organic,” without that ingredient being certified through a certifying body. So if it says organic cheese for example, then that's a certified organic cheese. There are different…the organic regulations are a little bit complex and so there's different rules about how you can label a product, depending on how much organic content is in the food. But the term “organic” itself is a controlled term. So you're not allowed to use it unless it is a certified organic ingredient.

Samantha: OK, excellent. And what should pet owners be aware of as far as food labeling goes, when they're looking for a good quality food for their dog or cat? What are some of the things that they should be aware of and maybe looking for, or not looking for?

Jennifer: It can definitely be a daunting task to choose the right food for your pet. Petcurean, we don't believe in a one-for-all philosophy for pets, because each dog and cat has his own unique needs. A food that's deemed well for one pet may not do so well for another. So you can… Looking at the bag, reviewing the list of ingredients on the bag is a good place to start. Speak with the company. Each ingredient should be selected to play a specific nutritional or functional role in the food, and it's important to know that pet food must list the ingredients in descending order by weight.

So the first ingredient in the ingredient list, is the ingredient that the food contains in the greatest quantity. Also look beyond the label, evaluate the company behind the brand. Ensure that the food is formulated by a qualified nutritionist so that it provides all of the nutrients that your pets need. Make sure it meets extremely high quality and safety standards. And also, call the company and see who you can ask, who you can speak with if you have any questions. Do they have people who can actually provide you with answers to your questions and help you select the food that's right for your pets.

On our website, Petcurean.com we have a food finder which is a resource that a lot of people turn to when trying to choose the right food for their pet. We also have a team of health and nutrition specialists, that people can actually speak to in this digital age and get some answers and some help, and ask some nutrition questions related to their pets

Samantha: So finally, let's talk a little bit because, of course as we touched on earlier, everybody is on a budget and the food that you feed your pet is such a huge part of your pet budget. So for pet owners that are on a budget, what are some of the things or a few of the things that you think just absolutely must have in a quality pet food?

Jennifer: So choosing a food really depends on your type of pet, their breed, their life stage, their activity level, their overall general health, whether they have any health concerns. So it's really hard to specify specific must haves.

It's important to try to choose a food that works well for your pet. So read the label, look for the ingredients. Does your pet have any adverse food reactions? Identifying those can be challenging, but looking at the ingredient label for ingredients that you suspect may not agree with your dog or cat is a first step. Also, look at the guaranteed analysis for information about protein grams and fiber levels and the calorie content.

If your dog or cat is carrying a few extra pounds you may need to consider a weight loss food. It's also important to remember that the feeding guidelines on the bag are really just a place to start. Energy requirements vary dramatically from one pet to another, even dogs or cats that look very similar in terms of their weights and body conditions may have very different calorie requirements. So it's important to adjust how much you're feeding based on their body weight and body conditions for not just the feeding guidelines on the bag.

Visit the company's website. On our website we have detailed product information and nutritional analysis for the go!, Now Fresh and Gather brand. So this includes nutritional information and helps pet parent choose the right food for their dogs and cats.

It can be a little bit of trial and error to find the food that is ideal and works well for your pets, but ideally the food should be well liked, maintain a healthy skin and coat, soft but firm stools and keeps your pets vibrant and healthy.

So we really don't believe in good ingredients, bad ingredients or one food for all philosophy, but really offering a variety of different foods so that pet parents have choice to find the food that meets their pet's needs.

Samantha: And what are some things — because so many people choose their food based just on price alone — what are some of the things that you would advise pet owners absolutely stay away from when they're shopping for a food for their pet?

Jennifer: Again, there aren't really good ingredients or bad ingredients. The ingredients that are included in pet food must be nutritious and be approved ingredients, but really the most important factor in choosing a pet food is to find a food that your individual dog or cat thrives on.

So again, they should have an ideal body weight, look healthy, with bright eyes bushy tail, soft coat and enjoy eating the food. And if these factors aren't met then don't just stick with the food because you think it's the best food. If any of these issues are a concern then consider switching.

Remember that proper transitioning from one food to another is important, so that you don't kind of shock your pet's digestive system and a proper transition can really help your pets adjust to the new food.

So start by adding about ten percent of the new food to your pet's current food and just increase that really gradually over a period of 10 days to 2 weeks to see if the new food will work for your pet. It can take several weeks to really determine if the food is working well for your pet. And again it can take some trial and error to find the food that works the best. Again we have a health and nutrition specialist that can help you determine the right foods for your pets and they can be contacted through our website at petcurean.com.

Our philosophy is that we will help you find the right food for your pets, even if it's not one of our own foods because we really just want pets to thrive and to find the food that works well for them.

Samantha: Wonderful. And again you know for anybody listening that's interested in speaking with one of the nutritionists for Petcurean, I will link to your website and they can jump on there and check that out, and also obviously check out all the different products that you offer and the new Gather line that is made of certified organic and sustainable ingredients.

I hope that you guys enjoyed the information from Doctor Adolphe as much as I did. It's always great to have her here on Theory of Pets. She is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to nutrition for our canine and feline companions.

I think that sustainability is a great thing that we should be focusing on with the growing human population and the growing pet population. it's always something to be concerned about, the sustainability of our resources and how long we're going to be able to keep going feeding the things that we're feeding our pets and eating the things that we as humans are eating as well.

PREVIOUS PODCAST: TOP #28 – The Healing Power of Dogs

Samantha’s biggest passion in life is spending time with her Boxer dogs. After she rescued her first Boxer in 2004, Samantha fell in love with the breed and has continued to rescue three other Boxers since then. She enjoys hiking and swimming with her Boxers, Maddie and Chloe.