Dog & Cat Food: Supermarket vs Premium?

Is premium dog and cat food worth the extra money? Is there really any difference between brands like Hills Science Diet® or Royal Canin® and the supermarket foods?

I want to reframe the debate by focusing on something at the centre of food buying decisions. It’s the Achilles heel of the premium pet food manufacturers: palatability.

The Downsides Of Premium Foods

First, there are actually at least three main weaknesses of high-end foods.

  1. Price
  2. Availability
  3. Taste or palatability

The premium food companies will argue each point like this:

  1. Price is not so bad on an as-fed basis: premium foods are more bioavailable and therefore the pet gets more out of the same volume of food
  2. There are now plenty of independent pet stores selling premium foods
  3. Premium foods taste different, but once your pet adjusts they will like them just as much

I wholeheartedly agree with points one and two. Point three, on the other hand, is hard to argue. Yes, dogs and cats learn to love any food, but give them a choice and most will still head for the supermarket option.

I see clear health benefits with higher-quality foods but we also need to be up-front about their weaknesses. However, let’s look closer at the taste issue from another perspective.

The Palatability Battle

Imagine you are on the board of a pet food company. You need to keep sales high or it’s over. You’ve got to make the best decisions you can. Those decisions will depend on how you sell your food.

The Supermarket Seller

Stand in front of the pet food aisle and put yourself in the shoes of the seller. You’re fighting for shelf space, knowing that if sales drop you lose your spot. What do you do?

There’s no-one nearby to give the customer advice. That means you’ll need to use clever advertising and well-designed packaging. But talk to any pet owner about why they choose Brand A over Brand B and something else always comes up first.

“He really loves this one.”

This is the key to understanding the pet food aisle. It’s natural selection in a jungle of competing foods. And after all the marketing is over, there’s just one trick left: palatability.

Taste Is King

Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying supermarket foods are bad or dangerous. They are perfectly fine for the nutrition of dogs and cats. But I want you to imagine what happens when taste is priority number one.

Look at human foods for example. Those that make taste their primary aim aren’t exactly our top nutrition choices. And we can’t expect the supermarket pet foods to be any different.

I believe there is always a trade off between making the tastiest food and making the most nutritious food. If a company pushes taste to its limit, I can’t see how other areas don’t suffer as a consequence.

This is why I see taste as a negative, not a positive. Now let’s look at the other side of the fence.

The Vet & Pet Store Seller

Non-supermarket foods rely almost entirely on recommendations to make a sale. Very few people will simultaneously go out of their way and spend more on pet food without a good reason.

My reputation is the most valuable thing I own. For all the talk of vet conspiracies selling foods full of fillers, the truth is that my word has to be backed up by fact. If I recommend you something, it had better do what I say. The same applies to pet stores. You aren’t going back if they sell you a lemon.

I favour Royal Canin and Hills because they usually back up what they say with evidence. They have large research colonies where each new change is trialled before release. However, there are plenty of other good companies all trying to be the best in our eyes.

Supermarket vs Premium?

The premium pet food sellers have to compete for the opinion of vets and pet stores, not taste. They need someone saying, “it might be hard to change, but this food is better for your pet.”

Here’s something else no-one considers: what happens when pets get old. Most common diseases are treated by a combination of medicines and prescription foods. My heart sinks when I see an old cat with kidney failure who only eats Fancy Feast®.

Unwell animals have lower appetites and cope poorly with diet change, especially a drop in tastiness. Prescription foods and premium foods appear to taste very similar. Therefore, those owners who had put their pets on premium foods when they were young set them up for a healthier old age.

You aren’t choosing badly by using supermarket brands, And it’s perfectly fine to choose foods based around how they taste if it makes your dog or cat feel special. It’s just that, like us, choosing on taste first isn’t something we should do all the time.

Related: Homemade diets for dogs | Raw diets for cats

Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours of lodging.

By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on Facebook and Twitter. We do not accept payments or incentives in return for stories. Like or follow our page or subscribe via email to read the latest.


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