Anthropomorphism: Human Food Trends and Marketing to Owners

More and more pet owners are starting to consider their pets as part of the family. People call themselves Dog Mom, Cat Mom, Dog Dad, or Cat Dad. Pet Parents want the best for their loved ones. Pets today are being humanized. We believe this is a good thing overall, but there are some negative side effects.

Marketing to owners

Companies have taken notice. Companies are now marketing treats and foods based off of what we like or popular human food trends. They are creating and advertising foods, meal/food toppers, and treats based on what is trending or popular for humans, not what is best for our pets.

There are Pizza Flavored Treats, Bacon flavored treats, Bacon Treats Peanut Butter treats, Apple Pie treats, Peperoni Treats and the list could go on. There are Poke Bowls, Pastas, BBQ, and Shepherd’s Pie Meal Toppers.

There are Ketogenic Diets. There are Keto Approved Foods. There are Paleo Foods. There are vegan/vegetarian foods.

All of these were developed, sold, and are marketed specifically to us as owners, Not for our dogs or cats.

Companies are ultimately marketing to what we like to drive sales instead of what is best for our pets.  We believe this is a negative side effect of anthropomorphism. As pet parents we need to remember that they are still dogs and cats and not humans. That what is best for dogs and cats isn’t necessarily the same as it is for humans. What we like isn’t necessarily what they like.  

One note about Vegan Foods for Cats.

There was recently a paper, A cross-sectional study of owner-reported health in Canadian and American cats fed meat and plant-based diets, published in BMC Veterinary Research.

The study reported no difference in lifespan, that fewer cats on the plant based diets had gastrointestinal disorders, they reported a more ideal body condition scores and more reported their cats to be in very good health.

Now before people read into the study too much. It’s important to look at the biases which there are several.

The first issue is that it was based on owners perceptions of the cats health not an actual medical evaluation. All that can really be said is that owners who feed plant based foods believed their cats to be healthier.

Now plant based diets for cats is a minority, and they aren’t exactly widely available so those feeding a plant-based diet are seeking them out and are likely doing so based on preexisting beliefs. This further influences the results.

The second issue is the self-selection bias. The study was an online survey so people had to want to take the survey. This is likely to influence the results as it draws in more people who have stronger beliefs or an interest in the subject matter.

Now the studies authors do note that “Lastly, the findings presented here represent the opinions and beliefs of cat owners, not the definitive health status of the cats, and must be interpreted as such.”(Dodd et al 2021)

Sustainability

There are foods and treats made from insects. There are foods made with protein grown from fungus. There are treats made with lab-grown meat.

While I acknowledge that we do need to find a way to provide food more sustainably, especially in a world where the human population is expected to be over 10 billion in 2050.

We don’t know how these foods or diets are going to work long term. We don’t know what issues may arise. The companies themselves haven’t done long-term feeding trials.

Is it more Sustainable?

While marketers can claim that it’s more sustainable and requires less than raising a cow. The “cost” of the cow needs to be spread across the other sectors. Ie the steak we eat. The leather made from hides, the tallow from fat used in a variety of products. The many uses of bones and collagen. The whole “cost” doesn’t just apply to pet food or even human food.

Also many of the meat products used in pet food is meat that we humans don’t eat that much of. While we eat plenty of steak or ground beef. We don’t eat nearly as much liver, heart, kidney, spleen, tripe etc.

In the case of insects the whole cost would apply to the pet sector or human food sector.

Taking those factors into account I’m not sure where the math would end up, but insects would not be the clear cut more environmentally sustainable option that marketers claim.

Here is the response I got from one company. Their food and treats are made from fungus; when I asked if they conducted any long-term feeding trials and whether any of them went beyond the AAFCO Minimum of 8 Dogs.

Side Note

Cricket is not yet an approved ingredient for pet food. Which really begs the question what are AAFCO, The FDA, State Feed Organizations doing?

I’m sure that many insects will ultimately be approved by AAFCO, and by extension the states in the next few years, but this may be at the behest of the poultry industry.

“Our dog food and treats have been tested through humane volunteer testing, supervised by a panel of vets and scientists. Both acceptability and digestibility studies have shown excellent results. All of our office dogs have been on the food for nearly a year and their energy is great, coats are looking nice, and poops are healthy!”

Notice how they responded without actually answering the question.

It would take studies, that last far longer than the 26-week feeding trial that most companies don’t do anyway, to know what the effects might be. Now the adequacy of the feeding trials is an issue for another post. But a quick summary is that it only requires 8 dogs, 6 of which must complete the trial, there are only a few blood tests. Many of which wouldn’t reveal nutritional deficiencies. 26 weeks is not really indicative of if the food is going to work for the lifetime of a pet.  Also, many of the trials are conducted just on Beagles. So we don’t really know how the foods are going to work for a French Bulldog or a Newfoundland.

“Superfoods in Pet Food”

Now Many companies are also including images of superfoods on the label, but then include minimal amounts of said ingredients. However, the ingredients are included in such minuscule amounts where they may as well not be included.

Our Philosophy

We believe that treats shouldn’t just taste good to our pets, but they should also provide valuable nutritional and health benefits.

We don’t believe in using ingredients that serve little or no purpose.

We don’t believe in using ingredients that are calorie-dense and provide little to no benefit.

We don’t believe in using ingredient flavors.

When an ingredient is included, we believe it needs to be in an amount where it can actually start to provide the benefit of said ingredient.

Recommended Treat Allowance for Dogs

The Current recommendation for treats is no more 10% of daily calories—the short reason is that it can throw off the balance of the diet you are feeding.

We all love giving out dogs and cats treats, but all of the calories from the treats can add up quickly. Obviously, if you have a larger dog, it’s significantly easier to stay at or below the 10%.

While it’s a good thing that more people are treating their pets as members of the family. We do need to remember that they are dogs and cats.

Most dogs and cats require a significantly smaller amount of calories per day than we do. So while we can get away with eating empty calories, it’s not necessarily the best thing for our pets. Therefore, every empty calorie we give our pets has a greater magnitude of effect on them.

Pet obesity is also a rapidly growing problem. That is why when giving treats and food toppers, they shouldn’t contain empty calories, or be extremely calorie-dense. Every ingredient should serve a purpose.

Our Dogs and Cats are not aware of the issues of eating empty calories. Many dogs and cats will eat whatever you put in front of them. In fact, research shows that some labs, in particular, have a deletion in the genetic code of the POMC gene; this hinders the ability to produce the neuropeptides associated with turning off hunger. This is why they are always hungry. (Mankowska 2017, Raffan 2016)

The below table shows what 10% would be for a dog based on a normal body condition score. There will always be variations, which is why it’s crucial to feed the dog in front of you.

WeightCalories from Treats
20 lbs. 51 calories
40 lbs. 86 calories
60 lbs. 117 calories
80 lbs. 145 calories
100 lbs. 171 calories
120 lbs. 196 calories
140lbs 220 calories
160 lbs. 244 calories
Estimated Daily Treat Allowance

Body and Muscle Condition Score Chart

Calorie Calculator

Basic Calorie Calculator | Veterinary Medical Center (osu.edu)

Calorie Dense Treats

Peanut butter can be perfectly safe to give to dogs, but peanut butter is also extremely calorie-dense. Given its caloric density it is important to look at the health benefits it provides. The most often cited benefit is that peanut butter is high in Omega 6 Fatty Acids. However, our diets and the diets of our pets already have high Omega 6 to Omega 3 Ratios, and almost everyone agrees that the ratios should be lower. Peanut butter is almost entirely devoid of Omega 3 fatty Acids; So giving peanut butter just increases the Omega 6 to Omega 3 Ratio.

For example 1/4 Tbsp of peanut butter contains 24 calories that is nearly 50% of the 10% recommendation for a 20lbs adult dog.

Companies are making Peanut Butter Pretzels, Cakes, Cookies, Biscuits, and Cupcakes targeted and made specifically for pets.

Ingredients: Wheat flour, peanut butter, canola oil, granulated peanuts, peanut flour, dried whole egg, mixed tocopherols.

Does this look like something that is beneficial or does it look like empty calories?

The above treat is 131 calories per treat or 3700 Calories per/Kg. The Treats come in a 25 oz bag. That means one bag is around 2622 calories. One treat is 2.5 days’ worth of treats for a 20 lbs, dog. One bag is 50 days’ worth of treats for a 20 lbs. dog or a little over 10 days for a 160 lbs. dog. 

Now many people use peanut butter to hide pills. This is generally after pill pockets stop working. It is our belief that if you do that, it should be limited to just that. If the dog or cat needs medication on a consistent basis, we would highly recommend looking for other alternatives, especially if it is a little dog.

This is but one example. There are countless others. There are treats with artificial ingredients. There are treats with things like oatmeal and brown sugar.

We avoid some ingredients when it comes to the food we feed, should we not do the same when it comes to the treats we feed.  

Given the rapidly rising canine obesity epidemic, it is frankly a little alarming the rate at which peanut butter treats are not only marketed to our dogs, but also the rate at which peanut butter itself, (there are now peanut butters specifically for dogs, and cats) is recommended as a treat for our dogs ie stuff a Kong, with peanut butter, or cover the lick mat in peanut butter etc.

We all need to do a better job of reading the ingredient panels. We need to be more mindful of the cost (Caloric Density), benefits (Nutritional Value or Health Benefits) of various ingredients included in our pets treats.

Conclusion

I’m not saying never feed peanut butter (We will never use peanut butter in any of our treats) or treats that are calorie dense but as our pets guardians, we need to be mindful of our pet’s dietary needs and restrictions.

When we see things like Apple Pie, Keto, Vegan, Pepperoni Sticks, Poke Bowl etc. we need to recognize they are marketing to us specifically, and that means we should pay close attention to the actual ingredients.

Our pets don’t make the decision on what to eat. We, as pet parents, do. Would you let your baby or child consume 10% of their daily calories from Mountain Dew? Would you let peanut butter make up a significant portion of their daily calories?

It is our responsibility as pet parents to make informed choices for our pets. Their health and well-being is our responsibility. If we want to call ourselves Dog Dads, or Cat Moms. We need to take that responsibility seriously. When it comes to what we feed them, we need to think of them more as we would a child.  We need to avoid empty calories.

References

Dodd, S.A.S., Dewey, C., Khosa, D. et al. A cross-sectional study of owner-reported health in Canadian and American cats fed meat- and plant-based diets. BMC Vet Res 17, 53 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12917-021-02754-8

Mankowska M, Krzeminska P, Graczyk M, Switonski M. Confirmation that a deletion in the POMC gene is associated with body weight of Labrador Retriever dogs. Res Vet Sci. 2017 Jun;112:116-118. doi: 10.1016/j.rvsc.2017.02.014. Epub 2017 Feb 16. PMID: 28235700.

Raffan E, Dennis RJ, O’Donovan CJ, Becker JM, Scott RA, Smith SP, Withers DJ, Wood CJ, Conci E, Clements DN, Summers KM, German AJ, Mellersh CS, Arendt ML, Iyemere VP, Withers E, Söder J, Wernersson S, Andersson G, Lindblad-Toh K, Yeo GS, O’Rahilly S. A Deletion in the Canine POMC Gene Is Associated with Weight and Appetite in Obesity-Prone Labrador Retriever Dogs. Cell Metab. 2016 May 10;23(5):893-900. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2016.04.012. Epub 2016 May 3. PMID: 27157046; PMCID: PMC4873617.

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