Does Your Dog Need Expensive Pet Food?

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If you're buying "premium" dog food, you might be wasting money. Here's how to figure out if the low-cost dog food at the big-box store contains the nutrients your dog needs.

Americans will spend $55.5 billion on their pets this year – nearly $21.3 billion for food alone, says a recent study by the American Pet Products Association. Dogs are the most popular pets, found in 46.3 million of the 114 million U.S. households.

Makers of dog food know how willing many of us are to spend on our pets, and they fill the marketplace with high-end “premium” brands. But does your dog really need the expensive stuff?

In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson provides some answers. Check it out, then read on for a complete breakdown of the dog food aisle.

The average dog

A Consumer Reports survey found that people pay an average of $36 a month for dog food. “A significant part of the national pet-food bill these days goes for so-called premium and super-premium varieties,” CR says.

But your veterinarian will likely tell you that the average dog doesn’t need pricey food. For healthy adult dogs, a medium-priced kibble will provide good nutrition as long as it carries certain labels.

First, look for “complete and balanced.” That indicates the food provides enough nutrients to be your dog’s only source of food as defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. Then look for a statement on the bag that says the food meets the AAFCO’s standards.

The association’s website also says:

AAFCO’s nutrient profiles are broken down into two categories (or life stages) — growth and reproduction and adult maintenance. If the pet food meets all of the nutrient requirements of both growth and reproduction AND adult maintenance as listed in the AAFCO nutrient profiles, then that pet food would be considered to be nutritionally adequate for “all life stages.”

If the pet food meets the nutrient requirements of the AAFCO nutrient profiles, the label must bear the following statement:

“(Name of product) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog (or Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for ________.”  (Blank is to be completed by using the stage or stages of the pet’s life such as gestation, lactation, growth, maintenance, or the words “All Life Stages.”)

Note that there are no special standards for senior dogs. Consumer Reports warns that the “senior” label is a marketing gimmick. Older dogs will do fine on adult maintenance food.

Special needs

If your dog has special needs, a special food may help. For example:

  • Allergies. Dogs can develop allergies to proteins, corn and a whole host of other common dog food ingredients. If your dog has a food allergy, you don’t necessarily need a specialty food, but you should look for a brand that doesn’t contain the allergen. The ASPCA says the only way to determine a food allergy is to feed your dog a prescription diet from your vet for 12 weeks. If you haven’t talked to your vet, start there.
  • Illnesses. If your dog has a chronic illness, a special diet may help. For example, in a column in The Seattle Times, Dr. Annie Chen-Allen recommended Hill’s Prescription Diet b/d (Canine Aging & Alertness Diet) for dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome, a form of dementia. However, talk to your vet before starting your dog on any special diet.
  • Organic diets. An organic diet is more of a lifestyle choice than an actual dietary need for your dog. But if you choose to buy the “organic” brands, Consumer Reports says: “For pet food, there’s no official definition of organic, human-grade, premium, no fillers, or gourmet.”

Ways to save

No matter what brand you buy, there are lots of ways to save. For example:

  • Shop big-box stores. Overall, Consumer Reports found better prices at Target and Walmart than at PetSmart and Petco. Compare prices everywhere before you head to the specialty shops.
  • Buy generic. Store-brand dog food is often cheaper than other brands. Compare the labels on a store brand and a mid-range name brand. If they have the same nutritional content, you’ll save money going generic.
  • Sign up for newsletters. Check your dog food brand’s website. Many offer email or mailed newsletters that contain coupons.
  • Shop sales. Big pet stores like PetSmart and Petco run weekly circulars, but you can also find pet food on sale at big-box stores and grocery stores.
  • Stack deals with bulk buys. Dog food is generally cheaper per ounce when you buy the bigger bags. But to save the most money, wait for your brand to go on sale, and buy the biggest bag possible with a coupon. You’ll stack the per-ounce price with the sale and a coupon discount.

Stacy Johnson

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