When Is Premium Pet Food Worth It? Is Your Pet's Food Worth The Money?

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vet verified Dr. Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Ithaca, NY

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One of the age-old questions most pet parents have is whether or not premium pet food is better than budget kibble. Read on and decide for yourself if the most expensive pet food should be considered the "best" for your pet.

Naturally, you want only the best for your furry companion. Since diet is a major component of their health, you would like to offer your pet the best food possible. However, often the perceived “best” of any product correlates to “most expensive,” which can be tricky when you’re working on a budget.

Is premium pet food any different from normal pet food? If so, how should a pet parent sort through the hype?

What a Better Diet Can Do

Commercial pet food has to meet certain basic health standards to ensure no deficiencies are created when a pet eats it as their primary food. The importance of a higher-quality diet for most dogs and cats is debatable. A lot of dogs and cats live long, healthy lives eating nothing but budget kibble. However, some individual animals have allergies, food sensitivities, or other problems that require special diets.

There are also many vets and animal experts who believe that all animals would have a higher quality of life on a better diet. The thinking is that a diet with balanced nutrients and higher quality ingredients mean the animal’s body doesn’t have to work as hard to get the most from the food, so overall health may be better and the dog or cat might have fewer chronic health problems. Anecdotally, some people report miraculous recoveries from crippling diseases for pets on high quality diets.

Sifting Through Advertising

However important an excellent diet is, premium pet foods do not always deliver that diet. Words like “holistic” and “premium” are not tightly regulated, or regulated at all, meaning a pet food company is free to use them simply for advertising purposes.

And no matter what ingredients go into a food, the means by which they are processed, or even the nutrient value in the same ingredient classification, can be different. For example, the word “byproduct” on a label could mean more internal organs (good stuff for pets!) or more whole necks (lots of bone and ash — not as good).

The sad fact is that without doing research or preparing the food yourself, there is no way to be sure exactly how good the pet food is. So in reality, trial and error tends to be the best way to find out which foods work well for your furry friend.

So, Is Premium Pet Food Worth It?

A premium label does not, all by itself, mean the food is any better than standard, and standard food at a premium price is clearly not worth it. A high-quality diet, on the other hand, is worth it, especially if your pet has specific medical needs.

What Do I look for?

To ensure that you are actually getting high-quality food, you have a few options — you can cook for your pet yourself, you can ask a trusted vet for their recommendation, or you can use a commercially prepared food as a base and build it up with supplements (also asking your vet about which supplements to include). 

Preparing food for a pet isn’t any harder than cooking for yourself. Most veterinarians can recommend a good home-prepared diet, or you can find one on your own, but beware that over half of the home prepared diets on the internet or in books may not be considered complete and balanced by the standards set forth by the National Research Council's essential nutrients for dogs and cats. A knowledgeable veterinarian or a board certified veterinary nutritionist can help if you have concerns.

Or, if home cooked food isn’t an option, just make sure to do your research before buying a “premium” dog food.

More on Pet Nutrition

Your Dog Food Questions Answered
How to Change Dog Food
Is Your Cat a Picky Eater?
How to Change Cat Food

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine.

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