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7 Tricks the Pet Food Industry Uses to Charge You More for Low-Quality Food

The pet food industry often hints at the best, but gives you the mediocre. Here’s how pet food companies trick you into paying a premium price for the same old low-quality food that’s always been around.

“You are what you eat” doesn’t just apply to people; it applies to all living creatures. High-quality food leads to a longer, healthier life—and that’s what makes pet owners seek out high-quality pet food for their pets. This is especially true with cats, since they are obligate carnivores with very specific dietary needs.

It only seems natural that the pet food industry would understand this and work to ensure that owners are able to give their fuzzy buddies the best nourishment possible. Unfortunately, most pet food companies prioritize profits over pets, leading them to use underhanded methods, like jacking up prices, to fool people into buying low-quality food.

Making sure that you are feeding your cat the very best starts with knowing the tricks the pet food industry uses to keep profits high and quality low.

To find out the truth, we decided to talk to Smalls, a company that offers human-grade cat food designed by feline nutritionists about the biggest tricks pet food companies use. Here’s what they said cat owners need to know about pet food marketing tricks. 

1. High price points can fool you into assuming quality where there is none.

Photo by Jimi Filipovski

Among marketers, it’s a well-known fact that people tend to view expensive items as high-quality. That’s why you will hear people tell others that they only buy “the expensive kind” of cat food for their feline friends.

Companies know this and will often inflate their prices as a way to get customers to assume quality. Sadly, they rarely back up the price increases with improvements to their food.

The Fix: Take a close look at the label to make sure they are actually using higher quality ingredients than what you'd find in cheaper cat foods

2. Beware the use of “weasel words” as a marketing ploy.

Photo by Eric Witsoe

Marketers adore “weasel words.” These are words that sound great but don’t actually require products to undergo any kind of scrutiny to achieve that description. In other words, these terms are pure fluff that are designed to get people to buy.

Pet food companies have lobbied to keep regulations on quality control and claims as relaxed as possible, but some claims still are legitimate and policed. Anytime you hear about a company offering “human-grade ingredients” or “human-grade,” you’re safe. Since it involves human beings, regulators are much more careful to ensure quality.

Sadly, some words don’t get that treatment—even though they sound promising. Using words like “holistic,” “premium,” and “gourmet” may sound great, but there’s nothing backing them. Even a word like “natural” has no real meaning since there isn’t a codified set of standards you can use to determine whether what they’re saying is real.

On a similar note, you shouldn’t automatically trust the pictures on the packaging either. Just because it shows a chicken or a cow on there doesn’t mean there’s any chicken or beef in it. If there is chicken, it probably doesn’t look like what’s on the bag, either.

The Fix: Avoid weasel words, and look for phrases that actually mean something. By choosing food based on provable claims, you’re making it harder for pet food companies to trick you into buying low-grade cat food. 

3. Touting “grain-free” but using other cheap fillers to keep costs down

Photo by Eric Han

Grains are notoriously bad for cats because of their obligate carnivore status. A grain-rich diet has even been linked to diabetes and weight gain. Contaminated wheat gluten was responsible for thousands of pet deaths in the major food recall of 2007, too.

Pet food companies have begun to latch onto pet owners’ leery attitudes towards grains and have started to tout “grain-free” options. While these recipes may be grain-free, many actually still use fillers like potatoes or other starches to keep costs down and avoid buying nutritious, expensive meats.

Cats don’t need fillers. They need high-protein diets with lots of high-quality meat.

The Fix: If you’re worried about fillers and sketchy ingredients, read the label on your cat food to find out what’s really going on. Opt for food without grains or starches of any kind and look for lots of protein. 

4. Prescription food is a racket.

Photo by Timothy Meinberg

While cats do sometimes need specialized diets for a medical condition, the prescription food category is 90% marketing scheme.

Prescription foods rarely contain controlled substances or chemicals that should require veterinary oversight. The pet food industry uses the word prescription because it makes consumers normalize the idea of paying a high premium for the specialized food.

The Fix: Feed your cat healthy food from the get go and avoid needing prescription food in the first place! 

5. Be wary of ingredient splitting.

Photo by Michael Sum

One of the dirtiest little secrets in the pet food industry is ingredient splitting. This practice fools people into thinking that a particular low-quality ingredient is found in small quantities, when in reality, there’s far more of it than you would expect.

Additionally, this practice has another function that can cause people to be fooled by labels. Cat food ingredients are ordered by quantity. By chopping low-quality ingredients into multiple micro-categories, they are able to push higher-quality ingredients to the top of the list. This can trick you into thinking chicken is the top ingredient—and by default, that the food is healthy—when really it’s a filler that has been “split” in the list.

The Fix: Read the ingredients carefully and recognize when they are using ingredient splitting to hide the quantity of bad ingredients in your cat’s food. If you do see ingredient splitting, you’re better off not buying that brand. 

6. Other companies try to trick you by using “by-products” instead of real meat.

Photo by Nick Karvounis

On the back of almost any low-quality can of cat food, you’ll notice by-products on the ingredient list. It sounds so innocuous, doesn’t it? This is a very sanitized umbrella term for products that are derived from the non-edible parts of an animal.

Sometimes, this can be alright, but most of the time, it should be considered a red flag.

When it comes to cat food, animal by-products can run the gamut from bones and beaks to manure and slaughterhouse waste. If you wouldn’t eat these, why should your cat?

Since these items are just labeled as “by-products,” you can’t tell what the ingredients really are and they’re completely untraceable. The safest way to handle by-products as ingredients is to assume they’re not a good idea.

If the company in question wanted to deliver high-quality food for cats, they would always choose real meat instead of by-products.

The Fix: Don’t buy any cat food that has by-products in it, period. The best way to ensure your cat is getting quality food is to choose food made with human-grade ingredients.

7. Your vets are in the industry’s pocket.

Photo by Tucker Good

Vets don’t know nearly as much about nutrition and food as you’d hope, and yet, many pet owners treat their dietary recommendations as gospel. In the 21st century health craze, you’d think a more holistic attitude about pet health would be more prevalent. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case.

Most vets get less than 8 hours (not credit hours, literally hours) of class time focused on nutrition. Oftentimes, the education they do get is coming from pet food manufacturers themselves. The fox is in the hen-house, people!

The Fix: Do your own research and know the fundamentals. Cats need moisture in their diet and lots of high-quality protein. If it’s good food, it should look like real food! 

Don’t let the pet food industry take you for a fool.

The pet food industry currently thrives on the status quo, even though it’s putting beloved pets at risk. The people in control know these tricks work and will continue to use them as long as people fall for them. To make companies end these tricks, you are going to have to show them that you won’t be fooled.

Thankfully, there are some pet food companies out there that are taking a stand and offering food that’s filler-free and filled with nutrient-rich ingredients that are actually healthy for cats.

Smalls is a fresh cat food company that uses human-grade, real ingredients, nutritionist-formulated recipes, and world class care to help keep cats happier and healthier throughout their lives.

If you’re tired of dealing with low-quality food, hit pet food companies where it hurts the most: their wallet. By choosing the truly nutritious over trickery, you’re making a difference in your cat’s life and in the way the pet food industry works.

If you want to get the best possible food for your cat, give Smalls a try. They offer a half-off discount of your first order to help you make the healthy transition easier!

Get 50% off your first trial with Smalls here.

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