Understanding veterinary pet food claims
Two overarching trends — the humanization of pets and a premiumization of the pet food market — have paved the way for specific nutritional solutions catering to everyday health and wellness needs, weight management, disease prevention and support, age-related conditions and much more
'The pet food landscape is indeed a very cluttered and confusing category,' said Danielle Bernal, BVSc, global veterinarian with Wellness Pet Company. 'For many pet parents, trying to determine what is the best food for their dog may come down to their own research, discussions with friends and family or even key influencers such as retail staff, veterinarians and clinic staff.'
According to a pet owner survey conducted by market research firm Packaged Facts in January 2022, most pet owners — regardless of generation — claim their veterinarian as their most important source of pet care information. The internet and social media are ranked relatively low in importance but are becoming more common sources of pet care information at the expense of veterinary advice, Packaged Facts noted.
Today's proliferated pet food shelves are teeming with functional marketing claims to compel pet owner purchases. One set of claims standing out in this category is 'veterinarian formulated,' 'veterinarian approved,' or 'veterinarian recommended.' According to Renee Streeter, DVM, DACVIM, founder of R.M. Streeter Animal Nutrition Consulting and practice principal at BSM Partners, the seemingly subtle nuances between these claims are worth noting.
What's in a claim?
A 'veterinarian formulated' claim is perhaps the most straightforward. It indicates that a veterinarian played a role in formulating the diet, 'meaning they took into account the nutrients provided by each ingredient in their various amounts within the diet to ensure nutrient requirements and nutritional goals were met,' Streeter said.
Slightly less forthcoming, a 'veterinarian recommended' claim means a significant number of veterinarians have recommended the product. This claim must be backed by a survey of veterinarians, guidelines for which have been stated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
'What is key to note here is that in some states, claims around veterinarian-backed or veterinarian-recommended will require robust proof of the claim to support that it meets regulations,' Bernal said. 'This can include what veterinarians are supporting this claim, whether or not it is a national distribution from the United States, whether a sufficient number of veterinarians were surveyed, and whether a certain percentage of those asked supported the claim.'
According to AAFCO, the onus is on the brand to conduct a statistically sound survey of veterinarians to back up a veterinarian recommended claim. Surveying one or two veterinarians is not enough, the organization advised, and some companies have included up to 300 veterinary professionals in a survey to support this claim. State officials may ask for supporting data to substantiate this claim, so brands would be wise to do their research before taking it to market.
'It should be pointed out that while this requires a survey of a statistically sound number of veterinarians who recommend your product, it only takes one veterinarian to support the claim 'veterinarian formulated' or 'veterinarian developed,' assuming that fact can be sufficiently documented,' said Laura Robinson, DVM, consulting veterinarian at Canidae Pet Food.
Bernal added that getting approval for a veterinarian-recommended claim can depend on local or state-by-state regulatory guidelines.
'A company thinking of pursuing this claim needs to ensure that they have sufficient legal and regulatory support prior to use,' she said. In the grey area is the 'veterinarian-reviewed' claim, which Streeter described as meaning the formula was not developed by a veterinarian, but veterinary professionals reviewed the formulation and submitted recommendations to the brand.
'This does not always mean the recommendations were followed, but it does mean they were given and that all AAFCO nutrient requirements have been met,' she said.
The claim 'veterinarian approved' should not be used, Streeter advised, as it is deemed inappropriate by AAFCO. If certain criteria are met, brands may use 'veterinarian recommended,' 'veterinarian formulated' or 'veterinarian developed,' but 'veterinarian approved' is off the table — full stop.
The most important consideration with these claims is that they convey a clear meaning to the consumer and aren't intended to be misleading. Streeter noted Board-Certified Veterinary Nutritionists are in a unique position to add creditable value to a product's efficacy.
'I think it is important to distinguish between 'veterinarian formulated' and 'formulated by a Board-Certified Veterinary Nutritionist' claims,' Streeter shared. 'Board-Certified Veterinary Nutritionists have extra training and research background, which enables them to formulate diets and to especially consider health concerns while doing it.'
Robinson reiterated this sentiment and elaborated on the difference between a veterinarian and a Board-Certified Veterinary Nutritionist when it comes to formulating pet food.
'Although they may claim veterinary approval, these labels don't ensure that this approval was made by a veterinary nutritionist specifically,' Robinson explained. 'Compared to a veterinarian, a vet nutritionist is required to take extra training in nutrition and complete a residency in nutrition. While all veterinarians receive training in nutrition, a vet nutritionist is a board-certified specialist that is uniquely trained in the nutritional management of both healthy animals and those with one or more diseases.
'Additionally, just because a product may have general approvals, it doesn't mean that the product is the best choice for your particular pet, especially if the animal has any underlying health issues,' she added.
Bernal emphasized the importance of several other factors in determining a product's efficacy alongside a veterinarian-formulated, -recommended or -reviewed claim. These factors include:
- Whether the product is formulated to meet AAFCO requirements for the appropriate life stage.
- Whether an animal nutritionist played a role in product formulation.
- Whether a product has undergone long-term feeding trials based on AAFCO guidelines.
- A company's food safety and quality assurance programs.
- A company's R&D efforts to understand and apply nutritional innovation to its products.
'While claims of veterinarian-formulated or veterinarian-backed pet food try to establish a superiority of nutrition and approval versus other diets, it is important to note that many other factors are more important to determine the quality of a brand of nutrition,' Bernal noted. 'Therefore, we should be encouraging pet parents to look deeper at a recipe to truly understand how well it will be supporting the health needs and the benefits they are seeking for their pet.'
In other words, a veterinarian-formulated or veterinarian-recommended claim may offer shelf appeal and help brands build trust with consumers, but it may not convey other key insights into the product's formulation, proven benefits or compliance.
'A better solution would be to help pet parents understand the details of pet food so that they can determine the health claims, ingredient declarations, guaranteed analysis and AAFCO statements on packaging,' Bernal shared. 'These elements, whilst not instantly intuitive, can tell a pet parent so much more about the quality and nutritional value of a product that they are considering feeding their pet.'
Aside from educating the consumer on key label information, vet-backed marketing claims work best when paired with other assurances, certifications or standards statements on the package.
'It is important for the consumer to understand how the products were made,' Streeter said. 'However, there are many very qualified (and sometimes more qualified) formulators who are not veterinary nutritionists or veterinarians. Unless the veterinarian is extensively trained in formulation (which can be indicated by their credentials as Board-Certified Veterinary Nutritionists), then it is best that food scientists and animal nutritionists work together with a veterinarian so that all the various aspects of creating a healthy pet food are taken into consideration.
'Veterinarians understand and see various health issues and the way they are affected by diet,' she continued. 'However, unless the veterinarian has been trained to formulate diets, they might not actually be best suited for this task. Board-Certified Veterinary Nutritionists have been trained to formulate diets and to take into account the various nutritional goals associated with health issues.'
On the shelf
With this understanding of different veterinary claims for pet food products, some brands are using them to create trust with consumers and set themselves apart on crowded shelves.
'Seeing these words on a food bag can give a pet owner reassurance in their purchase,' Robinson said. 'It means that professionals, with substantial knowledge of pet nutrition, have confirmed that this food is a good choice for most pets. The benefit is that these claims provide consumers with a level of confidence that they are choosing a better option for their pet.'
As a consulting veterinarian at Canidae Pet Food, Robinson shared all the company's products are developed in partnership with a veterinary nutritionist and reviewed by veterinary professionals to meet and exceed AAFCO standards.
Wellness Pet Company tasks its team of qualified animal nutritionists, R&D teams and veterinary consultants to evaluate its products against AAFCO standards, ensure AAFCO Feeding Trials are conducted to prove efficacy, safety and effectiveness, and support scientific studies to fuel future innovations.
'By having high quality standards implemented in our company-owned facilities, we assure consumers that our food is being formulated, tested and proven the right way to deliver only the highest quality nutrition for dogs and cats,' Bernal said.
Two other global companies have built their reputation on vet-formulated pet food: Hill's Pet Nutrition and Royal Canin. Both brands offer prescription diets sold exclusively through veterinarians, as well as commercial products backed by extensive teams of in-house veterinary professionals.
Hill's Pet Nutrition, owned by Colgate-Palmolive, has more than 220 veterinarians, food scientists, technicians and Ph.D. nutritionists on its staff, according to the company's website. The company conducts pet nutrition research through Mars' WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition and its Small Paws innovation center in Topeka, Kan., which it uses to develop products based on science-backed ingredients, predictive biology and pet microbiome research.
Hill's Prescription Diet is the company's line of vet-recommended therapeutic diets addressing urinary, kidney, skin, digestive and weight management care. These diets are both veterinarian-formulated and veterinary exclusive; pet owners must obtain a recommendation from their veterinarian to purchase Prescription Diet products.
Royal Canin, owned by Mars Petcare, was actually founded by a veterinarian in 1968. The company currently employs more than 500 veterinarians on its staff and focuses on 'tailored nutrition,' or developing products that address specific health needs based on life stage, breed, medical condition, lifestyle, food sensitivity and other factors.
Royal Canin has an extensive portfolio of therapeutic diets for dogs and cats available exclusively through a vet's recommendation, ranging from weight management and health support diets to those addressing specific conditions such as renal disease in cats and cardiac health in dogs.
Whether a pet food brand is partnering with a veterinary consultant or Board-Certified Veterinary Nutritionist, has one on staff, or employs a whole team of veterinary professionals to inform the development of its products, these types of marketing claims should not be used as a silver bullet. It's important for companies to understand their consumers and, in turn, help them understand what is nutritionally best for their pets.
As transparency, efficacy and functionality climb the ranks of importance in the pet food space, marketing claims such as veterinarian-formulated, veterinarian-recommended and veterinarian-reviewed should only be used as long as the claim reflects the efficacy of the product.
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