Don't pay a premium for 'premium' pet food

Last reviewed: August 2011

Food is the biggest ongoing cost of owning a cat or dog, accounting for $20 billion in annual sales in the U.S. Our survey respondents told us they spent an average of $36 a month on food for dogs and $20 a month for cats.

A significant part of the national pet-food bill these days goes for so-called premium and super-premium varieties. But "premium" has no legal definition in terms of nutritional quality, notes Sarah Abood, D.V.M., a small-animal clinical nutritionist and assistant dean at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Premium or otherwise, any food you see on supermarket and pet-store shelves that's labeled "complete & balanced," "total nutrition," or "100 percent nutritious" should meet the minimum standards for nutrition set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. That indicates that it's adequate for the vast majority of healthy pets.

Pet foods might be similar in nutritional content, but their prices can vary widely. When we comparison shopped at five national chains and one supermarket in the San Francisco Bay area, the best deal we saw on dry dog food was a 50-pound bag of Ol' Roy at Walmart with a unit price of 34 cents per pound. At the higher end of the price range was a 4.5-pound bag of Purina Chef Michael's Rotisserie Chicken flavor, at PetSmart for $2.22 a pound—more than six times as much.

Pets with problems such as sensitive skin, digestive difficulties, or obesity might do better on special types of food, so talk with your vet. Even in those cases you're likely to find significant price differences among equally appropriate foods.

Some other ways to save

  • Hit the big-box stores. Earlier this year, we sent 21 secret shoppers around the country in search of the same list of pet-food brands and package weights. Target and Walmart had the lowest prices most of the time, cheaper than supermarkets and specialty retailers Petco and PetSmart. You'll often save by buying the biggest bag you can carry, but check the per-pound price to make sure.
  • Forget about buying pet food online. Our comparison found it about 50 percent more expensive on average than Target or Walmart—before shipping costs.
  • Consider store and private-label brands. Among the least expensive pet foods we found were Costco's Kirkland Signature, PetSmart's Grreat Choice, Safeway's store brand, and Walmart's Ol' Roy. If you're switching foods, gradually offer more of the new brand along with the current one to give your pet some time to adjust.

Did you know?

Americans spent more than $48 billion on pet products and services last year. That's almost $10 billion more than we spent in sporting-goods stores ($39 billion) and three times as much as we spent in bookstores ($16 billion).