Once upon a time there was something called “dog food.” You went to the store and you had a few brands to choose from. It didn’t matter much which dog food you bought because nobody thought much about dog food or what they fed their dogs. In fact, a lot of people were just as likely to feed their dogs scraps or leftovers. If you lived on a farm, you might feed your dog some eggs and feed leftover from feeding the stock, along with some leftover meat from the kitchen. Most dogs didn’t live as long back then but whether that was because of nutrition or disease or because most of them ran loose, it’s hard to say.

Times change. Beginning in the 1980s and ’90s, dog food manufacturers began looking for ways to gain greater market share. They all had basic dog foods but they wanted to find ways to get more people to buy their brands. Soon after, some of the big dog food companies, such as Eukanuba, Purina, Hill’s-Science Diet, and Waltham began spending more money on research and development. They were producing veterinary formulas and prescription diets for dogs with allergies and other health problems. Little by little, dog food companies began using some of their research and making “premium” pet foods that were geared toward owners who wanted to buy what was sold as a healthier dog food.

Lamb and rice dog foods were some of the first foods to appear on shelves as “premium” foods at this time. Cooking lamb from the butcher or grocery store and rice had been recommended by veterinarians for dogs with skin problems and food allergies for years. Once premium dog foods came along, lamb and rice began appearing as a regular option for dogs that you could buy on the shelf. Soon nearly every company had lamb and rice dog foods. Today lamb and rice dog food is so widespread that some dogs are allergic to lamb.

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Other foods followed and soon “premium” wasn’t good enough anymore. Every dog food company claimed that their food was premium. Marketers created the term “super premium” or “ultra premium.” Dog foods claimed to be “natural” and “holistic” – terms that have virtually no meaning when it comes to dog food. Corn, wheat, and soy have been banished from most ordinary dog foods, replaced by other carbs or different grains. “Grain free” is popular now, though not every dog needs to eat a grain free diet for health reasons.

Terms like “super premium” are really just marketing terms, though you may find it convenient to lump together certain kinds of dog foods in this category. These foods are usually more expensive and sometimes will have better ingredients – but not always. Some foods have more meat protein, but not always. Many of the foods will not use artificial preservatives, sweeteners, or colorings. Other things super premium foods may have in common include increased testing of the food before, during, or after production. Some of the foods will contain some organic ingredients or human grade ingredients before manufacture, but this varies from company to company.

Dog food companies want you to see their foods as belonging to this higher echelon category but it’s really something that they have created. What’s really important is reading the label and understanding the ingredients yourself so you know what you are buying for your dog. Terms like “super premium” are much less important than what is actually in the food.

In fact, the dog food market is currently saturated with “super premium” dog foods and the term has lost much of its meaning, leaving dog food companies looking for other ways to try to prove that their foods are better than their competitors’ foods.

Carlotta Cooper

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