I am fascinated by the contrasts that are so blatantly obvious between people and pets — especially when it comes to diet and nutrition.

First, the numbers. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, an estimated as 70 million dogs and 74 million cats are counted as pets in the United States. About 30% of all U.S. households have a cat, and more than 36% of all households have a dog. Obviously, many households have multiple cats.

Other sources estimate that the pet population is even larger.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that there are as many as 80 million dogs and 96 million cats in the United States. And that’s not counting the approximately 3.9 million dogs and 3.4 million cats sitting in shelters annually. Nor does it account for the millions of “non-companion animals” roaming around American neighborhoods, and believe me, based on the multiple cats scrambling under fences and into bushes every time I drive down the alley behind my house, the feral population is a substantial one.

Numbers notwithstanding, the fascinating aspect of the pet industry is the marketing of pet food. Inside the industry, it’s all about technology and product development. A typical conference for pet food manufacturers is loaded with sessions on extrusion options, high-tech spray systems, soy protein processing and all kinds of ingredient technology to manufacture edible, flavorful, least-cost formulations.

Your typical bag of canine kibbles or shelf-stable packet of pet food treats is actually the product of some serious product R&D and high-end processing systems.

Yet virtually every single advertisement for the leading pet foods brands is all about nutrition, and to a lesser extent, quality — but quality of ingredients that supports the nutritional positioning.

A couple quick examples:

·         Beneful: “Made With Wholesome Ingredients & Quality Nutrition” in ads that appear to be the initial stages of making beef stew, with slo-mo video of whole carrots, ears of corn and chunks of filet mignon — as if

·         Friskies: “For cats with an appetite for life,” with ads featuring the requisite footage of multiple cats wolfing down the product like they’ve just been rescued from a week stranded on an iceberg somewhere

·         Science Diet: “Superior nutrition for the life of your pet,” buttressed by the (alleged) fact that those big ol’ sacks of Grain-Free, Perfect Weight, or Slim & Healthy products are “formulated by veterinarians.”

Would any human food marketer try to push product by claiming that some ready-to-heat-’n-eat frozen lasagna was “formulated by doctors?”


A blatant contrast

Arguably — and I may be way off base here — nutrition would theoretically be a higher priority for people than pets, right? I mean, if given a choice, wouldn’t most consumers agree that if given a choice, they’d prefer healthy, happy, children living a long and vibrant life, rather than opting for the same outcomes for Fluffy or Fido?

But although natural, organic, “wholesome” positioning is evident in many niche categories, the majority of the products Americans put into their shopping carts are marketed on the basis of taste, flavor, convenience and value.

Oh, and by the way, if you choose other “healthy” foods, and get lots of exercise, all that processed, per-packaged bounty won’t be the primary cause of an eventual slew of chronic disease the statistics say you’re likely to confront later in life.

Equally baffling, the only processors eagerly embracing the same ingredient and processing technology used to churn out trainloads of nutritious pet food are in the alternative-analog-non-meat/veggie entrée category. Meat and poultry marketing, by contrast, often appears to be stuck on the belief that the primary positioning must be focused on natural, whole-muscle, “unadulterated” products.

So to summarize: The animals that occupy half of all American households are fed the most nutritionally complete, totally appetizing foods science and technology can concoct.

People, on the other hand, too often exist on a diet of product choices selected on the basis of flavor, convenience and eye appeal, with nutrition a distant third or fourth on the list of purchasing triggers.

If pets could talk, it would be really interesting to hear their take on the ideal diet.

We might not like what we’d hear.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.