Attitudes of pet owners toward pet foods and feeding management of cats and dogs

Kathryn E. Michel Department of Clinical Studies, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104.

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Kristina N. Willoughby Department of Clinical Studies, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104.

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Sarah K. Abood Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824.

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Andrea J. Fascetti Department of Molecular Biosciences, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, CA 95616.

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Linda M. Fleeman School of Veterinary Science, University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD, Australia.

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Lisa M. Freeman Department of Clinical Sciences, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University, North Grafton, MA 01536.

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Dorothy P. Laflamme Nestlé Purina PetCare Research, Checkerboard Square, St Louis, MO 63164.

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Cassondra Bauer Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824.

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Brona L. E. Kemp School of Veterinary Science, University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD, Australia.

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Janine R. Van Doren Department of Molecular Biosciences, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, CA 95616.

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Pet owners necessarily play an active role in determining their pets' diet, and their nutritional choices are likely to be influenced by numerous factors, including their knowledge of the nutritional needs of their pets; their perceptions regarding the nutritional value, wholesomeness, and safety of feed ingredients; their thoughts about the pet food industry; and their sources of information regarding the dietary management of their pets. Communicating effectively with owners about nutrition and dietary management of companion animals can be difficult, particularly when the goal is to persuade a pet owner to alter feeding practices. Circumstances frequently arise in which a change in feeding management may be in the best interests of a pet (eg, when a patient with organ failure could benefit from a diet restricted in certain nutrients or when a pet is receiving an unbalanced home-prepared diet). Understanding how and what people choose to feed their pets, as well as behaviors and attitudes that may influence these choices, could facilitate better communication with clients regarding dietary choices for their pets.

Studies1–4 have indicated that > 90% of cats and dogs in the United States and Australia consume commercial pet food for at least half their intake. However, noncommercial foods, such as table scraps, home-prepared diets, or bones and raw food, are fed as part of the main diet to a substantial number of pets (13.1% of cats and 30.4% of dogs).4

Significant differences have been found between cats and dogs regarding types of food that are fed and some aspects of feeding management.4 In that study, investigators found that a greater percentage of cats (98.8%) were fed at least half of their diet as a commercial pet food, compared with the percentage of dogs (93.2%) receiving at least half of their diet as a commercial pet food; hence, significantly more dogs than cats received noncommercial foods, including table scraps, leftovers, or home-prepared foods, as part of their diet. Cats were more likely to receive at least half of their diet as canned commercial pet food and were more likely to be fed ad libitum but were less likely to receive treats, compared with results for dogs. On the basis of these findings, it may be discerned that the attitudes held by pet owners regarding the proper nutrition and feeding management of companion animals reflect differences among cat and dog owners.

It is important to gain a better understanding of attitudes regarding nutrition for companion animals because they are an integral part of feeding behaviors of pet owners and of successful communication with owners regarding nutrition. Therefore, the objective of the study reported here was to investigate attitudes regarding pet foods and feeding practices held by cat and dog owners.

Materials and Methods

The study reported here was part of a larger survey conducted to obtain information about pet feeding habits, pet-owner interactions, and owner attitudes toward their pets and pet care. When required by an institution, the experimental protocol was reviewed and approved by the respective institutional review board.

Procedures—A telephone survey was conducted by veterinary medical students from the University of California, Davis, Michigan State University, the University of Pennsylvania, Tufts University, and the University of Queensland between May and August 2004, as described elsewhere.4,5 Potential participants were selected from local telephone books by use of a predetermined randomization process. The survey was administered to individuals who were the owner and primary caregiver of 1 or more cats or dogs. For participants who owned both cats and dogs, a computer-generated, 2-treatment randomization list was used to determine which species would be the subject of the survey. When an owner had > 1 animal in a species, the owner was asked to identify only 1 animal that was to be the subject of the questionnaire, and all subsequent questions pertained to that specific pet.

Students conducting the interviews identified themselves as veterinary medical students from their respective institutions and stated that they were conducting a survey of pet owners. In addition to questions regarding signalment, activities, feeding behavior, and sources of information about pet care, the survey participants were read 26 statements related to the pet food industry and the pet health-care profession and asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed with each statement. Respondents had the following options for each statement: 1, strongly agree; 2, mildly agree; 3, no opinion or not sure; 4, mildly disagree; or 5, strongly disagree. Data from all 5 study locations were pooled for analysis.

Respondents were classified as a commercial feeder when ≥ 75% of their pet's diet was in the form of commercial pet foods or as a noncommercial feeder when ≥ 50% of their pet's diet was from foods other than commercial pet foods, such as home-prepared diets, table scraps, or other foods prepared for human consumption.

Statistical analysis—An ANOVA was used to detect differences in attitudes between owners' feeding methods (ie, commercial vs noncommercial feeders) and between species of pet as well as to find interactions between these factors. Because the responses were based on a limited noncontinuous scale of 1 to 5, a nonparametric analysis also was performed by use of the Kruskal-Wallis ANOVA on ranks. Results for both ANOVAs were identical, so the former analysis was used. Data were reported are mean ± SD. Differences were considered significant at values of P < 0.05. All analyses were performed by use of commercially available software.a

Results

A total of 18,194 telephone calls were made from the 5 study sites; 1,104 (6.1%) owners representing 469 cats and 635 dogs completed the survey. At least 200 surveys were completed for each site. Owners of 17 (3.6%) cats and 11 (1.7%) dogs reported that their pets were fed therapeutic diets. Additional data were not collected for these pets; thus, responses to the statements were from owners of pets fed nontherapeutic diets. An additional 3 cats and 3 dogs were removed from the data set because of incomplete data. Thus, data from 449 cat owners and 621 dog owners were included in the study.

Among cat owners, 429 (95.5%) met the criterion for a commercial feeder and 12 (2.7%) met the criterion for a noncommercial feeder; the remaining 8 (1.8%) cat owners did not meet the criterion for either feeder category. Among dog owners, 539 (86.8%) were classified as commercial feeders and 62 (10.0%) were classified as noncommercial feeders; the remaining 20 (3.2%) dog owners did not meet the criterion for either feeder category. There was a significant difference in the feeding practice between cat and dog owners (P < 0.001). The proportion of commercial feeders was greater among cat owners, whereas the proportion of noncommercial feeders was greater among dog owners.

Statements were grouped into 5 broad categories reflecting attitudes regarding pet care (Table 1), feed ingredients (Table 2), food processing (Table 3), commercial pet foods (Table 4), and raw and home-prepared diets (Table 5). Significant differences were found between commercial and noncommercial feeders for 19 of 26 statements. The responses of noncommercial feeders reflected greater mistrust of commercial pet foods and food processing than responses of the commercial feeders. The noncommercial feeders also were more positive in their responses to the statements regarding raw and home-prepared diets, compared with responses for the commercial feeders.

Table 1—

Mean ± SD scores* for pet owners about statements reflecting attitudes toward pet care on the basis of feeding practices and species of pet.

StatementFeeding practiceP valueSpecies of petP value
Commercial (n = 968)Noncommercial (n = 74)Cat (n = 449)Dog (n = 621)
I want to provide my pet with the best care possible.1.18 ± 0.011.19 ± 0.050.9341.22 ± 0.021.16 ± 0.020.011
I trust my veterinarian's advice regarding health care for my pet.1.26 ± 0.021.36 ± 0.060.1221.28 ± 0.031.25 ± 0.020.441
I want to provide my pet with the best nutrition possible.1.26 ± 0.021.17 ± 0.060.1171.28 ± 0.021.24 ± 0.020.114
I do nottrustveterinarians to provide sound nutritional advice.4.60 ± 0.034.15 ± 0.09< 0.0014.62 ± 0.044.53 ± 0.030.074

Respondents had the following options for each statement: 1, strongly agree; 2, mildly agree; 3, no opinion or not sure; 4, mildly disagree; and 5, strongly disagree.

Respondents were classified as a commercial feeder when ≥ 75% of their pet's diet was in the form of commercial petfoods or as a noncommercial feeder when ≥ 50% of their pet's diet was from foods other than commercial petfoods, such as home-prepared diets, table scraps, or other foods prepared for human consumption.

Values were considered to differ significantly at P < 0.05.

Table 2—

Mean ± SD scores* for pet owners about statements reflecting attitudes toward feed ingredients.

StatementFeeding practiceP valueSpecies of petP value
Commercial (n = 968)Noncommercial (n = 74)Cat (n = 449)Dog (n = 621)
The quality of ingredients used for my pet's diet is importantto me.1.44 ± 0.021.37 ± 0.080.4211.43 ± 0.031.43 ± 0.030.992
Dogs (or cats) are carnivores so they need a meat-based diet.2.38 ± 0.041.93 ± 0.130.0012.30 ± 0.052.35 ± 0.050.470
Whole wheat, corn, and other grains are good sources of nutrition for dogs (or cats).2.60 ± 0.032.77 ± 0.100.1142.65 ± 0.042.59 ± 0.040.290
Dogs (or cats) need a variety of different foods.2.64 ± 0.041.57 ± 0.14< 0.0012.61 ± 0.062.50 ± 0.050.152

See Table 1 for key.

Table 3—

Mean ± SD scores* for pet owners about statements reflecting attitudes toward food processing.

StatementFeeding practiceP valueSpecies of petP value
Commercial (n = 968)Noncommercial (n = 74)Cat (n = 449)Dog (n = 621) 
Processed foods for pets are unhealthy.3.01 ± 0.042.45 ± 0.13< 0.0012.98 ± 0.052.98 ± 0.050.966
Cooking destroys nutrients in pet foods.3.25 ± 0.032.76 ± 0.12< 0.0013.25 ± 0.053.18 ± 0.040.235
Genetically modified foods and ingredients are safe to use.2.90 ± 0.043.34 ± 0.130.0012.89 ± 0.052.97 ± 0.040.222
Processed foods for people are unhealthy.2.46 ± 0.042.30 ± 0.140.2582.47 ± 0.062.43 ± 0.050.650
Organic foods are safer and healthier than other foods.2.80 ± 0.042.32 ± 0.13< 0.0012.78 ± 0.052.75 ± 0.050.677

See Table 1 for key.

Table 4—

Mean ± SD scores* for pet owners about statements reflecting attitudes toward commercial pet foods.

StatementFeeding practiceP valueSpecies of petP value
Commercial (n = 968)Noncommercial (n = 74)Cat (n = 449)Dog (n = 621)
Information on petfood labels is easy to understand.2.59 ± 0.042.83 ± 0.130.0792.58 ± 0.052.64 ± 0.050.332
I trust pet food manufacturers to provide nutritionally sound, quality products.2.25 ± 0.033.01 ± 0.12< 0.0012.22 ± 0.052.38 ± 0.040.012
Dogs (or cats) need more meat than provided in commercial petfoods.3.20 ± 0.032.33 ± 0.12< 0.0013.18 ± 0.053.09 ± 0.040.179
Ingredients used in commercial pet foods are wholesome and nutritious.2.41 ± 0.033.37 ± 0.11< 0.0012.36 ± 0.052.57 ± 0.04< 0.001
Information on petfood labels is misleading.3.22 ± 0.032.75 ± 0.11< 0.0013.22 ± 0.043.16 ± 0.040.294
Additives used in petfoods have unhealthy side effects.3.04 ± 0.032.45 ± 0.11< 0.0013.02 ± 0.042.97 ± 0.040.358
Pets are living longer today, in part, because of the good nutrition provided by commercial petfoods.2.34 ± 0.033.18 ± 0.11< 0.0012.35 ± 0.052.45 ± 0.040.079
Good-quality commercial pet foods contain all the nutrition my pet needs.2.08 ± 0.032.78 ± 0.11< 0.0012.02 ± 0.052.23 ± 0.040.001
Most petfood companies place a high priority on pet health and well-being.2.25 ± 0.033.05 ± 0.12< 0.0012.17 ± 0.052.42 ± 0.04< 0.001

See Table 1 for key.

Table 5—

Mean ± SD scores* for pet owners about statements reflecting attitudes toward raw and home-prepared diets.

StatementFeeding practiceP valueSpecies of petP value
Commercial (n = 968)Noncommercial (n = 74)Cat (n = 449)Dog (n = 621)
Raw bones can safely be fed to pets.3.62 ± 0.042.64 ± 0.15< 0.0013.80 ± 0.063.32 ± 0.05< 0.001
I enjoy preparing foods for my pet.3.10 ± 0.041.95 ± 0.14< 0.0013.14 ± 0.062.91 ± 0.050.003
Raw meat provides better nutrition than cooked foods.3.68 ± 0.042.57 ± 0.13< 0.0013.64 ± 0.063.53 ± 0.050.167
Foods sold for human consumption provide better nutrition for pets than commercial petfoods.3.79 ± 0.032.78 ± 0.12< 0.0013.79 ± 0.053.65 ± 0.040.029

See Table 1 for key.

An interaction between feeding practice and species was detected for only 2 statements. In 1 situation (I do not trust veterinarians to provide sound nutritional advice), there were significant differences between commercial and noncommercial feeders when the responses of cat owners and dog owners were analyzed separately. Both dog owners and cat owners who fed primarily commercial foods were more likely to disagree with this statement. The mean ± SD value for owners who fed their cats commercial foods (4.64 ± 0.04) was significantly (P < 0.001) higher, compared with the mean value for owners who fed their cats noncommercial foods (3.75 ± 0.23). For dogs, the mean value for owners who fed commercial foods (4.57 ± 0.03) differed significantly (P = 0.001), compared with the mean value for owners who fed noncommercial foods (4.23 ± 0.10). For the second statement (Good-quality commercial pet foods contain all the nutrition my pet needs), dog owners who primarily fed commercial foods were significantly (P < 0.001) more likely to agree with the statement (2.13 ± 0.04) than were the noncommercial feeders (2.95 ± 0.12). However, there were no significant (P = 0.73) differences between cat owners who were commercial (2.01 ± 0.05) or noncommercial (1.92 ± 0.28) feeders.

When responses to the statements from cat owners were compared with those from dog owners, significant differences were found for 8 of 26 statements. However, for only 1 statement (I want to provide my pet with the best care possible) could the difference clearly be attributed to pet species rather than feeding practice. Furthermore, although the difference in response was significant, both dog and cat owners were in strong agreement with the statement (Table 1). For the other 7 statements, there were significant differences in responses based on feeding practice as well as type of pet owned. Responses were more divergent when respondents were categorized on the basis of feeding practice than when categorized on the basis of species of pet owned. The responses of dog owners reflected greater mistrust of commercial pet foods and food processing than did responses of cat owners. Dog owners also were more positive in their responses to statements regarding raw and home-prepared diets, compared with responses of cat owners.

Discussion

Recognition of how perceptions about proper diet and feeding management of companion animals can differ among pet owners is an important consideration for veterinary health-care professionals with regard to being able to communicate effectively on these topics. Frequently, circumstances arise in which a change in diet or feeding practices will be recommended for a patient. To succeed in persuading a pet owner to adhere to those recommendations, it is necessary to obtain information regarding how the pet is currently fed and develop an understanding of the rationale for those practices.

Analysis of results of the study reported here suggested that there is an association between concerns of pet owners about commercial pet foods and the practice of feeding substantial amounts of noncommercial or home-prepared foods. In general, owners who fed noncommercial foods as ≥ 50% of their pets' diet had more concerns and misgivings about commercial pet food, food processing, and the pet food industry than did owners who fed commercial pet food as ≥ 75% of their pets' diet. They were also more positive in their attitudes toward raw and home-prepared diets in contrast to the attitudes of commercial feeders. Although there were some differences between cat and dog owners, clear-cut differences in responses to the survey were found much more frequently between commercial and noncommercial feeders. One possible reason an owner may have for feeding a noncommercial diet is the enjoyment gained from preparing food for the pet, and having this perspective could potentially influence the responses for statements about variety and quality of ingredients in commercial pet foods.

On the basis of these findings, veterinary healthcare professionals should be prepared to discuss concerns owners may have about commercial pet foods, especially when a dietary history reveals that the pets are fed alternatives to conventional pet foods. Pet owners were queried in this survey regarding how they obtained information about pet nutrition, and 71 (15.8%) and 105 (16.9%) of cat and dog owners, respectively, cited the Internet and other media as their primary sources of information, as has been reported elsewhere.4 The quality of information from such sources is quite variable and can be strongly biased toward a specific feeding practice. Correcting misperceptions or directing owners to reliable sources of information regarding companion animal nutrition can help to allay concerns and aid in negotiating any dietary modifications, whether they be a recommendation to switch to a commercial pet food or to a properly balanced home-prepared diet. The necessity for veterinary health-care professionals to have the capability and confidence to converse knowledgeably on such subjects underscores the importance of nutrition education in the veterinary curriculum and after graduation.

Only a small subset of owners classified as noncommercial feeders (< 3%) were exclusively feeding home-prepared foods. Because others in this category fed commercial pet foods for a variable portion of up to 50% of the diet, it is curious that noncommercial feeders often had significantly different attitudes toward feeding management of companion animals, compared with attitudes for owners who were commercial feeders. In this survey, we did not collect information about the specific brands of pet foods being used by the respondents; however, it could be speculated that some of the noncommercial feeders were more likely to be feeding commercial pet foods that were marketed as alternatives to mainstream products (eg, commercial foods marketed as natural, organic, or holistic).

The pets represented in this survey appeared to be typical of the general pet population because the signalment characteristics of the study sample resembled those of patients at primary care veterinary clinics.4,6 However, there may have been factors related to the likelihood of an owner agreeing to participate in the survey that could have introduced bias with regard to attitudes toward the feeding management of companion animals. For example, the students who conducted the interviews identified themselves as veterinary medical students from their respective institutions. This information may have made some owners more or less willing to participate, and it is conceivable that some owners may have provided different responses to an interviewer who was not affiliated with the veterinary profession. Another limitation of the study was that the number of cat owners in the noncommercial feeder category was small. It is possible that in situations in which responses to a statement differed both by feeding practice and species of pet owned, the difference between cat and dog owners was driven by the greater percentage of dog owners who were noncommercial feeders.

Analysis of the results of this survey suggests that there is an association between pet owners' concerns about commercial pet foods and the practice of feeding substantial amounts of home-prepared foods to cats and dogs. Veterinary health-care professionals need training in nutrition and access to reliable sources of information to be able to address issues related to proper diets and feeding management of companion animals, including concerns about commercial pet foods. Communicating effectively with pet owners about these matters and directing them to factual and unbiased sources of information are of particular importance when a dietary history reveals that the pets are being fed alternatives to conventional pet foods.

Clinical Summary

The objective of the study reported here was to investigate attitudes regarding diets for companion animals and feeding practices held by cat and dog owners, and it was designed as part of a larger survey conducted to obtain information about feeding habits for pets and pet-owner interactions. The study was conducted as a telephone survey during which cat and dog owners were contacted in 5 geographic areas (4 in the United States and 1 in Australia). Data were pooled, and pet owners were categorized as commercial feeders or noncommercial feeders on the basis of their practices for feeding their pets.

Owners representing 469 cats and 635 dogs completed the survey. Attitudes of owners who fed their pets ≥ 50% of the diet as home-prepared foods (noncommercial feeders) reflected greater mistrust of commercial pet foods, food processing, and the pet food industry and were more positive toward raw and homeprepared diets, compared with attitudes of owners who fed their pets ≥ 75% of the diet as commercial pet foods (commercial feeders). These data suggest that there is an association between pet owners' concerns about commercial pet foods and the practice of feeding substantial amounts of home-prepared foods to cats and dogs. Veterinary health-care professionals need the capability and confidence to address issues of pet owners related to proper diet and feeding management of companion animals, including concerns about commercial pet foods, especially when a dietary history reveals that the pets are fed alternatives to conventional pet foods.

a.

SAS, version 9.1, SAS Institute Inc, Cary, NC.

References

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    Robertson ID. The influence of diet and other factors on owner-perceived obesity in privately owned cats from metropolitan Perth, Western Australia. Prev Vet Med 1999;40:7585.

    • Crossref
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  • 2.

    American Pet Products Manufacturers Association Inc. The 2001–2002 APPMA national pet owners survey. Greenwich, Conn: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association Inc, 2002.

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    Robertson ID. The association of exercise, diet and other factors with owner-perceived obesity in privately owned dogs from metropolitan Perth, WA. Prev Vet Med 2003;58:7583.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 4.

    Laflamme DP, Abood SK & Fascetti AJ, et al. Pet feeding practices of dog and cat owners in the United States and Australia. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2008;232:687694.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 5.

    Freeman LM, Abood SK & Fascetti AJ, et al. Disease prevalence among dogs and cats in the United States and Australia and proportions of dogs and cats that receive therapeutic diets or dietary supplements. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2006;229:531534.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 6.

    Lund EM, Armstrong PJ & Kirk CA, et al. Health status and population characteristics of dogs and cats examined at private veterinary practices in the United States. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1999;214:13361341.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

Contributor Notes

Dr. Willoughby's present address is The Animal Medical Center, 510 E 62nd St, New York, NY 10065.

Dr. Fleeman's present address is Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.

Dr. Laflamme's present address is Nestlé Purina PetCare Research, 473 Grandma's Place, Floyd, VA 24091.

Dr. Bauer's present address is Southwest National Primate Center, PO Box 760549, San Antonio, TX 78245.

Dr. Kemp's present address is Mandeville Veterinary Services, 131 Carlton Ave East, Wembly HA9 8PN, England.

Dr. Van Doren's present address is Laguna Creek Veterinary Hospital, 5060 Laguna Blvd, Ste 129, Elk Grove, CA 95758.

Supported by Nestlé Purina PetCare Research.

Presented in part in abstract form at the Nestlé Purina Nutrition Forum, St Louis, October 2004, and the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition, Baltimore, June 2005.

Dr. Laflamme is employed by the Nestlé Purina PetCare Company, and Drs. Michel, Abood, and Freeman serve on an expert advisory council for the Nestlé Purina PetCare Company.

Address correspondence to Dr. Michel.
  • 1.

    Robertson ID. The influence of diet and other factors on owner-perceived obesity in privately owned cats from metropolitan Perth, Western Australia. Prev Vet Med 1999;40:7585.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 2.

    American Pet Products Manufacturers Association Inc. The 2001–2002 APPMA national pet owners survey. Greenwich, Conn: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association Inc, 2002.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 3.

    Robertson ID. The association of exercise, diet and other factors with owner-perceived obesity in privately owned dogs from metropolitan Perth, WA. Prev Vet Med 2003;58:7583.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 4.

    Laflamme DP, Abood SK & Fascetti AJ, et al. Pet feeding practices of dog and cat owners in the United States and Australia. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2008;232:687694.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 5.

    Freeman LM, Abood SK & Fascetti AJ, et al. Disease prevalence among dogs and cats in the United States and Australia and proportions of dogs and cats that receive therapeutic diets or dietary supplements. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2006;229:531534.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 6.

    Lund EM, Armstrong PJ & Kirk CA, et al. Health status and population characteristics of dogs and cats examined at private veterinary practices in the United States. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1999;214:13361341.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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