Even if the survey was shared only in pet stores and fairs cutting off some market sectors of pet food (i.e. e-commerce) and limited the coverage for specific population segments (i.e. elder people), it was possible to highlights which characteristics were perceived as quality indicators by pet owners during pet food choosing process.
In this study, owners appeared to be divided between dogs, cats and both dogs and cats owners (36.9%; 33.4%; 29.7% respectively) with only a little prevalence of dog owners. This tendency was confirmed by the result of a national report , that reported an higher percentage of owned dogs (27.1%) compared to cats (18.3%) in the Italian family.
A higher percentage of female owners involved in pet nutrition compared to male was reported, confirming the trend found also in another study . Our data reported an higher incidence of pet store (64.8%) as a preferred shopping channel, but, for this result, our data can be considered partial because our survey was conducted in pet stores. In Assalco-Zoomark report , instead, it was reported that the major part of pet food in term of quantity was bought in supermarket (63.6% considering hypermarket, supermarket and discount) and only around a quarter in pet stores (26.3%).
In assessing quality, Italian pet food buyers considered the most important aspect the presence of natural ingredients (average score 4.3/5). This may reflect the nowadays trend present also in human nutrition in which there is an increasing attention on a more natural diet . Pet food is becoming more “humanized” and it follows human food trends. The type of feeding used for pet might reflect the relationship between humans and animals and could be considered as a symbolic inclusion of the pet in the owner’s family and reflects the pet owner’s culture or ideology; furthermore, the owners in this way felt to take care of the health of their pet . In a recent study considering relationship between children and household pets, the pet is considered as the child’s playmate from the 70.7% of the interviewed families .
At the same time also the clear provenience of pet food (4.2/5) was an important factor, as well as the information wrote on label and their clarity (4.2/5). Correlation analysis too revealed a linkage between these two aspects.
Another actual trend in pet food industries was the development of grain free products. In fact, consumers showed some concern about quality and nutritional value of cereals and their actual utility for pets as well as possible origin of allergies . However, from this preliminary survey, this characteristic seems not to be a major priority to the Italian consumer. The average score of this features was one of the lowest (3.3/5) as well as the presence of recyclable packaging (3.2/5) and the known brand (3.1/5). Higher price compared to other similar products (2.5/5) was the less important parameter to evaluate pet food quality according to Italian buyers. The reason could be linked to a decreasing confidence in famous large companies for a part of consumers.
Considering this results, it was highlighted a big responsibility for veterinarians in influencing the pet owners on pet food choice. In fact, around a quarter of consumers (25.5%) asked for advice in pet food choice to their veterinaries. Veterinarians should firstly be able to correctly evaluate pet food quality and should have a deep knowledge on animal nutrition. This topic should be part of their formation. At the same time, also pet food industry had a big role in provide the information to their buyer, in fact a third of consumers (30.4%) put their trust on details provided from brand websites. Pet food companies should rely on experts in the field to edit the information on their websites. This result confirmed the findings of previous study  in which veterinarians were the most common source of information about pet nutrition.
In another study conducted in North America , the attitudes of owners towards pet food were investigated and it was shown that an higher part of owners (15.8% of dog owners and 16.9% of cat owners) used Internet and other media as their primary sources of information.
“Cruelty free” is another aspect to take into consideration, even if there are still some concerns on its definition. It seemed to be perceived as highly important from the Italian consumer (4.0/5).The claim could be important also from a marketing point of view, being it an aspect focused from media and public opinion. However, nowadays it is not regulated by specific legislation. A possible perspective for Italian and European legislation could then be to improve the regulation on this topic.
Other concerns are linked with the clarity of the label that resulted as one of the most important factors for consumers (4.2/5). It is not easy to evaluate the quality of a pet food product only from the label and according to our knowledge, no studies evaluated what it is intended for label clarity from a consumer’s point of view; further work should be needed. However, it is a quite important point since Reg. (EC) No 767/2009 on the placing on the market and use of feed clearly states that the feed label shall not mislead the user, as also FEDIAF (European Pet Food Industry Federation) underline with the development of the Code of Good Labelling Practice .
There was a distinction in two big categories of owners considering the correlation analysis. Consumers that charge for a high score for pet preference seemed to pay attention also to the coat and stool appearance, putting the attention generally more directly on pet wellness. On the other hand, people interested in known brands seem to pay attention also to the price and exterior characteristic of the feeds (such as the appearance and the smell), more than directly to pet.
This study revealed also a difference on quality perceived considering the age of consumers. For example, elder consumers tended to not consider the presence of recyclable packaging, which was instead interesting for the younger ones, maybe index of a major awareness of environmental impact. Furthermore, for elder consumers the mayor importance was on the high price, without considering the label information; on the contrary, younger consumers were interested more on information written on the label. Also in the evaluation of quality perceived for human food was reported an influence of age . Educational level seemed to have an influence on pet food quality perception too and it was also reported in a study on human food habits that differences in educational level of mothers were linked to differences in eating habits of their children (i.e. consumption of soft drinks, sweets, fruit and vegetables) .
Considering the species of animal owned, it seemed that cat owners were more interested in how the pet food appeared externally. This could be linked to the fact that cats are notoriously fussy and owners know that a certain kind of feed can be eaten or not by their pet basing on its smell and appearance (i.e. texture). Dog owners, instead, focused more on the composition of the feed and in particular on the quantity of protein, maybe because of the new trend of considering the dog as a wolf. Also healthy stool appearance was important for them. In fact dog tend to have problem on stool consistency, especially large breeds . However, further information on the size of the dog should be necessary in order to understand if there was a correlation with attention to stool consistency.