Survey finds a need for client awareness of dietary copper in pet food

dvm360dvm360 April 2024
Volume 55
Issue 4
Pages: 26

Results of an investigation show many dog and cat owners have minimal knowledge of this dietary mineral, which may lead to negative bias

Photo: kozorog/Adobe Stock

Photo: kozorog/Adobe Stock

Editor's Note: The authors are affiliated with Hill's Pet Nutrition.

Copper is an essential nutrient for dogs and cats and is involved in a variety of different biological functions. To prevent copper deficiencies in diets for dogs and cats, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) recommends a copper minimum, but not a maximum concentration in pet foods.1 In turn, concerns have been raised about the potential for copper toxicity in dogs and cats.2

AAFCO convened a panel of nutrition experts who investigated the matter and found insufficient evidence to suggest a maximum. However, an option was proposed to consider establishing a standard for low or controlled copper diets.2

In response to the AAFCO proposed regulation, a survey was conducted by the authors of this article to investigate pet owner awareness of dietary copper in pet food, and the impact that a “low, moderate, or controlled copper” claim would have on their purchase intent.

To understand the impact of pet food claims to pet food purchasers and its impact to veterinary medicine, the authors of this article investigated pet owner awareness of dietary copper in pet food and the impact that a “low, moderate, or controlled copper” claim would have on their purchase intent through a recent survey. Sponsored by Hill’s Pet Nutrition, the survey used a blinded third party research platform.

Methodology and participant data

Across the United States, 2877 pet owners were invited to join an internet community panel. Panel enrollment qualifications required individuals to be aged 18 years or older and own a dog or cat. Of all the pet owners in the panel, there is a relatively even split between male and female with the majority between the ages of 25 and 54 years. Also, 48% of panel members reside in the Southern region while the rest are divided between the West, Midwest, and Northeast regions of the US. Members of the panel live in suburban (42%), urban (32%), and rural (26%) areas. More than half of pet owners in the panel have one dog and/or one cat in their household. Of the total participants invited to participate in the online activity, 252 dog and cat owners completed the survey.

Scope of Survey Questions

Participants were asked about their familiarity with copper and why it is added to pet food. Then, they were asked what certain claims about copper meant and how it would impact their pet food purchasing behaviors. Noteworthy questions and responses are as follows:

Knowledge of the role of dietary copper in a pet’s food

A majority of respondents (78%) stated they have very little (n=47) or no (n=149) knowledge about the role of dietary copper in pet food (Figure 1). Although most pet owners (94%) do not disagree that dietary copper is an essential nutrient and necessary in pet food, many respondents indicated they do not strongly understand that copper is an essential nutrient that should be a part of a balanced diet. The majority of respondents selected a ‘somewhat’ or ‘neutral’ feeling towards copper’s inclusion in a complete and balanced diet.

Knowledge of dietary copper

All images are courtesy of Hill's Pet Nutrition.

The role of dietary copper in purchasing decisions

Pet food purchasing decisions

Of those surveyed, 51% of pet owners reported being “uncertain” about a “low, moderate, or controlled copper” statement on packaging. However, 47% of these individuals indicated their purchasing decisions may be impacted by a “low, moderate, or controlled copper” statement. Only 19% of these pet owners would be strongly influenced in their purchasing decisions by the same statement. Essentially, a majority of purchasers (66%) would make feeding decisions based on a negative claim they do not understand (Figure 2).

Pet owners were also asked if they would buy a pet food that has one of these statements: “Low copper”, “Moderate copper”, or “Controlled copper.” Based on their individual response, a follow-up question asked why they would or would not purchase a pet food containing copper.

Respondents that desired to purchase a controlled copper food (22%) stated various reasons for this including safety and health purposes, quality concerns, nutritional awareness, and general beliefs (Table 1). Conversely, the owners that reported they would not buy a controlled copper food (13%) said that they are unfamiliar with this topic and have the desire for more knowledge.

Reasons about dietary copper

Perception of benefit or disadvantage of copper levels

Survey participants were also asked if the terms “low copper”, “moderate copper”, or “controlled copper” make them think there is an advantage or disadvantage compared to a food with normal copper levels, and whether they would avoid a pet food that does not have a “low, moderate, or controlled copper” statement. Of the respondents, 28% said they felt there are benefits to a controlled copper food, and 57% were unsure if there is an advantage or disadvantage, while 22% indicated they would avoid purchasing pet food that does not have a “low, moderate, or controlled copper” statement.

These statements demonstrate ambiguity in understanding of the role of copper in pet food. However, the statements also show polarized feelings about how these claims would drive purchasers towards and against a product with these claims.


Overall, these results indicate that pet owners are largely influenced by nutrition claims on pet foods, even when they are unfamiliar with a particular nutrient. These insights suggest that certain claims prompt dog and cat owners to desire additional education around the role of dietary copper, and potentially other nutrients, in pet food and raise concerns with the role of claims and negative nutrition bias.

Additionally, these results support American Veterinary Medical Association’s position to not support claims pertaining to copper on an over-the-counter diet, and the decision to feed a reduced copper or other component-adjusted diet should be made in consultation with a veterinarian.3 Further investigation is needed to understand if, and to what degree, owners choose these product marketing claims to make purchasing decisions, self-diagnose their pets, or attempt to treat dogs with known liver diseases.

Author Leslie Hancock, DVM is chief medical officer for Hill's Pet Nutrition in Topeka, Kansas.

Author Laura A. Motsinger, PhD, is senior scientist-global clinical nutrition and claims for Hill's.

Author Madison D. Amundson, BS, is an associate scientist for Hill's.


  1. Feed control officials reassert copper concentration guidelines. dvm360. April 18, 2023. Accessed March 13, 2024.
  2. Center SA, Richter KP, Twedt DC, Wakshlag JJ, Watson PJ, Webster CRL. Is it time to reconsider current guidelines for copper content in commercial dog foods? J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2021;258(4):357-364. doi:10.2460/javma.258.4.357
  3. Copper in Dog Foods Expert Panel: Final Report with Recommendations to the Pet Food Committee. Association of Animal Feed Control. 2022. Accessed March 13, 2024.
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