Even though the survey was only administered in pet stores and trade fairs, thereby neglecting some pet food sectors (i.e. e-commerce, hypermarkets, supermarkets and discount stores), it was possible to highlight the main quality indicators Italian pet owners bear in mind when they choose their pet food. In this study, the pet owners were divided according to whether they owned a dog, a cat or both (39.4, 30.8, and 29.8%, respectively). These data corroborate the national report , a higher percentage of dog owners (27.1%) than cat owners (18.3%) have been found in Italian citizen. Of all respondents, 61.8% were women, confirming the trend revealed in a 2019 Italian study .
Our survey data reveal a higher incidence of pet stores as the “preferred shopping channel” (63.3%), but our data should only be considered as partial since the survey was conducted in pet stores and trade fairs. In 2019, Assalco-Zoomark  reported that the majority of pet food was bought in supermarkets (63.6% of all purchases, considering hypermarkets, supermarkets and discount stores), whereas little over a quarter was bought in pet stores (26.3%).
When assessing the quality of pet food, the Italian buyers in this study considered the presence of “natural” ingredients as the most important aspect (average score: 4.3). This may reflect the current trends also observed in relation to human nutrition, where demand is increasing for a more “natural” diet . Thus, pet food is becoming more “humanized”, and so follows human food preferences and purchasing habits. The feed types chosen for pets are likely to reflect the relationship that has developed between the person and their animals. It could even be considered as symbolic of the pet’s inclusion into the owner’s family and reflect the pet owner’s culture or ideology. In fact, a recent study that investigated the relationship between children and household pets, 70.7% of the interviewed families considered the family pet as the child’s playmate . Furthermore, some pet owners believe that choosing “natural” ingredients positively contributes to the health of their pets .
Other characteristics rated by the sample population as being important were: the location of the pet food production facilities (average score: 4.2), and the information provided on the label and its comprehension (average score: 4.2). The correlation analysis also revealed a link between these two aspects.
Another current trend in pet food marketing is the development of “grain free” products. According to Laflamme et al. , cereals in pet food may give rise to food adverse reactions. However, according to our survey, this characteristic was not deemed a major priority by the Italian pet owners interviewed. The average score of this feature was one of the lowest at 3.3. Other low-scoring characteristics were the presence of recyclable packaging (average score: 3.2) and the importance of a brand being well-known (average score: 3.1). According to Italian buyers, when considering a range of products (i.e. products with similar characteristics), a higher price (average score: 2.5) was the least important parameter.
Around a quarter of the interviewees (25.5%) asked their veterinarians for advice about the choice of pet food, suggesting the important role of veterinarians in the decision-making process of pet food purchasing. This result confirms the findings of a previous study  in which veterinarians were the most frequent source used to obtain information about pet nutrition. However, nearly a third of the interviewees (30.4%) reported to trust the details provided by pet food companies on their respective websites, suggesting that the pet food industry also plays an important role in the provision of information to consumers. In a study conducted in the United States and in Australia  on the attitudes of owners toward pet food, it was shown that a significant proportion of pet owners (15.8% of dog owners and 16.9% of cat owners) used the internet and other media as their primary sources of information.
The terminology “cruelty-free” is another aspect that should be taken into consideration, even though there are still some concerns about its definition. When talking about ingredients in cosmetic products, the United States Food and Drug Administration  considers “cruelty-free” products to infer that they have not been tested on animals. The tendency of pet owners to buy feeds that have not been tested on laboratory animals, commonly referred to as “cruelty-free” feed, is spreading in Italy. This aspect was perceived as being very important to the Italian interviewees (average score: 4.0). It is an aspect that the media and public opinions are focusing on; however, the term is not yet regulated by any specific legislation. Updating the legislation in reference to this topic therefore poses an important issue and could be a possible perspective for the Italian and European legislative bodies.
Other concerns revealed as important pertain to the comprehension of the label, shown to be one of the factors most important to the interviewees (average score: 4.2). However, it is important that the label should not mislead with regard to the feed’s use consumers, as clearly stated in Reg. (EC) No. 767/2009 on the placing of feed on the market and their use, as pointed out by FEDIAF (European Pet Food Industry Federation), which developed the Code of Good Labeling Practices . Although Reg. (EC) No. 767/2009, which addresses on placing feeds onto the market and their use within the European Community, already includes general requirements for labelling. It could be a further step forward if the general requirements for labelling would be implemented for specific aspects, especially claims.
A distinction between two large categories of pet owners emerged from the correlation analysis. Interviewees that placed great importance on pet palatability preferences also paid attention to the appearance of their animal’s coat and stools. On the other hand, the interviewees interested in well-known brands also reported to pay attention to the price and external characteristics of the feeds (such as its appearance and the smell).
This study also revealed differences in how pet food quality is perceived that depended on the age of the interviewees. For example, elderly people did not tend to consider the use of recyclable packaging as important, which was deemed important to young pet owners (< 35 y), which may reflect a greater level of awareness of environmental impacts in this age group. Furthermore, of all the items considered, elderly interviewees placed most importance on whether a product cost more than other products, whereas they paid least attention to label information; on the other hand, the young interviewees (< 35 y) were most interested in the information written on the label. According to Mascarello et al. , age also influences the evaluation of the perceived quality of human food. It was interesting that the elderly people in our study seemed to behave in the same way as those in the human study by Mascarello et al. , in which they place less importance on nutritional aspects and more importance on marketing aspects. In that study , it was found that elderly people were most interested in buying certified and local food products.
The present study also reveals the respondents’ educational level to be associated with which pet food traits they perceive as being the most important. Similarly, in a human study, it was also reported that differences in the educational level of mothers were linked to differences in the eating habits of their children (the consumption of soft drinks, sweets, fruit and vegetables) .
When the data were segmented according to pet species, it resulted that cat owners were more interested in the features characterizing the pet food’s external appearance. In fact, cats are notoriously fussy when it comes to what they will eat, and cat owners know that pet food palatability is strongly influenced by both the smell and appearance (i.e. texture), as well as feed taste. On the contrary, dog owners express more interest on the nutritional composition of the feed, mainly on the quantity of protein, perhaps because of the common opinion that a dog’s diet should reflect the dog’s evolution from the ancestral wolf. A healthy stool appearance scored high among dog owners. Indeed, stool consistency problems are common in dogs, especially large dogs . However, further information on the size of the respondents’ dogs would be necessary to understand whether a correlation existed between dog size and the importance attributed to stool consistency when purchasing dog food.