Dogged Allegations: Small Pet Food Makers Accuse Big Name Brand of Scaring Dog Owners Off Their Products

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Small Pet Food Makers Take a Bite Out of False Marketing Claims Against Colgate-Palmolive’s Hill’s Pet Nutrition

If you’ve heard through the grapevine that grain-free pet food made by small companies could be bad for your pet, you could be a victim of an alleged conspiracy to thwart sales of independent pet food brands — or at least that’s what a new class action lawsuit is arguing. 

Colgate-Palmolive’s Hill’s Pet Nutrition brand is being challenged in court for allegedly releasing false health information linking “boutique, exotic, and grain-free” pet foods to a deadly heart disease in dogs called dilated cardiomyopathy, as well conspiring with veterinarians to damage the sales of smaller independent brands, all while lining their own pockets.

The meat of the case

Salt Lake City-based independent pet food manufacturer KetoNatural has filed a new proposed class action lawsuit in Kansas federal court accusing Hill’s Pet Nutrition and veterinarians of false advertising and conspiracy under federal law. 

In the complaint, KetoNatural says the company and veterinarians undertook a “egregious, wide-ranging, and damaging campaign of coordinated, for-profit, faux-scientific misinformation” against small independent pet food brands to recover from dwindling profits. 

KetoNatural argues one of the most damaging parts of the alleged scheme, which it says is still ongoing today, was the resulting Food and Drug Administration investigation into links between grain-free diets and DCM. “More than five years on, the FDA’s investigation has still found no evidence that ‘non-traditional’ dog foods play any role whatsoever in causing or exacerbating canine DCM,” the proposed class action lawsuit argues.

Warning barks: customers take note amid FDA investigation

For pet owners focused on giving their dog a healthy and risk free diet, the FDA investigation was bound to raise red flags. KetoNatural says in the lawsuit that during the investigation’s first 12 months, there was an immediate and steep decline in the demand for “non-traditional” dog foods. That decline is something KetoNatural cites in the proposed class action lawsuit, saying it has “reams of evidence” about customers dropping the brand after the investigation was launched. 

The company argues that in fact its dog food is much safer than products sold by Hill’s, going so far as to allege “at the very same time that Hill’s was promoting the bogus idea that ‘BEG’ diets were poisoning millions of dogs, its own products really were poisoning untold numbers of dogs” due to toxic and often fatal levels of vitamin D. Some Hill’s dog foods have been the subject of FDA recalls for high levels of vitamin D.

Comparing kibbles: grain-free vs. traditional dog foods

Grain-free diets for dogs gained popularity in the 2000s, often as owners looked for more natural options for their pets or for ingredients that don’t trigger allergies. Grain-free typically means the dog food doesn’t include corn, wheat, and soy, which have been linked to itching, skin irritation, and stomach issues. They often include alternative carbohydrates such as peas, lentils, or potatoes. The exotic part of BEG is often seen in the protein sauce, which wouldn’t be out of place in a fine foods store for humans, with ingredients including venison, kangaroo, and bison.

Traditional dog foods, like Hill’s, Pedigree, Royal Canin, and Purina, typically include grains and more ordinary protein sources like lamb, beef, and chicken, and are more likely to be sold at supermarkets, large grocery stores, and chain pet stores.

Legal growls: KetoNatural seeks class action status and damages

KetoNatural wants to get class action status for the lawsuit and represent several hundred companies that have a combined annual revenue of more than $10 billion. They are suing over violations of the Lanham Act and for civil conspiracy, and asking for damages of $2.6 billion or more.  

Reuters reports that Hill’s is facing a separate consumer class action lawsuit in U.S. federal court in Chicago, where customers allege deceptive practices over pet food marketing and sales. Hill’s denies all claims.

As for pet owners, getting to the bottom of the grainy accusations is difficult so it's always best to talk to your veterinarian and do some quick research on dog foods before stocking you for your four legged friend. The FDA recommends checking out the Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory webpage for more information. 

The Hill’s Pet Nutrition false advertising class action lawsuit is Ketonatural Pet Foods, Inc., et al v. Hill’s Pet Nutrition et al, Case No. 2:24-cv-02046 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas.

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