When I feed my cat or my dog, the package tends to say "Dog Food" or "Cat Food."

In contrast, I give my chickens "chicken feed" or "poultry feed." Likewise, a cow's silage is her "feed."

Why does this distinction exist? Is there an historical or grammatical explanation, or is it merely idiom?


Germanic languages like English inherit a distinction between eating (of people) and eating (of animals). German has two verbs, essen and fressen, that make precisely this distinction. To say that Er frisst es instead of Er isst es 'He eats it' is an insult, implying he's eating like an animal.

English has lost the special verb, but has adapted the causative feed 'cause to eat, provide nourishment' to work with both senses, and its Zero-suffix nominalization feed to refer to food intended for animals. It appears in several fixed phrases: a Seed and Feed store sells food for animals plus seeds and gardening stuff; if you are off your feed then you have little appetite and are behaving like a sick animal; a good feed is a banquet where everyone eats too much.

And as The English Chicken has pointed out, pets are honorary humans and they get treated like humans in our language, with pronouns like he and she (never it), and this is just another reflection of that fact.

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    Und warum habe ich nicht daruber gedacht? Naturlich! Danke! – Affable Geek Jan 10 '12 at 16:28
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    The first paragraph, however interesting, is not directly related to the distinction between feed and food you described in your second paragraph. And although the honorary human status of pets may play a role in the distinction, it cannot be really proven, and it may just as well be that feed is a professional jargon, which is not in use in households. – Benjamin Jan 10 '12 at 17:34
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    Feed is called feed because you use it for feeding. – Joren Jan 10 '12 at 20:03
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    I think the answer is wrong. Pets do not have a special "honorary human" status. The reason pets are referred to by he/she rather than it because they generally have names. In English things with names are he/she, not it, like ships. – Andrew J. Brehm Jan 11 '12 at 8:18
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    One might as easily argue that the awarding of names and pronouns to pets is yet another mark of their anthropomorphological status. Which came first, the names or the need for names? – John Lawler Jan 11 '12 at 17:24

Generally, feed is what you give to animals, while food is for people. Pets like cats and dogs enjoy an elevated status as human companions, so their meals are also called food, unlike those of the more impersonal livestock on a farm (Hence chickens have to contend with feed ... sigh).

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    I'd have though tropical fish come even lower down the "pecking order" than chickens. Not that I keep either, so maybe I'm not qualified to pontificate. But written instances of tropical fish food massively outweigh "feed". – FumbleFingers Jan 10 '12 at 17:53
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    But fish are still pets, whereas chickens and cows are traditionally domesticated for their use on the farm. – Affable Geek Jan 10 '12 at 18:58
  • Grammar has a whole lot more to do with affective than with logical connections. Anybody can empathize with a cute mammal, but reptiles and fish, while pets, require more concentration and display fewer recognizable anthropomorphic traits. – John Lawler Jan 11 '12 at 3:37

Food is the older of the two words, with feed coming into use as food for cattle only in the sixteenth century. The OED’s definition of food is ‘Any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink’ (my emphasis) and, as The English Chicken has mentioned, we still speak of dog food and cat food. Conversely, feed can be that which is consumed by humans, if only colloquially. One OED citation has ‘The cook is French and feed delicious’ and, another, in a rather different sense, ‘Little boys . . . having a feed of ice-cream.’

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