A character is so down-on-his-luck, so pathetic, so damn broke that he's reduced to actually eating dog food. Bonus loser points if it isn't even good dog food.
Sadly, this is Truth in Television. Depending on what area you live in and what standards you hold, pet food may or may not be more expensive than human food. Pet food is almost universally available in bulk while you usually have to go to a specialty store for human food. However, if you have a Sam's Club or whatever near you, chances are you can buy the same amount per ounce of soup or Ramen Noodles as you could buy pet food, especially in a jurisdiction that puts sales tax on pet food but not human food. Then, of course, there are the quality issues. Since pet food is not held to near the same FDA standards as human food, it costs a fraction to produce it and they can get away with a lot of mostly unhealthy filler. Despite this, they still set a larger profit margin than human food. Anyway, your mileage may vary since prices are hardly uniform across all areas, but as far as widely available bulk food goes, pet food does have the advantage there.
Note that there still are some FDA standards for pet food specifically because it was known that human beings do eat pet food sometimes due to cost issues. Actually, before the manufacturers got the idea of pulling out even the marginal meat and selling it, pet food used to have considerably more nutritional value than it does now.
The inverse of Improbable Food Budget, and tends to pop up in a Broke Episode. A form of I Ate What?. Also, because they're eaten with relish, Scooby Snacks don't count. Characters even more poor and desperate than this may be Reduced to Ratburgers instead.
This trope can also pop up in grittier works set After the End, as showing a desperate hero chowing down on dog food is definitely one way to illustrate what a Crapsack World it would be with civilization gone.
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Anime and Manga
An episode of Cowboy Bebop showed Faye eating dog food while trying to ignore the looks she was getting from Ein (a dog).
Cowboy Bebop loves this trope. At other times, Faye gets sick from eating expired emergency rations ("only for the most dire of situations"!), and Ed tries to eat frozen, mercury-contaminated fish that Jet had stored as evidence.
Pokémon's Team Rocket (specifically Meowth) were reduced to this level ever since James bought Magikarp... yet they still have enough money for mechas.
It's implied that it's because of the mechas that they're constantly reduced to this level - that and the fact that they keep wrecking the mechas. If they could just go with something less flashy, they'd probably have enough money left over to eat decently most of the time. Also, we occasionally see Ash and co. eating like this, too (or without food at all) due to being wandering trainers - and thus having no regular source of income.
Nasubi of Denpa Shonen (during a challenge where his is allowed only to survive on things he wins in write-in contests) is forced to subside on dog food that he has won for a couple of weeks.
Train and Sven from Black Cat get to this point many times, relying on the waitress' kindness of giving them bread crusts.
Taikoubou from Houshin Engi gets so hungry to the point where he's willing to gorge on GRASS. He gets a stomach ache from this.
Michiru and Chika from Zombie Loan are almost constantly on a diet of expired boxed lunches, bread crusts and the occasional can of hard tack (Shito rarely demeans himself like this). Even though it's not always taken seriously, it doesn't change the fact that both are always starving - and homeless quite often - due to their astronomical debt from Z-Loan.
Although it's never shown, it's subtly hinted that Inuyasha may eat dog food. Makes sense since he's half dog-demon.
Y: The Last Man uses this more seriously than in most examples, for obviousreasons—when there's no more food to loot from a particular supermarket, there's still pet food.
Marvel Zombies 3 has zombies bring tributes of pet food to the Kingpin in exchange for spending a few minutes in feeding pens, outfitted by the Jackal with pods that grow human clones.
Startoons (a collection of Star Wars parody comics) had a panel where Han is at the dinner table, munching on a bowl of something and commenting to Chewbacca that it was pretty good stuff. Chewy is holding a 50 pound bag labelled "Burina Humanoid Chow"
The homeless killer from Open House is shown eating cans of dog food.
The Love Bug (the first one) has Jim Douglas rooting through the cabinets looking for something to eat. He wonders why they have birdfood when they don't even own a bird. He ends up eating pressed kelp. To his credit it apparently doesn't taste THAT bad...
In Mad Max II: The Road Warrior, Max shares a can of dog food with his dog while the captive gyrocopter pilot looks on hungrily.
In one of the later Lethal Weapons, Riggs becomes addicted to dog biscuits.
Lethal Weapon 4. Rigg is sitting with his girlfriend and their dog. His girlfriend goes "Here boy!" and tosses a biscuit which Riggs chomps out of mid-air like a dog.
In the first (Dutch) Flodder movie, the mother gives the dog some food... and then eats a bit from the can herself. (Understandable if you see the food she's usually cooking which manages to look even more disgusting, but still.)
Occurs in District 9 where the partially transformed Wikus eats a can of cat food because it's one of the only things he can get inside the alien ghetto. In this movie, cat food is considered a drug for the alien "Prawns".
If you can stand to sit through enough of Showgirls there's a scene where Crystal and Nomi discuss poverty and compare tastes in kibble.
Within Disney's Son of Flubber, the sequel to The Absent-Minded Professor, the eponymous professor is reduced to poverty and considers a can of dog food until his dog whines piteously and receives the food instead.
In Problem Child 2, Debbie Claukinski's ex-husband Voytek is in his rathole apartment eating Chow Down when Junior calls. Chow Down, which comes in Beef, Chicken, and Horse and made Nippy take a dump three times his size.
George Newman: Uh-oh. Bobbo fall down go boom. Aw, what's the matter, Bobbo? I know! You're hungry! Have I got just the thing for you! Yes sir, clowns AND kids just can't resist the mouth-watering, lip-smacking taste of Mrs. Hackenberger's Butter Cookies! [He proceeds to stuff Bobbo's face with "cookies," which are actually dog biscuits; George has picked up the wrong box!] George Newman: Right, Bobbo? That's right! And guess what, Mom? THEY'RE NUTRITIOUS, TOO! Just look at how much Bobbo here likes 'em! Mmmm, THAT'S GOOD! And don't forget, there's a nifty surprise inside every box of Mrs. Hackenberger's... [notices his mistake for the first time] George Newman: ... Oooops! Heh Heh, it looks like Bobbo's been eating YAPPY'S DOG TREATS! [a look of horror crosses Bobbo's face, and he runs off to the "little clowns' room."] George Newman: That's right, Yappy's Dog Treats! Your dog will love that real liver-and-tuna taste... [We hear Bobbo vomiting] George Newman: ... With just a hint of cheese!
In The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald, the author recalls that, during her childhood, she knew children who ate dog biscuits.
In The Unadulterated Cat by Terry Pratchett, the author recalls doing so himself.
Whatever happened to those dog biscuits? They were real dog biscuits, not the anaemic things you get in boxes today; they were red and green and black and came in various interesting shapes. The black ones tasted of charcoal.
Used as a form of Ironic Hell in the Philip K. Dick short story "The Alien Mind", where some animal-loving aliens discover that a visiting Earth astronaut has killed the cat sent along with him on the mission. The aliens steal all his food, leaving him with nothing but sacks of dry cat kibble to eat for his two-year return trip to Earth. Just to twist the knife, they're all the same flavor.
In both the book and the movie of Running With Scissors, the main character sees his mother eat dried dog food out of curiosity. She admits to him that it's not bad.
In the book, it's not his mother who eats it, but Agnes, Dr. Finch's wife.
Likewise, in The Worst Best School Year Ever, the narrator mentions that for a while her little brother had a particular fondness for a certain brand of puppy treats.
Early in Aunt Dimity's Death, Lori is mortified and angry that Bill took it upon himself to buy her a new wardrobe without consulting her. As part of her rant, she invokes this trope:
"But you wouldn't know about that. You have servants. Well, let me fill you in. The grocery is the place where you go when you have enough money to buy maybe three cans of soup, right? It's the place where the express register is always just closing when you get there, so you and your tomato soup wind up in the regular checkout line, where you're invariable stuck behind the illiterate lady with the coupons for the things that are almost the same as the things she has in her cart. And you have to stand there juggling soup can while she argues every pounce, ounce, liter, and gram, and you don't want to be rude, because she has blue hair and she's probably living on dog food, but you also want to scream, because you'd think that just once she could manage to bring a coupon for the right brand of dog food. Heaven knows it's important to wear the proper dress for moments like that. That blue silk number in the back should be just right."
The prodigal son from one of Jesus' parables in The Bible was reduced to eating pig scraps after blowing all his money.
Logan Mountstuart, of Any Human Heart, calls his retirement "The Dog Food Years".
Sally: At a back-aisle, I found these unbelievable savings... tuna, liver and new seafood blend for you finicky types. Tommy: Wait, you're feeding us cat? Sally: It's not cat, Tommy, it's salmon. There's just a picture of a cat on the label.
Lister: And you can take that look off your face: like I'm doing something disgusting. I'm just trying to stay alive. Rimmer: You're going to eat the dog food. Lister: I haven't eaten for six days. Yes, I'm going to eat the dog food. Rimmer: I'm sure the dog food will be lovely. Lister: This isn't dog food. It's a piece of prime fillet steak in blue cheese sauce. It's been charcoal broiled in garlic butter, and it's going to taste delicious. Delicious. Delicious. (He pops it into his mouth and swallows it.) Lister: ...Now I know why dogs lick their testicles. It's to take away the taste of their food.
According to the DVD commentary, that really was dog food. The "Smeg-Ups" special, however, claims it was actualy cat food.
In a Good Times episode, the Evans family has dinner with a nice old lady whom they know eats dog food for economy purposes. This creates a comically awkward moment when she brings a meatloaf for the occasion, which they naturally assume it's dog food. As a result, the Evans frantically pass the dish around on the slightest excuses, desperate to avoid eating it. In the end, she calls them on it, admitting that while she does do so herself, she would never bring such an item to dinner with friends.
JJ: (saying grace) The Lord is my German shepherd...
An episode of Night Court had Harry trying to figure out who to give a lot of money he'd accidentally come into to; the entire episode was a parade of people with more or less blatantly made up sob stories, including an old woman up before him for shoplifting catfood to eat. When Harry asked why she didn't shoplift 'real' food, she started to say 'Catfood was more...' and trailed off. Harry finished '...pathetic. Next case!'
Which is a call out to a PSA for a New York food pantry which showed an elderly woman buying nothing but cat food at the grocery with the caption "This woman has no cat" appearing on the bottom of the page.
In one episode of The Colbert Report, Colbert mocked Americans who couldn't tell dog food from pâté. According to a recent study, 83% of participants mistook the low-grade animal food for the French delicacy, prompting Colbert to blame high-fructose corn syrup. He went on to say that when he wants pâté, he only chooses the fanciest of feasts. He then proceeded to whip out a can of Fancy Feast cat food and eat it. 
In an early episode of The Greatest American Hero, the only thing to eat in Ralph's apartment was a half-empty box of dog biscuits , which Bill the FBI agent tucked into with a shrug. He developed a taste for the things that became a Running Gag for the rest of the series.
On The (AFL) Footy Show had Sam Newman eating of Whiska's cat food from a can, washed down with a glass of Jack Daniels. Mmm, delicious
On an episode of Speeders, a cop pulled over a guy snacking on dog biscuits. The driver said that he had the munchies and he was offered these. He said it taste like chicken.
The Bundys of Married... with Children had eaten Buck's dog food a few times. In fact, in one episode, Al had eaten so much dog food that he started acting like a dog.
In It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Charlie and Frank scarf down cat food and huff paint so they can pass out at night and aren't woken by the hundreds of cats yowling outside their window. Dee points out that there might not be so many cats if Charlie didn't leave half-eaten cans of cat food around. Charlie counters that the cats are more interested in the thousands of rats that also plague the area. He's not stupid!
In an episode of Will and Grace, Grace comes in and eats dog food, and actually said it was pretty damn good. However, Will, who is absolutely in love with his boyfriend's dog (more so than the boyfriend himself) is actually cooking the dogs food like a gourmet meal. He was seen putting hot sauce on it, so it's possible she couldn't even actually taste it.
Five Iron Frenzy had a song named "Dog Food" about eating exactly that. In this case, however, it was about a character who liked the taste of dog food and ate it willingly.
"Loser eats dog food", while certainly one of the more unusual match stipulations, wasn't entirely unheard of in years past.
Shadowrun has with kibble being really cheap yeast based food products. Although it doesn't taste like it necessarily.
As does Cyberpunk 2020. Kibble is listed under "groceries" and described as tending to "look, smell and taste like the dry pet food it takes its name from". Then again, a week of fresh food costs almost as much as a scooter, so...
George: You should, they're good. [munching] Umf, I cahugn gued enuff uff thees thinns!
One puzzle requires you to give the dog biscuits to a shaman as a gift. He eats them all.
More of a dig at military food, but there's one strip in Air Force Blues where Coffman's food budget is running low, so he eats Alpo, even though the food at the base mess hall is free.
Subverted in one strip of Nedroid, Reginald wins $20 and is excited at the prospect of not having to eat dog food anymore, but ends up deciding to buy it anyway because it tastes good.
Happens on The Simpsons with a twist - they were just trying to save money. And it wasn't dog food, but something else even more absurd - Canned Plankton bought at the '33 cents store'. Plankton that expired two years before according to the Mexican Council of Food, and gave people "red tide poisoning". Their money-saving adviser steals the scraps from their backyard, calling them fat-cats for wasting it.
In “Holidays of Future Past”, Maggie travels on a dilapidated, crowded airplane where the passengers are offered dog food and suicide pills.
When Gil Gunderson got involved in a car accident, he was happy at the notion of, with help from insurance money, eating food. He didn't even mind being on fire.
In The PJs, Thurgood sees Mrs. Avery eating dog food and thinks she can't afford to eat... more so than the other people in the projects, I mean. It turns out she could, but she had a lifetime supply of dog food from winning on a game show and didn't know what else to do with it. She ends up taking in a dog to whom she names Lucky (after she shot at him twice and missed), because she can feed it for free.
Futurama has Bachelor Chow, a dog food like product that you put in a bowl, fill with water, and eat like cereal.
"Now with flavor!"
Also played straight in a single line from Victor the car salesman after selling Amy an expensive car (which she bought for more than the sticker price).
Victor:No dog food for Victor tonight!
Shaggy Rogers, probably. It's never actually explained if Scooby Snacks are dog treats or human snacks, but the former seems most likely.
SpongeBob SquarePants is apparently the first and only citizen of his entire town to deliberately eat snail food. It wasn't because he was starving, but rather because he's weird.
Later, Squidward does this when he's locked upstairs at Spongebob's house and realizes he doesn't have anything to eat besides whatever's in a brown paper bag on the floor. It's snail food.
Happens again to Spongebob in another earlier episode, where the accidental injection of snail plasma from a vet causes him to eat all the snail food he prepared for Gary because he suddenly found it delicious.
Chester on Fairly OddParents has been known to eat cat food due to being poor, however he seems to enjoy it. When Mr Turner quit his job in one episode, Timmy was fed shoes - but don't worry, when they opened up a Bed and Breakfast and earned some money, Mrs Turner happily exclaimed that they could now get much more expensive shoes to eat.
In an episode of Rugrats Tommy wants desperately to eat some of the dog food laid out for his dog Spike. His grandfather stops him, and then says, "Hmm...I see your point..." upon looking at a bowl of strained carrots. Thus Tommy goes on a mission to get some dog food.
In another episode, Angelica's desperation for cookies forces the babies to use the box of biscuits in Spike's dog food bowl. Prior to the discovery, Angelica thought they were not half bad. Later, the babies wondered if they could partake the rest of the biscuits themselves, however Spike already ate them all.
Family Guy had an episode where Meg passes herself as a single mother to obtain a job at a pancake restaurant. She made up a sob story about eating dog food to obtain tips from patrons who pitied her.
Tiny Toon Adventures had an episode that parodied Citizen Kane. In that episode, it was revealed Buster and Max used to be poor and friends. They were about to eat an old shoe when Max's parents showed up in a limousine and told him they won the lottery. They gave him new shoes with the implication they'd eat them.
In The Smurfs episode "The Horn Of Plenty", Gargamel tries to eat Azrael's cat food when there's hardly any food left in his house.
Subverted in Bee and Puppycat, Bee got Puppycat some presents for him, among them are dog and cat food. When Bee's stomach growls and she realizes she has no money to buy food, Puppycat guards his food but she ensure him that she won't eat his food.
Dog food isn't actually that bad. It's made of all the meat they won't put in sausages.
They also pump it full of anti-bacterials so most dog food is, at a minimum, not dangerous to eat.
Dry dog kibble been recommended as a good emergency food to stash in your car; it stores well, is nutritious, and you won't be tempted to eat it until it's really an emergency. Not to mention the fact that, much like sand or kitty litter (something else you're recommended to keep in your trunk,) it can be poured under the tires to give traction in the event you're stuck in mud, snow etc.
Professional pet food tasters exist. One made the talk show circuit in the The Nineties and had a People magazine story written about him. He claimed that most people would not be able to distinguish between expensive cat food and pate.
Most people can't tell the difference between dog food and cheap, cold beef stew through. A little label swap and the humiliation is acomplished rather more easily.
This man decided to find out how well he could live on nothing but monkey chow.
Horse treats taste pretty good, though they often cost more than normal candy. They taste remarkably similar to energy bars marketed towards runners. For some brands, the horse treats taste better.
Every dog owner has at least wondered what Fido's biscuits really taste like. Very dry and bland, mostly.
Just about every child that has lived in a house with a dog in it has eaten a dog biscuit at some point in time. Some mothers even give them to teething children to chew on, because it helps with the pain of tooth eruption and can help remove some of the gum, letting the teeth break through more easily. This doesn't hurt the child, as there's nothing particularly dangerous to humans (even young ones) in the dog biscuits themselves.
Not only does it not hurt the child but it even may be a better choice than human snacks, which too often are laden with salt (which a young child's kidney function is not developed enough to cope with).
The sunflower seeds that come in small animal food mix are perfectly edible and tasty, although smaller and more tedious to shell than the ones sold as human snack food.
A woman quit smoking by eating a dog biscuit every time she had a cigarette craving.
The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform has been referred to as the "cat food commission" by progressive critics (to the tune of 336,000 Google hits as of 2/8/11) who believe too many cuts have already been taken from the social safety net.
A common argument by supporters of the Clinton healthcare plan of 1993 ("Hillarycare" to its' detractors) was that healthcare was so expensive that poor people (and especially senior citizens) could not afford to buy both food and prescription medication, and were forced to survive on pet food.
The liberal blog Firedoglake derisively refers to President Obama's deficit commission as "The Catfood Commission".
There were discussions in Swedish media a few years back, where it was claimed that the Swedish state pension was so low that some senior citizens who didn't have any savings of their own had to resort to eating cat food.
Nowadays, although the food itself is supposed to appeal to pets, the advertising is supposed to appeal to humans (since they're trying to convince them to buy it for their pets.) Because of this, pet food is made and advertised as though it were supposed to be for humans. Dog food is now sold with names such as "Hearty Chunks" and "Meaty Slices" and looks like it's a couple of servings of vegetables away from beef stew. Cat food, on the other hand, has strangely gone "upmarket," and is served to the cat on crystal dishes that make it look like high-end pate.
Subverted with the pet food sold in Mexico: Depending of the brand and when did you buy the food, while many of the pet food sold there is safe for pets, on the other hand that food could be dangerous to eat for humans or normally it could taste really bad. This is justified, as that food is never intended for human comsuption anyways.