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Humanisation in the pet food industry

As more owners consider their small companions as to be their direct equals and impose their own lifestyles and preferences onto them, this change in ideology has trickled into the pet trade and led to a ‘humanisation’ process of the manufacturing industry. Pet owners now aim to give them a healthier lifestyle concurrent to the way society is seeing humans strive to better their own. Pet humanisation has even been attributed to the rapid growth of the pet ingredients market; a recent report by revenue intelligence company MarketsandMarkets suggested that the value of the market would increase from $34.96bn (£26.9bn) to $45.44bn (£33.3bn) by 2023.

Wellbeing seems to be a massive trigger for the change; as pet milk manufacturer, Top Life Formula, says: “As it is in human food, health considerations are of growing importance for pet owners when it comes to choosing pet care.”

Variety

Nowadays pet parents want their companions to have the same variety in life that they do. Whether that be low-fat treats to counteract the rising issue of pet obesity or gluten-free, mono-component and vegan options to reflect the owner’s own eating habits, recent years has seen an expansion in the kinds of food available on the market.

With variety comes personalisation and pet owners can now be more selective. Brands such as Tails.com and Butternut Box are making individualised menus for pets, giving the option to change aspects of the recipe if needed. Pet owners no longer have to brand hop, because now, manufacturers are willing to make recipes catered to a pet’s preferences and health concerns – similar to what a human may be offered in a restaurant or a supermarket.

Diets

There has been an increase in owners of pets adopting diets for their small companions based on what they themselves will or won’t eat. Raw diets, vegan and vegetarian options have taken off in recent years – as divisive as some of them they may be. Those who choose not to eat meat have impacted the pet food market so much that it has responded with meat-free foods for all pets including cats who are carnivores by nature.

Aneisha Soobroyen, co-founder of pet food brand Scrumbles and a vegetarian refuses to extend her own beliefs onto her pets thus depriving them of the essential amino acids they need. However multiple manufacturers have preempted this concern with options which are fortified with arachidonic acid – already available as a supplement, and taurine – which is already re-added to meat-based pet foods. While this is an attempt to cater to pet parents who don’t want to contribute to the meat industry at all, giving cats vegan diets is dissuaded by veterinary professionals. However, the BVA suggests that dogs, in theory, can be fed vegetarian diets but this process will need to be done with the consultation of a vet.

Human diets and health trends has made an impact on the way owners feed pets outside of the omission of meat or going for organic or low fat. In a bid to simplify things and exclude anything unnatural that may be detrimental to health, pet parents are steering towards straightforward diets. Guy Blaskey, founder and director of dog food, treat and supplement brand Pooch & Mutt, says: “I think that the growth in ‘ancestral’ diets and raw feeding is also part of this trend. It clearly mirrors the growth in diets like paleo diets.”

There is also a shift towards human grade foods for pets – so much so that Freshpet recently released an ad campaign where they tricked adults and children into eating dog food to prove how good the product was. While this advert was controversial, raised health concerns and received backlash, the overall message was: consumers don’t want to give their pets something of a standard that they themselves would not accept. However Soobrayen disagrees that consumers should adopt an oversimplified attitude of ‘if it’s good enough for me, it’ll be good enough for my pet’. She says: “Automatically assuming that a food that is ‘good’ for humans is appropriate for your pet could be dangerous – for example plant based diets.”

In addition, people are beginning to take more notice of allergies and intolerances. Data from dog nutrition service Tails.com saw a 75 percent increase in the demand for hypoallergenic food blends for dog food since 2016. Pointing out that an estimated 8.5 million people in the UK are now gluten-free, the company questioned whether such dogs actually had intolerances or if their diets were mimicking their owners.

Health

Health fears mean that humans want to know what’s in their food and understand what they are reading when they look at the ingredients list. As people become more aware of the effects that certain foods and ingredients have on their own bodies, so have they become concerned about the same for their pets. Soobrayen insists that this scepticism towards ingredients is part of the reason why she decided to set her own company up with her husband Jack. Insisting that their company offers “transparency and accessibility” she says that “ingredient avoidance is well established in both human and pet food,” and adds that she believes “this will develop further.”

Henrietta Morrison, CEO and founder of Lily’s Kitchen, echoes these sentiments, saying: “We are becoming a nation of foodies and more aware of nutrition and the impact it has on our wellbeing. Pets are family and we want to do the very best for them.” In the same vein, Bluskey simply describes Pooch & Mutt as a “health food company, whose products happen to be consumed by dogs,” undoubtedly tapping into such trends. At the very least, these concerns have signified a desire for full disclosure in the pet food sector.

Distrust

Amid horse meat scandals, hidden fat, sugar and salt content, humans have been distrustful of major food corporations for a long time. In the same way, there is a growing distrust towards major pet food manufacturers. “Customers are increasingly aware of the junk that large companies put in their product to increase profitability. $18bn (£13.6bn) shifted from large to small companies between 2009 and 2014. People’s distrust of big brands is growing,” Bluskey says: “People want what we call ‘junk-free’ products for themselves and they want their pet’s products to match their own. This is clearly demonstrated by the declining market share of brands like Bakers, Pedigree and Butchers.”

Special occasions

Where there is a special event there is a special meal, and it’s not only people who like to treat themselves. Pet owners admitted to spending over £750m on their small companions over Christmas while £210m was spent this Valentine’s Day; the act of spoiling pets with food has become more prevalent and it goes beyond giving them a doggy biscuit. Pawsecco and pet-friendly cupcakes are now as commonplace as chews and catnip. According to the 2015 PAW report, 40 percent of pet owners give their pet a special meal for occasions (25 percent for birthdays and 62 percent for Christmas) so it makes sense that the industry is attempting to feed into this segment of the market. Lily’s Kitchen, for example, makes a Birthday Surprise box for dogs including a steak dinner, cheese and apple treats and a birthday card and it also makes a range of advent calendars for pets each Christmas.

Premium and homecooked food

Just as many health-conscious people would want for themselves, pet owners do not wish to give their pets mass-made foods which contain low quality or cheap filler ingredients. With owners already spending so much, price is not a concern as many are willing to pay for the best quality. Top Life Formula says: “The key trend of humanisation has also paved the way for premiumisation across the category, with consumers choosing more premium, luxury pet foods as a result of people wanting to give their pets something special to eat as often as they can, however not at the expense of their pet’s health.”

For some, homecooked foods are a better option as similarly to human food, it is assumed that it will not contain the ‘nasties’ that processed foods tend to. Creating homecooked meals is generally easier for independent and smaller companies as some have no access to huge operations and are therefore restricted to domestic kitchens anyway. As well as homecooking embodying a healthy lifestyle, it conveys a process filled with care and love. In fact, many health aware pet owners wish they could cook their pets’ meals themselves – if they don’t already do so – so smaller manufacturers offering this option alleviates the chore for the increasingly busy modern day person.

So far, this humanisation of the pet food sector has led to a clear revision of the way things are done in the industry. Whether that is the consumer shift from major brands to smaller independents due to their malleability thus levelling out the playing field or a mass change in the way all brands produce food, this so-called trend or lifestyle change is having a very definite and very permanent effect on the manufacturing side of the trade and shows no signs of stopping.


This feature appeared in the August 2018 issue of Pet Gazette

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