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Natural Awakenings San Diego

Pet-Pleasing Food Trends: What Dogs and Cats Will Eat This Year

Dec 30, 2021 06:30AM ● By Ronica O’Hara
Kitten placing paw on the nose of a golden retriever dog lying on floor with an empty plate between them

chendongshan/AdobeStock.com

Dog and cat food is becoming ever more humanized in the U.S. Market researchers and veterinarians report that consumers are increasingly demanding for their pets what they want for themselves: high-quality, sustainably sourced ingredients that are free of questionable byproducts. “Organic, gluten-free and even vegan are now mainstream when it comes to Fido and Fluffy,” says integrative veterinarian Carol Osborne, of Chagrin Falls, Ohio. “Fancy foods, gourmet treats, even personal pet chefs have become the norm.” In a turnabout on animal testing, some companies advertise that their pet food products are tested on humans.

It’s the logical outcome of an evolution in how pets are regarded, say psychologists. Only a few decades ago, most dogs slept in doghouses rather than in bedrooms, and most cats were free-range explorers of the outdoors. Today, two in three American households have a pet, and the animals are increasingly part of the family—sometimes even more beloved than human family members. One study, for example, found young children more likely to confide in a pet than in a sibling.

A mattress company survey found that 71 percent of pet owners sleep with their furry friends. The forced togetherness of the pandemic drew pets and owners even closer. “Today, pet owners want to reward their pets in every way possible to let them know how grateful they are for the unconditional love and companionship they provide,” says Osborne.

The urge to lovingly pamper pets starts at the food dish with many emerging trends.

Custom Tailoring

According to market analyst firm Mintel, three in five U.S. pet owners are willing to pay more for foods that are customized to their pet’s specific dietary needs, a trend being eagerly met by more than 700 brands and 10,000 products. Today, a dizzying array of foods are tailored to pets’ ages, breeds and physical and emotional conditions. Obese dogs can chomp down on high-protein, low-fat foods; anxious pups can mellow out with foods that contain hemp and CBD oil; and dogs prone to kidney stones may find relief on a renal-support formula. Consumers unable to purchase pricey, specialized formulas are making kibble less boring by adding flavorful mix-ins and toppers such as shredded tuna and lamb liver flakes.

Going Plant-Based

The slow but sure rise in the number of Americans that eat natural, plant-based diets has its parallel in animal diets. Organic pet food free of pesticides, antibiotics and chemicals constitute a robust, $22-billion-a-year business in the U.S., and vegan pet food sales are predicted to grow globally by 12 percent a year. Ancient grains like amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat and millet are included in gluten-free formulas to satisfy a small but growing market. To make plant-based chow more appealing, pet food makers are adding savory flavors and substituting chemical enhancers with kitchen ingredients like vinegar.

Rethinking Meat

Some manufacturers are replacing chicken and beef with more adventurous, gamey proteins such as rabbit, venison, bison and wild boar. “Products are advertising how you can bring out their inner wolf by feeding them that food, because it is more natural to their instincts,” says Heather Venkat, the acting public health veterinarian for Arizona. Revenues are predicted to nearly double from $277 million in 2018 to $525 million in 2025 for a growing favorite: raw meat in the form of freeze-dried kibble.

Ethical Buys

Consumers are examining labels to find pet food that is sustainable and responsibly sourced. “‘Made in the USA’ remains a popular claim and feature that may even be increasing, along with a demand for ethical claims, sustainability concerns and cause marketing,” writes Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry. In a survey of U.S. dog and cat owners conducted by Packaged Facts in early 2020, 69 percent reported concern about the treatment of animals raised for use in pet food.

Cautionary Notes

When buying pet food, veterinarians urge pet owners not to be overly swayed by advertising claims. “For example, the words ‘holistic’, ‘ancestral’, ‘instinctual’, ‘gourmet’ and ‘premium’ are really just marketing. On the other hand, ‘organic’, ‘natural’ and ‘human-grade’ all have specific definitions when they are applied to pet foods,” says veterinarian Jennifer Coates, of Fort Collins, Colorado, author of The Dictionary of Veterinary Terms and an advisory board member of Pet News Daily.

“Most importantly, watch how your pet does while eating a particular food. If your pet is maintaining a healthy weight and has normal digestive function (firm stools, no vomiting), good energy levels, normal amounts of shedding and that ‘glow’ of good health, the diet you’ve picked is probably a good match,” she says.


Health writer Ronica O’Hara can be contacted at [email protected].