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Pet Food for Thought

Food Ingredients, Food Production, Health

Pet Food for Thought

The Dirt:

Americans sure love their pets. How much? Try more than $70 billion worth. That’s how much we spent last year on our furry, feathered and scaly friends who are part of our family. Which food is best for our beloved beasts? There are so many choices! We’re examining ways to cut through the confusion in the pet food industry.

Important Update: As of June 27, 2019, the FDA updated their investigation into dog foods linked to canine heart disease, particularly among limited ingredient diet formulations. As addressed in our post, please be mindful when feeding your pet “grain free” or other specialty products. When in doubt, contact your veterinarian.

Exciting news – we have a new puppy at D2D! When Poppy first arrived on the scene, we were inundated with advice: we should feed her only raw food; we should cook her only chicken and rice; we should feed her only organic foods.  While we love Poppy, don’t dogs have good digestive systems?  The size of the U.S. pet food market is projected to climb to $30 billion in 2022 from $25 billion.  That’s almost four times what we spent on pets in the 1990s! In fact, total spending on our pets has increased every year over the past three decades, even through economic downturns.

We’ve seen a dramatic expansion of all the ways we can spend money on our pets — nowhere more so than in what we feed them.  Today, we have more pet food options than ever before.  A customer-centric pet food system delivers a range of product choices and delivery channels that make it a complex and confusing marketplace.

So what’s the consumer to do?  How do we make the right choice about what we feed Poppy?

Pets Are People

The statistics tell the story clearly.  The number of pets in America has increased significantly in the past few decades – and so has the amount of money we spend on them. Pets aren’t just family members, they’ve become a big business, too.

When it comes to food, consumers favor outward appearance over general health benefits. According to Packaged Facts and Petfood Industry, the number one priority is clean breath, perhaps to make sure we get better-smelling puppy kisses! Dog and cat owners then look for skin and coat health, with the third as joint health.  Very surprisingly, digestive health and probiotics falls to the bottom of the list.

In addition, the lines between human food and pet food sectors are blurring.  Many of the same ingredient claims made for human food are finding their way into the pet food sector – foods that are organic, grain-free, or touting unique health benefits. GMOs are even seen as a hazard by 28% of pet owners. As a result, a number of innovative and entrepreneurial players are entering the pet food market. 

An Exploding Market

The array of pet food offerings seems to have exploded.  And to add to the potential confusion, so have the number of ways pet food can be bought.  We no longer rely primarily on the pet store, or our local grocer, or even our local veterinarian.  At the top of the charts in selling pet food, according to the Pet Industry Forum: Amazon, followed by Walmart, and Chewy.com.  In an age in which convenience is king in the purchasing process, on-line sales and revamped delivery channels have opened the door to an almost infinite range of product offerings.  Where we are gaining in convenience, we are also increasing the potential for confusion.

So what is the average consumer to do in the face of all this change?  How do I know which pet foods offer what I want most for Poppy? Which company should I trust?

The big issue on making such a determination: the risk of marketing outrunning science in shaping both the pet food industry and what it offers to consumers.  Industry observers privately say we’re still in the early stages of developing solid, science-based data about some of the emerging claims being made by several players in the pet food sector.  To make informed decisions about what to feed our pets, consumers need to become more educated – and to look for providers who can back up the claims made about the value of what they offer.

What’s The Consumer To Do?

Pet food industry professionals offer a number of helpful suggestions:

Dr. Maryanne Murphy is Clinical Assistant Professor of Nutrition at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, DVM and PhD, DACVN, Board Certified Veterinary NutritionistTM. She also cites advice from her colleague, Lisa Freeman, from Tufts University.

Both professionals noted caution when dealing with “BEGs”:

  • “Boutiques”: Providers without the depth of resources or expertise you would want for your own food.

  • “Exotics”: Providers who tout some kind of unusual key ingredient or ingredients.

  • “Grain free”: Products that lack at least some of the protein-rich grains and oil meal that have been the foundation of animal feed rations for generations. Both the industry and government (the Food and Drug Administration, for example) are in the process of gathering the information needed to assess how a “grain-free” diet relates to animal health.  Such a diet may in time prove to be an acceptable dietary option, but until the science advances, consumers must make up their own mind about the potential risks associated with grain-free products.

Dr. Murphy has another key suggestion for becoming an informed consumer:

“If in doubt, call and ask,” Dr. Murphy advises. “Pick up the phone and ask to speak to someone who can tell you what’s behind their claims.  Ask if they have a nutritionist — veterinary or PhD in animal science — on staff.  Ask what they specifically do for quality control. Ask what kind of clinical trial data they have. How they respond to such questions will tell you a lot about how much you can trust them and their products.”

Dr. Thomas A. Wallrichs is a doctor of veterinary medicine, who for nearly three decades has practiced at the front lines of veterinary care for companion animals.  He echoes Dr. Murphy’s advice: “I tell my clients to stick with the suppliers who have proven they know what they are doing,” he says.  “That means known brand names.”

Dr. Wallrichs also points out that animal nutrition is an evolving science.  “We all have to work to stay current, and on top of things,” he observes.  “I look for proof, not claims.  I see an animal that is thriving, has a great coat and is active.  I ask the client what they feed them.  And I listen to what they say.”

The Industry Is Listening, Too

Ed Yuhas is Managing Partner, Kincannon and Reed Executive Search, and a respected pet industry observer and advisor to pet food industry executives.

“Five years ago, the pet food industry was generally regarded as three to five years behind the human food industry.  That’s just not true anymore,” he observes. “We recruit executive leaders across the food system.  The pet industry has become a great career channel.  Any stigma or idea it is some kind of second-class career path are totally gone,” he notes.

Yuhas also notes that “it’s no coincidence” that most of the largest pet food providers are owned by or part of major food companies – Nestle (Purina), Mars (Pedigree, Iams, Eukanuba, Whiskas, Sheba, Cesar), General Mills (Blue Buffalo), Cargill (Loyall), Colgate Palmolive (Hills Science Diet).

“They see and understand the parallels between the two, in all aspects of the business and especially in the responsible way to approach to the market,” he observes. Yuhas also believes it is important to note that the industry is working hard to provide exactly the kind of science the market wants.  Clinical research is a high priority, he notes.

“The big names in the business have the resources, the experience, and they are constantly building on that.  The newer players know they have to demonstrate the same commitment.  The business is too lucrative to do otherwise.  They want any bad actors out of the industry, just as much as the consumer does.” – Ed Yuhas, Kincannon and Reed Executive Search

Looking Ahead

What’s ahead for the pet food industry?  Most observers point to more growth, and even more sophistication in what is offered to consumers.

And perhaps most important, these same experts offer a common piece of critical advice when it comes to the nutrition and health of every pet: if in doubt, consult with your veterinarian.  Your vet knows your pets and their specific health situation and dietary needs.

To make the smart choices on pet food, be an informed consumer.  After all, just like Poppy, it’s your family. 

The Bottom Line:

Remember that your pet has entirely different food needs than a person.  What might work for you, like a low-carb or vegetarian diet, might not fulfill your pet’s nutritional needs. Consider feeding your pets with foods from well-established and reputable companies. Also, make sure the marketing claims on your pet food package are backed by solid research. Consult with your veterinarian if you have any doubts or questions.

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