Pets in the 21st century aren’t just cute animals that live in basements or cages. They’re members of the family who often roam around freely and get the same love and care as children.

This trend of humanizing pets has contributed to strong sales across the entire industry, and is impacting the pet food category as pet owners make better nutritional choices for their furry best friends.

“It’s not a new trend, but there’s greater awareness now,” Mary Emma Young, director of communications for the Pet Food Institute, told Food Dive. “As pets become more of a family member, the awareness about what we’re feeding them has grown, and that has led to pet food starting to look more like human food.”

Adrian Pettyan, CEO & co-founder of Caru Pet Food, Vero Beach, Fla., noted that the humanization of pets is not a temporary trend. It’s a fundamental shift in the role pets play in the household, a movement that’s been gaining momentum in recent years.

“Now that most pets are treated like full-fledged family members, their owners shop for products that offer the same nutritional benefits and appetite appeal they seek for themselves,” she told Food Dive. “When scanning packages, they look for close-ups of the contents with appetizing visual cues, such as chunks of meat or poultry, whole vegetables and fruit pieces.”

This increased focus on ingredients has led some pet food brands to make changes to their existing formulas in an effort to appeal to pet owners.

Dr. Kurt Venator, a veterinarian for Purina, noted that more and more people are drawing on their own food ideologies when choosing foods for their pets.

“It’s an experience for people, and an opportunity to connect with their pets,” he told Food Dive. “We want our pets to eat well, just like we do, and even snack like we do. Pet parents are looking for real, high quality, understandable, trustworthy food options. This includes less processed foods, limited and natural ingredients and more diverse snack options.”

Isaac Langleben, co-founder of Open Farm Inc., Ontario, Canada, noted that superfood ingredients and supplements are seeing considerable cross-over into the pet food channel.

cat licking lips food
Credit: Russ Brown

“From spirulina to coconut oil to probiotics and turmeric, we are seeing more and more innovative and beneficial ingredients find their way into food, treats and supplements for our pets — and that is a great thing,” he told Food Dive in an email. “Perhaps more importantly, pet parents are starting to focus on the quality and source of ingredients being used to make their pet foods and treats. The same way animal welfare certifications and other third party verification labels like Non-GMO Project and USDA Organic are becoming more important in the grocery store, they are having a more significant impact on what people are feeding their pets.”

The cat’s meow

Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice-president and co-founder of Radagast Pet Food, Inc., the makers of Rad Cat Raw Diet, said there has been a real shift toward cat foods that contain ingredients that humans would eat themselves.

“High quality, human grade ingredients are not only more palatable for cats, but are more nutritious, which is often quickly reflected in the health of the cat,” she told Food Dive in an email. “Retailers and pet owners are realizing how much of an impact diet has on the overall health of their cats — as disease prevention but also for cats that have health concerns.”

Cats are true carnivores and do not digest grains or carbohydrates well, so more manufacturers are entering the market with foods that are higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates.

“Pet owners are becoming more aware about what optimal nutrition can do for their pets — they are reading product labels and doing research on what they are feeding and the products they are using,” Hatch-Rizzi said. “They’re looking for high-quality, natural products and transparency from manufacturers. People are making more informed choices than they used to and are seeing the changes that happen in their pets as a result of proper diet and nutrition.”

Probiotics in pet food

Prebiotics and probiotics seem to be the latest trend in pet foods. Digestive disturbances and diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, are some of the most common reasons for visits to the veterinarian. Many manufacturers are responding to these issues by adding supplements that target digestive health.

dog wants people food
Credit: darwin Bell

Some super-premium pet food makers have been formulating their recipes with probiotics for years. But more pet owners are becoming interested in them because the value of probiotic supplements in human diets is becoming more recognized.

“These owners are also beginning to realize that diets fortified with probiotics help support canine and feline digestion,” Pettyan said. “Many pets have sensitive stomachs, so their parents are always seeking better ways to promote regularity.”

That’s why for some time now, probiotics have been used as a nutritional supplement for pets, especially for veterinarians.

“When it comes to supplements, it’s important for pet owners to select a product that supports its claims with evidence-based scientific studies,” Dr. Venator said. “There can be a great deal of variation among supplements in terms of the type(s) of probiotic strains used, the guaranteed amount of probiotic within the product and studies that demonstrate product efficacy.”

Almost a decade ago, Purina launched Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets FortiFlora, a nutritional supplement that contains a probiotic for the dietary management of dogs and cats with diarrhea.

“Our international team of microbiologists, nutritionists, immunologists, veterinarians, food scientists, and stability specialists spent more than eight years studying the probiotic used in FortiFlora,” Dr. Venator said. “The product has been shown to be safe, stable and effective in helping restore normal intestinal health and balance. We’ve also shown through scientific studies that this supplement promotes a healthy immune system.”

Meat and protein trends

As meat becomes more prominent in pet food diets, there has been a strong trend toward higher-grade and more premium ingredients.

dog food
Credit: bykst

“Pet parents want naturally, humanely raised meat ingredients, free from antibiotics and growth hormones,” Langleben said. “They are also placing an increasing emphasis on transparency as to the source of those meat ingredients and on 3rd party certifications, like Certified Humane, as the multitude of marketing claims around what qualifies as higher-grade meat have become increasingly confusing.”

As people are becoming increasingly mindful of the products they feed their pets, they’re also paying closer attention to protein quality. Caru Natural Stews, for example, are made with USDA-inspected, human-grade meat and poultry in a human food facility.

Langleben said the mission at Open Farm is to create ethically sourced foods from farm to bowl, with a core philosophy that using premium quality ingredients from trusted sources is at the core of a healthy diet.

“We use human-grade meats sourced exclusively from family farms across the U.S. and Canada and all of our farms employ strict animal welfare standards in raising their animals,” he said. “They provide their animals fresh water, healthy diets free from antibiotics and growth hormones, as well as living conditions that are geared to allowing the animals to live natural lives with minimal stress.”

In recent years, pet owners have been searching for more variety in protein sources such as turkey and venison. Given the trends of humanization, personalization, and natural foods, most food companies expect the desire for protein source variety to continue to grow over time.

For example, Purina’s new Purina Beneful beef and chicken dry dog food recipes now feature real meat as its first ingredient, and in all new Beneful dry dog food recipes, there’s no added sugar.

Going organic

Pet owners are becoming more concerned about ingredients used in their pets’ food and are looking for as much information as possible, mirroring how consumers look at what they eat.

“They really want to know where the food is coming from and how the animals that give their lives to produce those products are raised and how they are fed,” Hatch-Rizzi said. “As a result, I believe that more manufacturers will respond to increasing demands for higher-quality products by producing food and treats with organic ingredients.”

According to industry insiders, there is quite a bit of controversy surrounding GMO ingredients and animals that are being fed GMO feed. In order for any meat or poultry to be certified organic, organic farms must feed animals non-GMO feed and comply with strict guidelines to keep their organic certification.

As pet owners become more educated about the benefits organic ingredients can offer by not having pesticide residue, reduced antibiotic exposure and higher antioxidant content, there will be more demand for pet food made that way.

“In order for food to be farmed organically and to be certified organic, there are significant costs involved for the farms to be certified, as well as higher costs for non-toxic pest control,” Hatch-Rizzi said. “We use organic ingredients in our products and we pay upwards of nine times what conventional ingredients can cost, but it’s worth it because there is a noticeable difference in quality.”

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