Companies like The Farmer’s Dog, Ollie and others are marketing their fresh pet food as less processed and more closely resembling human diets. Veterinarians and animal nutritionists say many of these new brands are targeting wealthier consumers who treat their animals as if they were children — so-called fur babies — and want to match their dogs’ diets to their own eating habits. Some are selling the food directly to consumers, through subscription services.
These fresh-food makers are also benefiting from a wave of distrust among certain dog owners over the concentration of large companies dominating the pet food industry. Dry kibble is typically made from surplus meats and byproducts, like livers and kidneys, from the human food industry. Wet and dry ingredients are mixed to form a dough that is heated under pressure and pushed through a die machine that cuts it into the kibble pieces.
The family-owned Mars may be best known for Snickers, M&Ms and Wrigley chewing gum, but those brands have been eclipsed by its pet business, which includes more than 1,000 VCA Animal Care hospitals nationwide and food brands like Royal Canin and Pedigree. Likewise, Purina pet food and care, owned by Nestlé, was one of the largest and fastest-growing categories last year for the food giant. This year, the cereal company Post Holdings plans to buy the pet food brands Rachael Ray Nutrish, 9 Lives and others from J.M. Smucker for $1.2 billion.
“There are definitely a ton of new pet food products on the market and more coming on every day,” said Cailin Heinze, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and executive director of the Mark Morris Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides education on pet nutrition to veterinarians. The institute is funded by Hill’s Pet Nutrition, which is owned by Colgate-Palmolive.
Dr. Heinze said that while many of the newer brands claimed to be less processed or to contain “real ingredients,” there was little research showing that they were more nutritious than the dry or canned dog food that millions of Americans had been feeding their pets for decades.
“Many are pushing natural or healthy, and people look at the ingredient list and assume because they recognize everything that the diet has to be healthier,” Dr. Heinze said. “It’s giving these companies a health halo, even if there is no science behind it, and the other diet has 40 years of research.”