Most pet owners consider their furry friends to be part of the family and, increasingly, they’re feeding them like family.
In a 2016 report titled “The Humanization of Pet Food,” data company Nielsen stated that 95 percent of pet owners treat their pets like family members, up 7 points from 2007. That correlates with the growth in sales of healthy treats and fresh and raw pet foods.
Owners are taking an “if I wouldn’t eat it, neither should my pet” attitude toward pet foods, and they’re looking for brands without artificial preservatives and genetically modified ingredients.
That generally means paying more for pet diets, and American pet owners say they’re willing to do that.
The Nielsen survey found that 43 percent of owners would give up their Netflix subscription to feed their fur babies quality food, and 55 percent said they’d be willing to give up chocolate if they’re on a strict budget.
Pet owners are saying no to GMOs, demanding to know the origins of pet food ingredients and making healthier choices for their pets, just as they do for themselves, Nielsen found, and Millennials are leading those trends.
In the three years since the report came out, pet owners increasingly have incorporated fresh and raw foods into their pets’ diets. They’re turning to brands like Freshpet, sold in many supermarkets, and NomNomNow, which tailors diets for individual pets, including dishes that contain fresh meats and fish, vegetables and fruits. Customers order via a website for delivery to their homes.
“Just the raw food segment is between $400 million to $500 million [a year] in the U.S.,” said Rob Flanagan, president of Wag N’ Wash, a locally born franchise with four stores in the region and 15 additional franchises throughout the country.
“Any kibble is heat-processed, which means you lose some of the nutrients,” he said. “Raw food is as close to natural as you can possibly get.”
Flanagan said Wag N’ Wash stores carry pet foods made by Primal, Instinct and Honest Kitchen, three brands that use raw or dehydrated ingredients and are aligned with Wag N’ Wash’s devotion to the health of companion animals.
“We focus on finding the right diet for your companion and your budget,” he said.
That might mean using raw food as a topper for kibble. Pet owners are also working raw food into pets’ diets using goat’s milk and bones.
One of Wag N’ Wash’s differentiators is its fresh-baked dog treats made with human-grade ingredients.
“You could eat a biscuit from our biscuit case,” Flanagan said. “I’ve been known to get kind of hungry and eat one.”
Treats are baked fresh at each store and are “one of the strongest aspects of our business,” he said. “It’s absolutely increased over the past five years.”
Fresh, raw pet foods aren’t new to the market, said Mike Cavanaugh, owner of Mike’s Natural Pet Market, which has been carrying natural foods for almost 20 years and now offers frozen and freeze-dried selections. But consumers shouldn’t rely on words like “natural” to find healthy choices for their animals.
“It comes down to the integrity of the company that’s producing the food,” Cavanaugh said. “Some are superior to others. If I don’t trust a company, I don’t carry their food. I talk to other people in the industry and dig deep when I read the ingredients. One word can mean one thing on one bag and another thing on another bag. It’s confusing to consumers.”
Fresh pet foods are becoming more popular, but their benefits are not supported by scientific research, said Dr. Sarah O’Day, a veterinarian with Westside Animal Hospital.
“The grain-free, raw, fresh food, etc., options I truly feel are fad diets,” O’Day said. “In fact, feeding raw foods to your pet … not only puts your pet at risk but also you.”
Raw meat can contain Salmonella and E. coli bacteria that can be passed along to pets’ owners.
“I am highly against feeding raw food, but grain-free is another concern of mine,” O’Day said. “I have not had one patient that I felt needed to be on a grain-free diet.”
Homemade diets aren’t as popular with her clients, but “for those who do cook their own food for their pets, I strongly recommend they do so after consulting their veterinarian” to assure a complete and balanced diet.
“I always urge owners to consult the expertise of their veterinarian,” she said. “Google can be a client’s best friend and worst enemy at the same time, and it cannot replace a conversation with an accredited individual — one who has actually gone to veterinary school.”