Consumer concerns about health and the environment are spurring the rise of a new meat-free category: pet food.
Amid growing pet ownership fuelled by the pandemic, owners want to apply their own dietary habits and values to their animals, and are willing to pay more to do so. This has led to the launch of products from plant-based dog food to pet treats made from insects, say executives and analysts.
“The modern consumer and pet owner wants to feed their pet companions the same way they feed themselves,” said Michael Lavin, founder of agri and food tech venture capital firm Germin8, which specialises in animal nutrition and health. “They apply the same principles about food when making decisions for their pets.”
The factors prompting these products — the link between meat intake and environmental damage, and health concerns around processed foods — mirror those driving the rise in “flexitarianism” in humans, where consumers follow a largely plant-based diet with the occasional intake of meat and dairy products.
Judy Nadel, co-founder of vegan pet food start-up The Pack, is predicting the rise of the “flexi-dogian”, or dogs that eat mainly vegetarian and vegan food with the occasional meat treat. “We’re going through a climate crisis. It’s going to be unacceptable for dogs to eat meat for every meal in the future,” she argued.
The environmental impact of pet food production is significant, with researchers at Edinburgh university calculating that agricultural land equivalent to twice the size of the UK is used to produce dry pet food globally for cats and dogs each year.
They found that about half of dry food is made up of crops, including corn and rice, with the rest made of animal or fish products. Combining the findings with data on the environmental effects of ingredient production, they found that annual CO2 emissions of dry food were 106m tonnes, which, in country terms, would be the world’s 60th highest emitter, the researchers said.
On animal health, some owners worry about processed meat in dog food. “In human diets it is well acknowledged that processed meat is linked to rising levels of cancers and obesity, yet it’s 2021 and we continue to feed this as the main component of our dogs’ diet,” said Guy Sandelowsky, a veterinarian and co-founder of vegan pet food start-up Omni.
Big brands are also placing bets on alternative proteins.
Mars, which owns leading brands including Pedigree, Royal Canin and Whiskas, launched Karma a “plant-first” food with 60 per cent non-GMO plants, blended with animal ingredients in the US this year. In the UK, it introduced Lovebug, an insect protein-based brand for cats.
The company is also among the investors in Wild Earth, a leading US plant-based pet food start-up that is also moving into pet food made from lab-grown meats.
The nascent market is still small, but Tracey Massey, global president of Mars’ pet nutrition unit, expects alternative protein pet foods to grow 30 per cent by 2025. “It’s very niche but it’s growing fast,” she said.
Nestlé’s Purina brand last year launched dog food built around ingredients such as insect protein and fava beans, as well as meat. In 2020, it bought natural pet food brand Lily’s Kitchen, which also offers vegan dog treats and dog food with ingredients such as millet and lentils as well as courgettes and carrots.
But there is debate about the nutritional merits of plant-based dog food. As obligate carnivores, which cannot digest plants properly, cats should not be fed a vegetarian or vegan diet, according to the British Veterinary Association. The body did not recommend feeding a dog a vegetarian diet, although it was theoretically possible, according to Justine Shotton, BVA president.
“At the moment, there’s not a lot of evidence-based research for vegan pet food meeting the nutritional needs for dogs,” said Shotton, who added that pet owners interested in vegetarian or vegan diets for their pets should talk to their vet first. She said that all owners had a duty of care towards their pets to ensure they were meeting their animals’ welfare needs.
Though not vegan, insect protein offers a nutritional alternative to meat while avoiding animal welfare concerns. Yet it remains an expensive option and some pet owners are resistant to feeding insects to their pets, according to analysts.
Nadel said The Pack worked with animal nutritionists and scientists to produce dog food using pea protein, papaya, kale and seaweed. “We can hit the same nutritional values as meat with plant-based food,” she said.
Massey at Mars said that while dogs can survive on a meat-free diet “you need to make sure you supplement with other things”, adding: “It’s not as simple as saying ‘I’m a vegan, I want my pet to be a vegan.’ It’s hard. We’ve spent years developing these products.”
Shiv Sivakumar, co-founder at Omni, warned consumers against preparing their own vegan dog food. But growing up in a vegan family in south Asia, with his pet dogs essentially eating what humans ate and living 14-16 years, gave him the confidence that dogs could thrive on a non-meat diet.
Nadel is bullish about vegan dog food and expects 50 per cent of all dogs in the UK to be following the human flexitarianism trend by 2030. She acknowledges that some customers want to offer their dogs variety and see vegan food as a complementary option.
For established pet food companies, it is about offering consumers choice.
The internet allows pet owners to try new products “and see what works”, said Massey, adding: “Some of these trends are going to come and go — nobody really knows which ones are going to stay. I would say, watch this space.”