The Humanification of Pet Food Is Nearly Complete

Jerky, cookies, cheesy toppings—animals’ meals are out of the can and into the uncanny valley.

A dog wearing a sweater uses a knife and fork.
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To succinctly capture the strangeness of how Americans feed their house pets in the year 2018, there are perhaps no better five words than pumpkin-spice lattes for dogs. If there’s room to use a few more qualifiers, then non-GMO, American-made goat’s-milk pumpkin-spice lattes for dogs would probably be more evocative.

That is a real product, sold by a real company—“Just add warm water!” the label says—and it would not feel too out of place on the shelves of many pet-food aisles, where these days one is almost just as likely to encounter labels boasting “grass-fed beef” and “high-protein” recipes as anywhere else in the store.

As these aisles indicate, pet food—particularly high-end pet food—is edging ever closer to human food, and the overlaps between the two categories can be uncanny. “People are putting whole berries in there, whole cranberries, whole blueberries,” says Don Tomala, the president of Matrix Partners, a pet-products branding firm. “They’re putting kelp in there, they’re putting turmeric in there, they’re putting apple-cider vinegar in there … These are all trends within the human-food side.”

Tomala, who helped launch the dog food Kibbles ’n Bits in the early 1980s, remembers that back then, “it was food for your dog—that was about as far as it went.” Ingredients weren’t fussed over, and the packaging was playful; he remembers cartoonish labels, say, with “a bubble-faced dog on it smiling.” That wouldn’t fly today. Tomala says packages now are more likely to display “a serious-looking dog … It looks nutritious and healthy—it looks like something I’d buy at Whole Foods.”

This transformation of pet food reflects a broader trend, in which people go to ever-greater lengths to address the human needs they project onto their pets, almost as if the animals were their children. Some Americans buy silicone testicular implants so that their pet might “retain its natural look and self-esteem” after being neutered, or make provisions in their wills for their horses; a friend recently told me that she discovered, when picking up a new prescription, that she and her dog had been put on the same anxiety medication.

Marketers often attribute the treatment of pets as little humans in part to Millennials waiting longer to have children, which frees them up to channel their energies toward their “fur babies,” a term people sometimes (unfortunately) use for their pets. With that in mind, it makes sense that some people would want to buy the finest foods for their animals. Another factor behind the rise of high-quality pet food is the increased concern many shoppers have about the environmental and social impact of all sorts of consumer goods.

“One of the main things that we’ve seen in the past five-plus years is that the parents, the shoppers, of the pets, they’re looking at pet food in the very same way they’re looking at the food they buy for themselves,” says Steve Rogers, a principal consultant at the firm Clarkston Consulting who advises large food and beverage companies, many of which have pet-food divisions. Non-GMO, gluten-free, no preservatives—these are what many consumers are after, and, Rogers says, “any trend that you almost see in consumer purchases or consumer food, pet food is basically a lagging indicator.”

These trends, of course, do not apply to the entire pet-food market, but they do apply to a significant, fast-growing chunk of it. Based on market research and conversations with clients, Rogers estimates that about half of pet owners could be potential buyers of these more expensive, ethically sourced, and organic varieties. And Tomala says there’s plenty of demand for regular old dog food, but “it just isn’t what’s driving the pet industry as much—the growth is coming from higher-end products,” the ones that cost twice as much, or more, per pound. Indeed, Americans’ spending on pet food has increased from $18 billion in 2009 to $30 billion in 2017, which far outpaces the rate at which pet ownership rose during that period. In other words, people are spending more on food per pet than they did a decade ago.

One company that has benefited from this increase is the Honest Kitchen, a San Diego–based firm founded in 2002 that makes the aforementioned pumpkin-spice lattes for dogs as well as a range of other “human-grade” pet foods. “That just means the ingredients are from the human food chain and are manufactured inside a human food facility and follows all of human food regulations,” as opposed to the regulations for pet food at the state and federal levels, explained Carmen Velasquez, the company’s marketing director. The Honest Kitchen makes dehydrated products, which, with the addition of warm water, achieve “almost like an oatmeal consistency. You can still see cranberries, pieces of apple, little banana chips,” Velasquez says.

“We definitely pull inspiration from the human food chain,” she told me, citing her company’s “instant bone broth” and “seasonal instant eggnog.” It also sells beef jerky for dogs. Mike Steck, the company’s chief marketing officer, who was also on the phone, said, “We have to be careful. Part of what we have to do with the brand is make sure that it can never be confused as human food.”

Dana Brooks, the president of the Pet Food Institute, a trade group representing pet-food makers, has taken note of the humanification of pet food as well. “We’re trending more into the space of having our pet food look a little more like our food,” she said.

She mentioned a company called Freshpet, which in its own words makes “real pet food, fresh from the fridge.” In explaining the appeal of “real” food, Brooks said, “Maybe you can provide your pet something that looks similar so you feel like you’re sharing your meal with your pet.” She told me about a recent visit she’d made to a Freshpet facility: “I mean, I was hungry when I was touring it—it smelled like hamburgers and roasted chicken and beef stew.”

The history of pet food as a consumer good has not always been so appetizing, as Katherine C. Grier, a historian at the University of Delaware and the author of Pets in America: A History, told me. Grier walked me through pet food’s past, starting in the mid-1800s, when housewives would cook a separate “dog stew” that consisted of leftover meat, bones, gristle, or vegetables mixed into potatoes or rice or cornmeal. The first consumer pet food, Grier said, hit the American market in the 1870s: A British company, Spratt’s Patent Ltd., sold biscuits that claimed to improve the performance of hunting dogs and show dogs.

Over the years, Spratt’s and other companies started selling to more casual dog owners, but what really launched dog food into the mainstream was canned food, which started appearing on shelves around the 1910s. The first canned food was made up entirely of horsemeat—something that humans generally wouldn’t eat but that was left over after worn-out workhorses were killed and turned into soap, fertilizer, or other products. Some meatpacking companies, following the success of horsemeat pet food, realized they could package their own unused animal bits and started entering the market as well.

The Great Depression, ironically, is when canned food started to really catch on. In tight times, households scaled back their meat purchases, which often meant less in the way of leftovers for the family pet. So households started turning to canned food, which allowed them to keep feeding their pets protein more cheaply. Human-quality meat was also hard to come by during World War II, and according to Grier, after the war was over, pet food got its own aisle in the supermarket.

This was the beginning of the pet-food market that today’s cat and dog owners would recognize. While the food was generally nutritionally adequate, it was still kind of gross; horsemeat still made it into cans for decades after the war, but disappeared over time. Even today, pet food can include, in the words of the independent organization that helps establish industry standards, chickens’ “heads, feet, [and] viscera.”

When I referred to some pet-food ingredients as “unsavory” in my conversation with Brooks of the Pet Food Institute, she said, “The only thing I would caution is when you hear ‘unsavory,’ it may be unsavory to you as a human consumer … [but] also provide the minerals and some of the vitamins that pets need.” There are animal parts, she noted, that many Americans prefer not to consume, but are “considered delicacies in other countries.”

American pet owners’ ambivalence about these ingredients is part of what high-end food manufacturers are responding to. They are also catering to the pet owners who worry about contaminated food and (probably too much) about grain allergies.

But the sorts of products that some of them are buying—see: jerky—seem unlikely to address health concerns, and blur the line between human and pet indulgences. The concept of that line is something I talked about with Molly Mullin, an anthropologist who lectures at North Carolina State University and studies human-animal relationships. “These categories, people have to, to a certain extent, make them up as they go along,” she says. “People are always revisiting them and thinking about them and playing with them.”

Food is just one category that’s getting played with. And that’s probably a good thing: As upscale pet foods become more environmentally friendly and more ethically sourced, those trends can trickle down into the mainstream market as well and shape the way more American pets are fed.

Still, the contribution to the greater good seems modest, given that the majority of pet food is ultimately just the feeding of some animals to others—not to mention that some people pay to pamper their pets while other people go hungry. And besides, who can tell how much a pet actually likes human-grade bone broth? Humans are not always good at reading dogs’ emotions—the canine expression that humans interpret as a smile actually can indicate fear or worry. For the most part, pet food isn’t getting more human-like so that pets can feel better—it’s so humans can.