Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our October-November issue. Subscribe to Dogster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.
Decades ago, the Beatles sang about a cultural movement with the lyrics, “You say you want a revolution, well, you know, we all want to change the world.” Step inside a pet store today, and that iconic line may more appropriately sound like, “You say you want a dog food revolution … ”
Over the past few years, an abundance of new dog foods and treats have sprung up, touting claims we would expect to see on our own food labels, including “organic,” “gluten free,” “locally sourced,” and “Paleo.” But what’s really behind this evolving shift in the dog food industry? Do pet food companies really want dogs to “eat local,” or are they responding to a larger “revolution” that’s taking place in our society? For answers, I turned to David Sprinkle, research director at Rockville, Maryland-based Packaged Facts, which conducts and publishes market analyses on the pet food industry.
“On a basic level, the dog food revolution reflects a societal shift in the way we view our dogs’ nutrition, with an evolving emphasis toward more natural, whole foods,” David said. “But at its essence, the dog food revolution goes much deeper than any pet food formulation; it is the embodiment of a larger conversation about what dogs mean to us.” This larger conversation refers to the relatively new — and important — position that companion dogs hold within our family unit.
“Many of us today love our dogs similarly to our children,” David said. In addition, many couples are delaying, or forgoing altogether, having kids of the two-legged type. According to research by Packaged Facts, in 2005, 33 percent of United States’ households had dogs, and 36 percent had kids. In 2015, 39 percent of households had dogs, and 32 percent had kids. In many households, dogs aren’t “one of the kids”; they are the kids.
And what’s the socially accepted ritual of expressing love for our kids? We feed them. “Food equals nourishment, and nourishing someone we love is a primal, visceral way we show we care about them,” David said. It’s no wonder that food has become an important aspect of expressing our deep love for our dogs. And as our collective, cultural love for dogs grows, so does our attention to their diets.
It makes sense that if we love our dogs, we want to nourish them as best we can, but how does that explain our national obsession with feeding our canine companions as if they were four-legged “mini me’s”? In other words, why do trends in the dog food revolution so closely mirror human food trends? One reason is that while there are noticeable differences in the digestive processes of dogs and humans, the two species evolved together, and dogs can eat many of the same foods we do. “As scientific understanding of human nutrition advances, it makes sense that pet food companies apply that knowledge in ways that can also benefit dogs,” David said.
He pointed to the green smoothie phenomenon, which has gained popularity as a quick and convenient way for busy people to consume more superfoods or foods associated with superior health benefits. The pet food industry has responded to this trend with new formulations that include dog-friendly superfoods, such as kale, berries, and coconut oil. The same concept extends to other dietary principles, such as organic, natural, gluten-free, and even locally sourced. “These types of diets reflect a cultural desire to get back to a simpler, more natural way of eating, both for ourselves and our dogs,” David said.
Tied into this more natural way of eating is concern about food safety. David pointed out that when we buy natural, organic, or local foods, it’s not necessarily due to a philosophical or ecological allegiance to these principles but because we feel the food is less potentially compromised or contaminated. The same holds true when we purchase dog foods with attributes such as “natural,” “organic,” or “Made in the USA.” “It’s about a perception of product safety,” he said.
Feeling good about what we feed our dogs may also help satisfy a deeper conflict about our own dietary choices. “Most of us want to eat healthier, less processed, ethically sourced foods, but life often gets in the way. It’s easier to express these values through our dog’s diet than our own,” David said. In other words, we can forgive ourselves that dinner from the drive-thru or cupcake at the food court if we go home and feed Buddy a healthy meal, because we are then still “walking the health food talk.” Like it or not, according to David, some of us may make more healthy eating choices via our dog’s bowl than our own plate.
Pet food companies are also undergoing a revolution that reflects society’s shift in how we think about dogs. “Today, corporate values and philosophy can impact consumer purchasing decisions almost as much as the products,” David said. This is a good thing, driving pet food companies to become more involved in issues of social importance, such as pet adoption and animal welfare.
There are about as many philosophies on how and what to feed our canine companions as there are dog foods on the market. But one thing is clear: The dog food revolution represents much more than what goes in our dogs’ bowls. At its heart is the important role dogs play in our lives and our sense of responsibility to take superb care of those we love. And that, David said, is a completely personal revolution.
Popular dog food claims
What do dog food consumers look for when selecting a food? Here are the 10 top attributes, according to Packaged Facts:
- 39 percent of consumers — listed made in the U.S.A. as important
- 26 percent — 100 percent natural (other than organic)
- 19 percent — grain-free/ gluten-free
- 19 percent — non-GMO
- 18 percent — no fillers/ by-products
- 15 percent — artificial ingredient free
- 9 percent — soy-free
- 16 percent — limited ingredient
- 13 percent — organic
- 18 percent — corn-free
Top photo by Christian Vieler.