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9/26/2022 12:00:00 AM

It's Fine Dining. But Not As We Know It.

Forget scraps from the table and uninspiring kibble, today’s pups are being catered for with food-grade, locally sourced meat, celiac friendly treats, and even vegan dog food.

It’s conscientious pet owners who are driving one of the biggest areas of growth in the dog food market – the demand for premium products. In fact, when it comes to buying the best food, the most recent research suggests owners are often more serious about buying healthy food for their dogs than they are for themselves.

“One of the biggest trends we’re seeing in pet food is humanisation. We’re seeing people who treat their pets almost as surrogate babies, and we refer to them as ‘pet parents’.”

Gail Cook, Head of Marketing at Mackle Petfoods, Ireland’s fastest growing pet food manufacturer.

A New Emphasis On Quality

“I think there’s a greater understanding of ‘good in, good out’,” Gail explains. “That eating quality products reduces the number of vet visits and prolongs the life of the pet because you have a healthier pet; so actually, while you may be paying a little bit more immediately, the long term spend is reduced.”

The history of commercial dog food has a somewhat shadowy past. Regulation used to be poor, and some old-fashioned products would have been bulked out with fillers, heated to temperatures that eradicated many nutritional benefits or made with poor-quality, cheaply sourced ingredients. But not now. Today the emphasis is on natural, organic produce and crafting products tailored to each dog’s individual needs.

“All our products are made in line with the guidelines on the FEDIAF website. They are the official body that says what different breeds and different dogs should be eating,” Gail explains. “It’s quite a science!”

The Psychology Behind a Dog's Mealtime

With pet-parents ever keen to improve their pet’s dining experience, dog food is a science worth investing in. Earlier this year Naturo (one of Mackle Petfoods’ popular brands) commissioned a research report, written by Oxford professor and experimental psychologist Charles Spence, looking at how pet owners might enhance their dogs’ mealtimes.

If Spence’s name sounds familiar it’s because the gastro-physicist has also worked alongside some of the world’s top chefs, including the flamboyant Heston Blumenthal.

Spence unearthed some interesting insights into how the ‘humanising’ trend could be impacting negatively on a dog’s dinner, specifically when pet parents are projecting their own foodie-needs onto their pet.

For instance, while humans may enjoy the social aspect of dining together, dogs do not.  “If it’s noisy and busy in the area where they are trying to eat, it really distracts them and puts them off their food,” Gail says. “And obviously you want them to enjoy what they’re eating so that they’ll not eat more. It’s about mindful eating.”

The research found a dog’s smell is up to a million times better than a human’s, but that they only have one sixth of the number of taste buds – so trying to expand a pup’s culinary experience with spicy food that might tantalise our own palates is futile. Nor do their care what their dinner looks like.

“But for a pet manufacturer it’s still important for us to have it looking good because the pet parent is serving it up and they’re a bit biased on that!” laughs Gail.

The Importance of Portion Control

Where plating up does matter is in the size of the dish, with dogs likely to be fooled into eating less if a smaller plate is used or a rimless, rather than rimmed, bowl.

And portion control is a big issue because sadly the obesity crisis is one of the biggest challenges currently facing the pet care market with one in 14 dogs seen by vets recorded as overweight. While there’s a demand for healthy food, the humanisation trend has also fuelled an explosion of less healthy convenience food and treats flooding the market.

“I’ve seen meal bars come out for dogs and, for me, that sends alarm bells ringing,”

Are Treats and Snacks Out?

Gail says “I know I give our own little dog meat strips as a treat every so often and she just wolfs them down. If you’re giving your dog meal bars, they’ll gobble them down instantly, but it won’t feel like a dinner because they haven’t prolonged it. You’ve given them something that is their full calorie intake, but it’s gone in seconds, and it makes it very easy to over feed your dog.”

Splashing out on pup-cakes, dog friendly ice cream even canine Christmas cookies should be approached with caution – just because they’re there doesn’t mean we have to indulge. “As humans we can put our own bad eating habits onto dogs, which they don’t need,” warns Gail. “It’s more about the feel-good that we get from giving them a treat. We see the dog’s reaction and that kicks off the endorphins for us. We feel we’ve made them feel good and that makes us feel good. But actually, it’s not good for the dog’s health in the long run, and maybe we need to be more assertive and a bit tougher with our pets. A treat should be a treat, not something every day.”

The Rise of Alternative Diets

An interesting area of expansion within the dog food market is in the increasing number of options for different diets.

“We’re seeing a trend towards vegetarianism,” Gail reveals. “There are definitely vegetarian dogs, I’m not sure yet about vegan! It’s one thing for us to look at going forward but it’s probably not an advisable diet full time for a dog, because they do need a certain level of protein that is hard to get fully from vegetable products.”

With increased concerns around environmental impacts of meat production, food miles and costs, there’s certainly a concerted drive towards alternative meat products.

There might not be dogs living a 100 per cent vegan lifestyle, but the vegetarian dog food market is booming, with one in four UK dog owners reporting to have bought plant-based food for their pet in the past year.

“We’re also seeing another trend towards insect protein, using various insects and locusts,” reveals Gail. “We haven’t gone quite gone into that market yet, I think a lot of people aren’t quite ready for it yet.”

She continues: “We also do products now that are grain free because dogs can be coeliac, and many might have skin conditions where grain is an allergy for them.”

“There are lots of things like that where, as science has progressed, we’ve learned and we’re putting that knowledge into the food. It’s a really interesting business and a really exciting time to be in pet food.”

Read more articles in News and Insights


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