Long forgotten are the days of table scraps and the occasional tin can of wet petfood making up the family dog's and cat's diet. Today, every portion of the petfood market-from the superpremium, superfood-filled premixes to a bag of vitamin-enriched alfalfa hay for chinchillas-is acutely aware of human food trends, what pet parents perceive as healthy, and research that can prove the holistic or medicinal benefits of an ingredient or diet method. In short, in order to compete in a rapidly diversifying market, petfood and treat makers need to know companion animal nutrition, inside and out.
Let's look back at what was making it into the bag and on the label of petfood products in 2013, and how those ingredients, additives and formulas had a direct effect on the health of pets.
Health through nutrition, nutrition for seniors and weight management are three of the top trends in both the human food and petfood markets, according to Petfood Industry associate editor, Lindsay Beaton. "The humanization of companion animals is no trade secret, and the phenomenon is only getting more prominent," she said. "As a result, many of the top human food trends have found their way into the petfood market-particularly those that focus on the health and wellness of our furry family members."
Significant trends that mirror the human food industry are grain-free (or corn-free) dog and cat food and treats, products that boast no added sugars (or dyes or artificial preservatives), and products rich in nutrition additives like omega-3s.
Novel uses for fiber in petfood have also become prominent recently, especially as consumers become more educated to its benefits. Dental disease in dogs, hairball symptoms in cats, obesity and diabetes in both-these and other negative health issues have been shown to be mitigated with diets that include fiber. "The most common types of fiber ingredients in petfood are oat fiber, beet pulp, tomato pumice and fruit/vegetable fiber (apple, carrot, cranberry, pomegranate, etc.)," said Brian Immel, marketing specialist for LaBudde Group Inc.
Whole foods are also finding a presence in many petfoods since consumers are able to easily identify with the ingredients and their supposed health benefits. "One trend we're seeing is an elevated interest in dried fruit/vegetable fiber-those ingredients are label friendly and are an excellent source of fiber for pets," said Immel. "There is also a definite shift towards ingredients with full traceability, which is why premium and high-quality ingredients have become so important in the petfood industry."
Alternative grains, proteins and other ingredients are appearing in petfoods to help alleviate allergies or improve overall health. Chia flour, for example, is being used as an alternative to wheat flour. Not only is it gluten-free, but the seeds have more calcium than whole milk, more iron than raw spinach and more magnesium than broccoli.
Dental health of pets also continues to be an important nutrition trend. According to Greg Aldrich, PhD and "Ingredient Issues" columnist, today there are a number of dog foods and treats promoted as beneficial for dental health. Some sport the Veterinary Oral Health Council seal (VOHC Accepted) for having passed a rigorous product test. Others use the limited claims that are allowed: "cleanse, freshen or whiten teeth."
As for the future, most predict that in the next couple of years a growing preference for healthier choices in petfood and treats for dogs and cats will be the norm. Petfood makers will respond with simplified ingredient statements and formulations utilizing healthier ingredients like prebiotic fibers, omega-3s, probiotics and CLA.