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A UK chef creates a "luxury" cat food consisting of roasted duck, lobster roll, Beluga caviar and beetroot jellies, and costing £24.99 (US$37.98). In the US, dog food trucks purveying "dog-friendly" ice cream and cookies are growing in popularity, to the point where some companies are seeking to franchise their concepts.
While those examples are rather extreme (I should note that proceeds from sales of the cat food, which sold out within an hour, benefited the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), we all know our industry has been trending for close to a decade now toward ever-increasing premiumization of petfoods and treats. With pets in developed markets like the US being treated like human family members, their owners continually seek new ways to pamper their furry "children," and petfood manufacturers have willingly obliged that demand and, through constant introductions of premium, superpremium, natural and indulgent treats, even helped drive the demand.
The humanization and premiumization trends have undoubtedly been a boon for petfood, but are they healthy and sustainable in the long run? The US pet obesity rate hit an all-time high in 2012, according to the latest survey from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, with veterinarians now considering 52.5% of dogs and 58.3% of cats overweight or obese. Just last week, Veterinary Pet Insurance Inc. (VPI) released data showing obesity-related pet health conditions cost its policyholders US$34 million in 2012.
For example, VPI reported that the most common obesity-related condition for dogs was arthritis, for which more than 34,000 claims were filed at an average fee of US$300 per pet. For cats, bladder/urinary tract disease was the most common condition, for which the company received more than 4,200 medical claims at an average cost of US$415 per pet.
Much of the blame for rising pet obesity lies with pet owners: Pets do not pour their own bowls of food or, in most cases, help themselves to treats, as emphasized by Katherine Kerr, PhD, post-doctoral research associate in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Illinois, in a Petfood Forum 2013 presentation. But she also pointed out that petfood manufacturers do not get a pass. Many petfoods today are energy dense, especially those premium and superpremium products that, yes, consumers demand and buy. The problem is, they often don't know how best to feed those products to achieve and maintain optimal health and weight for their pets, and labels on the products' packages don't necessarily help.
And, no matter how often manufacturers and veterinarians emphasize that pet treats should be a very small part of a pet's overall diet and factored into the pet's total food intake, owners will still over-indulge their pampered pooches and kitties. It's just human nature.
The parallels with human eating trends and rising obesity are all too obvious: An increase in obesity-related diseases in humans and the associated skyrocketing health care costs haven't seemed to change many people's eating habits for the better. And only so much of the blame can be pinned on food manufacturers, but they don't get a pass, either.
The saying "There's no such thing as a free lunch" is, in this case, not only a bad pun but also a sadly fitting way to express that with these trends, the negative effects may eventually outweigh all the positives over time.