U.S. baby boomers increased their spending on pet food nearly 32 percent in 2017, after their spending fell the year before; and perhaps even more positive for the future of the pet food market, Generation X pet owners’ spending climbed 12.4 percent last year, and millennials’ rose 5.2 percent. In addition to these numbers, a disparate set of data on veterinarian-pet owner conversations about pet food and nutrition provide a snapshot of the market’s status and future heading into 2019.

Boomers and younger generations driving pet food spending

The U.S. pet food spending data comes from John Gibbons’ latest comprehensive examination and analysis of numbers collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2017 (the most recent full year available). Looking at spending by consumer units (CUs, essentially the same as households), Gibbons shared this breakdown:

  • Overall U.S. pet food spending for 2017 was up US$4.61 billion, reaching a total of US$31.1 billion. The average CU spending was nearly US$240.
  • Baby boomers’ US$11.92 billion represented 45 percent of the total, with the average boomer CU spending about US$349 on pet food, the highest average by far.
  • The average Gen X CU spent US$224.52 on pet food, amounting to a total for the demographic of US$7.71 billion, or nearly 25 percent of overall U.S. pet food spending. Gibbons commented that this is now the highest income group but still appreciates value when it comes to pet food.
  • Millennials spent US$5.05 billion on pet food in 2017 (16 percent of overall spending), or US$154.40 for the average CU. This is the only demographic that increased pet food spending in both 2016 and 2017, Gibbons said, though 80 percent of the growth in 2017 came from a rise in millennial CUs.
  • Older generations, often known as the silent and greatest generations, are decreasing in number and, consequently, their pet food spending continues to decline, too.

The data for the younger generations seems to bode well for continued spending increases, Gibbons believes. “Pet food spending is driven by trends,” he said. “Millennials may be the food trend pioneers so their performance in any given year may be a harbinger of the performance of Gen Xers and boomers for the following year. If so, food spending should be up slightly in 2018.”

How often pet owners and their vets talk about pet food

Another newly available set of data offers a glimpse of how U.S. pet owners look to their veterinarians for guidance on pet food, as well as vets’ protocols regarding pet nutrition and related issues. In a pet nutrition-focused newsletter, the American Veterinary Medical Association shared responses from a member survey:

  • When asked if pet owners inquire more about pet food than they used to, 48 percent of the surveyed veterinarians responded “very much,” with 29 percent responding “a little” and 11 percent saying “somewhat.” (An equal percentage said no.)
  • Perhaps more telling, especially given recent news, 91 percent of responding vets identified grain free as the pet food trend they hear most about from their clients, with a sharp drop-off to other trends: raw, 4.76 percent; unusual protein sources, 2.38 percent; and homemade pet food, 1.59 percent.
  • On the other hand, though related to grain-free pet food (the Food and Drug Administration alert over the possible link to recent cases of canine dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM), 76 percent of the vets said they have not noticed an uptick in incidence of DCM at their practices. Only 2.33 percent responded “very much” in terms of noticing an uptick, with 8 percent saying “somewhat” and 13 percent saying “a little.”
  • In response to the question, “How often do you start conversations with clients about pet nutrition?” 82 percent said, “all the time,” while 13 percent responded “if needed to deal with a diagnosis”; 3.4 percent, “only when clients ask about it”; and 1.37 percent, “rarely.” You have to wonder if that 82 percent represents an increase in how often vets broach the subject of nutrition with clients since the FDA alert came out in July.

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dphillips@wattglobal.com