As pets all over the world have increasingly become full-fledged members of their families, the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is affecting them, too. While we all hunker down at home to help stop the spread of the virus, our pets are providing much-needed comfort, and I imagine they’re happy to have their people around more.

Though completely oblivious to what’s happening in the outside world, my cat, Deacon, is aware of and seemingly content with our suddenly full house. I normally work from home, but with all business travel currently canceled, I’m now here all the time; and I’m joined by my husband working from home for the time being and our daughter abruptly returned from her service in the Peace Corps. Instead of one house buddy all day long, Deacon now has three, and that happened overnight!

Which is the new normal in these unprecedented times, with developments in the crisis coming at warp speed. (I realize this situation is not completely unprecedented if you consider the 1918 flu pandemic, but I don’t think most of us were alive then.) I even received an email from our veterinary hospital announcing a new protocol for pets that absolutely need to be treated: When an owner arrives in the parking lot, they are to call the clinic, and a vet technician will come out to get the pet and take it inside.

Prospects for pet food ingredient supply chains?

Kudos to the vet hospital for trying to protect everyone from contagion while still serving its customers. After all, every business needs to figure out how to stay afloat; for pet food companies, that means ensuring that all those pets keeping us company at home still have healthy pet food to eat. With this crisis affecting the entire globe, supply chain disruptions are a concern and likelihood for every industry, including pet food. I’ve read that some human food companies are worried about food shortages due to lack of farm workers to pick or process crops, livestock and other foodstuffs. How might that affect pet food ingredient supplies?

And what about other ingredients needing to move across borders, as more and more countries and regions close theirs? I know governments are trying to keep trade flowing, but if movement of people is being restricted, having fewer workers could affect movement of goods, too. Do picking crops, processing livestock, transporting cargo and goods, and similar work qualify as “essential activities” in places where lockdowns or shelter-in-place orders are in effect?

In the U.S., a coalition of organizations, spearheaded by the American Feed Industry Association, has sent a letter to state governors urging them to consider animal feed businesses, including pet food companies and facilities, as "essential businesses" needing to stay open even during lockdowns. And, with some good news for pet food, the Pet Food Institute announced that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency released additional guidance on March 19 about essential businesses relating to the COVID-19 crisis, and pet food facilities are included.

Can pet foods get to the consumers who need them?

Similarly, another coalition of pet-related organizations has sent an open letter to federal, state and local government officials asking them to include pet stores as part of the "critical infrastructure" that needs to remain open and accessible. For pet food, concerns are arising about finished products getting to consumers, many of whom are turning even more to e-commerce as they stay put at home.

“Online sales have surged 52% from the year-ago period, and the number of online shoppers has increased 8.8% since the outbreak began, according to SaaS platform provider Quantum Metric report,” read a recent article on Yahoo Finance about overall e-commerce sales. It added that during a 10-day period from late January to early February, at the height of the coronavirus outbreak in China, domestic online retailer JD.com experienced 215% year-over-year growth in online grocery sales.

Yet that doesn’t mean manufacturers supplying the products can keep up with the demand. The Yahoo Finance article also noted that retailers like Amazon, Instacart and Walmart offering same-day and next-day delivery services have cautioned about “limited delivery availability” as some shoppers hoard products. Indeed, while Amazon announced recently that it is adding 100,000 workers to ensure shipment of orders, it is also temporarily prioritizing “household staples, medical supplies and other high-demand products coming into our fulfillment centers so we can more quickly receive, restock and ship these products to customers,” according to a company blog. Does pet food qualify as a household staple?

And Chewy.com, on which many U.S. pet owners rely for their pets’ food and other necessities, has a notice reading, in part: “Current delivery times are running longer than usual.” I’ve heard anecdotally that people trying to order from the site are finding items out of stock.

Yahoo Finance reported that “44% of retailers expect production delays due to the coronavirus and 40% expect inventory shortages in the near term, per a Digital Commerce 360 survey.” This could affect brick-and-mortar retailers, too, including those offering pet food.

Speaking from personal experience, while stocking up at my local retailers, I noticed that the pet food aisles at Kroger were full of shoppers. I didn’t happen to venture by the same aisles at Walmart, but I did come upon an endcap fully stocked with cat litter. (And yes, I bought a container – we did need it!)

Please share your coronavirus experiences and questions

This blog post has posed several questions, and here are a couple more:

  • Will the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic lead to out-of-work owners relinquishing their pets to shelters?
  • Will owners facing income declines start “trading down” to lower-priced pet foods or temporarily suspend buying of treats, mixers, toppers and other indulgences for their pets?

Unfortunately, there are few answers to all these questions because much is still unknown at this juncture. But at Petfood Industry, we are committed to trying to find, if not answers, at least information to help you guide your pet food businesses through these uncertain and unchartered waters. Please stay tuned for articles and possibly webinars or similar sources of information.

You can help us in that endeavor by sharing your own experiences, insights and questions. Please email me with the situations, challenges and concerns your company is facing now; we won’t share the source of the information unless you say it’s OK to use your name, title and company.

Now, more than ever, we need to turn to each other for support and guidance. And we all need to hug our pets more!

Note: This post has been updated to include information on the letters to government officials from animal feed and pet organizations and the guidance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security classifying pet food facilities as essential businesses.

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dphillips@wattglobal.com