Pet food: when your consumer is not your customer

A look at the complexity of catering to both pet owners and pets in the pet food market.

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(Dmitry Bruskov |
(Dmitry Bruskov |

In the pet food industry, the consumer and the customer are very different, but they come as a package deal. There is simply no ignoring the human and animal elements involved: on the one hand, the pet owner is the one making all the product purchasing decisions. On the other hand, the pet is the one actually consuming the product.

The customer/consumer dynamics at play in pet food

It all comes down to pet humanization, of course. According to Packaged Facts' data, 75 percent of US pet owners are willing to spend more to ensure their pet’s wellness. Seventy-nine percent of dog owners say they enjoy purchasing products that pamper their pets, as do 63 percent of cat owners. And whether they’re qualifying their spending or not, 98 percent of pet owners agree that their pet is an important part of the family, according to a 2016 Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) pet owner survey.

It’s clear that catering to the pet owner is essential for success in the pet food industry: In general, pet food customer “wants” and desires drive pet food trends, from marketing claims to premium items to specialized formulas. Bringing ideas from their own dinner plates, pet owners want their furry friends to eat like they do — but it’s not always easy to give in to that when what pet owners want and what pets actually need, nutrition-wise, don’t add up.

What do pets want in their bowls?

There’s no fool-proof way to give pets a voice in pet food formulation. Obviously, there are food trials and research and testing done to ensure formulas are nutritionally complete and palatable to the animals they’re geared towards. Whatever the human pet owner may decide Fluffy needs for lunch, the industry is not going to allow anything to hit that food bowl that might endanger the pet’s health or well-being. It is, in fact, in the industry’s best interest for said pet to live a good, long life.

In a February/March 2017 Packaged Facts survey, the percentages of pets that (according to their humans) prefer wet or dry pet food were very similar, regardless of species: 35 percent of dog owners and 30 percent of cat owners “strongly agreed” that their pets preferred crunchy pet food, while 25 percent of dog owners and 26 percent of cat owners “strongly agreed” that their pets preferred wet food. Perhaps even pet owners aren’t completely reliable voices for their pets when it comes to food preference, because far more cat owners purchase wet pet food than dog owners, and dry dog and cat food rack up roughly twice the sales as wet food.

Now, it may be that customers are ignoring their pets’ preferences, but it’s far more likely that bias is playing a significant role in perception versus reality. And the pet food industry must, as always, cater to that bias while at the same time providing nutritionally complete and balanced formulas to ensure that their consumer — the pet — gets what they need, if not always what they’d say they want if they could tell us themselves.

Briefly: the “clean label” trend’s path from human to pet food

Clean label” generally refers to short ingredient lists with recognizable names, along with “free from” or “no” claims.

  • Ninety percent of dog owners try to eat food meeting the criteria of the human clean food trend.
  • Seventy-five percent said those efforts affected what they fed their dogs.
  • Most important features of a “clean label”: no chemicals, preservatives, additives or pesticides.


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