Homemade pet food - Is it really that hard?

The evolution of the pet food industry is fascinating to watch. The move by consumers from economy to premium foods has been well-documented. A recent blog post by Debbie Phillips-Donaldson discussed the challenges that the premium and super-premium category are facing, particularly in the realm of meeting consumer demands at a price that consumers are willing to pay.

From the customer support side of my business, I can completely relate. It is certainly a common occurrence to hear from a consumer that wants something very specific to be changed about a formula. “Why can’t you make this food without sweet potatoes, they will make my dog fat?” or “Why can’t you use duck instead of chicken because my cat is allergic to chicken?” The take home message from these common inquiries is that consumers want a custom made formula that meets their pet’s specific needs (perceived or actual) but they reach out to manufacturers maybe because they are satisfied with the brand, the company and even more importantly, the price.

After the 2007 recall that impacted a massive portion of the industry, pet owners became more interested in home-cooked diets, or diets that seem home-cooked. In June 2013, a study was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The study was done by veterinary nutritionists at the University of California-Davis and included analyses of 200 home-prepared diets. Recipes were found online, in textbooks and in cookbooks for pets. Of the 200 diets, only 9 were found to be complete and balanced for adult dogs per the AAFCO nutrient tables. Based on this study, it does seem that making homemade pet food really is pretty hard.

In 2014, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “More Pet Brands Target Owners Who Like to Cook Their Own Dog Food – The Honest Kitchen, Sojos, Freshpet are fresh new names in the $21 billion U.S. pet food business”. These brands occupy a space for the consumer that wants to feed a diet that seems more like something they would prepare themselves, without the work and worry (and expense) that goes into home preparation of complete and balanced foods for pets. Of course there are other examples of companies that have entered this niche market since 2014.

So, what about the consumer that wants a true “homemade” diet without the DIY factor? There are companies currently entering the space with subscription service home delivered meals for dogs. New York City and Los Angeles are two markets where these services are growing. These companies have eye catching websites showing meals that look better than many of the meals served at my table! They also include claims of being complete and balanced, some without any added vitamin or mineral supplements. Costs vary, but generally these meals are going to cost a pretty penny. To feed my dog for a single week, I calculated that the cost would be more than $100 from one of these services. Now, I do have a large dog, but even to feed a small (20#) dog, the food would cost about $30 per week. For many pet owners, this simply is not a feasible option.

Fascinating things are happening in the pet industry and consumers are constantly looking for the new best thing for their pet. Pet food manufacturers respond with new formulas to meet consumer demand for grain free diets, diets with fresh meats, diets with fruits and vegetables, all in a convenient bag or can. For the consumer out there that wants a true home-cooked option, some companies are stepping up to fill that space. While I want to say that this category will never become a significant percentage of the pet food market overall, sometimes things occur that defy our expectations. It will be interesting to watch as this evolves.