Having a dog you surely know the myriad of choices you have when it comes to selecting your dog’s food. It should not be news that dog food is a multi-billion dollar industry. What is surprising, is the segmentation that now dominates the marketing of dog food, and the variety of niche-sectors being pursued fervently by dog food manufacturers and their marketing agents. As Publisher of The Bark, one of my tasks is to stay abreast of industry trends. After attending the Global Pet Expo (the largest US pet tradeshow) this past spring, and culling through the pile of press releases received at The Bark’s office—I’ve noticed some fascinating developments in dog food marketing. Many are driven by popular crazes in human dietary, consumer and social habits. These parallels tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the nutritional evolution of our canine companions. Please note: These trends are not being singled out for their health or nutritional benefits but for their distinctive (and often creative) product positioning.
Premium ingredients. The catastrophic recall of 2007, the largest recall in the history of the pet food industry, quickened the pace towards natural and organic ingredients, and opened the doors for aggressive marketing and promotions. The consumer is faced with a glossary of terms from “natural” to “organic,” “human-grade” to “free-range” and “holistic” to “pure” with little guidance from the FDA and other governing bodies. Reading dog food labels today requires a working knowledge of semantics, marketing and science.
Local sourcing. Another outgrowth of the recall, and the outsourcing of manufacturing overseas, is the locavore movement adapted to pets. Like the trend in human food, expounded by journalist, Michael Pollan and others—the premise is to eat locally, and to know where your food comes from. A small but significant number of dog food makers are preparing their product with local ingredients, from farm-bred protein sources to regional grains, fruits and vegetables. Leading the way are practitioners of raw food diets that lend themselves to local sourcing.
Custom prepared and delivered. Catering to the very specific nutritional needs and taste preferences, some companies are offering customized recipes “designed” to your dog’s dietary requirements. Besides the breed, age, gender and size, other factors such as allergies can play a role in determining the best diet for your pet. Foods can be fortified with supplements to boost the immune system and revive joints—all delivered to your front door with your dog’s name on the package.
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Weight-loss regimes. Obesity in dogs is a serious problem, with an estimate 44% of US dogs (34 million) considered overweight, and the percentages increasing each year. A number of new dog food products have been created to address the problem—from offering low-fat and reduced-carbohydrate diets to strict control of portions. Some offer pre-measured and custom-formulated dog food shipped direct to the consumer.
Variety. A handful of companies are advocating a rotating diet, as one claims to provide a “complete range of vitamins, minerals, fibers and all the other elements dogs need to thrive.” The concept appeals to the popular idea that variety is a good thing, but appears to counter that often heard warning from veterinarians that dogs can’t easily accommodate a sudden change in their diet. The plans claim careful calibration and balanced formulas to reduce digestive problems and “optimize nutrition,” while preventing oversaturation of any one ingredient (which can lead to allergies).
Raw food. The raw food diet has been around for some time now, and the legion of followers continues to grow. With the increasing popularity of raw food come more commercial options boasting USDA inspected and “chemical-free” meats along with “unprocessed whole foods”—available in handy frozen packages at your local pet specialty store. A growing number of small suppliers offer product delivered locally—from grass-fed bison to free-range emu, from chicken necks to lamb tripe.
Make-Your-Own. To augment the do-it-yourself movement in dog food preparation, companies are specializing in “minimally processed” mixes of dried or dehydrated ingredients. Some simply require water and are meant as stand-alone meals, while others combine with raw food or commercial canned products.
Special Needs. From wheat-free to gluten-free, from low-carb to high-fiber, from vegan to ultra-protein, more and more tailored ingredients are being marketed to address allergies, obesity, high-maintenance issues and a host of other special needs diets.
Selecting the best food for your dog is an important decision based on the individual needs of each pet. Your dog’s age, body condition, health history, along with your budget all factor into this choice. The challenge is navigating through the marketing come-ons and buzz words to discover the real ingredients and benefits offered by each product. It can seem like a daunting task, but one well worth the effort in supporting the health and well-being of your canine family member.