Edie is beautiful. She has glossy, dark hair and unfeasibly long, slender legs. She lives on one of London’s most elegant and expensive streets and, like many of its residents, is on an extreme diet. Edie’s diet is 100 per cent raw and totally grain free. It sounds restrictive, but Edie seems happy with it.
You can tell because her tail is always wagging.
Edie, you see, is a dog. “Clean eating” cookbooks and TV shows may focus on whippet-thin models, wielding glasses of sludge-coloured smoothie. The real revolution in food, however, has nothing to do with humans. It’s happening in the bowls of our pets.
Tortoises may be the connoisseur’s choice, but cats and dogs are still the UK’s most popular pets, owned by 33 and 29 per cent of households respectively, a level that has remained stable for the last four years. Spending, however, has not. According to research by the market intelligence group Mintel, the total value of cat- and dog-food sales in the UK has grown by 13.2 per cent since 2013, to an estimated £2.7 billion per annum.
If that figure fails to blow your mind, consider this. The American pet food market is predicted to grow by more than two per cent a year for the next half decade. Packaged human food, on the other hand, will probably grow by little more than one per cent. In China, the market grew by 100 per cent in 2017.
Pet food is big business. Yet the big businesses aren’t the ones profiting. Sales of traditional, canned dog and cat food have fallen by 24 per cent in the last three years. Eight out of ten cats, it seems, are now having their taste buds awoken to new and increasingly sophisticated flavours.
“There are vegetarian and vegan diets, pet foods using insect protein, ancestral diets and personalised, subscription based pet foods,” says Michael Bellingham, Chief Executive of the Pet Food Manufacturing Association, listing the recent developments.
“The humanisation of pets is the biggest and most impactful trend in the pet food industry,” he explains. “The majority of pet parents refer to their dog or cat in terms traditionally reserved for children. Indeed, while 16 per cent admitted cutting back on their own food shopping for financial reasons, only four per cent had changed their pet food shopping habits.”
How did we get here?
Dogs, the first domesticated animals, entered our lives between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. By the 1st Century BC, the Roman philosopher Marcus Terentius Varro was advising that they be fed on meat, bones, and barley soaked in milk.
In the 13th Century, the scientist and philosopher Albertus Magnus added to this wisdom, in his book On Animals, counselling against feeding dogs straight from one’s dinner plate, lest they become less effective guard dogs.
When Gaston III, Count of Foix (1331-1391) wrote the Livre de chasse (The Book of the Hunt), he included a section on the appropriate care of greyhounds. They should be fed bran bread and some meat from the hunt, he advised. Unless ill, when they might be given goat’s milk or buttered eggs.
In the late 1800s, however, the Chinese Empress Tzu-Hsi is said to have fed her Pekinese on shark fin and quail breast, washed down with antelope milk or tea brewed from spring buds.
Meanwhile, in the UK, Prince Albert’s greyhound Eos survived on foie gras and unsalted butter. In her book The Lost History of the Canine Race, Mary Elizabeth Thurston recounts that, when the dog died, a scullery maid was accused of hastening his departure by serving him “common” salted butter.
Most mutts, however, were less discerning. In 19th-century London, “cat meat men” wandered the streets selling cat and dog food door-to-door, says Bellingham. This was mainly horse meat from the knacker’s yard.
“The birth of the more modern pet food industry can be attributed to James Spratt of Cincinnati, Ohio, towards the end of the 19th Century, who was travelling to London to sell lightning conductors,” observes Bellingham. On arrival at the quayside, he saw dogs scavenging for discarded ships-biscuits, promptly forgot about conductors and concentrated instead on developing biscuits for dogs.
Ken-L Ration, the first canned dog food, appeared in the States in 1922. Its principle ingredient? Horsemeat again. Commercial production in the UK began in the 1930s, with the Chappel Brothers canning a mixture of meat and cereal. In 1934, their company was acquired by Mars Limited and changed its name, finally settling on the now famous Pedigree Petfoods Ltd in 1972.
By this time, around 400,000 tonnes of animal food were being churned out of its Melton and Peterborough factories annually, including Whiskas and Pedigree Chum.
Even then: “most people were feeding their pets on scraps, or going to the butcher to get bits and pieces,” says John Bradshaw, author of The Animals Among Us and renowned anthrozoologist (a term he helped to coin, describing the science of human-animal interactions).
Things were set to change, however. “In the sixties and seventies,” says Bradshaw, “the cat food you could buy off the shelf in a pet shop was often nutritionally inadequate.”
As the science of veterinary nutrition developed, however, the pet food industry began taking note. In 1974, the National Research Council in the US published their first recommendations on the nutritional requirements of cats and dogs, listing those required for healthy bodily function.
Now, pet food could be formulated and marketed as “complete and balanced”. “Companies could guarantee that your dog or cat would thrive on their food,” says Bradshaw. “That’s when the industry really took off. It was so much easier than boiling up messy bones. Just… open a can.”
Soon, life-stage and breed-specific foods emerged. We were sold pet snacks designed to promote dental health and prevent hairballs. But a big question loomed. Once companies had addressed and exhausted all the nutritional needs of the animals themselves, what then?
“The next stage, perhaps inevitably, was to appeal to the owner’s idea of the needs of their pet,” says Bradshaw, “which they perceive as being closer to their own.”
“I started mine on Lily’s, which is grain free and expensive,” says Catherine, a London-based owner of two cats. “But they went off it and way prefer Whiskas. I feel like I’m giving them McDonald’s.”
Lily’s Kitchen is an eco-friendly pet-food company. “Our pets are family,” reads their website, “so give them food that they’ll love and will do them good.” Accordingly, they sell “slow cooked lamb hotpot” and cottage pie for dogs. Cats can sup on “lovely lamb casserole” or “organic beef dinner”. Snacks include “organic bedtime biscuits” and “mini venison sausages”.
They are not the only company feeding our desire to treat pets as part of the family. Sheba has developed cat soups, and Whiskas began selling cat casseroles at the end of 2016.
But Lily’s Kitchen does not stop at humanising the description of its dishes. A spokesperson for the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association explains that its members (who collectively make up about 90 per cent of the UK’s pet food) use “by-products of the human food industry”. This could include pig’s trotters, udders and chicken feet, parts that they acknowledge might not sound appealing to humans but which, they insist, “are enjoyed by our pets and provide an excellent source of protein, essential amino acids and other valuable nutrients”.
Lily’s Kitchen, on the other hand, uses “human-grade” ingredients. That, of course, makes things a lot pricier. Lamb Hotpot comes in at around £5.75 per kg. By comparison, a can of Pedigree dog food (“complete and delicious”) will set you back about £1.93 a kilo.
Pet owners, however, appear prepared to swallow these prices, if it means their pets swallowing prime cuts. Lily’s Kitchen’s retail sales now total £50m. Just a couple of months ago – in what is surely the piece de la resistance for posh pet food – it was granted a Royal Warrant by the Prince of Wales.
Next up, a diet with a less mouth-watering name. Despite warnings that it can contain bacteria, parasites and pathogens, 23 per cent of dog owners have bought into the growing trend for, erm… BARF (or “biologically appropriate raw food”). Nature’s Menu, Europe’s largest raw pet food company, estimates the market to be worth between £90 and £100 million per annum.
Jessica Maud is the owner of a Beauceron cross called Custard, who is fed: “Chicken carcasses and wings, carrots, apples and other leftover veg. We’ve fed her like this since we got her, aged one, and a behaviourist advised it, saying she was overwhelmed by the amount of carbs in conventional dog food. She really did calm considerably when we changed her diet.”
Raw food might not be such a clear reflection of our desire to “humanise” our pets (uncooked tripe, anyone?). “Ultra-processed food is just as bad for dogs as it is for humans,” says Bethan McFadden, whose rescue dog, Odin, eats a raw diet. “Like humans, dogs’ bodies are going to work and feel much better if their diet consists of mainly fresh food.”
Yet other owners report choosing it because it is more “natural” for their pet, closer to the diet of their wild ancestors. Rather like the paleolithic diet that’s rising in popularity among humans.
Further parallels with human fashions abound. Mintel’s research points to a marked interest in grain-free and hypoallergenic dog food (despite the former being dismissed by vets as having no documented health benefits). Meanwhile, almost half of UK adults are avoiding certain ingredients themselves.
Around 3.5 million people in the UK currently call themselves vegan, a significant rise on the 540,000 (over the age of 15) that the Vegan Society counted in 2016.
“I am trying to be 90 per cent vegan at the moment,” says Ned Beauman, who has recently acquired a Havanese puppy. “Sometimes I’m feeding Naska little bits of duck or venison sausage – his posh training treats – and wishing I could eat them myself.”
Help is at hand. On its website, Wild Earth explains its aim to “revolutionize the behemoth pet food industry, by bringing a ground-breaking clean protein to market – one that comes from the Earth, not from animals.”
Developed last year in San Francisco, its dog snacks are made from renewably sourced Koji. The fungus behind soy sauce and miso is a complete protein containing all ten of the essential amino acids dogs need.
You can’t buy these supercharged snacks in the UK, yet. In Brighton, however, another company launched in January, called Yora, claiming to make “the world’s most sustainable pet food” and made from insects. Whole Hermetia Illucens larvae are dried to create a protein rich flour that is, they claim, easier to digest than chicken.
“Yora is the culmination of five years… trying to develop a food that not only promotes the very highest quality and nutrition for pets, but at the same time addresses key global issues – sustainability in general and protein demand,” explains Will Bisset the company’s head of innovation. “The ingredients we use are chosen for their lower carbon emissions, water and land usage while being delicious and fully dedicated to the healthiest option for pets.”
The collective appetite is healthy: “We’re now looking to expand our operation to all the major pet markets across the world,” says Bisset. “There has been a large interest from vets, pet retailers and the wider market and sales are doing well.”
Woke pet owners, it seems, are worrying over their furry baby’s complicity in climate change. In his 2017 paper on the subject, Gregory S Okin of the University of California pointed out that “although there are fewer dogs and cats in the US than people, they derive more of their energy from animal-derived products”. Thus, pet food is responsible for around a quarter of the environmental impact of meat production.
“In as much as increasing animal production is a threat to the sustainability of the global food system,” he wrote, “the non-negligible contribution of dogs and cats compounds the problem and exacerbates the threat to sustainability posed by our dietary choices. This is particularly true given increasing pet ownership in some developing countries, and trends in the “humanization” of pet food, which competes directly with the human food system.”
Cans containing pig trotter can at least claim to use up animal parts that would, otherwise, be incinerated as waste.
All of which prompts some serious soul-searching. Of course pet food companies will look to boost profits through our desire to humanise our pets and, by extension, their food. The question is: why are we so ready to fall for it?
John Bradshaw remembers a time when, “People who were too emotional about their pets were laughed at – the woman who carried hers around was the ‘funny old cat lady’. Now, she’s high fashion. It’s become totally acceptable to humanise pets.”
What changed? In 2017, a study by Gale suggested that 44 per cent of pet-owning millennials see their animals as “starter children”. Perhaps. Yet almost half of American owners claim they would forego their Netflix subscription to afford high-quality pet food. Many must fall outside of the millennial bracket.
Could it be that, in our increasingly atomised society, human relationships are being eroded for all of us, whatever our age? Perhaps we are filling these emotional gaps through our pets, projecting human needs and desires onto them?
“People talk about their furry babies, about their pets being part of the family, although the research shows the bond is not quite as comparable as we say it is,” says Bradshaw. “I suspect that the internet has had a lot to do with the change in attitude.” He points to the plethora of “cute cat videos” which present animals like little humans, emphasising the attributes we’re hardwired to find appealing, while down-playing the less positive ones. Like chewing your handbag.
Before we lay the blame squarely on modern culture, however, Bradshaw describes “the well documented example of the South American tribe who take baby monkeys out of the wild and raise them. While they’re growing up, the women breastfeed these monkeys. When they’re weaned, the women will take a piece of their own food, chew it, spit it out, and give it to the monkey.”
Mintel’s research found that over 20 per cent of UK “pet parents” expressed a genuine interest in “pet-friendly drinks”, and nearly 25 per cent in “cakes to celebrate special occasions”. They did not, however, quiz them on the South American practice. Even in this brave new world of pet food, and despite the Englishman’s love for dogs surpassing all else, we might yet draw the line here.