30 April 2021 - Last year saw a huge surge in pet ownership across the globe, largely as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated lockdowns. A rise in new pets and new pet-parents has coincided with an increase in pet healthcare visits, bad feeding habits and opportunities for miseducation.
In the US more than two thirds of homes now own a pet, around 85 million households, according to figures from the American Pet Ownership Association (APPA). The national and regional lockdowns enforced by COVID-19 meant pets and their owners spent more time together than ever before, leading to changes in exercising, socialising and feeding behaviours.
A recent study by ADM surveyed 2,000 dog owners to help get a better understanding of the challenges posed by the pandemic and how to prepare pets for a life beyond the pandemic In response to the study Feedinfo spoke with two members of ADM’s Animal Nutrition team to find out what impacts there have been on pet food, its formulations and expectations for the future of products and the industry.
Dr. Ricardo Rodriguez Corral, Senior Technical Marketing Manager and Dr. Gary Davenport, Companion Animal Technical Manager for ADM Animal Nutrition told us that “74% of [survey] respondents said pandemic life has impacted their dog’s eating routine in some way.”
Be it due to irregular feeding schedules or an increase in treats and table-scraps, COVID-19 has “exacerbated the problem” of pet obesity, they confirmed. However, as a counter to that, “more time spent with pets at home means people are paying closer attention to their pets’ attitudes, behaviours and health and wellness needs.”
As a result, “many pet owners are seeking functional foods that support oral health, weight management, healthy digestion, skin and coat health, immune health and healthy aging,” much in the same way people tailor their own diets to meet specific health or beauty needs. The humanisation of pets and pet food is a trend that is becoming increasingly common, particularly in the way products are marketed to consumers, even “flavours like roast turkey and pumpkin spice are increasingly common,” Davenport and Rodriguez Corral told Feedinfo.
When asked about the ingredients that go into producing healthy, well-balanced pet food, ADM made it clear that “dogs and cats require nutrients, not ingredients.” Much like their owners, dogs and cats need the right blend of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and water.
“One quality ingredient can provide several nutrients, such as plant proteins that deliver amino acids and fibre. Pet food formulas are made with quality ingredients to provide the right amount of nutrients and to ensure a complete and balanced diet for different life stages,” Rodriguez Corral and Davenport told Feedinfo.
Feed additives play an important role in creating a balanced pet food, just as they do for livestock and poultry feeds, stressed Rodriguez Corral and Davenport: “Phytonutrients help increase the integrity and maintenance of the intestinal tract. Probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics are also used to improve digestion and ensure proper nutrient absorption. We also rely on omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA for heart health and puppy brain development. Natural antioxidants support immune function. L-carnitine can help burn body fat while preserving muscle. These additives are all factored into a balanced, complete food formulation.”
According to Rodriguez Corral and Davenport, it is vital for consumers when purchasing pet food to focus on the nutritional benefits of the ingredients inside not the ingredients themselves as, “the ingredients simply supply the needed nutrients for healthy dogs and cats.”
Much as within the human food world the pet food world is susceptible to new trends, ingredients and changes in consumer behaviour. For instance, grain-free pet diets have increased in popularity in recent years as more humans are avoiding gluten rich grains in their own diets.
However, they have erred caution to those considering such a switch, “traditional grains, like corn and wheat, are as biologically appropriate as other popular sources of carbohydrates in today’s pet foods,” Rodriguez Corral and Davenport said, adding that “contrary to popular belief, grain-free foods do not offer additional health benefits.”
For Rodriguez Corral and Davenport, pet food manufacturers are increasingly turning to alternative ingredients (primarily proteins) as consumers become more conscious of what they are feeding their animals. Examples of increasingly popular alternatives include pea protein, ancient grains, soy-based fibre, mycoproteins from mushrooms and fungi, and yeast and other fermentation-based products - a list that bears striking similarity with alternative ingredient and protein developments across human food industries as more people experiment with lowering their meat-consumption.
Humanisation of Pet Food
ADM has also witnessed people’s interest in what they feed their animals increasing in-line with a general humanisation of pet food. “Ingredient sourcing continues to evolve as more manufacturers are seeking information on country of origin, GM status and applications for natural foods and treats,” Rodriguez Corral and Davenport said. Increasingly, pets are being treated as members of the family, and the choices consumers make with regards to the food they eat has reflected that.
For a lot of people, and a growing number of pets, that includes exploring reduced-meat diets, something ADM has witnessed too.
Additionally, ADM put the humanisation of pet food down as a key driver to new ingredient developments. “Human interest in sustainability is driving industry exploration in insect protein as a potential source of pet nutrition,” the duo told us.
ADM has even reported a growing trend in pet food formulations containing more and more food-grade ingredients.
When asked how the trend of humanisation was already affecting the pet food industry, Rodriguez Corral and Davenport replied, “we see that some consumers are willing to pay more for high-quality foods that offer functional health benefits, as well as ingredients that are organic, non-GMO, raised without antibiotics, and so on. Quality standards for the pet industry are just as important as standards for human food ingredients.”
“Acceptance by human consumers is critical for widespread shifts in pet nutrition ingredients,” they added.
The Future of Pet Food
The future of the pet food industry looks bright. Last year alone saw over 25 M&A deals, according to data from Nielsen, as well as a host of high-level investments from big industry players. We asked the ADM representatives if they expected this trend to continue and they told us “if these past activities are indicative of future behaviours, then the pet food industry can expect additional expansions and market consolidations going forward.”
Likewise, with regards to the continued humanisation of pet food and its ingredient formulations the duo at ADM said: “It will not be surprising to see more human food companies entering the pet food market with their own branded pet foods and treats.”
The pandemic has had a huge influence on the number of pets, the food they eat and the humanisation of the industry. Despite that, ADM confirmed that arguably the most important aspect their research identified was an opportunity for better education for pet owners on the importance of a balanced diet, exercise and overall wellness.