bulldog with food bowl
"Pet parents" have good reason to worry about obese and overweight pets — more than half of cats and dogs are obese or overweight.

CHICAGO – Obesity and obesity-related illness are a major health concern — among pet owners. A new study from market research firm Mintel found that 25 percent of pet owners worry that the pet food they buy is making their pet obese.

Mintel also found that 55 percent of all pet owners say they worry about filler ingredients — such as grains and meat byproducts — in pet food. As a result pet food manufacturers have seen rising demand for higher-quality pet food and treats (the fastest-growing segment in the pet food category).

Figures from the American Pet Products Association show that food continues to spending in the pet industry. In 2014, sales of pet food totaled $22.26 billion, a 3.2 percent increase over 2013. The association estimates spending will grow 3.5 percent in 2015 to reach $23.04 billion.

APPA also noted that spending on supplies/over-the-counter medications along with veterinary care increased along with the food bill. In 2014 consumers spent a combined $28.79 billion, up from $27.51 billion in 2013. In 2015, the association estimates “pet parents” will spend more than $30 billion on supplies/OTC medications and veterinary care combined.

The American Humane Society reported that 56 percent of dogs, 54 percent of cats were considered overweight or obese in 2011. Additionally, a survey of 800 Banfield hospitals revealed a 32 percent increase in diabetes in dogs and a 16 percent increase in diabetes in cats since 2006. Banfield noted that the effects overweight and obesity mirror the impacts on human health: Overweight and obese pets have a shorter life span; surgery or anesthesia is more dangerous and breathing and walking can become difficult.

cat eating food
More pet owners are showing interest in pet foods that feature clean labels and natural or organic ingredients.

Pet food trends mirror human food and diet trends because more pet owners consider their pets to be a family member. Seventy percent of all US households own any type and any number of pets, Mintel reported, with dogs and cats being the most popular “family members.” And consumers want what’s best for their family members.

“The perception that pets are members of the family will continue to define the humanization trend in 2015 and drive price increases in the pet food category in the future,” Amy Kraushaar, US Category Manager, Food & Drink and Foodservice, said. “Manufacturers should note that the pet food humanization trend translates into pet owners wanting the same quality and safety standards for pet food as for their own food.”

With that in mind pet food manufacturers are moving toward cleaner product labels and natural ingredients such as sweet potatoes, quinoa, apples, chia seeds and other ingredients bearing a “healthy halo.” Kraushaar said pet owners will be looking to healthier pet foods without filler ingredients rather than trading up to premium-priced products.

“As far as nutrition is concerned, some pet owners express interest in foods that cater to pet-specific diets, such as what their pets would have eaten in the wild,” Kraushaar explained. “This entails reformulating products to be without grains, artificial ingredients or meat by-products. Consumer interest in pet food that meets human criteria for food health, safety and nutrition will drive pricing, particularly in the wake of ongoing concerns related to pet food recalls. Pet foods with specific attributes that mirror human food trends like gluten-free, organic and locally sourced, may attract less price-conscious pet owners.”

Pets also have their own version of the Paleo Diet called the “wild” in which pet owners allow their pets to eat only what they would have eaten in the wild — all-meat diets without artificial ingredients. Mintel noted that interest in pet foods that resemble “wild” diets is highest among millennials. Fifty-six percent of millennials said they agree that such diets are best for their pets compared to 47 percent overall.

Interest in organic pet foods also is on the rise. Mintel found that 39 percent of consumers surveyed agreed that organic pet food options are better than non-organic options. Among millennials, 37 percent are more inclined to worry than older generations that the pet food they are buying is making their pet obese compared to 25 percent overall. Additionally, 34 percent of millennials are more inclined to prepare their pet’s food from scratch compared to 23 percent overall.

‘I love you’

dog eating treat
Consumers often reward their pets with pet treats.

Pet treats such as chews, strips and chips have become closely associated with the affection pet owners feel for the pets, Mintel noted. Among consumers surveyed, 45 percent reported that treats are their way of showing their pet that they love them.

Mintel research found that 49 percent of owners age 55-64 view pet treats as a way to show love, compared to just 41 percent of owners age 18-24. And 48 percent of pet owners give treats daily, compared to 28 percent of cat owners. Mintel explained that habitual dog treat usage may relate to the role treats play in dog training.

“Treats are the fastest growing segment in the pet food category,” Kraushaar explained. “Because treats are used primarily to demonstrate pet owners’ emotional involvement with their pet, pet owners assess treats more for the flavors and indulgence they offer versus nutrition — which they rely on pet food to provide. Pet treats that leverage this alternate need have more potential to grow.”