Pet owners strive to treat their cats and dogs like royalty, or at least rulers of the household. And a large portion of that effort goes toward what they feed their furry friends.
Owners who want to spoil their animals are drawn to the idea of tailoring diets to each pet’s unique nutritional needs. They’ll seek out recipes that take into consideration breed, size, health conditions, and other defining traits.
Currently, personalized pet food is just a small segment of the market. But experts say that will soon change, especially if more competitors and affordable options become available.
Here are some of the current trends and opportunities in specialized pet food and the companies leading the way.
Food as a remedy
Big-name brands like Royal Canin, Hills, and Purina are well known for their veterinary and therapeutic diets. These formulas are designed to aid health conditions such as obesity, arthritis, sensitive digestion, and kidney failure, as well as to address multiple symptoms in a single food.
But there are a few health-related territories where pet food companies can expand. Specifically, there has been a growing demand for diets that prevent and address canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). This is following the FDA investigation of the disease and its possible connection with grain-free diets. Foods like Earthborn Holistic’s Unrefined formulas are tackling DCM concerns with the inclusion of ancient grains and added taurine.
Pet owners will likely continue seeking out diets designed for skin and coat health, too. There are numerous causes for the 160 existing skin conditions, which collectively account for as many as 25% of vet visits. Though it was thought that grain-free formulas could support pets with allergies and skin problems, those diets are now falling out of favor. So consumers will welcome special, grain-friendly foods designed to minimize allergy and skin-related challenges.
Anxiety disorders are also a common challenge for today’s pet owners. Fear and anxiety in pets can be a serious condition that results in destructive, defensive, and dangerous behaviors, as well as health deterioration.
Prescription medications and supplements are available to support anxiety issues. But pet food brands that want to offer owners a more natural approach can make adjustments to the protein, B vitamins, amino acids, and probiotics in their formulas to support a state of calmness. Although some of the above-named brands already offer calming formulas, finding ways to solve anxiety issues through food should continue to be an opportunity area for pet food companies.
Nutrition tailored to life stages and genetics
Sometimes there isn’t an underlying health concern driving the purchase of personalized pet food. Sometimes owners simply want to optimize their pet’s diet to promote a long, healthy life.
The idea is that pets of different breeds, age groups, sizes, and activity levels have different nutritional needs. For example, senior pets may benefit from ingredients like glucosamine and antioxidants to support aging joints and immune systems. But they don’t necessarily benefit from the added protein and calories that a growing, active animal requires. And while a rottweiler will do best on a food that supports healthy bones and muscles, a chihuahua will need a higher energy density and more digestive support for its fast metabolism.
Choosing a food that addresses these specific needs often begins with a consumer questionnaire. The owner provides details like the pet’s taste preferences and dietary restrictions, age and activity level, and other physical and health-related characteristics. Then, the manufacturer determines the best formula that checks off all those boxes.
Owners may also have the option to personalize the packaging with their pet’s name, photo, and specific feeding instructions or have meals packaged into single-serve portions.
Fresh food just a click away
While there are plenty of custom dry food options available, such as Crafted Kibble and Just Right from Purina, consumers are increasingly opting for fresh, human-grade diets. This stems from a growing demand for minimally-processed ingredients.
For owners who can’t take full control over their pet’s nutrition by preparing homemade meals, subscription-based and direct-to-consumer pet foods like Ollie, Pet Plate, and Nomnomnow offer a promising alternative. In these diets, owners not only get to choose the ingredients, but they can easily see those ingredients represented in the mix.
Though custom fresh food delivery services are in high demand, they’re more expensive than kibble formulas and would likely see more success if owners had a lower-cost alternative (e.g., custom kibble and fresh food mixes).
Don’t neglect the cats
The majority of personalized pet food formulas are aimed at optimizing nutrition for dogs. That’s probably because dog owners outnumber cat owners and there’s a much wider range of diversity among dogs. But, to keep cat owners in the loop, there’s a need for more companies that cater exclusively to felines.
This effort is being pioneered by Smalls, a New York-based company that offers fresh, freeze-dried, and kibble cat food subscriptions. Much like the dog food equivalents, owners can choose existing formulas based on their cat’s individual needs or work with the company to create something new.
The advantage of a felines-first company is the ability to establish trust with cat owners. By contrast, businesses built on dog food products may draw from that canine-based foundation when developing cat formulas. They may have a wealth of research on dog nutrition but limited information on the varying needs of cats.
And as pet food gets personal, the more species-specific and specialized a company can be, the better.