The pet food industry, charted

Myriad choices.
Myriad choices.
Image: Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann
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As pets have come into our homes and into our hearts, the way we spend on them has evolved, too. Nowhere is that more visible than in what they eat. Once relegated to table scraps, many furry companions have transcended the offerings of the supermarket dry goods aisle to eat more like humans do.

Like other industries, pet food has become increasingly specialized with more variety and marketing strategies similar to those of human food. And it’s stable; growth didn’t stop over the course of the pandemic.

Here are three charts and one timeline to help you understand how pet parents have fed their fur babies through the ages.

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A brief overview of pet food

  • 1860: James Spratt, a lightning-rod seller based in the US state of Ohio, visits London and notices dock dogs’ affinity for sailors’ rations. He creates the first dog biscuits, made of a mix of veggies, grain, and meat.
  • 1907: American organic chemist Carleton Ellis files a patent to make dog biscuits in the shape of a bone. Eventually, this design became the foundation for the Milk-Bones company.
  • 1922: PM Chapel creates the first packaged, wet dog food. Called the Ken-L Ration, it was made from horse meat, which was widely available as cars were replacing horses for travel. It was so popular by the 1930s that horses were bred specifically for dog food. Quaker Oats buys Ken-L Ration in 1942.
  • 1950s: As the World War II production effort saps the metal supply needed for tins of wet food (and controversy arises when consumers are disturbed to learn that the food is horse meat), Purina starts mass producing dry dog food. General Mills buys Spratt’s original company.
  • 1968: Jean Cathary, a veterinarian born in France, coins the idea of nutritional dog and cat food. He later goes on to found Royal Canin.
  • 1970s: Major companies that remain pet food giants today, like Iams and Nutro, find widespread appeal. Veterinary schools boom in the US, and veterinary endorsements of science-backed food formulas become the norm.
  • 1982: Nestlé launches Fancy Feast, a wet food for cats.
  • 2007: Thousands of pets die after eating tainted food from Menu Foods Income Fund, a Canadian company. The industrial chemical contamination came from a manufacturing plant in China.
  • 2010s: Consumers increasingly seek out premium pet foods marketed with words like “natural” and “human grade,” mimicking a time before Spratt when pets were less common, and street cats and dogs munched on the scraps they could get.
  • 2011: In an attempt to prevent future pet-food contamination, US Congress passes the Food Safety Modernization Act, which empowers the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate pet food.
  • 2018: The FDA announces it is investigating “grain-free” dog food after it receives hundreds of reports of dogs developing a dangerous heart condition called canine dilated cardiomyopathy. These dogs had all eaten food where legumes or potatoes were listed as key ingredients. The investigation sparked debate about whether boutique, “premium” diets are good for animals. Some vets argue that they are not, while others maintain that certain breeds may be more susceptible to falling ill.
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The move to natural—and beyond

In the US, pet food sales have grown between 4% and 6% annually over the last seven years; the market was valued at $29 billion in 2019. 2020 was an exceptional year; Packaged Facts, a market research company, has estimated as much as 7% growth over the course of the year.

People likely did adopt more pets this year, but that’s not the main factor driving the growth of food sales—according to Euromonitor International, a market research provider, pets are generally getting smaller, as more petite dog breeds are in vogue. Even with more of them, they don’t eat enough to put a noticeable increase in the pet food market.

Instead, it’s a shift in the kinds of food pet owners are serving their fur babies. They think of them like family, which means they want to feed them like family. According to Packaged Facts, the trend translates into two distinct markets:

  1. Foods with “natural” labeling
  2. Foods that boast a scientific backing for specific conditions, like sensitive digestive tracts or extra probiotic formulas.

Both of these count as “premium” foods by manufacturer standards, but the word is more of a marketing tool. Though the FDA has is no specific definition for the category “premium” generally refers to foods with no dyes or flavors and higher quality proteins.

Premium foods have increased in price by 7.5% over the last few years, according to Euromonitor, which is largely driving the industry’s growth.

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Even amid Covid-19, pet food is an essential item…

The boom of US sales at the start of the pandemic in March was likely spurred by people hoarding food for pets as well as people bringing new ones into their families. The drop in April 2020 comes from pet owners realizing that pet food supply chains were stable and there was no need to panic-buy.

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…That can be bought online.

In the last year, pet food companies were three of the top five performers in terms of online revenue in the US. In total, online sales for pet food rose roughly 32% over the course of the year, a rise of $6.4 billion, with Amazon and Chewy leading the charge. Amazon alone shipped 127.1 million bags of pet food across the US in 2020.