A dog's dinner: The booming business in pets

by Venetia Sherson / 23 December, 2017

Tommy and owner Dave Smith, on the beach at Raglan.

Pets’ dinners are getting a makeover as millennials demand designer diets for their fur babies. And New Zealand manufacturers are lapping it up, writes Venetia Sherson.

At less than 30cm tall, Tommy is the smallest member of the Smith household and also the fussiest. At dinner, he would often sniff his food, curl his lip, and leave the room. “It was driving us nuts,” says Dave Smith, a man more used to dealing with the moods of the stock market. “We had a pantry full of rejects.” Over a few beers, after a tennis game with his mate Frank Bellerby, he vented his frustration.

Smith and Bellerby live in Raglan. Both are refugees from international cities. They have found their spiritual home in the small West Coast beach town best known for its left-hand surf break. Smith is an English Literature major and former investment banker, who now co-owns the Raglan Chronicle with his wife, Jacqui. Bellerby has an honour’s degree in agricultural science. They share an interest in Tommy, the Smith family’s bichon frise-chihuahua cross. Bellerby says he’s a sort of dog uncle.

“I look after Tommy when they go away.”

Good Noze pet food.

An animal-feed specialist, he’s also something of an expert on fussy eaters. When Smith outlined the problem with Tommy’s picky palate, Bellerby saw potential that went way beyond one dog. Two years on, their pet food range – Good Noze – is on the shelves of supermarkets, delicatessens and upmarket stores like The Country Providore, near Hamilton, where it sits between gourmet chutneys and organic greens. The men say they have taken a “pet-centric” approach to developing the product, which is a freeze-dried mix of lamb, chicken and wild honey. But the packaging – images of anthropomorphic dogs and cats wearing dinner jackets, cravats and spectacles – is unashamedly pitched at owners who see their animals as an extension of themselves.

In Christchurch, Calvin Smith (no relation) is also a convert to the pet-food business. A former currency derivatives trader based overseas, he returned to New Zealand in 2006, seeking new challenges. He and his wife bought two border collie pups and when he asked what to feed them, “like any expectant parent”, he was pointed to K9 Natural, a range of New Zealand-sourced meat foods made from sustainable, free-range and grass-fed animals. He liked the product so much, he invested in it and later was appointed CEO. In 2011, Deloittes reported that it was the fastest-growing manufacturer in the country. 

These days, Smith heads his own company, Pet Nutrition New Zealand, and is in demand as a keynote speaker at international pet-food conferences. He says the trend towards premium pet foods is gathering steam, and New Zealand is in a prime position to cash in.

“New Zealand’s reputation as a food producer is second to none. We are known for producing quality products. It’s the same with pet food. There is no country better placed to lead the field.”

Smith with his business partner, Frank Bellerby.

In the past decade, the pet market has undergone a seismic shift in complexity and scale. Today, more than half of all households worldwide owns a dog or cat. In New Zealand, there are as many pets as people (4.6 million). More than six out of 10 of us share our home with pets, second only to the US. We have the highest cat population per capita in the world.

Alongside this, there has been a shift towards the “humanisation” of pets, largely driven by millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000), many of whom seem to almost see their pets as people. In the US, more millennials own pets than any previous generation. Three quarters own a dog – usually small, in keeping with apartment living. The Washington Post last year reported that, while people in their 30s were less likely to be home owners, car owners or parents, they were the clear leader in pet ownership. “Pets are a replacement for children,” says Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me. “They are less expensive. You can get one even if you’re not ready to live with someone or get married, and they provide companionship.”

Like any doting “parents”, millennials want the best for their offspring. They ply them with cashmere coats, cosmetics and smartphone-controlled electronic toys. There are spas for stressed pets, daycare for dogs whose owners work, and a vast range of goods and services more traditionally offered to humans. Auckland’s Barkley Manor, which describes itself as a “social club”, charges up to $43 a day and takes themed “school photos” every year, while Hamilton even has a pet hotel, where dog pals can share a double suite for $98 a night.

But it’s pet food that has the industry licking its lips. The sector has grown by more than $27 billion worldwide in the past five years, as a new generation of owners demands premium products on a par with human food.

According to international research company Mintel, eight out of 10 pet owners say the quality of their pets’ food is as important as their own. The demand has spawned a profusion of products: more than 3000 new pet foods were launched in the US last year alone. Among them, gluten-free, grain-free and dairy-free products; low-carb, hypo-allergenic and organic foods, foods with Omega-3 supplements for neutered cats, paleo, vegetarian and vegan foods, and even treats like doggy popcorn, birthday cakes and ice cream.

While New Zealand manufacturers will never match the global giants – Nestlé, Mars and Big Heart Pet Brands – who between them account for 90 per cent of the mid-price US pet food market, they are making significant gains in the premium, natural pet food market here and overseas. Three years ago, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment ranked pet food as one of the top six “emerging growth opportunities” of the New Zealand food and beverage sector. Some say it could become our next wine industry.

More millennials own pets than any previous generation, and they treat them as a replacement for children, says Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me.

A decade ago, during a month-long road trip in the US, Nelson vet  Paula Short had an epiphany. Out of curiosity, she visited some pet food shops to see what they sold, and was blown away by the wide range of natural, holistic, organic and grain-free foods. “That got me thinking. I was buying free-range food for myself, but my clinics stocked pet food made from factory-farmed chicken.”

She and her husband discussed whether to import some of the products they had seen in the US, and then thought, “Why would we import them, when we have such an abundance of good quality protein grown locally?”

Two years ago, after the birth of her second child, Short sold her clinics in Nelson and Motueka to develop a range of ethically sourced pet food from New Zealand suppliers. Her product, Genius, to be launched this year, is a dry kibble mix of lamb from Timaru, peas from mid-Canterbury, flaxseed fibre and hempseed oil from Ashburton, and possum meat (high in omega 3 and fatty acids) from areas where 1080 isn’t used.

Last year, Short sent a letter to the New Zealand Veterinary Association magazine Vetscript, urging other vets to reconsider what they stocked. “If we’re really going to strive for greater animal “wellbeing” rather than just meeting minimum standards of animal welfare then at what point does it become unethical to sell pet food made from factory-farmed chicken?”, she wrote. “If we genuinely desire to meet the NZVA’s antimicrobial resistance statement that ‘by 2030, New Zealand Inc will not need antibiotics for the maintenance of animal health and wellness’, then should we retail products made from animals raised in systems with high antibiotic usage? And, if a stated goal of our profession is to increase the value of NZ Inc, is it not hypocritical for our businesses to be selling huge volumes of protein imported from Europe and the US?”

The response, she says, was mixed.

The changes to pets’ diets – and the humanisation of their food – have inevitably raised eyebrows among those who think things have gone too far. To sceptics, humanisation breaches a boundary between people and domesticated animals.

They say it is undignified for animals to be treated as offspring, and intense “parenting” of dogs and cats can be stressful for the pets, leading to behavioural problems. Overfeeding, as an expression of affection, can lead to obesity. The SPCA says four out of 10 dogs and three out of 10 cats in New Zealand are clinically overweight or obese.  

Dog food goes organic: raw meat supplemented with carrots, courgettes and eggs.

Dr Nick Cave, a lecturer in small animal medicine at Massey University, shares those concerns, but he says there are many things to celebrate in a close relationship between owners and pets.

“We do need to acknowledge the role pets play. It’s profoundly important in terms of companionship. There are also health benefits. Animals that are well cared for live longer and better lives.” 

However, as a practising vet, he has concerns about some pet food trends he terms “irrational and dangerous”.

“One of the tragic ironies is that in the effort to mirror human trends and natural foods, we are seeing more cases of malnutrition in pets. In the past five years, there has been an increase in diet-induced disease.”

Some of that is due to well-meaning ignorance, he says. “In other cases, wilful ignorance. Some owners are sacrificing fundamental principles of nutrition for philosophical reasons.”

The anti-grain movement is a case in point. “There is a widespread misapprehension that grains are evil and cause disease. In properly formulated diets, grains are a good source of nutrients and there is nothing to suggest they cause problems that would justify their exclusion.”

Another is the raw meat diet, the fastest-growing trend worldwide in pet nutrition. The diet, based on raw meaty bones, is claimed to simulate how dogs would eat in the wild. Proponents say it keeps pets healthier, and gives them shinier coats and more energy.

But some vets have raised concerns, saying they are seeing puppies with inadequate bone development due to lack of calcium, and more incidents of bones getting stuck or piercing an organ.

Earlier this year, the Veterinary Specialist Group’s Dr Mark Robson told the New Zealand Herald his hospital had seen an increase in the number of dogs with bone stuck in the oesophagus. Raw Essentials founder Dr Lyn Thomson countered the claim, saying any problems are the result of owners not raw feeding properly.   

Cave, a vegetarian who feeds his own dogs “commercial pet food formulated to contain everything a dog needs”, says many raw-food diets are nutritionally incomplete, and the case for them comes from a philosophical standpoint, not a scientific one.

“In any debate – no matter which food you choose – you must start from the point of what’s healthy for the animal you care for. Every owner should first ask if the diet they want to feed their pet is formulated to be nutritionally complete, balanced and safe.”

Meanwhile, back in Raglan, Tommy is enjoying his new food. Dave Smith says when they launched the product, they carried out a taste test, using dogs in the district

Antonia Allum and Cairo, on the beach in Wellington.

GIVE A DOG A BONE

… or possibly a nest-laid egg or mashed parsnip and peas. Pet owners are picky when choosing their dog’s dinner. 

The Vegetarian  

Obee, a four-year-old labrador-mastiff cross, is a big dog, weighing in at 35kg. He looks like a meat eater. But his favourite dish is mashed pumpkin, parsnip and carrot, with a side dish of rice and possibly an egg or two.

Owner Lianne Davies is an accounts co-ordinator with the Post Primary Teachers’ Association, and a dog instructor in her spare time. She’s always owned dogs, but Obee is her first vegetarian. The choice of diet is not for ethical reasons; Davies herself eats meat and her other dog, Willow, a husky-heading dog cross, is a carnivore.

Obee is allergic to meat, a not-uncommon condition that can cause rashes, vomiting, diarrhoea and even death. Davies discovered the problem when he began to gnaw his paws, taking off two layers of skin. She initially put it down to contact with wandering willy, a noxious weed, but a vet later diagnosed the condition.

Davies says Obee is flourishing on veges, plus a hypoallergenic pet food with added vitamins and minerals. “Dogs in the wild eat a range of foods, including duck eggs, berries and grass.” She says she is not a picky owner – a previous Irish setter was fed dog roll – “but this time I had no choice”.

 

Strictly Meat

When Boston, a purebred black pug, developed back spasms, owner Lisa-Maree Wallen consulted a range of specialists, who variously suggested brain scans and MRIs that would have cost a fortune. Desperate, Wallen took him to a holistic vet who used acupuncture and suggested a new diet. The back pain disappeared.

The vet was Dr Lyn Thomson, founder of Raw Essentials, a pet food company that promotes a raw meaty bone diet for cats and dogs. Wallen, who has a second black pug named Betty, became a convert. The Auckland real estate agent said she began feeding Boston biscuits, but that didn’t sit well with her. “I like to eat good-quality food. But dogs don’t have a choice.”

On any day, Betty and Boston may dine on dishes of raw rabbit, turkey or goat, including the organs. She briefly worried her carnivorous pug might become aggressive, but that didn’t happen. The dogs live good lives, she says. They have buckets of individual toys, sleep on their owners’ bed and sometimes go to work with them. “It depends on how my day or their dad’s unfolds.”

She says dog diets are discussed on the Facebook page Little Pugs. “There’s a range of views; you have to respect others’ opinions.”

 

Ethically Sourced

Cairo was a model in The Body Shop in Wellington when Antonia Allum first saw her. The shop was staging a promotion for the SPCA, and Cairo – then a gangly greyhound-cross puppy – was there to draw attention to dog adoption. “She was wearing a little cardigan,” says Allum, who lives in Porirua.

She took a picture and sent it to her husband, Jeremy. “Bring her home,” he replied. A previous dog, Lucca, had the same lucky break when they rescued him from the pound. 

Allum is a conservationist and animal rights activist, which is why she prefers abandoned animals as pets. As part of her values, she sources dog food from an ethical source. Hours of searching online led her to the Canadian brands Orijen and Arcana, which do not outsource manufacturing and use local “ranch-raised meats, cage-free poultry, nest-laid eggs and wild-caught fish”. The food is free of grains, preservatives and additives, and has no added hormones. It’s delivered weekly to the door.

Allum is a vegetarian, but Cairo is fed meaty biscuits, supplemented with raw vegetable scraps from the family meal. “Lucca [who died three years ago] could have been a vegetarian – he loved veges,” she says. “But Cairo likes meat. I don’t believe in foisting my beliefs and ethics on my dogs.”

“Would sir like the salmon or the lamb?” No food is too fine for today’s pampered pets.

BARISTACATS & CANINE CAKES

Fancy a glass of Chardognay with your vegan kibble snacks? Moose ice cream and pupcakes to follow?

Babylon Cafe in Wellington is BYOD – that’s Bring Your Own Dog, for the uninformed. Dogs are not only welcome, they get their own menu including doggacinos (water and frothy milk sprinkled with beef stock), gourmet biscuits, a posh meat platter and deluxe mince ($8).

At the Cat Lounge in Auckland, you can cuddle a cat while you sip your short black, while Baristacats ups the ante with cat yoga sessions (you do the yoga) or you can just hang with resident felines Princess Hamburglar or Lady Mary Clawley.

These cafes are part of a worldwide trend – and if you think that’s barking, read on…

Ice Cream

When Prince George, son of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (aka Kate and Wills), was pictured on his second birthday, there was a chorus of, “Aww, cute.” But not from dog owners. George was feeding his pet dog, Lupo, a white-chocolate Magnum. Dogs can’t digest lactose properly, and chocolate can kill them. However, canines can still get their licks. Swedish company Hugo and Celine makes ice cream in flavours of Magic Moose, Lickin’ Liver and Slick Salmon. In the UK, Billy + Margot produces fruity iced treats for hot dogs, in apple, banana and carrot.

Wine and Beer

For pet owners who don’t like to drink alone, US company Apollo Peak has a range of wines, with names like Chardognay, Pinot Miaow, Doggy Mary and Malbark – non-alcoholic beverages that may have a touch of catnip on the nose. Bowser Beer produces non-alcoholic ales made from beef, pork or chicken, malt barley (naturally high in vitamin B1), and glucosamine for joint health. Best served with bar snacks, Bowser Bits, which can also be sprinkled over kibble.     

Birthday Cakes

On birthday or special occasions – such as graduating from puppy school – Kiwi dog owners are happy to pay up to $35 for a customised canine cake from Auckland company Amy’s Secret Kitchen to celebrate their pet’s big day. Made from wholemeal flour, beef stock, carrots, peanut butter and honey, these animal-friendly concoctions are selling like pup-cakes...

Cannabinoids

Strictly for pain relief, of course. Auntie Dolores in San Francisco sells “organic gourmet cannabis edibles” derived from hemp, and has a pet range called Treatibles. Euphoric side effects a bonus.    

Insects

Insects are an excellent source of protein, and pet food manufacturers have them in their sights. Dutch company Jonker Petfood this year launched a pet food with a base of 100 per cent insect protein, plus puffed corn, “unlocked” rice, oats, sorghum, eggs and egg derivatives, vitamins and minerals.

My Doggy Bag

New Yorkers Jonathan Regey, 29, and Brett Podolsky, 28, started a home-delivered doggy bag service after Podolsky’s rottweiler kept getting sick from store brands. The Farmer’s Dog supplies meals made from fresh meat and veges at an average cost of $40 a week – and there’s a waiting list for new subscribers. Nadia, take note.

Anti-ageing

Pet Food brands like Young Again Pet Food promise anti-ageing benefits. Their cat food is based on the composition of a juvenile mouse.

Celebrity Chefs

US celebrity chef and parent of two pit bulls Rachel Ray has a pet-food range, Nutrish, which she claims to have eaten herself – “with a little added salt”, while Jewish chef Norman Levitz has a brand of certified-organic treats made in a “human grade bakery”.      

Off the Menu

The SPCA in New Zealand issues warnings about food products not suitable for cats and dogs. As well as ice creams, it warns dogs should not consume avocado, onions, garlic, grapes, chocolate and raisins. A spokesperson says Christmas can be a lethal time for dogs if they’re fed chocolate, and Christmas cake or pudding.

This was published in the October 2017 issue of North & South.

 

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