Pets take a bite out of the food market

Pets can chow down on specialist soup, popcorn and beer. Nuala Woulfe scratches the surface of the gourmet pet food industry
Pets take a bite out of the food market

Picture the scene; it’s the weekend, you’re having a beer and so is your pooch, you both snack on a hot dog then break out the popcorn, the dog has some too and you finish off with individual big bars of chocolate and settle down to watch some TV.

Or maybe you come home and your darling cat greets you and you rustle her up some gourmet soup or treat her to some cat casserole. Today’s pets, like humans, can even avail of lactose-free milk and gluten-free products.

This is the world of ‘humanised’ pet food which has been taking off in America and Europe for some time and which is gradually hitting our own supermarket and speciality doggy restaurant shelves.

For a long time pet owners have had the choice of more upmarket premier products, but shaping food into traditional human items, or marketing them as products you think sound good enough to eat yourself is a decidedly new trend and one that is growing.

Tail twisters by make a milk chocolate woof bar, meaty hot dog and popcorn, available in Tesco, but another product selling well in Ireland, is Belgian made meat-flavoured Snuffle doggy beer.

“Snuffle beer is very popular, we launched it just before Paddy’s Day,’ says Paul Froggatt of Dublin pet friendly restaurant Pupp. Paul says today’s dog owner is, “looking for organic high quality and environmentally friendly products” but he agrees the mentality of giving the meat-flavoured beer is “absolutely one for me and one for the dog, even our own dog loves it,” he admits.

Snuffle, say their intention in inventing the novelty product was to share a dog beer ‘during those special moments of bonding’. To help in the bonding Snuffle have recently invented ‘dog fries’ too.

“Marketing petcare products in such a way that they sound familiar to humans and get the owner’s mouth- watering is very clever,’ says Dublin psychologist Susannah Healy, I’m a cat owner myself and I know I recently came across the ‘cat casserole’(A Whiskas product described as an ‘irresistible, delicious casserole with succulent chunks cooked to perfection.’ )

Susannah says, “there’s a lot of research that goes into a product to make it appeal to humans. As humans we experience through our emotions and senses but it’s not too difficult to transfer our known world onto our pets.”

She explains human brains “pattern match” and people have an internal blueprint for human faces but that face can be superimposed on a teddy or a small animal so we can think animals are like us even though we don’t actually perceive the world the same way.

“A dog has 150 times our sense of smell, so we can’t really say we judge food the same way as a dog, our pets may curl up and be affectionate and when they look at us with ‘sad eyes’ when we’re eating we might think they want some too.

It gives us a sense of controllability over our pets if we see them like us, but we forget or disregard that they actually do very ‘non-human’ things too, like go off and lick themselves.”

It’s probably no surprise to learn that many of the world’s most famous petcare products are aligned to food conglomerates – Mars and Nestle.

Communications spokesperson for Nestle Purina, Charlotte Dixon says, “shoppers are increasingly seeking out luxury food options for their cats.”

The company launched its ‘delectable’ gourmet cat soup range in 2016 ‘offering your cat an amazing cat experience.’ Cat soup is marketed as an opportunity where one can, ‘spoil your cat’s refined palate with a tantalising rich and meaty soup.’

Alternatively you can, ‘treat your sophisticated cat to natural chicken and fine vegetables in a delectable broth’ or have him experience a ‘refined broth’ of, ‘delicate ingredients of chicken and flavoursome vegetables’ to ‘ tempt cats’ taste buds no matter how sophisticated their palates.’

Commenting on their very human like language, Purina says, “our specialist brand marketing teams devise the words and images to get our products noticed in a crowded market.” Some of Purina’s most recent products combine two tastes in one sachet and their gold savoury ‘cake’ markets itself as having new texture.

Does the cat care?

Ms Dixon says, “we know from pet owners that cats love variety in textures and tastes.” Petcare is equally big business for Mars as according to Irish PR, Katherine Hogan, petcare food forms the biggest segment of their global market.

“When it comes to petcare nutrition we own some of the oldest brands including Royal Canin, Sheba, Whiskas and Kite Kat. We have a range of treats but I don’t see us going down the line of such things as doggy beer or Easter eggs.”

Of the treats made by Mars their cat milk is described as, ‘deliciously good’ their Pedigree Tasty dog bites comes in ‘cheesy nibbles’ and their Misfits dog range mention they’re flavoured with things like ‘scrummy chicken’. Is such language designed for the pet or the owner?

“Obviously the gatekeeper of pet products is the consumer in terms of packaging but always our goal is to maximise the quality and nutritional value of our products for the animal,” says Ms Hogan.

High quality treats are made by smaller Irish companies too. Karen Anderton, owner of the Coco Bean invented healthy vegetarian ‘Nom Noms’ for dogs, which are packaged in classy, brown paper bags.

Karen says they were inspired by her own dog, “to keep her healthy.” Treats include healthy fruit and veg and locally sourced, free range organic eggs and products are gluten, sugar and salt free, she explains.

While quality is appreciated there are those who are concerned the trend toward treats mightn’t always benefit the animal. Caroline Forde, owner of the dog friendly Glebe House in Cork says they provide some dog treats, “but from our own supply. I’m very health conscious and I’d be concerned about over feeding, I definitely don’t see the point of doggy beer, I think that’s a bit ridiculous, somebody sent a doggy Easter egg once, but I probably binned it.”

Veterinary nurse and hydrotherapist, Sandra Joyce of Sunbeam Veterinary in Cork says overfed pets are a big problem to such an extent that animals are developing arthritis and can only exercise on special water treadmills.

“We see lot of obese dogs and fat cats and we do ask the owners are they getting treats, sometimes it might even be that when the owner gets a burger the dog gets one too. With any product you should look at the ingredients and even if it seems high quality, look at the calories, dogs put on weight very easily.”

Sandra is also concerned people might confuse alcohol free, doggy beer with the real thing or make the mistake of giving a dog real human chocolate which is very dangerous.

“If you’d like to give occasional treats make the animal work for it, maybe reward a behaviour but if you’re putting your own feelings on a dog like, ‘yay it’s Friday, let’s both have a treat’ the animal doesn’t need that and to be honest, would probably much prefer a walk.”

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