Have you noticed the dogs in your neighborhood wear nicer coats than you do?
It’s true — pets are living the good life. Gone are the days of mangy mutts chewing on discarded bones. Today’s dogs are treated like family members, from their clothing and accessories to exercise routines and diets.
American consumers aren’t only buying more pet food. They’re also trying to buy better food — 85% of dog owners say they consider their pet to be a member of their family.
When it comes to pet food, the best that there is to offer often means human-grade (AKA food that meets legal standards for human consumption, from ingredients to cooking facilities).
And more brands are popping up to make high-quality, human-grade food for people’s pets. Plus, the pet industry on the whole is known for being somewhat recession-proof, making it an appealing venture for many founders and investors.
Sundays is one such business making dog food with human-grade ingredients. Founded in 2020, the brand makes shelf-stable, air-dried dog food by slowly dehydrating natural ingredients. This preserves nutrients, kills germs, and doesn’t require any prep (like defrosting).
Dr. Tory Waxman, co-founder and chief veterinary officer at Sundays, says that the brand is able to not only produce high-quality food for dogs, but also it can put nutrient-rich organ meat which usually goes to waste — such as hearts and livers — to good use.
“Fifty years ago dogs slept outside and ate kibble,” says Waxman. “Today the majority of dogs sleep in their human’s bed, but still eat kibble. We believe that our dogs deserve better… ”
This belief is what’s fueling more owners to switch to human-grade food: A dichotomy emerges when a customer considers their dog to be like a child to them, but is still giving them food that they can’t trace.
Human-grade food speaks to that uncertainty: Foods that consumers themselves eat are all commonly spotted on human-grade pet food labels and with the naked eye.
That’s the case at Ollie, where beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, and pork are what’s on the menu. The company offers both fresh (frozen) and baked (shelf-stable) options, and meal plans are customized based on factors like your dog’s weight, age, and breed.
Customers can choose to split their dog’s calculated daily calorie allotment 50/50 between fresh and dry food, or can do 100% fresh depending on their preferences (doing only half fresh food is a more cost-effective option) — and can sign up for customized subscription plans.
They can also add variety to their meal plan with different ingredients and recipes, though CEO Nick Stafford says that the desire for variety actually comes from pet parents, while dogs would be content eating one food every day for the rest of their lives.
That’s the irony in the pet food industry. While the product is for animals, it’s the humans who drive the trends and influence the market.
“We know who our customer is,” says Stafford. “She’s head of household, owns a home, and really looks at her dog as a member of the family and wants to invest accordingly. Her reference point is not other pet food; her reference point is baby food or another member of her family.”
Stafford says this mindset is what makes it so exciting to be in the pet food space right now, and that though Ollie, founded in 2016, is still a small company, it wants to take a bite out of the 86.9m American households with pets.
Also vying for those millions is The Farmer’s Dog, another human-grade pet food player in the space which was founded in 2015. The subscription-based brand similarly begins with customers completing an intake process with details about their dog so that nutrition needs like calories and portions can be decided.
The food is then quickly frozen and shipped in individual servings. Customers can keep the fresh food in their refrigerators to thaw and serve their dogs from there.
It remains to be seen whether or not human-grade food makes a notable difference in pet health or longevity, and as the data comes in, pet parents will be faced with higher costs to go human-grade: Fresh food can cost as much as 27x dry food for some brands.
Even if the jury is still out on whether or not human-grade food will make for healthier, happier dogs, when it comes to pets, consumers are thinking with their hearts more often than their bank accounts, and founders in the space feel optimistic about the future.
“We don’t think that the explosion in the numbers of dog owners and vets embracing healthy, whole food for their pets is a trend; we think it’s a fundamental, permanent shift,” says Jonathan Regev, co-founder and CEO of the Farmer’s Dog.
In addition to human-grade food, brands might began experimenting with other ways to improve pooches’ lives.
Most recently, Ollie is working on launching an AI-powered app where new customers can upload poop pics — yes, you heard that right — and an algorithm as well as a vet will take a look at the photo and let the owner know if their dog’s digestive system is responding well to Ollie’s food.
If that’s not love, we don’t know what is.