Why millennial ‘pet parents’ are giving their dogs a luxury human diet

Dog at the dinner table
Laura Craik: ‘We all want the best for our dogs. Even if opinion varies wildly as to what that is’ - Mike Bagley/Getty Images

It’s the sort of mouth-watering description that one expects to read on the finest menus of the finest restaurants in the land.

“Freshly prepared Aberdeen Angus beef with sweet potato and fava beans, accompanied by a delicious blend of carrot, green bean, cauliflower, tomato, courgette and a hint of olive,” it says, adding that the beef is quality-checked from specially selected farms. “Which means you know your dog is getting the taste and goodness it deserves.”

You stop salivating. Dog food? Suddenly, you don’t feel quite so hungry anymore.

The description comes courtesy of Bounce and Bella, one of an increasing number of luxury pet food brands banking on the old adage that man’s best friend is his dog – and that the way to a dog’s heart is through his stomach.

A 2kg bag of Bounce and Bella dry dog food costs £20.99, roughly the same price per 100g as you’d pay for a premium human food such as Charlie Bigham’s cottage pie. But it’s a price that’s justified, according to co-founder Darren Clunie, who launched Bounce and Bella after both he and one of his dogs started suffering from digestion problems.

“As pet parents, we often can’t work out what the problem is. It’s generally the cheap filler that big businesses use to make profit at the expense of our dogs’ health – usually grains of some sort, which they aren’t physically equipped to digest.”

Like most premium dog foods, Bounce and Bella is devoid of grains, as well as plant, animal or vegetable derivatives, whose usage would lower costs but whose quality is ungoverned, says Clunie. “The derivatives used in mass-market products are made from any plant or animal,” he explains, “My big tip to any pet owner is to never buy anything that includes derivatives – you can’t know what’s in there.”

A noble aim, though as humans become ever more concerned about what they put in their stomachs, some want to nurture their canine companions with the sort of organic, minimally processed diet that they favour themselves.

And so the “humanisation” of pet food continues apace, with owners scanning labels for organic and “hero” ingredients, such as blueberries, kale and seeds. Post-pandemic, a shift in attitude has seen many owners go above and beyond when it comes to giving their pets the best in life.

Four canine treats to try
Four canine treats to try

Browse the more middle-class supermarket websites, and you will find premium “humanised” dog food products such as bone broth, frozen yogurt and ice cream. Last  month, US doughnut manufacturer Krispy Kreme launched a six-pack of Doggie Doughnuts (£13.95), complete with dog-friendly sprinkles and icing that mimics the human version.

Whatever your views on doggy doughnuts, there is certainly a market for them. According to an annual survey conducted by UK Pet Food, 12 million UK households currently have a dog, roughly three million of which were acquired since the start of the pandemic.

According to parcel carrier Yodel, which delivers popular subscription pet food services including Butternut Box, Tails and Zooplus, pet food deliveries have more than doubled since 2018, while in London, they have almost tripled. The UK pet food market was valued at £3.3 billion in 2022, and is estimated to be worth £4.75 billion by 2025.

“I think it’s all got a bit silly,” says Jackie Plumb, 66, whose 10-year-old Labrador, Silk, has been reared on nothing finer than Pedigree Chum, a mass-market dog food first introduced to the UK in 1934. At around £1 for a 400g can of “chunks in gravy with beef”, it’s one of the cheapest on the market.

A cockerspaniel with a steak
Greg Fraser: ‘People increasingly see their pets as an essential part of their family’ - Getty

“But Silk only gets wet food occasionally,” adds Plumb, a retired teacher. “Mainly, her diet consists of dry kibble. Even if I could afford to feed her steak, I don’t think dogs need anything fancy. In the 1960s, my mum used to give our dogs chocolate, which apparently is bad for them, although they lived to a ripe old age. We didn’t know any better then.”

But not everyone is as pragmatic as Plumb. Greg Fraser, owner of Bottled Baking Co, first launched an all-natural baking mix for dogs on April Fool’s Day. It proved so popular that it is now a permanent part of his business, sold in high street stores including John Lewis. “Since the pandemic, people increasingly see their pets as an essential part of their family, taking them on holiday, buying them gifts and even clothing,” Fraser says.

He also believes they’re more discerning about their dogs’ food. “They really lean in to flavours that sound appealing to them, too. Our carrot cake [baking mix] is a good example of this.”

The market for plant-based dog food is also booming. October sees the launch of Hownd Wellness Treats (£2.95 for 100g), a range of plant-based, hypoallergenic snacks, hand-baked in biomass wood-fired ovens. A treat for the dog, or a lifestyle choice that mirrors that of its vegetarian owners?

Sara Pearson, co-founder of Hug, a range of “human grade” ready meals for dogs, agrees the pandemic was a tipping point. “We saw a significant increase in pet ownership, particularly among people who were often first time ‘pet parents’, some of whom saw their dogs as ‘trainee’ babies or an alternative to babies.

Bounce and Bella beef and plant based Hownd dog treats
While some dogs now dine on Aberdeen Angus beef or British venison, plant-based dog food has also become more popular

“In the same way that you wouldn’t feed a baby a permanent diet of tinned food, the new generation of pet owners don’t want solely to give tinned food to their dogs. Historically, pet food choices have been wet (tinned), dry (kibble), ready-cooked or raw, but the growing number of vegan/vegetarian pet owners means they may not be comfortable handling raw meat.”

Pearson adds that some pet parents have already placed orders for limited edition Christmas meals for their dogs.

Launched in 2020, Hug certainly sounds good enough to eat. Each meal contains a minimum of 60 per cent meat as well as seasonal organic vegetables, and is legume, bone and offal free. But don’t call it a “luxury” brand.

“We consider it to be ‘premium’, which is different,” says Pearson. “I don’t think paying £3.31 for 300g (the daily diet of a medium-sized dog) is excessive for the quality of the ingredients. It’s still cheaper than a £3.55 single grande skinny vanilla latte from Starbucks.”

A survey by consumer insight experts QuMind found that despite being hit hard by the cost of living crisis, it’s millennials who are mainly driving the trend for luxury dog food, sometimes even spending more on their pets’ wellbeing than their own.

63 per cent of those surveyed admitted to spending more on dog grooming than on going to the hairdresser themselves. The survey also found that millennials spent an average of £31 on pet vitamins and supplements.

But for every owner buying luxury dog food, there are others who struggle to afford to keep their pets, and others who would baulk at the prices even if they could afford them.

According to UK Pet Food’s 2023 survey, only 29 per cent of people considered the cost before getting a pet, while 18 per cent admitted that it was more expensive than they’d expected. Of the 3.7 million households that relinquished pets in 2022, 47 per cent of those relinquished were dogs.

Hug pet food
Some pet owners report more on their pets’ wellbeing than on their own - Hug My Dog

For the vast majority of animal lovers, the idea of relinquishing a pet is unthinkable. In times of crisis, their companionship can be particularly valuable. So treasured is brand consultant Hannah Rochell’s schnauzer, Grenson, that she cooks his meals herself.

“We got Grenson right after we found out we wouldn’t be able to have children,” says Rochell, who lives on the Isle of Wight. “Cooking for him was some nurturing I needed to get out of my system, but also I like to know the provenance of my own food. Cooking for him gives me some control. He tends to have stews of meat with pearl barley or bulgar wheat with lots of vegetables like carrots, sweet potato and broccoli.”

Rochell realises some may think she’s “a bit bonkers”, but believes Grenson is all the healthier for it. “He was recently diagnosed with pancreatitis, which means his diet has to be quite restricted. I’ve started baking bite-sized pieces of liver as treats, something I’m aware is made much easier because I work from home.”

She also believes it’s more cost-effective. “By batch cooking, it’s much cheaper than buying tinned food and kibble in the long run.”

Those who remember buying pallets of unmarked “meat” from the cash and carry and feeding our pets now-verboten chocolate treats may roll their eyes, but schnauzer or Staffy, St Bernard or shih tzu, we all want the best for our dogs. Even if opinion varies wildly as to what that is.

According to Mintel, the future of pet food is expected to be even more luxurious than it is now, and may consist of personalised diets for obese dogs and those suffering from allergies.

Never has the phrase “it’s a dog’s life” rung more true.

What is your pet’s diet like? Have you ever bought them any luxury canine treats? Join the conversation in the comments section below

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