Saturday, July 2, 2022

Why dog ​​and cat food is so expensive

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Shreya Christina
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My dog, Jumanji, loves beef pizzle – aka bully sticks. Also known as dried bull penises.

I can tolerate what they are, and even the pungent smell these things exude. What’s harder to bear is the price tag. Each stick can cost upwards of $10, and my dog ​​will rip through it in minutes.

Bully sticks aren’t the only expensive pet products. Food, treats, and chews can cost owners hundreds of dollars a month, even though they’re often made with “by-products” from the meat and poultry industries — essentially anything that isn’t muscle tissue, such as udders, spleens, bones, and, yes, pizzeria.

These costs are affecting more people than ever before. During the pandemic, no less than 23 million American households — about one in five — adopted a dog or cat. And prices are rising too. Animal nutrition was about 12 percent more expensive at the beginning of this year than at the beginning of 2020, according to research firm NielsenIQ.

Jumanji is holding a bully stick, a dog treat made with beef pizzle (penis).
Benji Jones

Cat or dog, mutt or purebred, your pet is probably pretty expensive, and there’s a reason food and treats are such a big part of the cost. First, “by-products” aren’t really by-products as you might think. More importantly, though, dog and cat owners have one trait that makes us particularly vulnerable consumers: We are completely obsessed with our pets.

Chunks are surprisingly complex

In a strange way, kibble is like infant formula, according to Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor emeritus at New York University who has authored two books on pet food: “You have a product that is the complete nutrition for that animal.”

Those homey brown kernels must have the right combination of fat, protein, fiber and nutrients to keep a pet healthy, even if it isn’t eating anything else. (The adult equivalent could be something like Soylent.)

Kibble should also last weeks or months without rotting, which requires additional ingredients. “The complexity is just astounding,” George Collings, a pet nutrition consultant, told me, adding that juggling multiple supply chains and thousands of ingredients involves costs.

The ingredients themselves can be pricey too – even the so-called by-products of the meat industry. While Americans may not readily eat meats such as liver and pizzle, there is a market for them elsewhere, such as in Europe and China. That’s why some experts call “by-products” a misnomer.

“They’re not leftovers,” said Jennifer Martin, an assistant professor of animal science at Colorado State University. “It’s high-demand proteins and in-demand ingredients that the pet food industry has to compete for.”

The pandemic has also pushed up meat prices in general. A few years ago, outbreaks of Covid-19 forced meat processing plants to close. Farms responded by euthanizing a huge number of animals, putting pressure on supply and driving up costs. Those costs trickled down to the pet food industry, said Dana Brooks, president and CEO of the Pet Food Institute, an industrial trade group.

A dog sniffs a bowl of kibble labeled a 3 while ignoring bowls 1 and 2.

Pet companies perform taste tests to find out which kibble formulation is the most palatable.
Getty Images

Animal feed producers also invest money in research. The goal, Nestle said, is to make a kibble that’s just wild enough — that “tastes bad enough” — that animals love it, but it doesn’t smell or look so bad that people won’t buy it.

Companies conduct sniff tests on pets to find the tastiest kibble, Martin said. They put a few different formulations of a particular food in a large room and then release dozens of dogs (or a handful of cats) to see which food they prefer. “They really enjoy being part of this process,” Martin says.

In particular, bullies face additional challenges that affect their price, such as the one rooted in biology. Only bulls have pizzles, and they only have one. In addition, manufacturers can generally only get a few sticks per penis, Martin said. The faltering reputation rawhide chews have also boosted demand for bully sticks, she said.

Pet food companies also charge a lot because…they can

Like any good company, pet food manufacturers know their customers well; they know that people love their animals and will do just about anything for them. So another reason pet food companies charge so much is simply “because they can get away with it,” Nestle said.

Companies also know that people may pay more attention to what’s in pet food as they spend more time at home with their animals. Owners are increasingly choosing foods that are similar to what they could buy for themselves — all-natural, non-GMO, vegan, and so on. Usually, pet food trends lag ours by about five years, but that gap is narrowing, Martin said. “The pets don’t care about what’s on the label, but the owners do,” Nestle said. “They don’t sell to the pets.”

This comes up with a much bigger idea: The pet food industry is based in large part on branding. If you put peanut butter in a tube and call it “Kong Stuff’n‘, you can sell it for more than a jar of Jif. “They know we’ll pay for it,” Martin said. The same list of ingredients packaged by different brands of food can also cost wildly different amounts, Nestle said.

Marketing also obscures the fact that there are only a handful of big companies behind most of the food brands you see in the pet store. For example, Mars Petcare, a subsidiary of Mars best known for making M&Ms and Twix bars, owns dozens of brands, including Pedigree, Greenies, Iams, Whiskas and Royal Canin. Nestle Purina, a subsidiary of Nestle, also has several brands to its name, including Purina, Friskies, Beneful, Fancy Feast, and many others. A lack of competition within an industry can bad for consumers and bad for prices

Brooks, of the Pet Food Institute, argues that the pet food industry is still very competitive. And with that aim, a series of startups, from companies that vegan meals until online retailersnow threatens to shake up the industry, which some analysts say could three times as big in the coming decade.

Should you buy the more expensive pet food?

Notably, there isn’t much research comparing the cost of dog or cat food to the animal’s health outcomes, according to Joseph Bartges, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist at the University of Georgia. “Expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better,” Bartges said in an email. “There are no good studies evaluating this.”

That leaves a big opportunity for the industry, Shari White, Petco’s senior vice president of merchandising, told me. “I’d like to see more research on health outcomes,” she said. (She noted that Petco consults with a team of trained nutritionists and veterinarians, as well as partners with brands that conduct health-related research.)

Popular dog diets like “grain-free,” which tend to be more expensive, may not be better either, Gimlet’s Rose Rimler reported for an episode of the podcast last year Science vs ScienceWhile some dogs have grain allergies — and it’s important to be aware of them — these canines evolved with us and evolved to eat grains, she reports. (The whole episode is excellent and worth watching) checking out

There’s also not much evidence that occasionally feeding table scraps to your pup is a bad idea, Bartges said, as long as you avoid foods they can’t tolerate, such as macadamia nuts and chocolate. (You can find a full list here

In the absence of more information, it’s hard to know what to buy — and, as pet food author Nestle said, it’s easy to see why pet food companies want to keep it that way. “The appeal of the more expensive foods is for pet owners who want to do good for their pets because they love them,” Nestle said. “The pet doesn’t care.”

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