Vegan Pet Food Trend: Can cats and dogs really go meat-free?
Feeding your dog or cat a vegan diet is extremely divisive. Some Vegans believe that it is better for the planet and does your pet no harm, but the counter argument is that dogs and cats are meat-eaters and that restricting their diet to fit with a vegan philosophy is tantamount to abuse.
We increasingly use our own health concerns to influence how we treat our pets with pioneering new products that aim to humanise our pet’s health care, as well as their food. Indeed, in 2019 research showed that one-quarter of vegan American pet owners already feed their animals a plant-based diet (PLOS, 2019).
"In the UK, 1.6% (160k) of the 10 million dog population are currently fed a 100% vegan diet, with the vegan dog food market estimated to grow at 12% CAGR between 2021-2028"
Data Bridge Market Research
Image Source: peaksNpaws
Humanised pet care is big business, enabling well established brands to diversify and challenger brands to flourish. Recent launches include the use of adaptogens like turmeric in supplements and treats including yak milk dog chews from New York pet toy brand PeaksNPaws, anti-inflammatory supplements from US dog care brand Pet Parents and treats from Canadian brand Cookie Pal. Other brands such as Gou Gou Pets have created a range of holistic skincare which uses herbs found in traditional Chinese Medicine; there are pet-appropriate CBD supplements from lifestyle guru, Martha Stewart and pooch friendly probiotics from US brand Boss Dog. Our favourite though, is the selection of “colourful, playful, meaningful” plant-based treats from UK brand W’ZIS? Launched in 2021 by “four miffed dog owners, bored of the day to day and uninspired by the dog treats available” they have created a contemporary, eye-catching design that reflects the brand’s promise of treats that “play to all our senses”.
But perhaps the most controversial area is around plant-based nutrition. In November 2018, US publication Pet Age stated that if dogs ate vegan once a week, the impact would be the equivalent of taking one million cars off the road for a year. There’s no doubt that the carbon footprint from pet food is considerable, but have we gone too far in projecting our own health and environmental concerns onto the animals that live with us? Are there other ways to address the concerns of eco-ethical owners?
Firstly, we need to explore the facts to establish if there are long-term health effects of feeding a vegan-diet to our dogs and cats.
In the UK, under the Animal Welfare Act:
"The owner has the obligation to feed the animal an appropriate diet, If your personal belief system means you don’t want to eat any animal protein, that’s fine, but that diet is not designed to meet the welfare standards of your pet"
Daniella Dos Santos - President of the British Veterinary Association (BVA)
The consensus from vets is that cats cannot live on a diet without meat, despite this, there are a handful of brands selling vegan cat food. Italian owned Ami is one of them, recommending a 100% vegetable-based diet for “more vitality and health”. But the evidence is not as clear when it comes to dogs, "It is theoretically possible to feed a dog a vegetarian diet, but it’s much easier to get it wrong than to get it right,” Dos Santos says. “You would have to do it under the supervision of a veterinary-trained nutritionist.”
The controversy around vegan pet food is nothing new. In 2016, a blogger posted on Tumblr that she was feeding her pet Labrador, Maggie “… pureed sweet potato, pureed brown rice, sprouted organic tofu, chia seeds, and digestive enzymes” She went on to exclaim how excited Maggie looked to be eating a meat-free meal. The post, and the number of angry responses it received, went viral. One response pointed to the dog’s listless appearance. The blogger eventually closed her account.
"On the menu for Maggie tonight is puréed sweet potato, puréed brown rice, sprouted organic tofu, chia seeds, and digestive enzymes, Does she look excited? She is!"
Attitudes change over time though. And, as our appetite for vegan products has increased - in 2021, over 500,000 people signed up to Veganuary, a 100,000 rise on 2020 - so has the idea of feeding our pets more “meat-free” products. So, Vegan pets are on the rise, with a handful of brands presenting compelling arguments.
Wild Earth is one of them. It promises to reinvent dog food with “Everything your dog needs. Nothing they don’t”. The brand was co-founded in 2018 by scientist, Ryan Bethencourt, who was concerned by the high number of contaminants found in pet food, as well as the growing carbon footprint created by the meat used. Interestingly, Mars Petfood bought an £8.2 million stake in the brand (Vegconomist 2021), although there is no sign of this on the packaging design. Wild Earth is a great example of a brand using science to support its purpose with vet-developed products to “ensure head-to-paw nutrition”. It’s “Clean protein formula” headlines its packaging, with design that has a graphic, poster-like approach. The focus is on clear and concise labelling that is both educational and reassuring for those sceptical about vegan dog food.
Most Vegan dogfood is in kibble form, but there are a handful of brands creating wet-food varieties too. UK-based Hownd, are the first company in the UK to launch a Plant powered superfood with 100% clean ingredients. Founders Jo Amit and Mark Hirschel have created a range of vegan products that are “always backed by Science”. Their positioning is clever, working with a team of collaborators that keep nutritional and veterinary research at the core of the brand. One of their backers, TV vet Dr Marc Abraham, claims that it is “absolutely possible for our canine companions to thrive on a meat-free diet – whether flexitarian or fully plant-based”.
Hownd began by making ethically certified grooming products. Their brand identity, with a graphic combing dog doesn’t distract from the foodie look and feel that has been created on their packaging design. Scandinavian-style illustrations of plants, vegetables and herbs create a contemporary backdrop to the punchy typography with strong nutritional messaging. Their recipes are clever too. Humanised versions of traditional dog food, from fresh blueberry and coconut porridge to papaya and lentil Dahl, that tap into our emotional desire to feed our pets with food that is good enough for us too.
Omni Pet is the newest to launch, it's the brain-child of Dr.Guy Sandelowsky a veterinarian whose vision is to create quality, vegan, high-protein dog food without using 'unwanted animal by-products and left overs that most dog food brands use'. It follows the trend of 'food for dogs, not dog food', or in other words, food that appeals to humans too, like sweet potatoes, lentils, pumpkin and blueberries. https://omni.pet/
Image Source: Omni
What stands it apart from others in this area is 'Free Vet' access with a 3 month subscription. 'A bespoke 3-6 month health plan for your dog, monitoring key health aspects such as energy levels and weight', Omni Pet is certainly putting its money where its mouth is, when it comes to being passionate about your pets' care.
For a brand whose core proposition is premium, natural 'food I would eat', the packaging lets it down. While the stripped back look stands out on shelf of 'glossy dog' photography, with each pack listing 3+ claims down each side, the Omni pack has crossed the line from 'simple and confident' to value and as a result they are in the process of a packaging refresh.
The vegan brands I’ve included are relatively small, but what are the big pet food brands doing in this space? It seems they are taking a more cautious approach. Mars Petcare has already invested in Wild Earth, believing that meat-free diets are ““expected to extend to pets” viewing them “as a market opportunity.” (Vegconomist 2021). However, with the recent launch of their “plant-first” dog food, Karma, they have included meat. The brand promises “balanced nutrition” with a “crafted blend” of superfoods and has a fresh, contemporary design that aligns with its healthier positioning – it’s just not vegan.
Nestle Purina and Hill’s Pet Nutrition have taken a similar stand, advocating a balanced approach, with health concerns about feeding an exclusively plant-based diet “further research is needed to analyse the long-term health effects”.
As an alternative to vegan and vegetarian diets, both companies recommend making your dog a pescatarian or looking for more ethical pet food brands that use humanely sourced meat.
For those undecided about feeding their pets an exclusively vegan diet, there are a growing number of flexitarian options. For example, Lily’s Kitchen launched its Burrito bowl and Rainbow Stew as part of Veganuary, championing Meat-free Mondays. The packaging design uses the same visual equities as their meat-based varieties. It hasn’t created a differentiated range identity; an approach which seems to reflect their belief in feeding “a little less meat” rather than advocating a complete vegan diet.
Interestingly, this is a very different proposition to their original vegan positioning, stating that they “recognise the nutritional value of meat, especially when it comes to our pets”. However, the brand remains true to its original mission to “make the most sustainable and nutritious food for dogs and cats on the planet - without ever harming any animals or the environment”.
Looking ahead, we expect to see more brands innovating in the vegan or flexitarian space, as more pet-owners advocate planet friendly diets. From functional foods that echo human concerns to alternative proteins that are increasingly complex, there’s one thing these brands have in common. The need for clear and concise communication of the science behind each of their nutritional claims, both on pack and on-line.
Vegan pet food brands leading the way are those with products that are more humanised, tapping into our emotional desire to feed our pets with food that is good enough for us too. Ultimately the winners will balance their emotive language with compelling scientific evidence, covering a myriad of environmental and health concerns to reassure both vegans AND flexitarians that we are doing the best for our pets and our planet.
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About the author
Clare Leeland - Brand Strategy & Consumer Insight
Clare is a Client Partner and Project Manager. She specialises in brand strategy, consumer insight and packaging design. Clare has worked in packaging design across automotive manufacturing and FMCG brands, combining pragmatism with creativity, She's passionate about delivering effective design by getting the most out of client briefs and working closely with designers and insight agencies.
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