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(The following article, written by Brendan I. Koerner, was published in the New York Times on Sunday, November 30, 2003.)

That Pudgy Pooch Is an Industry’s Best Friend
Is Pricey Diet Fare for Cats and Dogs Hype or Help?

By Brendan I. Koerner

Unlike their diet-crazed owners, America’s pets don’t care a whit about rack-hard abs. Most dogs and cats have yet to meet a buttery scrap they didn’t like, not matter how much kibble they have consumed.

That apparent lack of willpower is not only ruining Fido’s or Fluffy’s figure. According to the latest feeing guidelines from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, pets are chowing their way toward diabetes, heart disease and other ailments. “Obesity,” the document states, “is estimated to occur in 25 percent of dogs and cats in westernized societies.”

To Donald C. Beitz, a professor of animal science at Iowa State University and chairman of the committee that wrote the guidelines, the solution is simple enough: “Whatever your pet is eating now, cut back to 90 percent.”

But pet food manufacturers are pushing a pricier approach, on that taps into America’s zeal for the latest low-cal, low-carb and vitamin-spiked foods.

“There’s something like 50 to 60 million dogs in this country,” said David Litwak, editor in chief if Pet Business magazine. “If 25 percent of them could be obese, and basically need diets, of course the pet food companies are going to fall over themselves to fill that need.”

Consumers, perhaps alarmed at their own expanding waistlines, are responding. Since 2000, sales of weight-control pet foods have grown 25 percent, to $500 million a year, according to the market research firms Information Resources and Roper ASW. That makes diet fare one of the fastest-growing segments in the $12.5 billion pet food industry.

When the guidelines came out in September, pet food makers were quick to publicize–some say sensationalize-the obesity estimate, making it a big part of their marketing campaigns for weight-control fare.

“I did talk to a very high-=ranking person at one of the big pet food companies, and he was really happy that we came out with the idea that obesity is so common,” Mr. Beitz said. “Somehow, his company is going to try to make some money off of it.”

Jeffrey P. Ansell, president of Iams, the pet food maker, says he believes that dogs and cats are too often treated like surrogate children, and spoiled accordingly. Mr. Ansell said Iams advocates responsible nurturing.

“Our target audience is people who think pf their dog or cat as family,” Mr. Ansell said. “Over the years, it’s gone from the backyard to the bedroom to into the bed. And people want to do what’s right, but they didn’t always have the right information.” Owners often disregard the suggested serving sizes for pet food, he added, and are far too liberal in doling out scraps of hamburger, fries and egg foo yong.

But product trends are also to blame for the ballooning of America’s pets. Though mollycoddling owners have played a role, so have pet food formulas laden with fat and carbohydrates, created to hook pets on the taste.

“In the 1980’s, most fat levels were around 8 to 12 percent,” said Michael Keirtscher, director of corporate sales for Old Mother Hubbard, a small maker of pet food in Lowell, Mass. “Now a lot of them are in the 15 to 20 percent range. Dogs love fat, so it makes for a very palatable pet food.”

The high starch content of many pet foods troubles Mr. Beitz, especially because felines in the wild are strict carnivores. “Cat food, by nature, should be all meat, or animal product of some type,” he said. “Pet food companies have replaced fat and protein with starch because it’s cheap. And that’s not nature’s way.”

In fact, the demand for low-grade rice by pet food companies has been so strong in recent years that experts say it has periodically driven up the prices by close to 50 percent—to the chagrin of brewers like Anheuser-Busch, because the grain is also an important ingredient in many beers.

For some pets, and for some people, obesity may be a matter of genetic destiny; even in a time of lower fat levels, svelte basset hounds were a rarity. And few owners fretted about their roly-poly pets when gut elimination was low on the list of national priorities. The truly concerned could buy a few reduced-calorie brands, first introduced in the late 1940’s, but pets tended to hate the high-fiber, low-fat formulas.

“The new research is showing instead that we should design diets for pets based more on their natural metabolisms,” said Dr. James Pogrel, a veterinarian at the Bishop Ranch Veterinary Center in San Ramon, Calif. That means increasing the percentage of animal proteins in the food and cutting back on grains –or, in other words, putting Fido on an Atkins diet.

The latest weight-control products for pets are obviously patterned after the Atkins regimen, which promotes protein as something of a dietary silver bullet. In addition to reduced-calorie versions of top-selling brands like Iams and Purina One, the weight-control marketplace now includes products like Hill’s Prescription Diet Feline, advertised as “a low-carbohydrate, high protein pet formula clinically proven to alter a cat’s metabolism for effective weight loss.”

Given the increasingly affectionate treatment meted out to pets, it is no surprise that human dietary trends should influence the pet food market, said Dr. Karen Padgett, veterinary channel director for Hill’s Pet Nutrition: “Anthropomorphism is just one of the ways we love our pets.”

Some of the industry’s most successful product introductions in the recent years have featured pellets that resemble human food. Sales of Purina’s Beneful, featuring colorful bits that vaguely resemble peas and carrots, soared by 88.9 percent last year, according to Information Resources.

Pet food makers are also borrowing a page from the health food playbook, spiking their formulas with a variety of fat-burning compounds. Several premium foods, like Iams less Active/Weight Control Lamb and Rice Formula, now contain L-carnitine, an amino acid that fitness buffs promote as a metabolism booster. Over all, Iams now sells 18 weight-control formulas and 3 dietary biscuits, compared with just a single low-calorie product in the late 1980’s.

John M. McMillin, a food industry analyst at Prudential Securities, said pet food companies had come to understand what their people-food counterparts realized in the 1990’s. “You have to grow with product mix,’ he said. “It’s just so hard to grow in volume, because stomachs only get so big.”

Last year, a record 865 pet products were introduced, according to Marketing Intelligence Service, almost double the 439 in 1998.

When shopping for themselves, people often switch brands or formulas because of price, especially in tough economic times. But when they stroll down the pet aisle, saving a few cents appears to be less of a concern.

“The beauty of pet food is that people are inclined to trade up,” Mr. McMillin said. “It’s almost comical, but it’s almost like people worry more about what their pets eat than what they eat.”

Gary M. Stibel, founder of the New England Consulting Group in Westport, Conn., cites the success of Fancy Feast, from Nestle, in the 1980’s as a turning point for the industry. The brand, known for its aristocratic-looking feline mascot, differentiated itself from the pack by using high-grade meats.

“Canned cat food went from predominantly inexpensive 6-ounce cans to 3-ounce cans after Fancy Feast, which was marketed as an indulgence,” Mr. Stibel said.

Once Fancy Feast proved that consumers would pay more for Kitty’s sake, pet food companies shifted their marketing strategies toward dry foods, which Mr. McMillin says have a higher profit margin than canned, or “wet,” foods. Consumers embraced that, too.

Even during the recent economic downturn, owners continued to splurge on their pets. The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association says that the average dog consumed $203 worth of food in 2002, plus $53 in treats. The total is up 9 percent from 2000.

The climb in pet food budgets is partly attributable to Iams, a fast-growing brand of recent years. Products from Iams was founded in 1946, were long sold exclusively through pet stories and veterinarians, which together account for less than 20 percent of the market. Proctor & Gamble acquired Iams in 1999 for $2.3 billion and put Mr. Ansell, the former head of its diaper division, in charge of taking the brand into grocery stores and other mainstream outlets. Despite its higher retail prices, the brand quickly vaulted to the top of the sales chart.

In the year ended in April 2003, Iams’s flagship dry foods were the best seller for both cats and dogs, with combined revenue of more than $300 million, according to Information Resources.

Iams also popularized so-called life-stage foods, specially formulated for very young or very old pets. In the industry, sales of senior formulas grew 3.2 percent, at a compound annual rate, from 1999 to 2002, according to Information Resources, even though the dry version of these formulas, which account for the vast majority of sales, cost and average of 91 percent more than regular dry food.

“The arrival of Iams in mass-market stores was kind of like the arrival of Haagen-Daz in the ice cream market,” Mr. McMillin said. “It took premium products mainstream.”

From 1999 to 2002, Information Resources said, sales of specialty pet foods –the category that includes weight-control formulas—grew by 10.2 percent at a compound annual rate, versus a decline of 0.3 percent for regular pet foods.

Not every weight-control formula sells at a premium to its more fattening counterparts, but many do cost a few cents extra. A 20-pound bag of Iams Lamb Meal and Rice Formula Premium Dog Food cost $16.99 at last week, versus $18.49 for the weight-control version. And prescription diets like Hill’s, which can be bought only through veterinarians, cost significantly more than those available in grocery stores.

Even before the National Research Council’s report was released, pet food companies—well aware of pet owners’ propensity to spend—were promoting the notion that dogs and cats have grown too chubby. In May, Purina released it second report on the nation’s 50 “pet healthiest cities.” This time, the rankings took into account pet obesity, and the accompanying news release estimated that “more than half of the nation’s cats and dogs are overfed.”

Last year, Hill’s, a division of Colgate-Palmolive, financed a study at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago; the study concluded that humans could more effectively lose weight by embarking on a diet in conjunction with their overweight dogs.

Mr. Litgwak of Pet Business said consolidation had helped turn pet food makers into better marketers. A year after P.&G.’s purchase of Iams, Nestle bought Ralston-Purina for $11.2 billion. Last year Del Monte bought the pet food business of Heinz for $2,3 billion, in the hope that it could reinvigorate the sagging 9Lives and Kibbles’nBits brands by focusing on warehouse chains like Sam’s Club and Costco.

The expertise if corporate veterans like Mr. Ansell of Iams “has given the pet food companies a lot more sophisticated marketing,” Mr. Litwak said.

“It’s really helped them cross over from human trends to animal products,” he added.

But the industry’s handling of the research council estimates on pet obesity irked some members of the committee that produced them. They worry that pet food companies may be missing some nuances of the data. For example, the council’s guidelines noted that “the incidence of obesity increases with age and is more frequent in neutered than intact animals.”

The increasing portliness of pets, then, may be in large part a result of longer life spans of dogs and cats. According to the Senior Dog Project, a nonprofit group in San Francisco that promotes the adoption of older canines, the average life span of a dog is now more than 12 years, compared with 7 in the 1930’s.

The research council’s feeding guidelines mention low-calorie pet foods as one option, but they also endorse a range of other tactics to address obesity, from reducing serving sizes of regular food to cutting the number of daily feedings.

Cats in the wild, for example, are accustomed to a dozen small snacks throughout the day, rather than a constantly filled food dish. A possible weight-reduction approach, then, is to fill the bowl with tiny amounts of food at regular intervals.

Scientific evidence supports the idea that slimming down can extend the life spans of obese cats and dogs. In 2002, Purina released findings of a 14-year study on Labrador retrievers, a breed believed to be genetically predisposed to obesity. The study concluded that “by restricting diet to maintain ideal body condition,” the dogs’ lives could be extended by 15 percent, or nearly two years.

Dr. Pogrel of the Bishop Ranch Veterinary Center said the industry had another motivation for pushing weight-loss products for pets, “If you can make them live two years longer, that’s two more years you can sell them pet food.”


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