August 9, 2022

‘For the Dogs’ Has a Whole New Meaning

LISA CORNISH is rattling off today’s menu:

Pan-seared duck with brown rice and blueberry compote.

Roasted turkey with butternut squash and russet potatoes.

Salmon with black-and-white quinoa.

Delish. Just keep in mind that all of this, right down to those banana and yogurt health bars, is dog food. Not mere Alpo, mind you — not by a long shot. And to prove it, Ms. Cornish, who works for a company called Petcurean Pet Nutrition, will give you a taste.

If you’re wondering why anyone would even consider noshing on dog chow, you haven’t been to the Global Pet Expo here, where the impresarios of America’s thriving, multibillion-dollar pet economy profitably ply their wares.

If there is a pet heaven, this could be it.

Even as the economy for us humans bogs down again, the pet economy has proved remarkably resilient to a weak housing market, high unemployment and those diminished 401(k)’s. The industry has continued to grow through the recession, albeit at a slower pace, and last year, Americans spent a record $55 billion on their pets, according to the market research firm Packaged Facts, more than the gross domestic product of Belarus.

Wherever the stock market goes — and lately, it has been going down — this nation seems to be in the thrall of a great bull market for pets. And high-priced, “human grade” pet food is only the beginning.

Pet owners, or “parents” in industry parlance, are being sold on human-style luxuries and medical care. There are stylish rain slickers, organic foods and even antidepressants for today’s pampered cats and dogs. If more evidence of this boom were needed, consider Neuticles, prosthetic testicles for neutered dogs and cats, at about $1,000 a pair, which, their designers say, help “your pet to retain his natural look, self esteem and aids in the trauma associated with altering.”

Make no mistake: this is big business, as a visit to the Pet Expo here shows.

Over at one booth, Debbie Bohlken, owner of Claudia’s Canine Cuisine, sits behind a table of brightly-decorated cookies and cakes that wouldn’t look out of place in a bakery. All of these treats are for dogs. She sells her products under the slogan: “Treat Her Like the Bitch She Really Is.”

“Will you try one?” she asks.

Her dog biscuits, it turns out, taste a bit like ginger snaps.

Elsewhere, manufacturers are marketing foods with ingredients worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant: pheasant, freshwater trout, yak’s milk, organic pumpkin — the list goes on.

There is much more to this than food. At the Petzlife booth, one of the owners, Steve Tibbetts, explains that his oral spray is made from “human-grade” ingredients that keep a dog’s teeth and gums healthy and fight dog breath. He says it works for cats, too. And apparently, for people: Mr. Tibbetts sprays the stuff into his mouth. Twice.

“People are just ga-ga over their pets,” Mr. Tibbetts says. “They’ll spend money on their pets before they spend money on themselves.”

The growth in the pet market last year was driven in part by a 7 percent increase in veterinary services. America’s pet population, like its human one, is living longer. Human medical technologies are increasingly being used for pets. Dogs’ and cats’ owners — particularly those without children at home — are taking better care of them, both medically and nutritionally, experts say.

“Pet owners aren’t just looking to provide a home for their pets,” says Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association. “They are investing in their pets’ quality of life. Oftentimes they do this at their own expense, cutting personal expenses, but not those affecting their faithful companions.”

Jessica Taylor, managing editor of Petfood Industry, says that when she started at the magazine four years ago, the pet food industry lagged human trends by a year or more. Now, it is just six months behind, or less.

She predicts that blueberries and pomegranates, whose antioxidant wonders have been marketed to humans in recent years, will be the next big thing in pet food.

THE pet industry has long considered itself recession-resilient, and it proved just that during the recent downturn, despite some bumps along the way. For instance, shelters were swamped with pets that were given up by owners who apparently could no longer afford them. Fewer people bought pets, in part because pets are often acquired after a home purchase, and there were considerably fewer of those.

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