Boosted by a change in consumer perceptions since COVID-19, vegan companies are increasing their presence in the pet food market.
The pandemic-induced veganism boom is extending to the pet world, with an increased focus on personal and planetary health complemented by a rise in plant- based pet food. It’s also fueled by recent research suggesting pet food significantly contributes to the meat industry’s climate footprint.
The global vegan pet food market is set to more than double, from $26 billion in 2022 to $57.4 billion a decade from now. According to Future Market Insights (FMI), the sector has expanded faster than the conventional pet food industry, owing to a greater focus on climate-friendly food post-pandemic for environmental, health and ethical reasons.
This surge in interest, coupled with the rise in pet adoptions and research findings, has meant that more consumers are applying the same principles to their pets’ diets. It’s also why insiders forecast faster growth in the plant-based pet food industry in the next 5 years than in past years.
So the sector is now host to a start-up ecosystem, with newcomers offering better-for-you products and eco-friendly packaging via enhanced distribution channels and increased social media presence. Recent investments in start-ups like VegDog (Germany) and Omni (UK) signpost this shift. And while not vegan, start-ups like Bond Pet Foods and Good Dog Food are bringing lab-grown meat to the industry, too.
More certified products
The Vegan Society’s Vegan Trademark is one of the most recognizable certifications for plant-based products. This charity says that about half of the total product registrations in the animal category took place in the last couple of years. In 2019, only 81 products were registered and the number more than doubled in 2022, with 209 products.
While a horse feed brand was the first of these to register for accreditation in 2005, dog and cat food now dominate the category. The former goes way back – UK-based Happidog (now V-Dog) launched the world’s first plant-based alternative in 1980. Benevo, meanwhile, introduced the UK’s first commercially available vegan cat food in 2005.
According to FMI, the global plant-based dog food market was valued at $12.2 billion in 2021, with expected sales set to rise annually by 6.9% in the next decade.
Vegan cat food, which was worth $10.6 billion in 2021, is expected to grow even faster at 7.2%. Between 2016 and 2020, these sectors had expanded by 4.6% and 4.8% yearly, so there has definitely been an accelerated surge post-pandemic.
Across the vegan pet food sector, dry food (or kibble) commands the highest market share – around a quarter of the total. And while puppies account for 54% of the meat-free dog food sector, adult cats (65%) are the majority demographic in their category.
As with plant-based meat alternatives for human consumption, questions are often raised about the ingredients, nutrition and costs associated with vegan pet food. Wheat, soy and pea protein are common ingredients, alongside oats and potatoes. But can they be sustainable nutritional sources for pets?
Diana Laverdure-Dunetz, a vegan canine nutritionist, explains that eating higher on the food chain means ingesting more toxins and harmful chemicals, which accumulate in the tissues of animals processed as meat. Lower-chain edibles (derived from plants) are safer, meaning that vegan pet food – as evidenced by recent research from British veterinary professor Andrew Knight – is healthy (as long as it’s fortified).
The ingredients also contribute to pricing. Louisianna Waring, former policy officer at The Vegan Society, says that cheaper pet food concerns many consumers, with labels featuring phrases like ‘meat and animal derivatives’ not uncommon. “Plant-based brands aren’t necessarily trying to compete with the cheapest available conventional cat or dog food, which fluctuates in price, as they offer premium products with high-quality ingredients,” she explains.
What consumers want
A recent survey conducted by The Vegan Society revealed that a third of UK consumers would be interested in vegan pet food as long as it was healthy, while 13-17% would buy it if it was cost-comparable. In terms of motivation, around 4 out of 10 said taste approval from their furry friends was the key factor, followed by nutritional benefits (compared to conventional options) and price promotions.
Waring was surprised to find that many respondents considered dogs carnivores, when they’re known to be omnivores. She thinks this misconception is the reason why people think meat is necessary for canine diets. But dogs, as Laverdure-Dunetz explains, “need nutrients, not specific ingredients”.
The charity’s research found that a third of consumers want to see development in meat-free pet food (with plant-based treats high on the list) – despite only 1-3% of people living in the UK identifying as vegans. Around 72% also think it’s important that products are appropriately accredited – so the increase in Vegan Trademark registrations is for good reason.
Future of the vegan pet sector
Waring says a greater variety of products would be a big step towards public acceptance, catering to the increasing demand and consequently contributing to price parity with conventional pet food. Longer term, she believes that publication of more peer-reviewed research (like Knight’s) is the way forward.
Laverdure-Dunetz calls credibility a major obstacle for the industry. She urges manufacturers to invest in ethical feeding trials and long-term studies showing that dogs fed vegan diets are just as healthy. New businesses need these to overcome the image issue and convince consumers that their products are “scientifically formulated, safe and well balanced”.
With consumers more aware of the sources and environmental impact of their food, the demand for sustainable and ethical food could also extend to their companion animals’ needs. Eco-friendly packaging solutions, transparent labeling, innovative processing techniques and third-party certifications can help vegan brands woo consumers and their pets
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