Pet nutrition’s transformation: Pet food and supplements are getting healthier

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 23 No. 5
Volume 23
Issue 5

pet food

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The pet nutrition market is undergoing a shift that mirrors recent trends in the human market. As more consumers become conscious of their own diets, they are also increasingly asking questions about what they’re feeding their pets and searching for ingredients on par with what they would consume themselves. Data from Nielsen indicate that in 2018, American consumers spent $33 million on pet food that contains human-grade ingredients.1 Meanwhile, the U.S. pet supplement market reached a value of $636 million in 2018, according to Packaged Facts.2

Pet owners are scrutinizing pet products more closely. Whether they’re looking for a dietary remedy for a condition, responding to a pet’s allergy, or simply seeking out more nutritious pet food, consumers are judging pet foods and pet supplements on nutritional content, functional benefits, composition and filler, and even packaging. As demand for healthier pet products continues to grow, formulators are expanding their product lines with clean-label and functional ingredients that pet owners can feel good about buying. Here are some of the ways that formulators are changing their products to appeal to health-conscious pet owners.

Curcumin Increasingly Popular for Joint Health

Functional benefits are driving the pet health market, and one of the most popular functions that consumers seek out is anti-inflammation activity for joint health. Joint pain is among the most common health problems that pets face. One cross-sectional observational study of radiographic images from 100 cats found that 91% of cats suffer from a degenerative joint disease, such as osteoarthritis, in at least one joint. The study also found that while there is a strong correlation between age and prevalence of osteoarthritis, even young cats are susceptible to the disease.3

Leisha Jenkins, marketing associate for Verdure Sciences (Noblesville, IN), says that joint health and motor function support are some of the functions driving interest in turmeric and curcumin products for animal health. Jenkins says that joint health is increasingly becoming a top concern for the equine market. Larger animals like horses tend to be more prone to joint problems, Jenkins notes, and also require larger doses. “The equine market is seeking solutions for inflammation and joint health because of the propensity of joint injuries and joint issues in horses,” Jenkins says.

She continues: “For large animals like horses, price per dose becomes a concern for added functional ingredients,” which is why her company’s curcumin, Longvida, “offers a dose that is attractive and manageable for owners. There may be a significant opportunity in the equine market for an added ingredient that specifically targets issues like lameness, joint health, and inflammation.”

Curcumin’s performance in clinical trials is fueling its rise in popularity for joint health applications. One 2012 animal study on 18 kennel dogs examined the effects of curcumin and NSAIDs on the genetic expression of peripheral white blood cells in cases of osteoarthritis. The dogs were divided into two randomly assigned groups of dogs with osteoarthritis (n=6 and n=6) and one group of healthy dogs (n=6). The osteoarthritis groups were given either a twice-daily 4 mg/kg dose of curcumin, or a 5 mg/kg/day dose of the NSAID firocoxib, for 20 days. The control group did not receive any drug or supplement. Blood samples on all three groups were taken at baseline and after 20 days.

The study authors found that curcumin and firocoxib had similar effects on gene markers for osteoarthritis. However, curcumin specifically targeted the interleukin-18 pathway, while firocoxib did not. The study authors concluded that this different mechanism of action makes curcumin an effective complementary remedy.4 The curcumin ingredient used in this study is a curcumin phytosome ingredient called CurcuVET from supplier Indena S.p.A. (Milan, Italy).

Verdure’s Jenkins says that curcumin is being incorporated in several pet formulations, and formulators are increasingly targeting functional ingredients toward specific health applications. Branded ingredients in particular, she says, are becoming popular among finished-product formulators. “Incorporating branded ingredients into a product is another way to offer consumers an additional layer of confidence,” she says. “Branded ingredients offer a layer of consistency and quality to support clean, reliable ingredients.”

Specialty Formulations Target Working & Competitive Animals

One emerging extension of the pet health market that is driving significant innovation is the professional animal market. Competitive animals like racehorses, as well as working animals like search and rescue dogs, have specific nutritional needs beyond those of house pets. Clinical data is showing that there may be benefits in tailoring specialty formulations to these kinds of animals.

One 2017 animal trial followed 16 search and rescue dogs for three months. The dogs were fed a high-protein, energy-dense diet according to each dog’s nutritional requirements based on body condition, body weight, and training activity. However, the dogs were randomly assigned to receive a diet that was either high (n=8) or low (n=8) in EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, chondroitin sulphate, and glucosamine. All of the dogs were given hematology and clinical chemistry blood analysis tests, as well as lameness and joint pain evaluations, at baseline and once every 30 days. After three months, the dogs in the high-supplementation diet group showed higher values of erythrocytes, hemoglobin, and PCV/hematocrit relative to those on the low-supplementation diet. The study authors concluded that a high-supplementation diet may increase energy production during exercise and therefore improve dog performance during search and rescue tasks.5

Michael Crabtree, ND, director of scientific affairs for Bioenergy Life Science (BLS; Ham Lake, MN), says that protein-based fortification and supplementation is an effective means of improving diet for animals that struggle to meet their daily dietary requirements. “Food manufacturers often think in terms of vitamin fortification, which involves adding nutrients back in after processing,” he says. “But what isn’t usually discussed is the impoverishment of the energy content of food after processing. Adding high-energy molecules like D-ribose, vitamin B3, electrolytes, or CoQ10 provides a distinct advantage.”

Crabtree says that energy and protein fortification could be an effective and budget-conscious way to ensure that high-activity animals meet their daily nutritional intake requirements. His colleague, Vice President of Sales Marianne McDonagh, adds that functional ingredients like Bioenergy’s branded D-ribose are continuing to expand into the animal market for this exact reason. “BLS entered the equine performance market years ago, and we saw a lot of racehorse owners using Bioenergy Ribose for performance, recovery, and endurance. The success of that market prompted us to invest more research into animal nutrition, and last year we announced our decision to enter the pet nutrition market and help dogs, cats, and other animals around the world.”

Grain-Free Fiber to Support Digestion

Pet foods are increasingly diversifying their functional claims, with specific SKUs now tailored for specific purposes. Sandra Perryman, director of quality, food safety, and co-manufacturing for pet food company “I and love and you” (Boulder, CO), says that there is a growing demand for customized pet food formulations that support particular life stages, breeds, or aspects of health.

Digestion & Immune Health Are Top Consumer Concerns

Patrick Luchsinger, marketing manager, nutrition and pet food, for Ingredion (Westchester, IL), says that the top functional concerns for pet owners include healthy digestion and immune health. Consumers, he says, are actively seeking out products like Ingredion’s branded Fortifeed, a short-chain fructooligosaccharide (scFOS) and prebiotic soluble fiber designed to boost digestive health.

“Foods that resonate with consumers contain ingredients that serve a purpose,” Perryman says. “For example, miscanthus grass is an alternative fiber source that is showing promise for digestive health support in dogs and cats. Miscanthus grass could serve as a substitute for cellulose or beet pulp in formulations.”

Algorithms Lead to Smarter Formulations

Data and tech are now enabling brands to create custom pet health formulations. Direct-to-consumer brand Goodboy (Atlanta, GA), for instance, uses a computer algorithm to formulate customized functional supplements according to breed, age, gender, and weight.

Perryman says that consumers are also seeking out pet food products that contain real meat, are grain-free, and consist of raw ingredients. Real meat, she says, provides essential nutrients and amino acids for dogs and cats that are often difficult to find from other sources. She notes that grain-free cat food is an essential requirement, as cats are obligate carnivores. For dogs, though, grain-free food is ideal for a dog with a grain allergy or intolerance. As for raw foods, consumers are looking for trustworthy brands that take the proper precautions.

“Many raw pet foods can be risky due to a higher risk of illness from salmonella,” Perryman says. “Our Stir & Boom product uses meat that is considered to be raw, but undergoes a proprietary high-pressure pasteurization process designed to reduce the risk of salmonella contamination.”

Pet Owners Go Online for Human-Quality Ingredients

While pet supplement usage is growing, pet owners are increasingly treating pet food as a first line of defense against various pet ailments. Functional ingredients are showing up in products with preventative, maintenance, and treatment claims for specific areas of pet health. Patrick Luchsinger, marketing manager, nutrition and pet food, for Ingredion (Westchester, IL), says that manufacturers are seeing an explosion in online sales. “There has been huge growth in online pet food sales, both on websites like Amazon as well as pet-specific shopping sites. Pet owners are using the Internet to become more informed on pet care, including how the latest ingredients can meet their pets’ changing health and wellness needs.”

Sustainability Initiatives in Pet Supplements

Some pet health brands are moving toward sustainable packaging materials. Late last year, PureForm Pet Health Supplements (Chilliwack, BC, Canada) introduced the pet health industry’s first biodegradable canister and compostable shipping packaging.6

Luchsinger points to the humanization of pets as a strong driving force behind consumers’ buying habits. Consumers are increasingly perceiving their pets to be members of their family, he says, and are consequently including their pets in their lifestyle choices. “As many consumers consider themselves to be parents to their pets, they are feeding their pets high-quality food with clean-label ingredients like pea protein. Human eating trends like clean eating and non-GMO are consistently trickling over into pet foods, as pet parents want their pets’ diets to match their own diets.”

Pet Ingredients Offer Opportunities for Brands

Consumers now view pets as members of their families. As pet parents seek out natural, clean-label nutritional products for themselves, they will also look for those same trends in their pets’ food and supplements. Formulators and finished-product brands can capitalize on this trend by creating and marketing specialty products with human-quality ingredients, zero fillers, and specific, research-validated functional claims.


  1. Nielsen. “Who’s winning the claim game in the pet food arena?” Published online April 3, 2019.
  2. Packaged Facts. “Pet supplements in the U.S., 7th edition.” Published online April 30, 2019.
  3. Lascalles BD et al. “Cross-sectional study of the prevalence of radiographic degenerative joint disease in domesticated cats.” Journal of Veterinary Surgery, vol. 39, no. 5 (July 2010): 535-544
  4. Colitti M et al. “Transcriptome modification of white blood cells after dietary administration of curcumin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug in osteoarthritic affected dogs.” Veterinary Immunology and Immunopathology, vol. 147, no. 3-4 (June 2012): 136-146
  5. Vassalotti G et al. “Nutritional management of search and rescue dogs.” Journal of Nutritional Science, vol. 6, no. e44 (August 2017). Published online August 29, 2017.
  6. SciencePure Nutraceuticals Inc. press release. “Canadian brand, PureForm Pet Health Supplements, first to launch earth-friendly packaging.” Published online November 5, 2019.
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