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Buy your dog a Christmas pudding if you want to get its tail wagging

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<span>Photograph: Fiona McAllister Photography/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Fiona McAllister Photography/Getty Images

The boom in UK ‘pet parents’ has created an opportunity for food startups catering to those who want the best for their animal

Christmas preparations are in full swing, and for some recent “parents” that means special food shopping. This might be meals made from Suffolk duck, grass-reared lamb or venison. Some will be looking for botanical ingredients, such as marigold petals and burdock root. Others will buy their “baby” their first Christmas pudding from Ocado.

These shoppers are not just any parents – they are pet parents, a UK consumer group that is inspiring a revolution in the animal food industry.

During the pandemic, pet ownership boomed in Britain, with more than three million households buying a new animal. Research by US animal food company Mars Petcare found that 32% of new dog owners and 42% of new cat owners had no previous experience as “pet parents”. This has created a unique opportunity for pet food brands and startup companies to sell new types of food.

“In recent years, animals have been perceived increasingly as family members,” says Manasi Uttekar, analyst at Fortune Business Insights. “Thus, owners buy pet food the same way as they shop and consider their own food. They look for products that are highly nutritious and sourced sustainably. They look for the label of natural, organic, minimally processed or raw.”

Pet food by post is a growing offshoot of this revolution, with companies delivering tailored menus to owners’ doors. One such firm is Katkin, which specialises in freshly cooked food for cats. “We’re now finding out the truth of what’s in our pets’ food, and how it’s made,” says Nikki O’Farrell, who co-founded the firm with her brother, Brett, in 2018. “So we’re looking for companies who really care about and truly design for our cats.”

The UK also has the largest share of pet food launches in Europe that include ethical and environmental claims. Today, 33% of new brands have recyclable packaging. Pet foods containing Marine Stewardship Council sustainable seafood have grown by 57% in the UK in the past five years. “New startup the Pack offer vegan dog food,” says Uttekar, “and Lily’s Kitchen is launching one soon.”

Purina, one of the world’s biggest pet food manufacturers, had two big new launches in Europe for 2020: organic cat food and insect-based food. Many companies also focus on bugs. When pet owners decide to cut down on meat in their own diets, some apparently look for ways to reduce meat for their animals too.

A 2020 study on the environmental carbon pawprint of pets found food manufacturing created greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to total emissions from countries such as Mozambique or the Philippines.

Related: Doggie spa days and advent calendars fuel festive sales boom for Pets at Home

Pet parenting is expected to grow as more millennials become owners and spend on pet service and accessories – especially Christmas treats – and the market has been quick to respond. Ocado is stocking Christmas puddings for dogs for the first time this year – made from biscuits with a yoghurt topping – and specialist companies offer a range of festive cakes for dogs and sushi and venison for cats.

There are also special Christmas cranberry and sweet potato chew sticks for the vegan dog in your life. Christmas might be about extra treats, but as O’Farrell points out, pet parents just want the best of the smörgåsbord of animal food on offer. “This isn’t luxury we’re talking about, this isn’t spoiling your cat: this is a necessity for a healthy, happy pet.”

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