Veterinary nutrition experts discuss trends ranging from personalized diets to meat alternatives
More than ever, pet owners view their pets as family members and want to care for them as such. This is apparent in all aspects of veterinary medicine, including the nutrition space. Results of a recent survey showed that 53% of responding pet owners have an equal priority of purchasing healthy food for themselves as they do for their pets, whereas 43% of pet owners have a higher priority of purchasing healthy food for their pets over themselves.1
Overall revenue in the global pet food market amounts to a whopping $143.60 billion in 2023, with the market expected to grow annually by 5.32% (compound annual growth rate 2023-2027).2 With the rapid growth of this sector, it’s important that veterinary professionals stay up-to-date about fresh pet food and other dietary trends.
These trends were discussed by presenters Ernie Ward, DVM, CVFT, a veterinarian food therapist known as America’s Pet Advocate, and Laura Gaylord, DVM, DACVIM (Nutrition), founder of Whole Pet Provisions consulting service, during their sessions about nutrition at the 2023 Fetch dvm360® Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina.3,4
Pet owners want sustainable, environmentally friendly options for their pets that also mimic the trends in human nutrition. This is where the demand for plant-based pet foods come in. In addition, these diets may benefit pets with food allergies or sensitivities to animal proteins. There is a concern that a plant-based diet may not provide all the necessary nutrients. However, if the diet is complete and balanced, there is evidence it can function the same as a meat-based diet, according to Ward.3
Ward highlighted a research study in which 12 sprint-racing Siberian huskies were fed either a commercial diet recommended for active dogs or a meat-free diet formulated to the same nutrient specifications.5 Blood samples and veterinary health exams were conducted at regular intervals. The hematology results for all dogs, regardless of diet, were within normal range throughout the study, and the consulting veterinarian determined that all the dogs were in excellent physical condition.5
Ward also noted an emerging trend: insect-based pet foods. “I think a lot of veterinarians don’t have any idea where mealworms come from, how crickets are sourced,” he said. “I encourage you to just do a Google search on insect- based pet foods, and you’re going to be surprised at the number of media sources.”3
Online shopping has made its way into the pet food world and with this has come a rise in pet food delivery services and personalized nutrition plans. These diets are made to meet a pet’s unique nutritional needs, breed, and health conditions. Ward is an advocate for this concept of an individualized diet, however, he warned attendees of marketers who may appeal to their client’s emotions. He advised researching the popular pet food companies offering these services to determine whether they are legitimate. He said clients tend to be more enticed by the personalized aspect, rather than whether the diet will genuinely benefit their pet.3
“[Clients] go and fill out an online assessment of [their] dog, and the website spits out something. Now they only spit out about 4 different [pet food] varieties, but guess what, it’s personalized,” he said. However, Ward continued, “I’m still fighting for the other way. I’m fighting for real personalized nutrition. These websites, this personalized nutrition message…[they are] driving on emotions, not necessarily science….So I must turn that emotion back toward health outcomes, because that’s always the biggest focus of emotion. You want things to be better, you want things to be healthier, you want things to be improved.”3
Because eating more nutritious foods is a human health trend that has trickled into the pet nutrition world, there has been a consequent explosion in the fresh pet food market, and clients have a plethora of questions surrounding the right food choices for their animals, according to Gaylord. She noted that fresh food includes foods that are freeze dried, raw, or dehydrated. “So, it’s basically just different ways we can provide nutrition for our pets,” she said.
“When we go to the doctor, they’re telling us to shop the perimeter of the grocery store, don’t buy processed foods, right? Stay out of the aisles, buy things that are not coming to you in packages, boxes, and cans. And naturally, our clients are hearing the same things. And they’re wondering, ‘Well, what about my pet’s food? You know, isn’t that a processed food coming to me in that bag or can?’ And it’s a reasonable question to ask,” Gaylord said.4
Fresh pet foods are anything that looks more like human foods, according to Gaylord. “I like to call them TV dinners for dogs. [For example], there’s chicken and rice and vegetables and it looks like what we’re used to eating,” she said in an interview with dvm360.
Gaylord said she evaluates fresh food options the same way as any other commercial diet. “I’m looking for certain features of that food to know if I’m comfortable with a client feeding that [to their pet],” she said. She advised Fetch attendees to look for an Association of American Feed Control Officials statement and a nutritional adequacy statement on feed labels, and to ensure the food is appropriate for the pet’s life stage.
“Every now and then, you’re going to find some [food labels] that say, ‘For intermittent or supplemental feeding only.’ Those are not complete diets, those are basically toppers,” Gaylord noted. She added that owners should confirm the food is supplied by a reputable company and that an animal nutritionist and, ideally, a veterinary nutritionist are involved in the formulation.
Challenges with fresh food options include shelf life and cost because fresh pet foods tend to be more expensive than commercial diets. Additionally, the volume of fresh diets is 3 to 4 times more than that of dry kibble. “If you have a 100-lb dog, 3 to 4 times more volume is a lot for you to make that diet...so that can be surprising to people. [They] tend to underfeed fresh food diets for that reason, because it just looks like a lot of food,” she said.
Veterinary professionals are familiar with the power of functional ingredients and research supporting their benefits for digestion, joint health, skin and coat health, and more. Additionally, clients search for these ingredients in their pets’ food, so manufacturers are including them to meet their needs. However, Ward noted, “Every company now touts probiotics, ω-3s, glucosamine, right? It’s in everything. And I do think there’s a bit of danger of diluting that message. I think some of the percentages of active [ingredients] aren’t delivering any health improvements whatsoever.”3
There is evidence in human medicine that fresh foods, such as fruits and vegetables, can offer health benefits6 and that eating high amounts of processed foods has been associated with developing chronic diseases.7,8 However, there is still research lacking regarding the long-term benefits of fresh food diets for dogs and cats, though current studies are underway, according to Gaylord.
Ward recommended learning how to decipher pet food labels with functional ingredients to help clients make the best decisions.3
1. Schleicher M, Cash SB, Freeman LM. Determinants of pet food purchasing
decisions. Can Vet J. 2019;60(6):644-650.
2. Pet food – worldwide. Statista. Accessed April 19, 2023.
3. Ward E. The future of pet food: top 5 trends for 2023. Presented at Fetch
dvm360® conference; March 24-26, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina.
4. Gaylord L. The fresh pet food movement: is fresh better? Presented at Fetch
dvm360® conference; March 24-26, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina.
5. Brown WY, Vanselow BA, Redman AJ, Pluske JR. An experimental meat-free diet maintained haematological characteristics in sprint-racing sled dogs. Br J Nutr. 2009;102(9):1318-1323. doi:10.1017/S0007114509389254
6. Vegetables and fruits. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Accessed March 30, 2023. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/vegetables-and-fruits
7. Nowotny K, Schröter D, Schreiner M, Grune T. Dietary advanced glycation end products and their relevance for human health. Ageing Res Rev. 2018;47:55-66. doi:10.1016/j.arr.2018.06.005
8. Chaudhuri J, Bains Y, Guha S, et al. The role of advanced glycation end products in aging and metabolic diseases: bridging association and causality. Cell Metab. 2018;28:337-352. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2018.08.014