Millennial and Gen-Z pet parents help drive the growth of premium dog and cat food

Janet Nguyen Jun 17, 2024
Some pet parents will trade down from the food they're eating before they trade down on pet food, one expert told us. alexei_tm/Getty Images Plus

Millennial and Gen-Z pet parents help drive the growth of premium dog and cat food

Janet Nguyen Jun 17, 2024
Some pet parents will trade down from the food they're eating before they trade down on pet food, one expert told us. alexei_tm/Getty Images Plus

Every five weeks or so, Denver resident Caitlin Sweeney ensures she buys high-quality food for her 5-year-old Belgian Malinois, Annie, and her 8-year-old Blue Heeler mix, Frankie. 

Sweeney, who’s 39 years old, said she doesn’t judge others for the pet food they buy, but she’s now making a salary where she can comfortably afford what she needs.

“I try to care about the food that I eat. Why would it be any different for my dogs?” Sweeney said. 

The brand she buys, Farmina, touts high protein and fresh ingredients. It also comes with a higher price tag than average, pushing it into the “premium” pet food category, which is less of a technical designation and more of a marketing term. (“Premium” doesn’t always mean better and you should pay attention to a company’s track record and quality control efforts, according to the Clinical Nutrition Service at Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.)

A 26.4-pound bag of Farmina’s dry dog food can cost you about $105, or almost $4 a pound. Other premium brands include Blue Buffalo’s Wilderness dry dog food, which can cost almost $80 for 28 pounds at Petco, or about $2.86 a pound, and Hill’s, which can charge you about $79 for a 35-pound bag from its Science Diet line, or $2.26 a pound. 

Celebrities John Legend and Chrissy Teigen recently launched a premium pet food brand called Kismet, with one of its bags costing $79.99 for 19 pounds, or $4.21 a pound. 

A cheaper brand like Pedigree can cost just 68 cents a pound. 

Not everyone can afford higher-end brands. Some premium pet food companies are seeing signs of weaker growth as consumers try to find more affordable options, said Arun Sundaram, a senior vice president at the firm CFRA Research. But pet owners, or “pet parents,” are humanizing their dogs or cats by treating them as family members, which has helped the premium pet food category grow faster than mainstream or value-brand pet products, Sundaram said. 

Sundaram said he expects pet owners to continue gravitating toward premium pet food in the long-term, despite some consumer pullback.  

“Oftentimes, you see pet parents trading down in terms of the food that they feed themselves before they trade down in terms of the food they feed their pet,” Sundaram said. 

Pet owners want to feed their pets food that’s similar to what they’re eating, said Shannon Landry, pet brand manager at market research firm Packaged Facts, over email. 

“This humanization of pets was a trend that began long before the pandemic, but gained new momentum during the pandemic as pet owners spent more time with their pets and forged stronger pet/owner bonds,” Landry said. 

Older Gen Zers who now have their own money and millennials are more likely to buy premium pet products, said Melanie Torres Cabrera, a food and pet care research analyst at the firm Euromonitor International. 

“These are the generations where we really started seeing that drop off away from families with children,” Torres Cabrera said. And more people aren’t working at home as often as they did during the early years of the pandemic, so some pet owners are buying premium pet food partially out of guilt, she said. 

“A lot of these newer, younger pet parents that adopted a pet during the pandemic now are dealing with a pet that has social anxiety or maybe has never dealt with them being away or separated for long periods. So you’re seeing many pet parents trying to indulge and almost overextend themselves to kind of make up for that lost time,” Torres Cabrera said. 

The fresh pet food market, specifically, grew 30% in 2023 compared to 13% for pet food overall, according to a Packaged Facts report. And in 2024, the fresh category is expected to grow 20%. Freshpet, which sells refrigerated food, is projecting revenue of $1.8 billion for 2027. A 5.5-pound package of Freshpet at Petco can cost $39.99, which amounts to $7.27 a pound. 

The premium market as a whole is also performing well thanks to prescription pet food, which pet owners have to stick with, Torres Cabrera said. 

Major brands that own premium pet food brands are focusing their investments on products that are in the mid or premium tiers, while downsizing their economy portfolios, Torres Cabrera said. 

“For example, growth for Purina has focused efforts in growing the Pro Plan line, while economy brands like Beyond dry dog food and Alpo face discontinuations,” Torres Cabrera said. 

That means consumers have fewer price points to choose from. “For some consumers, it’s almost easier to just make the jump up to premium and then trade down if needed,” she said. 

While Sweeney buys food with high-quality ingredients for her pets, she had switched to Farmina because the previous brand she used rose in price but shrunk in size, a phenomenon known as shrinkflation. One of her dogs also started experiencing allergies, which may or may not have been related to the food she was eating.

Now that more people are humanizing their pets, owners of all income levels — not just the rich — are trying to feed their pets high-quality food, Sundaram said. Nearly all pet owners say their pets are family members, and about 51% say they view their pets to be “as much a part of their family as a human member,” according to 2023 Pew Research Center survey. 

When Caitlin Sweeney first moved to Colorado, a place where she had no friends or family, her rescue dog at the time, Chloe, provided her support and became her “partner in crime.” That helped her realize the importance of doing research into what her dogs are eating. 

“If you take care of them, they are the best companions, better than most people. They each have their own personalities and just lovable,” Sweeney said.

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