Reigning cats and dogs

Gone are the days when your pet would have to make do with a plate of leftovers and a night in the shed. Now, cats and dogs rule the roost.

SBHD: Gone are the days when your pet would have to make do with a plate of leftovers and a night in the shed. Now, cats and dogs rule the roost.

Should I go for the prawns in aspic jelly, the seafood platter with piquant white sauce, or the crunchy vegetable risotto topped by golden breadcrumbs? To get it wrong will inevitably lead to sulking.

The triple-layer, tea-time biscuit looks appetising, as does the daringly sophisticated cocktail mix for later on, but dare I suggest a “faecal odour reducer” before bed-time?

I’d love to add a bag of those crunchy vegetarian treats to the basket, but will they merely exacerbate or relieve my lodger’s inconvenient wind problem?

Buying food for the cat used to be simple.

A saucer of milk, giblets on a Sunday and the rest of the week was a toss-up between Whiskas Rabbit or the bite-sized fieldmice, voles and birds, which so incautiously strayed onto her well-guarded patch.

A gentle, somewhat unassuming cat, she was eternally grateful for what she was given and never once questioned the wisdom of those nice men and women at Spillers and Pedigree who so tirelessly developed new tastes for her delectation.

But then she discovered lifestyle. It began with a TV ad for Sheba – the one in which the beautiful feline and her beautiful owner together reach new heights of orgasmic purring as the pampered puss prepared to devour a gourmet meal that was surely dreamed up in cat heaven.

The not-so-subtle message of that ad – that the humble household mog was no longer a minor part of the furniture, but more a sleek, bewhiskered fashion accessory to be treasured along with the Gucci handbag – was lapped up along with the product.

From then on, it was paws down to giblets and the beginning of an exhaustive series of product tests to satisfy my Tigzy’s increasingly insatiable demands.

Out went Whiskas and in came Friskies as she aped the fashion for dried food housed so amusingly in those sophisticated airtight pouches.

A by-product of her distaste for what manufacturers unattractively call “moist” foods, in favour of anything resembling dried rabbit pellets, was that she developed a raging thirst. Clever eh?

Like helpless parents of a demanding toddler, we reverted to those shockingly-priced cartons of specially prepared cats’ milk. So much more satisfying than the dreadfully common cows’ milk used by the rest of the family.

Just as her food now had to come in devilishly expensive ring-pull or foil cartons, festooned with words like gourmet or la carte – so different to the crude cans simply labelled “catfood” that once satisfied her – it also had to match her current standing on the feline lifestyle ladder.

Pregnancy demanded specialist food from specialist shops, as well as double rations of anything fresh that squeaked or twittered. And when resting between litters, it was back to food for active cats in the “prime of life”.

She was too old for the invention in recent months of “junior” recipe food, but will no doubt be in the market for food-aimed-at-ancient-bad-tempered-moggies-with-no-teeth when the time comes. Along with the cat-sized HRT injections.

Just now, she is heavily impressed with the Safeway own-label cat food range, launched last year after a year-long trial among 2,000 pets. However, with all the legendary fickleness of her species, she will probably switch to Sainsbury’s own-label come the launch day later this year.

Which all goes to show that Euromonitor is right to say that we lavish more money on our pets than on our babies – £2.6bn on petcare in 1992, compared with £916m on all the trappings of modern babycare – but at least we don’t have to send our thick pets to private schools.

According to industry experts, the extent to which petfood can be “humanised” separates the out-and-out successes from the failures. If it can be made to appeal to indulgent owners – either by its recipe, by its packaging or by its advertising – it’ll sell at least once.

“Pet-owners really do care about what they give their pets to eat,” says one manufacturer. “Sometimes even more than what they give their children”.

While caring owners like their cat or dog food to smell appetising – and to contain ingredients that they themselves would find attractive should they ever come back as a pet – British petfood manufacturers are still a long way from using that other great human response trigger – sex – to shift more cans and cartons.

For lest observers make too much of the fact that Spillers marketing director Simon Esberger joined the company from heavily sensual Hagen-Dazs, there’ll be no sweaty and passion-filled doggy bodies sharing the Winalot just yet,says marketing manager Tony Corp.

“You could argue that some of the premium catfood ads are already emphasising the sensual nature of being a pet-owner, but a downright sexy petfood ad is still a long way off.”

Yet the very recruitment of people like Esberger, and others who have fearlessly crossed the line from human products to petfood, suggests that the humanisation, or anthropomorphism process, is very far from over.

According to Corp, pet-owners fall into two distinct camps – the indulgent ones who will go to any lengths to make sure their pets are happy and contented – and the ones who take a more functional view of ownerhood, perhaps using dogs simply to guard their property.

“At the indulgent end, we are not only seeing a growth in super-premium products that ape popular human recipes – tender chicken or turkey, say – but increasingly, a mirroring of human health concerns.

“The growth in dogfood containing pasta and vegetables, or lighter white meat rather than red, matches almost entirely the current interest in healthier eating among the owners themselves.”

Equally important, says Spillers, are the new “lifestyle products” – which offer different vitamins and minerals to pets at different stages in their lives.

Then there are the foods specially tailored for different meals – Spillers has a GoodLife Breakfast for dogs for example, while others are immersed in the delights of the “teatime” market.

In less than a decade, the petfood business has grown from £800m to £1.4bn, prompted, say manufacturers such as Spillers, by the increasing numbers of people who treat their pets like royalty. Or at least like children.

Tigzy is still sulking over the paucity of her Christmas stocking last year: two packs of catnip, a festive flea-collar and a packet of low-fat chocolate drops. I’ve told her to write a letter to Santa next time.

SBHD: The petfood business has grown from £800m to £1.4bn, prompted, says Spillers (above), by the increasing numbers of people who treat their pets like royalty. Or at least like children

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