Dog Food Is So Fancy Now That I Ate Some

Canumi’s yellowfin tuna is caught in the Atlantic and then gently steamed and packed with fresh water in a storied factory in Galicia, Spain. A tin costs about $6 and comes inside an Instagram-ready, peach-colored box designed with spunky typefaces. (The brand also makes tote bags.) I am, honestly, desperate to try it, but it’s been sold out in America for weeks. Also, it’s for dogs.

If you are old enough to be reading this and you grew up with a dog, he probably did not eat anything that would appeal to a human adult with a reasonably sophisticated palate. What he ate, in all likelihood, was kibble: hard, stinky, cereal-like pellets of grains and a small amount of meat, processed at high heat and pressure and sold by a global food mega-conglomerate in a big, unphotogenic bag. Whoever was in charge of buying the kibble may have had a choice among, say, salmon, chicken, and beef, but those distinctions were less about a meaningful difference in taste or composition than about the feeble work of flavoring agents. Your dog might have liked the food; your dog might have hated the food. He almost certainly didn’t know anything better.

Today’s dogs—at least the ones with rich parents—have much more appealing, and expensive, options. If they do eat dry food, it might be a chicken-and-vegetable-asado recipe developed by the Michelin-starred chef José Andrés, who introduced a “Mediterranean inspired” dog-food brand, Reál Mesa, last fall. Alternatively, their owners might cook for them, maybe something like vegetable-and-beef crepes using a packaged mix of organic vegetables, powdered vitamins, pre- and probiotics, and minerals specifically designed in consultation with a veterinarian to maximize gut health ($41 a bag).

For dessert, they might have gluten-free pumpkin biscuits, or freeze-dried purple sweet potato, or corn-free, wheat-free macarons in flavors such as crème brûlée and lavender, six for $23.99. (The company that makes them, Bonne et Filou, has described itself as the “1st French-inspired luxury lifestyle brand for pets” and is named for Louis XIV’s dogs.) The companies that make this food are mostly new, helped along by economic trends that have made starting and growing a niche business much easier. Many are running cheap, hyper-targeted web ads; selling directly to consumers without a retail middleman; and attracting venture capitalists who sense an opportunity. Meanwhile, the big manufacturers that have long dominated the industry are reworking their products for a new, or newly attentive, customer base. As the market-research company Euromonitor International wrote in a report last year, “Nothing seems to be able to stop the premiumisation … trends in the pet care industry.”

Much of that growth has been powered by the market for fresh food, which is typically human-grade and shipped to the buyer’s door on ice; the sector has expanded more than 30 percent a year since 2019. Maev sells flash-frozen, uncooked USDA-grade meat-and-vegetable mixes for about $150 a month for a medium-size dog; its sales quadrupled in 2022. The Farmer’s Dog, which The Information reported late last year is “one of the highest-valued startups selling products or services to pet owners,” saw sales increase about 60 percent from 2022 to 2023. This means that, last year, it sold more than $800 million worth of blended, minimally processed vegetables and meat, regulated to the same standards as anything you or I would eat.

A few weeks ago, I did. The Farmer’s Dog turkey concoction came in a clear plastic bag that would have been customized with my dog’s name, if I owned one, and looked like a giant freezer pop made of semiliquid terrazzo tile: mustard yellow flecked with green and orange. In addition to turkey, the recipe contained chickpeas, spinach, carrots, parsnips, fish oil, and a bevy of vitamins and minerals. It tasted fine—wholesome, if a little bland, because The Farmer’s Dog controls its sodium content much more carefully than I do. Imagine an extra-extra-thick, slightly under-seasoned soup. Anyone would be lucky to eat it.

The creatures who do consume it have no concept of Galician seafood, José Andrés, or gut health—and they are dining like kings in a country where one in eight households did not have enough to eat in 2022. This reveals less about dogs than it does about the people who love them. According to Pew Research Center, more than half of dog owners consider their pet “as much a part of their family as a human member.” Food is one of the few ways they can take good care of the captive being for whom they are responsible. And the stakes are high, because our time with our dogs is short. The great tragedy, and the stupid beauty, of pet ownership is that we know it almost always ends the same way, and we do it regardless.

Anxiety is the other half of love. It is also very good at making us buy things. In a 2019 study, researchers found that 96 percent of survey respondents prioritized buying healthy food for their pets as much as or more than buying healthy food for themselves. The idea has become that “if you love your animal, you have to feed them the best, most gourmet food, and we think if it costs more, it’s gotta be better,” Beth Daly, a professor of anthrozoology at the University of Windsor, told me. (For what it’s worth, she feeds her yellow lab, Paddington, kibble from Royal Canin, an established brand.) People “want to do the absolute best they can for their animal,” Daly said, “but there’s an element of fear there.”

Pet-food advertising tugs at all of the same health-related worries as that for human food: It emphasizes whole ingredients and natural flavors, superfoods and probiotics, indulgence in careful tension with wholesomeness, the very best for you and your family. (Maev’s marketing copy promises benefits including reduced stress, better oral and gut health, a softer coat, and improved brain development.) It trades on fear—of aging, of death—but just subtly enough that you still feel like you can do something about it.

No ad I’ve seen more expertly narrativizes this sticky tangle of anxiety, affection, and obligation than the one The Farmer’s Dog ran during last year’s Super Bowl. As it begins, a young girl whispers a promise to her flop-eared black lab: “I’ll always take care of you.” They run on a beach, play in the rain, engage in all manner of highlight-reel dog-kid fun. Then time speeds up: She moves away, comes back, gets married, gets pregnant; the dog is by her side for all of it. You know what’s coming, eventually, but the one-minute spot never shows it. “Nothing matters more than more years together,” the ad copy reads, layered on top of an overhead shot of the girl, now a woman, snuggling in bed with her family, which still includes the black lab, now reality-defyingly old.

It is, as ads tend to be, sentimental and manipulative, appealing to the basest anxieties of anyone who has ever loved another animal. Within its logic, the opposite of premium dog food isn’t non-premium dog food; it’s fewer years playing in the rain together. If you love your dog—as millions of Americans do, fiercely—and if there is even an infinitesimal chance that feeding her an expensive slurry of chickpeas and kale will make her life longer and happier, and if you can afford the chickpea slurry, why not? “You get so much from the dog,” Alan Beck, the former director of Purdue University’s Center for the Human-Animal Bond, told me. “It’s not so terrible that you want to make a better meal.” And sure, it’s all a little ridiculous. But what could possibly be less ridiculous than taking care of the ones we love best, to the best of our abilities?