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Business ideas for 2020: Tailored pet nutrition and premium pet food

As the pet care industry continues to flourish in the UK, showing impressive year-on-year growth, it seems consumers want to take feeding their pets to the next level...

The UK has long been a nation of animal lovers. Nevertheless, while we’ve long been aware of the importance of a healthy diet for ourselves, it’s only recently that the idea of giving our pets wholefoods and fresh, high-quality ingredients has taken root. 

Similarly, an increasing number of owners seem to understand that, like humans, each animal is unique and would benefit from a diet that is nutritionally varied and tailored to their specific needs. 

This means that more animal owners are now reluctant to pick up standard one-size-fits-all cans of processed animal food from the supermarket shelf. Instead, they want to invest in healthier, premium pet food which boasts natural, balanced, ‘human-grade’ ingredients and alleviates specific health problems – anything from skin issues and obesity to diabetes. 

The ‘premiumisation' and bespoke tailoring of pet food is certainly making significant waves in the industry – making it hard for legacy brands such as Pedigree to keep up with new emerging businesses in this area.

Whether this is, as Business Insider reports, due to childless millennials treating their pets like first-born children, or if it’s merely thanks to increasing levels of education surrounding human and animal health, this is certainly a business trend it would be sensible to capitalise on in 2020. Read on to learn about how the industry is booming and what our expert contributors have to say about the reasons behind this (plus, what you really need to know about vegan pet food).

Is it Coronavirus-proof?

According to data from Nielsen, alongside household items, pet food saw the largest sales increase (+33%) of any category, as people rushed to stock up on essentials in March.

Premium products may take a hit as people tighten the leash on spending, but if your business already operates on a subscription model (as many tailored pet food companies do), you're already set up to deliver straight to pets in lockdown.

Nevertheless, those retailing through supermarkets can be safe in the knowledge that the shops remain open, and that the British people clearly think pet food is a necessity.


Why is premium and tailored pet food a good business idea for 2020?

The pet industry has long been a lucrative option for entrepreneurs thanks to its consistent year-on-year growth; the UK pet care market grew steadily from $3.4m in 2010 to $4.8m in 2019, and  it's expected to reach $5m in 2020. 

This makes it  second only to the US in terms of revenue generated ($29m in 2019).

The trend within this sector of consumers opting for higher-grade pet food, with a more expensive price tag, is notable.

tailored-pet-food

Infographic from Brand Minds 2020.

The rising expenditure on veterinary services, as well as a maturing market that’s beginning to understand the health repercussions for animals that eat solely processed food, is what is driving this move,” says expert Cameron Wimble, also known as The Dog Nutritionist.

He continues, “Some people will say this is the humanisation of the pet world, but it’s really a sign that pet products are evolving as we understand more about the needs of our animals.” 

The growing value of the premium pet food market has seen several specialist businesses take flight. A common concept they cover is that of personalised pet food and diet plans, which take the dietary and medical requirements of individual pet animals into account (and sometimes, even their taste preferences – do they prefer chicken or beef?). 

In addition, there’s been a notable uplift in the number of pet care subscription boxes (to accompany the general UK subscription box craze) and tech-focused business ideas related to pet products and services. In 2019, Forbes commented  on how the development and popularity of new pet-tech products will help improve many areas of animals’ lives, including diet and nutrition. 

To sum up with a contribution from James Davidson, the co-Founder and CEO of tails.com, “The pet food market is an interesting one for entrepreneurs – there are around nine million dogs in the UK [according to a PFMA 2019 report] and we have 200,000 dogs signed up to tails.com in the UK and France. There is a huge growth opportunity in the UK alone.”

Is it Brexit-proof?

There seems to be sufficient demand within the UK alone for pet food and care-related products; the national industry is growing year-on-year. This suggests there will still be plenty of opportunities to thrive on the pet scene without facing the potential downfalls of limited overseas trade and travel.

In 2018, Pet Business World reported on concerns regarding the importing of ingredients and resources needed to make pet food after Brexit (referring namely to bigger corporations in the field). Creating premium pet food with locally sourced ingredients could be a way to safeguard such a business against new importing laws and delays.


Premium and tailored pet food: Business opportunities

Despite the recent influx of businesses focused on premium and wholesome (non-processed) pet food, there are still plenty of chances for breaking into this market. 

A business specialising in raw pet food, for example, seems to present ample opportunity: “I certainly expect the [pet food] industry to keep growing,” says Cameorn, The Dog Nutritionist, “so much so that I intend on making my own raw dog food in the near future. There are a growing number of vets who will recommend [raw dog food], and this part of the pet food market is growing rapidly.”

Furthermore, Brand Minds has noted that there is still great opportunities for growth in the areas of 

  • human-grade snacks and food, 
  • convenience (such as to-your-door delivery) and 
  • technology-driven innovation within the pet food sector

Personalised pet food which is tailored to an animal’s specific health profile and delivered in subscription boxes covers all these three areas. Inspiration can be taken from market leaders such as tails.com, whose CEO James Davidson explains that the company is “essentially a lot of different businesses: we’re a personalised dog food manufacturer, a technology platform and a service business.” 

Tails.com’s online ordering system allows users to submit their pet’s health profile so that they can provide personalised boxes of meals and snacks that will allow the animal to reach optimal health. On the tech side of things, the company website explains how its sophisticated algorithm is applied “to get the nutrient balance of your dog’s food just right”.

Taking things a step further than just the food itself, the Gigabit online magazine’s 2019 article on the “pet-tech revolution” presents several businesses who have gained success with technology-focused animal products and services aimed at improving animal health. It discusses the interesting concept of the Internet of Pets, and it references existing dog fitness tracker FitBark, which is already used by owners and vets worldwide to track the health profile of dogs. These gadgets would also fall into the category of luxury pet care, which Startups.co.uk covered previously as a top business idea for 2019 – the pet industry just keeps on giving!

An original, innovative concept with high-grade, tailored and personalised pet food at it’s core seems to be the key to success in the world of pet food for 2020. 

What about vegan pet food?

 Vegan diets are becoming more and more common, but can our growing preference for plant-based food translate safely to the animal kingdom?

Sean McCormack, the Head Vet at tails.com, says “We’re seeing more and more pet owners asking about vegetarian and vegan diets for pets. Aside from sustainability arguments, there’s an ethics question here. Dogs and cats both enjoy meat and it is part of their natural diet. So, should we impose our values on them when keeping them as pets? 

“Although dogs are omnivores, and can technically survive on a plant-based diet, it is much more difficult to provide them with the ten essential amino acids they must have in their diet to thrive if we exclude meat.”

Kathryn Eccles from the Millbry Hill pet specialists adds: “Unlike humans, cats are obligate carnivores. Basically, this means their bodies are hard-wired to eat meat, and they can't produce certain essential amino acids they need to stay healthy – like taurine – without it. So, it's recommended that cats are given a high-protein, meat-based diet.”

The general opinion from several experts is that vegan food and home cooking should be used to supplement a pet's diet rather than replace traditional meals, and that the nutritional profile of the species, breed and individual animal should be taken into account before any kind of ‘veganisation’ of their diet is considered.  

Therefore, a vegan pet food company might not be the most enduring or ethical idea. However, food aside, there are more vegan-inspired possibilities in the wider pet care industry. Craig Roberts, founder of Cooper and Gracie, decided to create a now highly successful plant-based range of pet care products after his beloved dog began to suffer from painful, itchy skin. “We now research and develop specialist products and are striving to become a global leader within cruelty-free, 100% plant based and sustainable product development.”

The company is currently aiming to complete its ambitious #10millionrescues mission of helping 10 million animals become cleaner and healthier with its products.

Ideas for a premium/tailored pet food or pet health business in 2020 could include:

  • Raw dog (or pet) food
  • Vegan snacks, food supplements and skin products for pets
  • Pet nutrition consultancy (offering diet and health advice to supplement veterinary care) 
  • Pet-tech – technology that helps owners maintain their pet’s health by optimising their diet and exercise 
  • Tailored/personalised pet-food subscriptions (subscription boxes based on information about individual animals)
  • Pet food recipe books, cookbooks and blogs

Is it sustainable?

The UK’s number-one Ethical Pet Food Company Lily’s Kitchen has been voted one of the top ten most ethical companies in the world, proving that a premium pet food can definitely be sustainable business venture.

Top tips we can learn from the Lily’s Kitchen business model are:

  • Source your ingredients responsibly. Use locally grown products as much as possible and work with suppliers and farms which adhere to high ethical standards
  • Keep packaging to a minimum and use compostable, recyclable and biodegradable packaging material where possible
  • Avoid air-freighting your products or ingredients


Insider opinion

Tails.com Head Vet Sean McCormack certainly sees good consumer intentions behind the changing direction of the pet food industry: “Pet owners are becoming increasingly interested in quality nutrition, and more specifically what ingredients they are feeding their pets. As a nutrition focused vet, I see that as really positive. 

“We say food is the first medicine: what you put in, you get out in terms of health and well-being. The pet food industry is responding to this surge in interest by listening to consumer trends and producing new products to meet their demands.”

However, he also warns that, “Human food trends progress into pet food trends all the time […] sometimes, owners forget that dogs and cats are not tiny humans, biologically at least. Their nutritional requirements, preferences and habits differ greatly from ours.”

In this vein, it seems experts in the field of pet nutrition tend to agree that the personalisation of pet food to the needs of specific animals is highly important to animal health and to the running of a safe, ethical pet food business. 

As Kathryn Eccles from the Millbry Hill says, “Our dogs are every bit as individual as we are, and certain breeds might have more complex nutritional needs – no one would expect a very active young border collie and an older chihuahua to have the same diet, for example” 

A final top tip from co-founder and CEO of tails.com James Davidson is, “For anyone looking to enter the market now, it is highly competitive. Entrepreneurs will need to bring new thinking to disrupt the existing retail and consumer offer in the marketplace to create a new sector.”

Robyn Summers-Emler
Robyn Summers-Emler

Deputy Editor

Robyn joined Startups as the Deputy Editor in 2019, bringing with her first-hand experience of working in Berlin’s startup scene. Along with the Editor, she helps determine the site's content strategy, and contributes to creating engaging, aspirational articles and campaigns aimed at making a positive impact on your small business and the wider startup community.