Oscar the Doberman isn’t just a dog to Patrick Flannigan — he’s part of the family.
So for Flannigan, pouring dry dog food out of a bag just doesn’t seem fitting for the 10-year-old dog, especially while the family downs a meal fit for, well, humans.
“I love my dog,” Flannigan, of suburban Chicago, said. “I try to keep the table scraps to a minimum, but when he’s giving you the big brown eyes, what are you supposed to do?”
In days gone by, dogs were tied to a tree in the backyard and thrown the occasional steak bone. Today, many owners of the nation’s 74 million dogs are like Flannigan — they see their pets in almost human terms and want them to be happy, including at meal time.
Gourmet foods still account for only a fraction of the $9 billion Americans spend annually on dog food, Still, over the last few years, big companies and small ones alike have begun to cater to the pampered pet with menus that approximate human food.
Nestle Purina rolled out last month a new line, Beneful Prepared Meals, which features eight entrees in flavors such as roasted chicken recipe with pasta, carrots and spinach and turkey medley with corn, wild rice, peas and barley.
The entrees don’t come cheap. The suggested retail price is $1.59 per 10-ounce container. But the container is re-sealable so the dog can enjoy the leftovers for another meal.
Flannigan agreed to have his dog taste-test the food — Nestle Purina paid him to participate — and Oscar gave a paws-up.
“He absolutely loves it,” Flannigan said. “It’s way different than anything I’ve ever fed him. The way he digs into it is phenomenal. For me, that’s great to see.”
The trend of humanizing dogs is especially true among empty-nesters, said Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.
“The house is suddenly quiet and because the pet is replacing the children, you tend to humanize them a little bit,” Vetere said. “You also want to reward your pet more in terms that make you feel good. It’s no longer just enough to find a couple of tennis balls and say, ‘You’ve been a good dog today.”’
Part of that trend involves feeding the dogs tastier food.
“We use ingredients you would find in a fine restaurant — very appealing ingredients,” said Ken Wilks, vice president of sales for Merrick Pet Care in Amarillo, Texas, which has offered a gourmet line since 2002. Its products include a pot pie made with chicken, snow peas and apples; an offering fashioned after a Thanksgiving meal with turkey, sweet potatoes, carrots, green beans and apples; and a meal with ingredients from a cowboy cookout.
“The same experience you or I would get dining in a fine restaurant, we’re providing for pets,” Wilks said.
Another company, Me & Them Pet Bakery in Seymour, Wis., has a Web site that offers dog treats and meals made with “human-grade ingredients.” Dogs can munch on treats made of real tuna, peanut butter or oatmeal cookies, even a cake shaped like a bone.
Nestle Purina’s Beneful brand, launched in 2001, now accounts for annual sales of $300 million. The company is spending $20 million to develop and market the gourmet line.
Part of the research and development process involved input from dog owners, who were brought into the St. Louis test kitchen. There, they were greeted with a 30-foot-long buffet table filled with different types of meats, grains, vegetables and gravies.
“We asked consumers to come in and create what we would call their ideal wet dog food,” said Nina Leigh Krueger, director of the Beneful brand. “The key thing we learned was just how many grains and vegetables they put on the plate. They really felt these types of ingredients were important for their dogs.”
From there, Nestle Purina nutritionists developed the recipes, making sure they provided complete and balanced meals, said Steve Crimmins, vice president of dog food marketing for Nestle Purina. The meals are no more nutritional than the company’s traditional wet and dry dog foods — just more palatable, he said.
Rather than offer the gourmet food out of cans or bags, the company chose clear, individual-serve plastic containers that look like microwaveable meals for humans. A foil closing under the lid helps ensure freshness, and the plastic lid allows for resealing, which is especially handy for smaller dogs that won’t consume all 10 ounces in one meal, Krueger said.
“There’s a fairly large consumer segment that has an innate need to please their dog with a human-like food,” Crimmins said. “It’s much better for them to get a nutritionally balanced food prepared for the dog than to supplement the dog food with table scraps.”