They’re frustratingly unaware of it, but my two dogs, Jerry and Juno, enjoy nice things. I don’t lavish them in bespoke raw pet food or designer dog clothes, but Juno, a deranged hell-goblin who just turned one year old, often gets a stick of dried Himalayan yak cheese (usually $8 a pop) to keep her occupied inside her crate. And Jerry, a beatific senior lab mix, takes a glucosamine tablet ($9.99 per bottle) with each morning meal. I’m not sure how much it actually helps him, beyond the fleeting happiness he possibly derives from believing he’s getting a Special Breakfast Treat.
I do these things because I love my dogs deeply and care about their health, obviously, but I suspect it’s also for more selfish reasons: I simply need them to live forever.
Unsurprisingly, I’m a sucker for my animals, largely because confronting their mortality is worse than thinking about my own. A lot of other dog owners my age feel similarly, as it turns out — millennial dog people are pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the pet supplement industry, which in 2018 had an estimated value of around $636 million, according to an April 2019 report from market research publisher Packaged Facts. That’s a mind-boggling figure that, by all measures, appears to be growing. (For context, that sum is roughly equivalent to the value of another millennial-baiting cash cow: the pumpkin spice industrial complex.)
The American pet product industry, which is reportedly worth $75 billion, has become such a gold rush that there’s even a summit for venture capitalists and corporate buyers to connect with pet product startups pitching “smart” litterboxes that measure how frequently your cat pees, “Blue Apron for dogs,” and depression-soothing television programming for pets (the event is called, aptly, the Pets and Money Summit). Pet food is one of the food sector’s fastest growing segments, according to an annual report from Global Industry Analysts, Inc., and is projected to reach nearly $35 billion by 2024. And the category of pet supplements — from fish oil to probiotics to Jerry’s special breakfast treat — has grown year over year for the past five years, according to Packaged Facts. Their nearly 200-page analysis was compiled from surveying pet owners of all ages, but according to the data, dog owners age 25-34 skew particularly high for buying supplements for their animals. Overall, dog people spend four times as much on their good boys and girls as cat people do, and last year, accounted for an estimated 78% of all pet supplement sales. Talk about rolling over! (I’m very sorry.)
The factors that contributed to such massive growth in pet wellness read like a rousing game of Millennial Mad Libs. There’s the rise of slick, direct-to-consumer ecommerce brands — Packaged Facts’ 2019 surveys show that 43% of dog owners who purchase supplements do so online, compared to a measly 27% just two years ago. There’s the seismic surge of interest in CBD, and the “halo effect” its popularity has had in the pet supplement category. There’s the explosion of (human) wellness and self-care culture over the last few years, and its ensuing trickle-down effect on our pets: according to the report, “pet supplement purchasers are more likely to be supplement takers themselves.” And then, of course, there are the millennial customers themselves: a generation for whom pets often function like kids. (Industry experts call this phenomenon “humanization.”)
Steve King, president of the American Pet Products Association and 30-year veteran of the industry, tells me that millennials, who recently surpassed boomers as the biggest buyers of pet products, have brought along some fairly major attitudinal shifts in what, and how, we buy for our pets. “Products that were considered perhaps luxuries by earlier generations are now considered essentials by millennial pet owners,” says King. “And that definitely feeds into the area of supplements.”
Take Jerry’s daily glucosamine regimen. Glucosamine started out as a human dietary supplement for joint health decades ago, and trickled over into canine health over the last decade, but only attained mainstream popularity among dog owners in recent years. “Ten years ago, consumers may have heard of it, but they weren’t really sure what it does,” says King. “And now, it’s just part of the life stages of their pet. They know that that’s something that will be good for them and help them with joint health throughout their lives.” Sure enough, a Google Trends search for “glucosamine for dogs” shows a steady uptick in queries over the last fifteen years, as glucosamine joined the ranks of leashes, beds, and bones as a totally normal thing to buy for your dog. I get mine at Trader Joe’s.
The CBD chews purported to soothe a dog’s anxiety, the gut health products you can order custom-tailored to your border collie’s microbiome, the personalized pet meds delivered to your door — these things have crept from niche corners toward the mainstream; from products you’d seek out at vet clinics or specialty stores to products you might consider subscribing to after seeing it on Instagram.
One of those Instagram ads I spotted recently was from a company called Goodboy, which is kind of like a Ritual or Care/Of for dogs. The visuals on Goodboy’s website tick all the millennial boxes: emojis, the word “doggo,” that trendy ‘70s font atop hues of millennial pink and hunter green. Users fill out a quiz about their dog, selecting from various canine concerns such as bone health, mobility, immunity support, and stress/anxiety, and are subsequently served recommendations for one or more of Goodboy’s four formulas.
Cofounders Stefan Lewinger, 31, and Kari Sapp, 30, launched the Atlanta-based brand in July after working together on Lewinger’s last startup, a specialty sock subscription service. (Both are also dog owners: Lewinger has a German short-haired pointer, and Sapp has two labs.) “We just wanted to demystify the supplement industry,” says Sapp. “Now, people are looking for alternative ways to take care of their pets.”
The co-founders told me on the phone that, along the lines of direct-to-consumer vitamin startups like Ritual, they hope to reach millennials who are perhaps wellness-curious but not necessarily interested in embarking on a biochemical research project or sifting through PubMed. A quiz is much easier. “I think the success of [brands like] Ritual and some of these other direct to consumer brands is that it is simple, it’s familiar, but exciting,” says Lewinger. “It can get boring to do your own research. So, we try to do it through a more fun and playful lens.”
In the development phase, the cofounders talked with fellow dog owners in their age group. “Everybody had one or two different concerns that they wanted to address with their dogs, but they didn’t really know where to start,” says Lewinger. “Maybe it wasn’t something that was worth a vet visit, or maybe it was something that, if you poke around the supplement aisle in PetSmart, there’s a million different labels and bottles.”
On the spectrum of pet healthcare, there’s a pretty wide gap between “not great but probably fine” and “needs to go to the vet right now.” Supplements and other products of not-quite-mainstream “wellness,” both canine and human, attempt to fill this gap; to circumvent the barriers and costs of mainstream healthcare while still proactively protecting your pet’s health. When dog owners are faced with the specter of five-figure medical bills, or even bankruptcy, to save their dog’s life, $30 a month for some vitamins might not seem quite so terribly indulgent.
Pet supplements share another attribute with the wellness bubble, and that’s a lack of regulation. Just as Hairfinity, Hum, or Ritual aren’t forced to conduct clinical trials to prove whether their vitamins really do give you thicker hair or glowier skin, it’s largely up to pet supplement brands to ensure their own products are safe and their marketing claims are honest.
Fortunately, there are some non-government watchdogs (you get it) keeping an eye on pet supplement manufacturers. Bartges points to the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC), a voluntary organization to which companies can submit information about the quality of their product. “If it meets requirements established by NASC, then it receives a seal of approval,” says Bartges, though he notes that not all companies apply for the seal. Failing that, he adds, pet owners should always read the labels. “If the company cannot provide what is exactly in the product — not only the ingredients but [also] the amounts — then I would choose another product and company,” he says. “You should know exactly what is being provided to a pet.”
I try to give my dogs nice things, but I could always be doing more. Does Juno, who consistently eats the mulch in my backyard and promptly regurgitates it indoors, need probiotics for her microbiome? Does Jerry’s bladder deserve a blend of cranberry powder, marshmallow root powder, and various other powders distilled into one healthy, all-natural chew? Do my dogs, as Goodboy suggests, “deserve” this?
I asked Dr. Bartges whether I’m a bad dog mother for not giving each of my dog-children their own tailored vitamin blends. He mostly absolved me of my guilt. “If a pet has a specific problem, then supplements may help,“ says Bartges. “But in general, most healthy pets do not need supplements if they are eating a good quality diet. If you feel the need to supplement a diet, then consider changing their diets.” Maybe I should look into Blue Apron for dogs after all.