Pet food revolution: Fresh ingredients and human grade standards on the rise

Food may cost more these days, but it isn't stopping a growing number of pet parents from digging deeper into their wallets at mealtime.

In a FOX 32 Special Report, Scott Schneider went behind the scenes at a busy kitchen in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood where the freshest ingredients compliment balanced recipes for a discerning clientele.

Only this is no restaurant. It's the first brick and mortar Just Food for Dogs retail store in the Greater Chicagoland area, and business is booming.

"We only use ingredients that are approved by USDA for human consumption," said Jennifer Kwon, a veterinarian for Just Food for Dogs. "What that means essentially is that all the ingredients here you can see at your local grocery store or restaurant, and so we really look to see the quality ingredients in our meals."

That quality is exactly what consumers are looking for these days. A recent survey by MetLife Pet Insurance finds eight in 10 pet parents agree that, realistically, there’s no limit on what they’d spend to make sure their pet is happy and healthy.

Since 2021, fresh cat food sales are up 54%. For dogs, it’s a staggering 86% with brands like Farmer’s Dog, Ollie Fresh and Nom Nom leading the pack. But with costs averaging five times that of traditional canned food and kibble, feeding your pet so-called "human grade" food can be cost prohibitive.

"Basically, the added costs comes from the ingredient quality. We work with sourcing from suppliers that adhere to very strict standards, much as we see with human grade food so that adds to the cost of the meals that we provide," Kwon said.

In the quest to provide the finest "human grade food" at more affordable prices, some pet parents are ditching commercially sold pet foods and turning to what are known as "ancestral" diets - homemade meals utilizing raw proteins and organic ingredients while adding their own nutritional supplements. Diets that require not only extensive prep time in the kitchen but also careful execution.

"I just basically weigh out so I know exactly what they need per meal," said dog mom Gina Meier.

Meier is a single pet parent who lives in Aurora. She adopted Ty and Hutch from PAWS Chicago a decade ago, but recently grew frustrated when age and health problems often turned mealtime into an exercise in futility.

"Before I started feeding the dogs this food, I was like sitting on the kitchen floor like basically begging my dog to eat," she said.

Desperate for a solution, Gina turned to social media where she learned she wasn't alone. Other dog and cat owners with finicky eaters were seeing success through customized meal plans, food prepared at home in large portions and then frozen.

"I follow what is called a prey raw food diet, which is predominantly the combination of muscle meat organs and bone, so all the nutrients live in the organs and they get the calcium from the bone," Meier said.

Meier admits that the transition to a raw diet requires commitment of both time and energy. However, the cost savings when compared to buying pre-packaged food is substantial. But before making the switch, understanding the potential hazards is key.

Dr. Kelly Cairns is certified in internal medicine for small animals and is on the board of directors for the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association.

"It's critically important that the homemade diet is nutritionally balanced and complete and that often requires adding certain supplements including vitamins and minerals," said Cairns, DVM, MS, DACVIM – board-certified small animal internal medicine specialist, Vice president of medical excellence and education for Thrive Pet Healthcare, and secretary of the board of directors of the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association.

"The big risk would be that we are feeding a long-term nutritionally unbalanced diet," she added.

Meier noticed changes in Ty soon after putting him on the prey diet. He stopped regurgitating his food, his coat became shinier, and his energy level increased dramatically.

"He is 11, going to be 12 and acts like he's probably two or three. You can't really tell now but he's super playful," Meier said.

Cairns suggested partnering with your veterinarian to determine what specific food is going to be optimal for your pet including different brands that best meet their nutritional requirements.

"Really, it's not very different than with humans. So good nutrition means that a pet is getting the right amount of nutrients like proteins and fats and carbohydrates as well as the right about of minerals and vitamins that the pet needs but also getting those things in the right quantity," Cairns said.

But what about dog and cat owners who simply can't afford the high cost of a human grade diet and others who don't have the time or energy to prepare custom-made meals at home?

"The good news is there's a lot of great stuff out there, so even if you go to a supermarket, you can find a lot of high-quality commercial pet foods both canned and or dry that are made by many reputable pet food companies that put a lot of energy into the quality control and the nutrition that's in those foods," Cairns said.

And so whether out of a can or bag, upscale neighborhood retailer or your own kitchen, whatever it is you're serving your fur babies they're likely reaping the benefits.

"Whatever I can do to make their lives that much better and make them live happy, healthy lives, I would do anything for them," Meier said.

There are no studies with regard to whether or not your dog or cat will live longer on a fresh food diet, or the prey diet. 

However, there are a number of studies that say if your dog or cat is leaner, they will live longer and a fresh food diet will help them manage their weight better.