The Humanization of Pets: A Contrarian View
Anthony Bennie, founder and chief nutrition officer for Clear Conscience Pet, has a bone to pick with the industry he loves about the "humanization of pets."
As an early soldier in the natural pet food “revolution” who got his first job knocking on retail store doors to sell dog food starting in the early 1990’s, I have a bone to pick with the industry that I love.
The bone lodged in my throat is the constant obsession with “humanization of pets” in our industry. One can hardly open a trade magazine without reading yet another “insightful analysis” stating that following the humanization trend is the key to becoming the next pet food millionaire or billionaire. Look at a few articles about “what’s new in pet food” or the “amazing growth of the natural pet food niche” and you’ll be treated to a big dose of self-congratulatory gushing about “the growing humanization trend.” By this, the writers mean making food and treats for pets that strive to sound more and more like human food every day.
I don’t need to mention examples. Just walk into any store that sells pet food, whether a mass merchant or a boutique pet specialty store, and you’ll see what I mean. Now, in all fairness, lots of products with people-food sounding names are high quality, biologically appropriate, and supply proper nutrition for dogs or cats despite playing up the “people food for pets” angle. And lest I be called a hypocrite, I’ll call myself out since my newly expanded line of SuperGravy Instant Pet Food Topper Gravy and Broth mixes uses “cutesy” names that are variations on human “sauces:” BARKinara Red, PAW Jus Brown, and ARFredo White. And no, I can’t blame a marketing agency. These were my ideas. And guess what- people love the names and dogs love the gravies. But they are not “people gravies”; I formulated them meticulously to be species-appropriate for carnivores.
So ... what’s the problem? What am I whining and growling about? It’s this: If we buy into this concept “from soup to mutts” (go ahead, groan!), we will lose sight of the truth and think that cute names that sound like people food and have the words “natural,” “holistic” or “organic” attached to them mean we are feeding our canines and felines properly. We won’t be looking at the back of the bags and actually reading and interpreting ingredient lists. And we won’t be making consumers smarter about raising healthy and happy animals. Marketing will be the only driving force and substance will fall by the wayside. If, for example, we make “natural grain-free pet foods” that are made with 60 percent to 80 percent carbohydrates like tapioca and low biological value, vegetable-based proteins like pea concentrates, we can call them anything we want but they’ll still be mediocre foods for carnivores, in my opinion as a nutritionist.
So I humbly suggest that everyone who loves their dogs and cats and treats them as family members keep doing just that, because they are part of our families. But don’t lose sight of the deeper truth: Our companion animals are brought into human families involuntarily, at our whim. We set the rules and decide how to feed them, house them, and what level of medical care they receive. They don't get a vote! Therefore, we need to be their guardians, not their “owners.” And we are obliged to learn their biology and needs instead of pretending that they are four-legged furry versions of us.
Those of us who are devoted to our dogs, cats and other animals should relish the joy, excitement and emotional satisfaction that their loyalty and companionship brings us, and give them a special place of honor in our families. But we must remember that they are not part of the human family! They proudly exist as members of other species, and for eons, humans around the world have found that companionship with animals is an endless source of fascination, and thoughtful people know that it's a privilege to have them sharing our lives. The emotional and intellectual "reward" of having animals in our lives isn’t limited to companionship, though that is profound in a crowded world that sometimes feels so lonely. At a deeper level it’s enlightenment that reminds us that we “human animals” are only one of millions of species on the planet.
Companion animals are just that: animals. Animals who are willing to put up with us and allow us a “high def” window out of our homo sapiens mindset and into the vast realm of nonhumanness. And it is really nice to get a break from humanity, don’t you think? I sure do! But instead of touting the humanization of animals, how about cherishing the opportunity to animalize humans? After all, who has done all of the damage and represents the greatest threat to our home planet? Certainly not animals! So let’s not make them more like us, let’s learn responsible planetary citizenship from them.
Being entrusted with the health and happiness of dogs and feeding our family by creating things for dogs to eat entails a sacred obligation that requires holding ourselves to the highest standard of safety, healthfulness, and biological suitability. That means no all-carb "cookies" formulated to attract human sweet tooths which contribute to obesity and other health issues for dogs. It means rejecting chews like those plasticky green, pink, or blue so-called "dental bones" made from bizarrely unrecognizable "engineered" food ingredients. Instead, we and other ethical manufacturers must make food and treats for dogs that are nutritionally similar to the diet of wild canines which means high in animal proteins and healthy fats, and very low in carbohydrates. It means not being "grossed out" by organ meats which are excellent for dogs, and not being squeamish about giving them rugged treats made from connective tissue like trachea, tendons, and cartilage that satisfy their instinctive urge to chew. And it means rejecting deceptive marketing designed to get people to feed the wrong things to their dogs. It's not rocket science; it's just common sense. If we do our jobs properly, dogs will not just eat to survive, they will experience true joy by eating food and treats that speak to their spirit and not just their bellies!
I happen to strongly believe that the deepest bond with our animal family members only occurs when we truly understand that they are representatives of a separate species whose biology, intellect and emotional lives differ vastly from ours. Clear Conscience Pet was founded on the core belief that we must treat and feed dogs and cats spiritually and nutritionally as canines and felines, while respecting their otherness instead of pandering to the notion that they are “little people.”
This heartfelt belief is core to our philosophy and informs our daily decisions about what to make, how to make it, and how we educate people honestly and without self-serving hype about the care and feeding of their companion animals. We applaud others in our industry who do the same and humbly suggest that anyone trying to get rich by selling food and treats for dogs that are best left in the human pantry either get educated about real canine nutrition or get out of our industry and find a more suitable way to make a living.
Anthony Bennie is the founder and chief nutrition officer of Clear Conscience Pet®. He is a natural pet care industry entrepreneur and an advocate for the fair and honest treatment of pet guardians and companion animals who writes frequently for popular and trade publications, appears frequently on television and radio, and is a speaker both within and outside the pet industry. This essay is an excerpt from his first feature length book, “Confessions of a Dog Food Salesman,” slated for release in fall 2017. In 2015, Anthony was named a “Pet Industry Icon,” one of only 25 individuals so honored by independent experts. Bennie and Clear Conscience Pet have won 14 Awards for excellence and innovation in animal nutrition, including the 2016 Pet Insight Vanguard Award, the 2015 Pet Food and Animal Nutrition 2.0 Innovation Award and the 2015 Pet Product News Editor’s Choice Award. Email Bennie at firstname.lastname@example.org.