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Caroline Buck wants your dog to go vegan. Can her plant-based pet food brand Petaluma convince pet owners?
Petaluma has a new recipe for dog food that cuts down on its environmental impact by removing the meat.
In the process of deciding whether to put her two dogs — Oscar and Leo — on a plant-based diet, Caroline Buck recalls one study in particular that convinced her to make the switch.
It was from 2009, and involved a canine nutritionist, Dr. Wendy Brown, comparing the performance of a pack of 12 sled-racing Siberian huskies, half of which were on a plant-based diet, and the other half eating regular dog food.
The study showed that even the athletes of the dog world could thrive as vegetarians. Oscar and Leo, who live a far more subdued existence, should have no problem, Buck figured.
“I was trying to find ways to reduce our household footprint,” she says. “We were changing what we were buying and eating, but we had never really thoughtfully considered how we were feeding our two dogs.”
Buck was working as a marketer for a software startup while doing this research, and realizing how much convincing it took her to make this decision for her pets gave her an idea. “From a nutritional perspective, feeding your dog a plant-based diet is very feasible. It’s just extremely controversial,” she says. “But if you can stomach that controversy, then there would be a very differentiated product on the other side.”
Her partner, Garrett Wymore, was working at pet products giant Mars Petcare at the time. Between them, Buck reckoned they had the skills to take on the challenge of normalizing plant-based pet foods.
Building a planet-friendly pet food business
Our pet’s diets have an enormous environmental impact. The production of dry pet food, for example, emits 106 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. If it were a country, it would be the world’s 16th highest emitter.
Cutting the meat is, of course, one way to reduce that impact, as new pet food brands like The Pack and Bond Pet Foods are doing for dogs (cats need meat to survive). Others are experimenting with using insect proteins, which the likes of Alvar and Hoppers Treats say also come with a lower environmental footprint.
In 2019, Wymore quit his job and Buck went part-time so they could throw their own hat in the ring. In June of this year, they launched Petaluma, which sells oven-baked kibble containing ingredients like sweet potato and peanut butter, and absolutely no meat.
It’s the culmination of two years of research and development at a cost of around $200,000, most of which has come from the couple’s own savings.
The pair worked with a vet, Dr. Blake Hawley, to refine the recipe and understand which ingredients would not only meet Petaluma’s requirements of being vegan and as locally sourced as possible, but also create a nutritionally complete meal. They also spent a year testing the product, feeding it people’s pets to see how both owner and pup liked it, and also in labs, doing things like in vitro digestibility testing, where the food is tested using a dog stomach simulation, which sees how well it can take up the nutrients.
The brand says its finished product — which is made from a dough that is rolled out, cut up and baked like cookies — generates roughly 75% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and requires 50% less freshwater and 90% less land use compared to the average commercial dog food.
Will pet parents make the switch?
Now all Petaluma has to do is convince people to give its product a go.
Buck says the biggest challenge for any plant-based pet food brand is education, given that the product is such a departure from the decades dog food brands have spent convincing us that our cuddly pups are descended from big, tough, meat-eating wolves.
“Dog food is a high-education product. Most people are not comfortable just changing their dog's diet overnight,” Buck says. They need to go through the same process she did — making sure it would be safe, nutritious, and that others had tried it, and their dogs liked it.
To solve these problems, Petaluma does two things. This Fall, it launched a sampling program where, in exchange for a bit of information about your dog and its diet, shoppers get a free scoop of kibble. Second, it’s thinking carefully about how to distill and communicate the science around its product.
“We want to be a trusted resource, but I don’t want to guilt [customers] into buying this,” Buck says. “We just give people these resources in as neutral a way as possible, to help understand the trade-offs between switching your dog over [to Petaluma] relative to other changes you could make.”
Buck looks to other businesses that have strong environmental commitments, but don’t bang on about how worthy their products are, citing Patagonia and Clif Bar as examples.
So far, these tactics seem to be working. Of the last 200 free samples that Petaluma sent out, 70% went to pet owners feeding a non-vegetarian diet. Now it's up to the dogs to decide.