TORONTO — Today’s pet parents are becoming increasingly concerned about the health and wellness of their four-legged children, driving the trend for premiumization and personalization, and market research indicates that the future generation of pet owners will continue to drive this trend. To meet this demand, many new pet food companies have entered the market, determined to offer more personalized nutrition.
One of these companies is Toronto-based Dog Standards. Founder Jessica Bevilacqua launched the company in November 2021 with a goal to provide more tailored, human-grade, veterinarian-developed diets for dogs.
For Bevilacqua, the path to launch happened rapidly and was a direct response to a health-scare she experienced with her Husky, Boston. At just six months old, Boston became extremely ill and Bevilacqua sought the help of countless veterinarians, pumping her pup full of medications that failed to improve his health. Knowing that nutrition plays a significant role in human health and wellness, and the same is true for pets, Bevilacqua began investigating nutritional options for Boston.
“How I treat my nutrition is I look at all the labels, I look at all the ingredients,” she revealed. “But I realized I wasn't doing that for [Boston’s] food. I was recommended a kibble brand when I brought him home and I stuck with that and I really didn't think too much about it. And then I started asking my vet about different recommendations. Maybe it was the food that was exacerbating his symptoms and making his condition worse, but I kept just getting the run-around saying it had nothing to do with food.”
Soon Bevilacqua decided to take matters into her own hands and started cooking food for Boston in her own home. After one month of feeding Boston fresh, home-cooked meals, his health finally began to improve. However, Bevilacqua knew her homemade diets would fail to support Boston for the long-term.
“I really got worried that I wasn't giving him a complete-and-balanced diet because at home it's obviously not the same level [as commercial]; it wasn't developed by a vet and I was just doing the best I could,” she shared. “It was fine short-term, but I knew long-term I wanted something that was veterinarian developed. So, then I reached out to a vet nutritionist and basically had a two-hour consultation to understand what it would really take for me to bring a healthy dog food solution to the market.”
Dog Standards offers three fresh formulas, developed by veterinary nutritionists. The formulas include:
- Chicken and Sweet Potato, a chicken recipe that is formulated with broccoli, coconut oil, sweet and white potato, fish oil, and vitamins and minerals. This grain-free formula is specifically designed for dogs that are sensitive to grains.
- Beef and Carrot, a beef recipe formulated with butternut squash, chia seeds, brown rice, spinach, safflower and salmon oil, and vitamins and minerals.
- Turkey and Pumpkin, a turkey recipe formulated with pumpkin, kale, chickpeas, brown rice, carrots, salmon oil, and vitamins and minerals.
Each is meat-first and contains limited ingredients and no preservatives to accommodate dogs with food sensitivities or allergies. The formulas also contain functional ingredients.
“For example, in our Turkey recipe, our second ingredient is pumpkin, which is incredible for dogs that have digestive problems,” Bevilacqua said. “We use human-grade coconut oil, which is typically a pricey ingredient, and we use chia seeds. We've really invested in high-quality ingredients that don't just look good or sound fancy. They actually are doing something really important [for pet health].”
With an understanding that dogs are individuals and should be fed based on their individual needs, Dog Standards also offers grain-free and grain-inclusive options.
“It was important for us to have both [grain-free and grain-inclusive] and not be on one side or the other because, at the end of the day, every dog is different,” Bevilacqua detailed. “We use whole-grain brown rice in some of our recipes that really help dogs with their gut and digestion. Other dogs can't eat grains, so being able to create that wide spectrum of something that works for every dog has been incredible.”
The formulas are designed for puppies and dogs of all ages, something extremely important to Bevilacqua.
“There's this misconception that fresh food isn't for puppies when it's completely the opposite,” she explained. “You should be giving your dog the best option from when they're young, so they don’t develop these diseases early on. It was really, really important for me to create that… so we went the all life-stages route.”
The diets are formulated with only high-quality, human-grade ingredients. Once ingredients are combined, the formulas are then gently cooked at low temperatures to kill any potential pathogens, while still maintaining high nutritive value.
Dog Standards’ dog food is currently only available via the company’s website, DogStandards.ca. Through a customer quiz, the company collect’s individual details on each consumer’s dog, including sex, breed, age, weight and activity level, and then recommends a fresh meal plan based on these characteristics.
“Our whole mission is to ensure that every dog is getting the exact amount of grams and the exact amount of calories that they need per day for them specifically,” Bevilacqua said.
Consumers can then select from the three different formulas to include in their dog’s complete plan. Dog Standards also allows consumers to select their preferred portion size, offering a full quantity for daily, 100% fresh feeding, or half portions to be used as a topper paired with a dog’s existing diet.
The quiz and specific portion sizes are entirely intentional, according to Bevilacqua.
“Obviously there is a huge, huge problem with canine obesity,” she explained. “And so with us doing the personalized approach, this is our value-add of trying to reduce canine obesity because our feeding guidelines have all been developed by our vet nutritionists for your dog's specific age, weight, breed et cetera… Every single dog is different. That's just a guideline, but this really helps to keep from overfeeding, because we're telling the parent exactly how much they need.
“We're not giving [consumers] an option to increase or decrease [the amount of food],” Bevilacqua added. “We send them a trial box and if they say, ‘This was way too much for my dog,’ or ‘Way too little,’ we can adjust… Our whole mission is to ensure that every dog is getting the exact amount of grams and the exact amount of calories that they need per day for them specifically.”
Dog Standards also practices strict production standards to help ensure food safety and quality throughout all its formulas. The company’s meat is sourced from Canada and is federally inspected, and every single ingredient comes with a COA (Certificate of Analysis) letter, guaranteeing that ingredients have been thoroughly tested.
“Every batch is tested for heavy metals and undergo micro-testing after every single batch to ensure there's no Listeria, Salmonella or E coli.,” Bevilacqua said. “That's something that's really important for us is the safety level of our food.”
Considering the already-tight supply chain for many commercial pet food manufacturers, Dog Standards faces an even stricter supply chain considering it relies on high-quality, human-grade ingredients. However, the only significant disruption the company has faced so far, according to Bevilacqua, is one many others are also facing — poultry shortages brought on by the rapid spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).
“We ran into our first little bout [of supply chain disruptions] with the whole chicken shortage that happened a few months back,” Bevilacqua shared.
Despite this, Dog Standards has yet to halt production on any of its formulas. The reason? Strong supplier relationships and creative thinking, according to Bevilacqua.
“Though we do purchase from the same suppliers that would supply high-quality restaurants, we also purchase from local farms,” she said. “We've been able to really get creative and form partnerships with local farmers and local vendors to ensure that we always have products in stock and we're not scrambling.
“Sometimes some of our dogs can only eat one recipe because of allergies and that's what they're used to,” she added. “I'm really proud to say we've been around now for over a year and we've never had to take one of our recipes down due to shortages.”
On the horizon
As demand for more personalized pet food grows, the future remains bright for Dog Standards, which has big plans for growth. According to Bevilacqua, this year the company plans to expand its personnel team, launch one or two new formulas, and significantly expand its retail presence, all in order to meet increasing consumer demand.
“We're really excited to spread throughout Canada throughout this year,” she detailed. “Right now, we are shipping Ontario-wide and then we are going to, hopefully this year, move into British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec. We're also hoping to start popping up into [brick-and-mortar] retail as soon as in the next quarter, which is really exciting.”
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