The economy has tanked for a second time, and shoppers are tightening their belts. But the nation's army of animal lovers is still splashing out on gourmet food for their pets, with owners willing to sacrifice their own lifestyles to make sure Fido gets his treats.
While eight in 10 consumers have changed their grocery shopping habits to save money, new research shows only one in 10 pet owners have cut back on what they spend on their animals. It finds 42 per cent spoil pets with treats even though their budgets are tight, with more than half of dog owners indulging their pooches with Christmas stockings.
In fact, the British devotion to animals is such that more than a third of owners claim they would cut back on spending on their own food before that of their pet. "Whether they actually would is questionable, but that just goes to show people do feel strongly about their pets' food," said Kiti Soininen of market analysts Mintel, who wrote the new report. "About two-thirds say they treat their pet with as much care as they would a child, which shows pets are very much seen as a member of a family, and that level of emotional connection shows why people are reluctant to cut back."
She said that during the recession people were still looking for "affordable treats", whether it was chocolate, wine or something for their animal. Dog snacks and treats made up 28 per cent of pet product launches in 2011.
More than half of adults have a pet, with cats just edging out dogs as the most popular companion. The UK pet food and supplies market, worth an estimated £2.7bn, has been quite resilient during the downturn, with "super-premium brands" such as Gourmet, Sheba and Cesar performing well last year. The majority of owners (63 per cent), surveyed in December, said they expect the same quality standards from pet food as they do their own food.
Stephanie Mehanna owns Canine Cookie Company, a pet bakery based in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex that supplies additive-free pet treats such as chicken and organic catnip kitty caviar, liver-flavoured pup-corn and "happy barkday" cakes. She has seen turnover double in each of the past three years as owners become more aware of what goes into pet food.
Harrods' Pet Kingdom, which has a pet spa offering vanilla and blueberry facials, wash and fluff drys and reiki healing, has "substantially increased" its product offering in recent years to meet demand. Later this month, it is launching Italian pasta dishes, including cheese ravioli with duck sauce, for dogs. Some owners prefer to dress their pets in designer clothes, with a Mulberry angora mix dog sweater costing £125. A four-poster pet bed will set you back £700.