For years, a handful of brands have dominated the pet food space, but as ownership booms and pets become part of the family, challengers are disrupting the market.
Demand for fresh pet food is growing as owners seek out high-quality, nutritious meals for their animals. Globally, the fresh pet food market is forecast to grow by a compound annual rate of 20% over the next eight years.
One disruptor is KatKin, the UK’s first fresh food brand for cats. The London and Haverhill-based startup was established in 2019 by siblings Brett and Nikki O’Farrell, pet owners who argue that existing brands do not provide cats — obligate carnivores — with the nutrition they need. Their subscription service delivers home-cooked pure-meat meals to owners’ doorsteps.
It raised $22m in Series A funding last year, and recently struck its first retail partnership with the online grocery store Ocado.
“What we are doing on the fresh food side is completely innovative — the product doesn’t exist anywhere else in the UK for cats,” Brett O’Farrell tells Sifted. “The partnership with Ocado is an opportunity to accelerate our growth, reach more of a mass market and drive category awareness in fresh food.”
Online food subscription services like KatKin have given pet owners a convenient alternative to shopping in-store. The direct to consumer (DTC) pet food market, valued at $2.1bn globally, will rocket to $18.6bn by 2032, according to research group Market.us. That growth will likely be driven by demand for premium products and a desire for greater transparency about the sourcing and production of pet food among eco-conscious owners.
Through its online model, KatKin has delivered 33m fresh meals — cooked from “100% human-quality meats” and then frozen in sachets — to 200k cats. Like other DTC disruptors, it argues that it can maintain quality through control of its supply chain, while customising its product to the specific needs of each pet.
KatKin’s goal is to emulate an ancestral diet that cats would consume in the wild. Meat usually comprises between 40% and 60% of cat foods, which are packed with grains and fillers, according to the startup. It says these can cause digestive problems for cats which, unlike dogs, have not evolved to survive on plant material.
Studies suggest that a third of cats develop kidney disease and more than half become overweight or obese in their lifetimes. The company argues that those fed with fresh food experience health benefits including better digestion and improved energy.
O’Farrell sees room for significant further growth in the DTC market, as awareness increases among owners. In the UK, sources indicate between 15% and 30% of owners currently shop for pet food online, with a similar figure, of about one quarter, in the US, he points out: “There’s still a significant majority of people that are not buying online.”
Yet there are obstacles to scaling fresh food in a DTC-only channel. “Raising fresh food category awareness is currently constrained by how much marketing spend companies can profitably put through scalable platforms like Meta and Google,” says O’Farrell.
The US is a good five to ten years ahead of the UK in adopting fresh pet food
Moreover, polling suggests that 40% of pet owners would rather not buy on subscription, he adds. That points to a need for alternative distribution channels. “If we want to access that segment of the market, the real opportunity is through strong retail partnerships,” he says, flagging lessons from the US market.
“The US is a good five to ten years ahead of the UK in adopting fresh pet food. And a big lever of growth there has been retail partnerships,” says O’Farrell. “We believe that to grow the fresh food category in the UK, companies like ours can benefit from having the right partnerships with retailers. That will be key to drive the broad-based market penetration of fresh food.”
Ocado will initially list KatKin’s pantry products, making them available to its 940k active customers. These include freeze-dried meat snacks and biodegradable plant-based litter — positioned as a sustainable alternative to clay litter.
KatKin has also developed what it calls the UK’s first health-monitoring cat litter, made from silica crystals which change colour based on the pH of a cat’s urine, giving owners early warning about illnesses such as kidney disease.
But transitioning to bricks-and-mortar retail comes with its own logistical challenges — not least, the lack of cold storage in supermarkets for fresh pet food.
There’s an opportunity with the right partners to drive the category awareness for fresh cat food
“The big barrier is that they don’t have freezers allocated to pets in store,” says O’Farrell. “The biggest conversation we get into is about who is going to swallow the initial capex spend of changing the aisle, installing the freezers and covering the installation costs of electricity.”
KatKin has not yet listed its fresh food with Ocado—but “one of the attractions of Ocado is that it has an established supply chain for chilled and frozen products”, he notes.
The future may lie in a diversified distribution network, with a loyal customer base established online and then grown through retail channels.
“We want to create a strong proof of concept that shows there is a mass market appeal for our product that has been delivered to date through DTC,” says O’Farrell.
“There’s an opportunity with the right partners to drive the category awareness for fresh cat food and brand awareness for KatKin. When we take a 10-year view, we see it as an attractive, scalable revenue stream for the business.”
This article first appeared in our monthly Unleashed pet tech newsletter, a collaboration with Purina Accelerator Lab. All content is editorially independent. Sign up to our newsletter here to keep up to date with the latest goings-on in the European pet tech industry.