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Millennials have supplanted baby boomers as the largest pet-owning generation in America, and increasingly they’re feeding their pets as they feed themselves: free range, organic, and gluten-free.

And despite stagnating wages and student debt, market researchers say that millennials are more likely than their elders to spring for high-end pet food.

“Millennials are especially driven to look for their personal values in the products they buy for their pets,” said David Sprinkle, research director for the market research firm Packaged Facts.

The trend has led pet food companies to focus on so-called “premium” and “super-premium” product lines, Sprinkle said, with trendy ingredients — think kale, blueberries, and pumpkin — along with labels touting “organic,” “natural,” and “holistic.”

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Sales of top-of-the-line pet food have grown steadily since the massive pet food recalls of 2007, when thousands of cats and dogs died of renal failure after eating packaged pet food containing wheat and rice gluten contaminated with Chinese-sourced melamine, a chemical used to make plastics, cleaning products, glues, and fertilizers.

That event triggered a “huge consciousness of product safety” among some pet owners, which led them to buy specialty brands rather than the mass-market brands involved in the recalls, Sprinkle said.

In 2015, US consumers spent $5.4 billion on natural pet food, amounting to 69 percent of total pet food sales, according to the global market research firm Euromonitor International.

WellPet LLC, a Tewksbury pet food company, recently conducted a focus group with a group of Tufts University students to better understand millennials, said chief commercial officer Camelle Kent.

WellPet’s oldest brand, Old Mother Hubbard, turned 90 last month. But the company is looking for new ways to reach a younger demographic that’s “treating their pet more like a friend, or even a child,” Kent said.

Seven in 10 millennials polled by Packaged Facts for its February 2016 National Pet Owner Survey agreed with the statement that “Having a pet is a good way to get ready for having a family.”

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Take Jenny Rodriguez, a 29-year-old contract attorney and self-described “pet parent.” She spends her work week negotiating multimillion-dollar research agreements for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and her nights and weekends with e-mail and documents to review.

“Who can afford a kid with student loans?” said Rodriguez, who earned her undergraduate and law degrees at Boston University. “I’m not in a position to get married. I’m too busy to seek out a boyfriend, so she provides me with companionship.”

“She” is a 14-pound Cavalier King Charles spaniel named Trixiebelle on whom Rodriguez spares no expense. “She’s my baby,” she said.

Each day, Trixibelle gets a lovingly prepared mixture of Royal Canin kibble and grain-free, GMO-free “Love Me Tender” Chicken Breast “Au Jus” wet dog food from Natick-based Weruva Inc.

This dish from Weruva features skinless chicken breast and wild Pacific salmon and is free of gluten and GMOs.
This dish from Weruva features skinless chicken breast and wild Pacific salmon and is free of gluten and GMOs.

Weruva’s slogan is “People food for pets,” and they mean it. Flavors like “Grandma’s Chicken Soup” feature free-range chicken with no antibiotics or hormones. It costs about $3.79 per 14-ounce can. Progresso-brand chicken soup for humans, by comparison, is about half that on an ounce-per-ounce basis.

Trends in human food frequently make their way to prepackaged pet cuisine, and that is happening more rapidly thanks to social media. It used to take about six years for pet food manufacturers to detect a human dietary trend and reformulate it for animals. Now, that window is about two to three years, Kent said.

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Manufacturers of all sizes are consolidating to keep up with demand for premium pet food, said Cathleen Enright, chief executive of the Washington, D.C., lobbying group Pet Food Institute.

In January, WellPet acquired Sojos, a Minneapolis maker of raw dog food. Its lamb and goat food costs $13.25 a pound, while wild venison and wild boar versions go for $33.30 per pound.

Companies known for making food for humans are getting into the gourmet pet food business as well. Mars Petcare Inc., a subsidiary of the Virginia candy maker Mars Inc., is the world’s largest pet food company by annual revenue, according to the trade publication Petfood Industry.

In 2014, the company bought a controlling stake in Iams, as well as the premium brands Eukanuba and Natura from Procter & Gamble for $2.9 billion, adding to a stable of brands that includes Pedigree, Whiskas, and Royal Canin.

Nestle Purina PetCare Co., globally the second-largest pet food company, acquired the premium pet food company Merrick Pet Care Inc. from a private equity firm in July 2015.

And JM Smucker Co., best known for its fruit spreads, became the world’s third-biggest pet food company in 2015 when it bought Big Heart Pet Brands, formerly known as Del Monte Foods’ Pet Products, from its private equity owner. The $5.8 billion acquisition was the largest in the company’s 119-year history and brought it brands including Dick Van Patten’s Natural Balance Pet Foods, Nature’s Recipe, and Kibbles ‘N Bits.

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Despite the rush to premium pet food, there’s little scientific evidence to support claims it’s better for pets, said Dr. Cailin Heinze, a nutritionist at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

Heinze said the nutrients in so-called “premium” pet foods are mostly identical to budget-conscious brands, made up primarily of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.

Before manufacturers can claim their pet foods are “natural” or “complete and balanced,” the product must meet certain standards set forth by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, which must be adopted by states where it’s sold, Heinze said.

But the association doesn’t regulate many of the buzzwords drawing in millennials scanning pet food shelves.

“Words like premium, holistic, and gourmet are marketing terms that can be used by any company to describe any product. They don’t have any reflection of the nutritiousness of the ingredients in that product,” Heinze said.

Broadly speaking, Heinze said trends in human eating, like grain free and gluten free, are not transferrable to pets, who require different nutrients.

“If you’re marketing your pet food predominantly on what ingredients you don’t put in it that’s not science, that’s marketing,” Heinze said.


Amanda Burke can be reached at amanda.burke@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @charlie_acb.