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Meet Omni -- the men who think your dog should go vegan

·8-min read
 (Omni)
(Omni)

The vegan pet food market is poised to boom. One analysis says the US market alone will near double in size to $15.6 billion by 2028, driven by climate concerns and the number of pet owners turning against meat.

In the UK, surveys show a third of dog owners are looking to switch their pets away from meat to a plant-based diet.

Over 50% of UK dogs have obesity related problems.

Dr Guy Sandelowsky and Shiv Sivakumar, founders of vegan pet food business Omni, gave this interview to the Evening Standard.

Tell us how the business began and where you want to take it

We started Omni to make it easier to give dogs the best chance of a long and healthy life. We knew it was possible to do this in a more environmentally sustainable way and without having to slaughter animals for their meat. Until recently, most dog food had been made from heavily-processed meat or worse still, raw meat. Not only do these pose serious health risks to dogs, they are also environmentally unsustainable.

Our co-founder and chief veterinarian, Dr Guy Sandelowsky, has seen the consequences of these meat-based diets in his patients. One in three dogs will pass away due to cancer and more than half of the UK dog population is suffering from obesity. By cleaning up dogs’ diet with healthier, quality ingredients we give them a better opportunity to thrive.

Using Guy’s network of veterinary scientists and clinical nutritionists, we came together to formulate recipes that were free from cheap animal by-products, fillers or chemicals and whose production has a much lower environmental impact. After over 20 recipe iterations over the course of a year, we managed to create the world’s first plant-based meat for dogs that’s 100% nutritionally complete, loved by dogs, healthy and up to 90% more environmentally sustainable.

Our mission is to become the world’s favourite and most trusted plant-based dog food brand.

Is it true that pets eat 20% of the world’s meat? What are the implications of this?

Staggering isn’t it? Owning a medium sized dog has twice the environmental impact of building and running an SUV like a Toyota Land Cruiser. A study by UCLA concluded that pet food generates as much as 25% of the environmental damage associated with the meat industry.

How has the pandemic pet boom affected your business?

The pandemic has seen pet ownership almost double in size in the UK. Flexible remote working has allowed people to spend more time at home. We’ve seen particular growth of pet ownership in the Gen Z and Millennial segment of the market. This is a big boost for us at omni, as these are health and planet conscious pet parents seeking out healthier and more sustainable lifestyle choices for themselves, their family and their pets.

Previous health scares from other zoonotic diseases like swine flu and BSE have got people questioning the ethics and safety of farming animals for their meat. The fact that this pandemic seems to have been caused by a strain of coronavirus transmitted to humans from animals has intensified the frustration and suspicion around our heavy reliance on the meat industry.

Athletes and celebrities like Serena Williams and Lewis Hamilton have done a lot to raise the profile of the benefits of meat-free lifestyles. Companies in the human food sector like Beyond Meat and Impossible have proven that plant-based food can look and taste like actual meat. We see omni as an extension of this movement.

Dogs love meat and don’t like vegetables, surely, aren’t we forcing on them something they don’t want?

It’s a common query for lots of pet owners. The short answer is that dogs like both! Carrot sticks are one of the most common treats we give dogs in the UK.

The reason dogs and humans get along so well is because they’ve evolved alongside each other. For millennia, dogs have eaten the scraps that humans have thrown them. A dog’s diet resembles that of their caregiver, so in the West, people feed their dogs meat because it has traditionally been a large component of their own meals. But in India and Sri Lanka, for example, dogs are often vegetarian because their humans are vegetarian.

What are the benefits of pets eating a plant-based diet?

Getting your dog onto a plant-based diet means you’re no longer feeding them artery-clogging animal fat, cancer-causing processed meat or the chemical and antibiotic residues that have been found time and time again in meat-based dog food.

It also means you’ve chosen not to feed your dog raw meat, which is a wise choice considering that meat must be cooked in order to kill potentially life-threatening microbes like Salmonella, E. coli and various parasites.

Instead, if you choose to feed them omni, you’ll be giving them a wholesome, high-quality, plant-based diet that’s healthier and doesn’t require the slaughter of a single animal; now isn’t that great!?

Omni is made from ingredients that you might find at your own dinner table like sweet potato, pumpkin, brown rice and lentils. Not only are these ingredients cleaner, they’re also absolutely delicious so even the fussiest of eaters will be excited at meal times. What’s more, you’ll be cutting down the carbon footprint of your dog’s food by up to 85%, which given the current climate emergency we all face is a huge added bonus!

A plant-based diet like omni is also ideal if your dog suffers from allergies. Meat / fish protein is the most common food-based allergen that we see in dogs, so its exclusion could be the key to an allergy-free life for your dog. Omni is also a great choice for dogs that are a little overweight.

And the downsides? (There must be some. Flatulence?)

The biggest downside of plant-based diets for dogs is that they are not easy to get right and so require great expertise to formulate safely. A home-cooked plant-based diet for instance can be challenging to prepare in terms of adequately balancing the specific protein, vitamin and mineral requirements that your dog has. Even with the best intentions, incomplete diets could result in nutritional deficiencies if such expertise is lacking, which could have a negative impact on your dog’s health and welfare.

Certain ingredients like peas are packed with valuable nutrients but they need to be cooked in a certain way to optimise bioavailability and absorption. In addition, knowledge of ingredient interaction is vital to ensure one is not blocking absorption of another.

It can also be challenging to keep the level of fibre at an optimal level for dogs’ digestive systems. Some fibre is ideal as it helps to add bulk to the stools but too much could result in gastro-intestinal discomfort and flatulence.

What do vets say about all this?

We’re a vet-founded brand that is rooted in science and evidence-based medicine. We’ve found that other vets really support this approach and are generally very excited about the health and environmental benefits of feeding dogs a plant-based diet. Most are also well aware of the evidence proving that dogs are omnivores and know that they can safely derive their nutrition from a variety of meat and / or plant-based sources. They’ve also been prescribing plant-based diets for dogs with allergies for decades so understand better than anyone that not only is it possible, but it’s already been happening safely for many years.

If there are concerns, they tend to relate to certain brands that may not be offering a nutritionally complete formulation. There’s also the concern that if dog parents try to home cook a diet there’s a higher chance that it will lack certain nutrients.

What can you tell us about the finances of the business? Who are the shareholders? What are the revenues?

It’s still early days for us but we already have a talented pool of investors backing us. This includes Brendan Robinson, a highly regarded veterinary surgeon and entrepreneur, famous for having founded the hugely successful Village Vet group, which offers gold-standard clinical care to pets across the UK. We also have the support of Amit Lakhani, Investment Director at Zeal Ventures and Alec Pratt, Managing Director at Numis, both of whom strongly believe the future of how we feed ourselves and our pets is going to shift massively away from meat, towards plant-based alternatives.

We were also lucky to be incubated by two of the leading accelerators in the food-tech space - ProVeg and Brinc - who are both looking to continue supporting omni in its growth. In addition, we’ve received investment from other leading players in the cultivated meat space, which alongside plant-based meat, is forecasted to completely transform the landscape of the global food chain.

We never planned to start selling omni till August 2021 but during our taste-test trial earlier in the year, in which we sent out free bags of omni to 250 UK dog parents, we were inundated with requests for follow on purchases. People couldn’t believe how much their dogs loved omni, it was a real turning point for the business and proof that demand for what we were doing was strong. That prompted us to open a temporary payment portal on our site and we ended up selling out in our first month of sales. Ever since, our loyal customers have been re-purchasing omni, as they’ve seen the positive effects the diet has on their dogs and our sales have continued to grow month-on-month. We achieved our highest sales in August with a 200% increase in revenue compared to July and we’re continuing to see a high volume of new customers each month, especially now that we’ve enabled subscription options in which customers can save up 20%.

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