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Why is there a cat food shortage in the US? Experts explain

cat food shortage in u.s explained
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many changes to our way of life, but kitty owners are facing a new challenge – a cat food shortage. So why are shoppers being confronted with empty shelves when trying to buy their furry friend the nutrition they need?

Iowa State University professor Jonathan Phares who studies supply chains told Wifr.com (opens in new tab) that he believes that various different reasons are working together to make cat food scarce. 

An increase in the number of cats owned, coupled with a lack of ingredients and even packaging, have caused a perfect storm to disrupt cat food supplies.

First, the good news: American households took to adopting a lot more cats in 2020 as the pandemic began. This surge has remained high – while other pet adoptions tailed off – meaning a lot more families are still choosing to make cats a permanent part of their household.

However, more felines to feed means greater demands on the already smaller supplies of cat food, hence the emptier shelves.

cat food shortage felt on shelves

A woman buys cat food as nearly empty shelves are seen at a Walmart store (Image credit: Getty Images)

Another reason for the cat food shortage is that the ingredients that pet food is made from has become hard to come by or more expensive to source. America imports a lot of pet food from overseas, as well as the meat, minerals and vitamins used to make it.

The US Pet Food Institute (opens in new tab) highlighted the problem to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in a letter written back in June 2021 (opens in new tab), but the changes in the food supply chain caused by the pandemic is still causing problems. 

To add to the problem, transportation issues mean that even when supplies do arrive at ports, there is still a long delay in unloading it from ships and getting it to the pet food factories.

Even when the food is sourced in the US, there is still a shortfall. Often the meat in pet food comes from human food off-cuts, and as meat supplies have dwindled due to shortages caused by the pandemic these by-products have become harder to find. 

Many off these off-cuts come from hospitality businesses such as hotels and restaurants, and with the lockdowns, many of these establishments were forced to stop trading. The scarcity meant the cost of meat increased too – by 6.3% for meat supplies in 2021.

Does renewable energy really cause pet food shortages? 

Other ingredients in short supply are the oils and fats essential for cat health, and the reason for this may surprise you. A lot of these products are harder to come by for pet food manufacturers because of the favorable tariffs offered to companies making renewable fuels.

It seems a lot of these fats and oils are now being diverted to industries involved in the production of renewable diesel. As the PFI states "PFI and its members support efforts to fight climate change, but current policies create a government-driven market advantage to the energy sector and a disadvantage to companies purchasing ingredients for pet food."

canned cat food

Traditional metal cans used to keep pet food fresh are also becoming harder to source. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Container issues 

It's not just the ingredients though, increasingly pet food manufacturers have nothing to put the food into even if they can make it! 

Aluminium is in short supply, and coupled with the number of staff shortages at canneries, the traditional metal cans used to keep pet food fresh are becoming very hard to source. This is why brands like Stella and Chewy have already changed to pouches to store their pet food.

It's hoped that this pet food crisis will be only temporary. As the PFI explains, "PFI is actively communicating with the federal government about these disruptions and advocating for solutions to address and improve the US supply chain."

"In the meantime, be assured that America’s pet food makers are working to safely produce complete and balanced nutrition for dogs and cats."

"We encourage shoppers to only purchase the amount of food they would regularly need and recommend contacting the individual company for assistance regarding a specific pet food product."

Jamie Middleton is a freelance editor and writer who has been editing and creating content for magazines and websites for over 20 years. As well as writing about the pets he loves, he has helped create websites about tech and innovation like TechRadar.com, Innovate UK and TechSPARK, written programmes for music festivals, books on inventions and architecture, TV listings magazines, and edited publications about cars such as Lexus, Toyota and Jaguar. In his spare time he writes fiction books and poetry - or at least he does when he is permitted to by his cat Pirate, who enjoys the warmth of laptops too much to allow being creative to get in the way.