After an online order didn’t show on time, Phyllis Pometta stopped at five different stores before she hit pay dirt. There it was on the shelf: beef stew-flavored dog food.
Ms. Pometta scooped up about four cans, which weren’t her preferred brand. She was desperate, with supplies of the food she usually bought for her dog nowhere to be found online or in stores.
Karmaa Pomeranian rescue, wasn’t as desperate. She sniffed the food and rejected it.
Ms. Pometta coaxed the dog to try it by adding beef-flavored treats, which gave Karma an upset stomach for days. After that, Ms. Pometta said she resorted to making Karma’s meals herself, cooking chicken with rice, carrots and peas on her stovetop, which Karma is happy to eat.
"It’s hard enough feeding [five] people," Ms. Pometta said, referring to her family. "I don’t want to be making dog food."
While shoppers scour stores and online vendors for videogame consoles and bicycles, pet owners like Ms. Pometta are questing after puréed fish and properly sized kibble, as supply-chain problems disrupt pet-food supplies.
Shortages of labor, raw materials and transportation are crimping the human food supply, from beverages to snacks. The challenge is the same for pet food, and is even more acute, supermarket executives say, because of the sudden high demand. More people have adopted pets during the Covid-19 pandemic, and pet owners are buying bigger volumes of food. Pet-food sales at supermarkets grew 6.9% over the past 52 weeks ended Nov. 27, compared with 2.3% for food overall, according to firm NielsenIQ.
The crunch is putting some pet owners in a bind—particularly those whose pets require prescribed food or have dietary restrictions. Dogs and cats often get attached to a specific brand or flavor of food, pet owners said, and can have physical reactions if forced to change.
Serafin Burciaja said he has hit multiple Walmarts in his neighborhood in Chandler, Ariz., to look for small-bite dog food for his Manchester terrier, who is older and can’t chew big chunks.
"You want to feed them like family," Mr. Burciaja said. "It puts me in a bad place at times, just having the thought that it could run out at any time for quite some time."
In Lacey, Wash., Lynda Ryba drove an hour in November to buy about 80 cans of roasted chicken and rice for her cats at PetSmart—about a six-week supply.
Ms. Ryba, a freelance copy editor, said the products from Hill’s Pet Nutrition Inc., which have a chunky consistency, were out of stock in her area for weeks. Her two American shorthair cats were unamused by other, pâté-style products—they didn’t devour them the way they did their usual meals, she said.
"It’s nerve-racking, especially if we are getting down to the last cans," Ms. Ryba said. She said she now stockpiles cans of the Hill’s cat food whenever possible.
Many supermarkets, unable to find substitutes, are leaving pet-food shelves empty. Pet-food manufacturers, struggling to secure ingredients and expand production, have signaled that shortages could persist. J.M. Smucker Co. notified retailers in November that it would limit shipments of some pet-food products through January 2023, citing transportation challenges with the supply of wet food—which typically uses imported ingredients.
Freshpet Inc., which makes refrigerated dog food and dry food for cats, is expanding its suppliers of turkey and plastic film, used in packaging, and has added production capacity, said Chief Executive Billy Cyr. But equipment for new production lines is getting held up at ports, and construction materials are running low, he said.
Miruna Barnoschi, a lecturer and doctoral candidate at Northwestern University, goes to her local Target and Jewel-Osco stores in Chicago every two to three days in search of seafood-flavored wet cat food. She has befriended managers who let her know that new shipments of pet food typically arrive on Wednesdays.
Still, it has been two months since Ms. Barnoschi has found Spinoza’s preferred variety. Spinoza—named after a graduate course on the philosopher—settles for poultry and beef-flavored food, but doesn’t purr or lick up morsels after meals.
"He looks at me with these sad eyes that are like, ‘Why won’t you give me the flavor I like?’ " she said.
Mira Crisp has been paying nearly double for cans of cat food to third-party sellers on Amazon.com. She posted on a local social-media group asking if anyone wanted to trade the cat-food brands her cats didn’t like, but no dice. Ms. Crisp even bought the food her 3-year-old cats Dosa and Sambar used to eat, but they turned their back after barely sniffing it.
"It’s breaking the bank to do it the Amazon way, but they are my babies," Ms. Crisp said.
Zachary Whitten, who takes care of four cats and some strays with his wife in Memphis, Tenn., has tried serving healthier, more expensive food—which is more often available in stores—to his pets. He has also mixed dry food with wet brands to make it last longer.
The cats, who typically run around the house and meow in excitement near meal time, took just a few bites, he said. They looked at the food, sniffed it then wandered away before returning to reluctantly finish their bowls.
"Some of the cats have lost a pound or two just because they haven’t been getting consistent food," Mr. Whitten said. "It’s been a waking nightmare."
In Dallas, Valese Jones cooked beef and white rice for her 4-year-old Maltese-miniature pinscher mix when she couldn’t find dog food at the end of October. Cookie scrutinized the food, took a bite and walked away.
Ms. Jones, a public-relations manager, tried cooking chicken and salmon with rice instead. In the end, she said, "sometimes she just ate whatever I ate."