Moist, natural diets filled with wholesome ingredients gain popularity among cat-owning customers.
By Wendy Bedwell-Wilson
No longer dwarfed by aisles and aisles of dog diets, the latest natural feline formulas cater to pet owners who want wholesome, quality choices for their cats—and they’re earning their spot on store shelves.
“Pet specialty is severely underpenetrated when it comes to natural cat food,” said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis. “Most companies focus first on dogs; there hasn’t been much attention paid to cat owners who want a natural product.
“But cat owners, just like dog owners, want to feed a diet that looks like something they would put on their own plate—minimally processed, natural products with ingredients they can pronounce and understand,” Hudson said.
Barbara Ratner, owner of Holistic Pet Cuisine in Boca Raton, Fla., understands that—and it’s precisely why a third of her store is dedicated to all-natural cat nutrition, including brands Primal Pet Foods, Rad Cat Raw Diet and Stella & Chewy’s.
“We focus on raw and freeze-dried food, coupled with canned food,” she said. “And we really share the health benefits of moist food for cats’ kidneys and urinary tract.”
Trends in natural cat food also point to sustainability, transparency, and organic and non-GMO ingredients, said Jaimie Turkington, director of marketing for Petcurean Pet Nutrition in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada.
“With increased awareness about climate change and almost daily news stories about extreme weather conditions, consumers want to feed their cats in a way that minimizes their ecological footprint,” she said. “Cat owners want to provide quality ingredients that they can feel good about feeding their cat and which match the quality of the ingredients they seek for their own nutritional needs.”
They also want details. Quality and sourcing of ingredients, GMO and organic certifications, company values—all those things matter, Turkington said.
“Consumers are looking for transparency, and they want to purchase products from companies that are aligned with their values,” she said.
“Manufacturers are focusing on creating products with the quality of the ingredients at the forefront of their development, with a strong shift toward sourcing organic and non-GMO ingredients,” she added.
New to the Category
Riding the wholesome-ingredient trend, the newest natural cat foods center on high-quality, grain-free ingredients, and more and more are coming in frozen and freeze-dried varieties, reported industry participants.
“The latest surge in sales is in the raw frozen and freeze-dried cat food,” said Patti Salladay, marketing and sales representative for Northwest Naturals in Portland, Ore., whose company recently launched a raw frozen and freeze-dried chicken and turkey diet. “It is driven by the continuing education of consumers on what is the biologically appropriate diet for cats to keep them healthy. They are looking for palatability and species-appropriate diets for felines. Consumers are educating themselves and question the ‘normal’ way cats have been fed for years.”
Raw frozen and freeze-dried cat foods are flying off the shelves at Healthy Pets Mountain West in Cottonwood Heights, Utah.
“The raw diets—frozen and freeze dried—are becoming much more popular,” said co-owner Kris Lamoreaux. “They’ve been well received, and we have quite a few customers on a raw diet. Most, though, prefer canned food. They’ll go through and choose two from every brand and every protein. They love to mix it up.”
Catering to cat carnivores, the newest canned foods feature high-protein and high-fat ingredients with lots of moisture, said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis.
“Cats are true carnivores, and we formulated Tiki wet cat food to replicate the natural prey diet: a high-protein, high-fat, grain- and carb-free food with lots of broth,” she said.
All that liquid is important for cats’ health, noted Jennifer Adolphe, Ph.D., RD, senior nutritionist at Petcurean Pet Nutrition in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada.
“The extra moisture in canned cat food has been shown to offer benefits by helping cats stay hydrated, supporting urinary tract health by diluting the urine and may help with weight control,” she said.
Of course, dry kibble remains a shelf staple—Hudson, in fact, said that as much as 60 percent of cat owners mix their wet and dry foods—and manufacturers continue to develop formulas that are nutrient rich and delicious to finicky feline palates.
In October, Petcurean Pet Nutrition launched a new brand called Gather that uses certified and organic ingredients.
“We searched for and found a handful of farmers, growers and fishers of the highest integrity who were practicing the responsible, sustainable production of extraordinary quality ingredients,” said Jaimie Turkington, director of marketing.
When talking to customers about cat food, an abridged lesson in feline nutrition will go a long way, along with an understanding of what “natural” really means, said Jennifer Adolphe, Ph.D., RD, senior nutritionist at Petcurean Pet Nutrition in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada.
“Reviewing the list of ingredients on the bag is a good place to start when choosing a cat food,” she said. “Each ingredient should be carefully selected to play a specific nutritional or functional role in the food. Look for species-specific fresh meat or meat meal as the first ingredient to ensure the food contains a high-quality protein source to provide all of the essential amino acids that cats require.”
It is important to note that the term “natural” is still a bit of a gray area from a regulatory standpoint, for both pet and human foods, Adolphe said.
“The Association of American Feed Control Officials provides guidance about the use of the term ‘natural,’” she said. “Pet foods that are labeled ‘natural’ cannot contain any chemically synthesized ingredients, except for vitamins, minerals or other trace nutrients, which requires the disclaimer ‘natural with added vitamins, minerals and other trace nutrients.’ From a nutrition perspective, the term ‘natural’ does not ensure nutritional adequacy or safety.”
Adolphe encourages retailers and cat owners to look beyond the label when choosing a diet.
“Look beyond the claims and evaluate the company behind the brand,” she said. “Ensure that the food is formulated by qualified nutritionists, meets extremely high quality and safety standards, and has a team of health and nutrition specialists available if you have any questions or need help.”
Patti Salladay, marketing and sales representative for Northwest Naturals in Portland, Ore., said that they should also ask about a food maker’s manufacturing facility and process.
“Where is it made?” she asked. “Is the manufacturing facility a pet food facility or a human food facility? How often is it inspected, and by whom? Are there manufacturing food safety programs in place, and how is that audited? And the quality of ingredients: Are they pet food ingredients or human food ingredients, and where are they sourced?”
Retailers also need to understand the nutritional needs of a cat and be able to communicate them with customers, said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis.
“Cats are born obligate carnivores and need a high-protein, high-fat, meat-based diet to thrive,” she said. “In the wild, cats hunted their prey, which were typically 50 percent to 60 percent protein, and consumed plants in minimal amounts. Though domesticated much earlier, cats only began to eat commercial pet foods in the last 60 years. Their dietary needs have not changed and, like their ancestors, they still need a primarily meat diet for optimal digestibility and key nutrients.”
Get Creative with Displays
Natural cat food displays don’t have to be boring. With a little creativity, retailers can come up with interesting, interactive merchandisers that draw curious customers.
“When building a product display, look for products that are natural add-ons to the main product featured,” said Jaimie Turkington, director of marketing for Petcurean Pet Nutrition in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. “For example, build an endcap special on canned food—but don’t just stop with the food. Get creative. Merchandise the entire endcap with canned food then place a shelf at eye level displaying brightly colored cat food bowls as add-on sale items.”
Retailers who sell Whitebridge Pet Brands’ Tiki cat food have fun with the product label’s island theme, said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for the St. Louis company.
“Our retail partners are very creative,” she said. “A themed endcap with a tiki totem, colorful leis and a grass hut is one of the more eye-catching displays I have seen recently. That doesn’t work for everyone, but I think the message is ‘get creative.’ Cat people truly appreciate a creative display that focuses exclusively on cats. No dogs invited!”
Another approach to selling natural cat food: having in-store tastings and educational seminars. That’s what co-owner Janene Zakrajsek does at Pussy & Pooch Pethouse and Pawbar, a chain of Southern California pet boutiques that specialize in nutrition and green living for pets.
“We host a series of pet nutrition in-store events, demos and classes with pet nutrition experts and specials guests, as well as giveaways and contests,” she said. “These initiatives help to educate pet parents and show why ‘all pet food is not created equal’ and what it takes to make your pets thrive, not just survive.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Pet Product News.