Staying Natural

Pet owners want more variety in natural dog and cat foods, and manufacturers are responding by developing more products.


The natural dog and cat food category is gaining strength as more pet owners seek these foods when they shop for their furry loved ones. Consumers can select from a variety of natural foods and treats as manufacturers develop new flavors and presentations, and retailers that know how to communicate these attributes are benefiting. 

According to the American Pet Products Association’s (APPA) 2015/2016 National Pet Owners Survey, natural food was the second most often purchased dog food, with 19 percent of survey respondents saying they purchased natural dog food in 2014. That was up from 18 percent in 2012. Also, 13 percent of dog owners said natural dog food is the type they use most often, compared to 11 percent in 2012. The survey defined natural as  “food with no synthetic material but no certification process.”

Premium dog food was the most common type of dog food purchased in 2014, with 47 percent of owners saying they bought premium dog food, or “food with nutrients, less preservatives, and metabolized more efficiently than lower-grade food.” This was up from 45 percent in 2012.

For cat owners, premium food was also more popular in 2014, with 42 percent buying it, compared to 40 percent in 2012. APPA noted a large increase in cat owners who feed their pets natural cat food, from 14 percent in 2012 to 19 percent in 2014. Eleven percent of cat owners bought natural food most often in 2014, up from eight percent in 2012. 

Industry experts say there are opportunities to grow the category not only by getting more shoppers to try natural pet foods, but also by getting current consumers to buy more variations of the foods. “We’re starting to see natural pet food expand into new categories of food and treat options,” says Chanda Leary-Coutu, senior manager, marketing communications for WellPet, based in Tewksbury, Mass. “Traditionally, pet parents typically feed dry or wet food, but recently, there has been an increased interest in alternative options such as pet food toppers, baked dry food and raw pet food.” 

WellPet expanded its Holistic Select lineup with Drizzles, baked, wheat-free treats that support the pet’s digestive health with probiotics from live yogurt culture drizzles and fiber-rich fruits. Holistic Select Drizzles are available in Pomegranate, Papaya & Yogurt and Pumpkin, Banana & Yogurt recipes for dogs. Also in the Holistic Select line, Grain-Free Rabbit & Lamb Meals Recipe is a grain-free, potato-free and poultry-free recipe with live active cultures and ingredients like rabbit, chickpeas and lentils. 

WellPet also introduced Wellness CORE Air Dried meal or topper, Wellness CORE Chunky Centers wet food recipes made with gravy and cuts of meaty proteins surrounded by savory pâté, and Wellness CORE 95% wet food recipes made with 95 percent pure protein from chicken, turkey, salmon and whitefish, or beef blended into a smooth pâté. Earlier this year WellPet launched Wellness TruFood, grain-free wet and dry food and treat recipes for dogs and cats. 

“Pet parents are more invested than ever in their pet’s health, which means that they have more questions about what’s in their pet’s food and where it’s coming from,” says Leary-Coutu. “From our perspective, this is a great thing.” 

The challenge, she says, lies in the fact that there is much information available, including misinformation. Natural pet food manufacturers have a growing responsibility to better educate pet parents about the food, ingredients, sourcing and other details. Some manufacturers are working with retailers to help them learn more about these features, in turn helping pet parents choose the right foods. 

To this end, WellPet created the “Five Signs of Wellness” campaign to educate pet parents on the visible indicators of overall health and wellbeing in their pets, including skin and coat health, digestive health, energy, immunity, and eyes, teeth and gum health. 

Michael Landa, CEO of Nulo, Inc., in Austin, Texas, agrees that misinformation is an important challenge for the natural pet foods category. “Think about how many ‘wild’ and ‘sustainable’ pet foods have hit the market in an effort to create an emotional diversion to an otherwise under-educated pet food consumer,” he says. 

Landa notes that some “family-owned” manufacturers are really venture-capital-backed and/or venture-capital-founded and run, and certain companies that complain about “big name pet food” competitors are billion-dollar entities themselves. “These messages are taking lots of liberties and ultimately not benefiting our dogs’ and cats’ health. That’s a continuous challenge for our industry as it distracts the natural consumer from real innovation,” he says. Landa adds that many retailers have responded by educating their staff and customers about healthier ingredients and their functional benefits.  

Nulo is launching Trim, a high-meat-protein, lower-carb, low-glycemic-index-ingredient cat kibble. Trim contains the patented BC30 probiotic to support gastrointestinal health and L-carnitine to promote fat burning. “We believe that obesity in cats is a silent epidemic affecting many of our feline friends,” says Landa. “In fact, 58 percent are considered overweight based on a 2014 study by APOP [Association for Pet Obesity Prevention]. Providing them a healthy option for weight management is something we’ve been pretty passionate about.”

Retailers can help by staying informed. “We have noticed top-performing retailers have a good working knowledge of the brands they sell and the benefits pet parents will see from feeding their pet a better diet,” says Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis. “Additionally, they are always looking to engage their customers on a constant basis. We’ve seen engagement through email and social marketing, event promotions and in-store events. By forging a more personal relationship with their customers, retailers develop trust that inevitably leads to increased sales and customer loyalty.”

The challenge for any business, says Nieman, is to continue to innovate and deliver exceptional products and keep pricing competitive. This year, Fromm introduced Gold Coast, an expansion to its life stage-specific Gold line. Fromm Gold Coast is an ocean fish-based, grain-free line featuring whitefish and salmon. It is available in a Weight Management formula. 

Nieman adds that the company anticipates continued demand in the natural pet food category. “Consumers continue to seek out new flavors, varieties and innovative recipes,” he says. “We expect consumers to continue to be actively involved in seeking out the best for their pet. As a result, companies must continue to become better at connecting with their consumers through education at the retail level, activation on social media and everywhere in between.”

Grain-free will continue to be an important part of natural pet food growth, says Scott Whipple, co-founder of CANIDAE Natural Pet Food Company, based in Norco, Calif. CANIDAE recently launched three products with this in mind. The company’s Under the Sun line includes grain-free formulas—for both dogs
and cats—made with quality proteins, including farm-raised poultry, lamb, or fresh-caught salmon. Grain Free PURE Chewy Treats feature exotic ingredients and proteins, such as bison, wild boar, trout, pomegranate, kale and rabbit. CANIDAE’s premium grain-free PURE line was expanded with eight new formulas: Wild Boar adult diet, Fields adult diet, Meadow senior diet, and Resolve weight management for dogs, and Control hairball control, Foundations kitten diet, Meadow senior diet, and Resolve weight management for cats. 

The challenge, says Whipple, is that other retailers see opportunity too. “The introduction of natural brands in grocery and mass consumer stores will increase pressure and reduce growth potential at pet specialty,” he says, adding that CANIDAE, which is dedicated to the pet specialty channel, can help. 

“According to an extensive nationwide study, approximately half of consumers who visit pet specialty only buy toys, accessories and treats, not pet food,” says Whipple. “As a result, they do not visit regularly.”

These consumers are price sensitive, he says, so CANIDAE priced the larger bags of Under the Sun Grain Free Dog kibble under $40 to help attract and retain this group of shoppers. 

Price is a challenge for manufacturers, says Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for  Whitebridge Pet Brands, based in Chesterfield, Mo. It is not easy to source ingredients economically when consumers demand grain-free, GMO-free, antibiotic- and hormone-free, farm-raised, and other features. “The natural consumer looks beyond the product itself to how and where ingredients are grown and how they are then processed,” says Hudson. “They are considerate of their environment and support the brands that make those same commitments.”

The company’s Cloud Star brand recently launched Wag More Bark Less Fun, Healthy, Tasty Treats for Dogs. The treats are made in the USA from locally sourced, wholesome and healthy ingredients. The line is free of corn, soy and artificial colors and flavors and features vegetarian, vegan and grain-free options. 

Hudson says the future is bright for natural foods. “We expect the natural category to continue to outpace the market, with lots of opportunity in the treat and alternative foods categories.”  

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