Consumers want for their pets what they want for themselves: a healthy, natural diet full of nutritional benefits.
The term “natural” is emblazoned on bags of pet food more often than ever. But what implications does this increasingly ubiquitous label have for pet owners and their furry friends?
Some people may be unclear about what this word means when it comes to pet food, and it’s important for retailers to enlighten confused consumers. Explaining what “natural” means to them can also lead to a discussion of the benefits that natural food can have for a dog or cat’s physical wellbeing.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which establishes the standards that states use to develop pet food laws and regulations, defines natural food as “a feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources” and should not have “been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process” or “contain any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic.”
While this definition may seem a bit technical, it boils down to a simple conclusion: natural pet food comes from sources found in nature and does not contain any synthetic ingredients.
Most states have adopted the AAFCO Model Bill and Model Regulations, which dictate that the pet food labelers/guarantors must comply with this definition in order to display the term “natural” on their pet food.
Many pet companies now craft natural food for dogs and cats that meets the AAFCO nutritional standards. But where does the interest in natural food come from?
“It’s the social trends of today that are fueling the growth of this category,” says Brad Gruber, president and chief operating officer of Health Extension Pet Care, a producer of holistic dog and cat food based in Deer Park, N.Y. “With lifestyles changing and pets being treated like family, consumers want foods that are superior to their own and they are comfortable splurging on their pet’s food, being the valued member of the family that they are.”
Ziwi, an Overland Park, Kan.-based pet food company, has also capitalized on the natural food trend. “Natural pet food is closely following the human food trend of people wanting to feed whole foods and ingredients that are free of chemicals,” says Mary Helen Horn, president—North America for Ziwi. “The natural pet food trend is directly mimicking the human trend, and the result is strong, sustainable growth for the foreseeable future.”
There are also the inherent benefits found in giving pets natural food that make this trend so appealing to consumers. Based in Portland, Ore., Radagast Pet Food, Inc. created the Rad Cat Raw Diet, a natural recipe meant to be more in line with a feline’s evolutionary needs, and thus more effective in improving health.
“Nutrition has the biggest influence on health and natural foods (especially organic and minimally processed) have higher levels of vitamins and minerals,” says Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice president and co-founder of Radagast Pet Food. “High-quality ingredients in natural and organic foods can lead to reduced inflammation, healthier digestion, fewer allergies, less shedding and a healthier and happier life.”
Gruber expresses similar support of the positive impact that natural food can have on a pet’s overall lifestyle since it delivers greater nutrition. “Good, sound nutrition is the most essential component for a healthy life,” says Gruber. “Without it, many animals can suffer from chronic health issues, such as itchy skin, allergies, obesity and muscle and skeletal issues.”
Ensuring that natural pet food provides this high-quality nutrition hinges on its ingredients. “All of our recipes contain high levels of fresh animal proteins that are grass fed, free range and wild caught,” says Gruber. “We have carefully selected and added whole, natural, immune-boosting ingredients such as coconut oil, turmeric and bovine colostrum from local farmers and added rich antioxidants such as pomegranate, blackberries and raspberries.”
Ziwi takes a similar approach in guaranteeing that its products provide optimal health benefits with high quality ingredients. Like Radagast Pet Food, the company looks to animals’ ancestral, evolutionary diet for inspiration. Ziwi products do not contain grains, soy or corn because these carbohydrates can be difficult for animals to digest and can aggravate allergies. Instead, 95 percent of Ziwi food is meat, organs, bone and/or seafood. The remaining five percent is essential vitamins and minerals and plants like kelp, parsley and chicory. The result is a well-balanced, easily digestible meal that provides complete nutrition.
Despite these numerous benefits, there can still be some difficulty with getting natural pet foods to sell in stores. One of the main obstacles is the higher price tag that often accompanies these products.
“Natural products are typically of a higher quality than other ‘conventional’ products, so their price point tends to be higher,” says Hatch-Rizzi.
However, customers looking into purchasing natural food are often willing to spend more if it means a higher-quality product with the potential to change their pet’s life for the better. They just need to be made aware of natural food’s benefits.
“The greatest challenge with selling natural pet food is educating pet parents on why natural pet foods are better, and how feeding your dog or cat a higher quality food can help your pet live both a healthier and longer life,” says Horn.
For many owners, the ability to spend more time with a happier, healthier pet is incentive enough to purchase natural food.
Another sales challenge stems from the overwhelming amount of information on natural food that can be easily accessed on the internet, as well as the abundance of natural brands. This saturation is the result of the rising popularity of natural food and can easily frustrate and confuse customers who are researching their options for healthier pet diets.
The solution for this issue lies not only in educating customers, but also in making sure storeowners and their employees know and understand the benefits of natural food.
“Retailers and their staff have to be fully educated about all of the food products they carry so they can respond with knowledge and confidence, steering a consumer in the right direction with which product is the best fit for their particular pet,” says Gruber.
Retailers can also share with prospective customers any personal anecdotes involving the benefits of natural food in order to assuage any doubts or concerns. Hatch-Rizzi explains that the reason Rad Cat Raw Diet was created was because she saw the positive effects of natural food on her own pets. “When our kitten, Juno, was diagnosed with Inflammatory Bowel Disease and we saw the immediate positive effects of a raw diet on her and her siblings, we wanted to help other people be able to heal their kitties the way we did – through diet,” she says.
Obviously, not every retailer has an experience like this one, but if they are armed with the right knowledge, they can properly explain the benefits of natural food and make a meaningful sale that could change the life of a pet for the better. PB