Minimal but Mighty

As dog owners become more skeptical about products with long lists of ingredients, they are looking at limited-ingredient formulas and adopting a less-is-more approach to feeding their pets.




As consumers scrutinize nutrition labels and ingredients on their own foods, more and more are starting to do the same with the products they feed their dogs. Long lists of indecipherable ingredients that shoppers have neither the time nor the patience to understand are increasingly falling out of favor. Instead, limited-ingredient dog foods and treats, which typically offer a single protein source along with a minimal number of other ingredients, are seeing ever-growing popularity. 

But easy-to-understand ingredient lists aren’t the only reason these diets are finding favor with pet owners. These diets often are made entirely or mostly with U.S.-sourced ingredients, a feature that is increasingly popular. A desire to limit exposure to additives, fillers, artificial colors, soy, wheat and so on is another motivator. 

“Pet parents want these specialized diets because they know the important role a quality diet can play in their pet’s overall well-being,” says Pete Brace, vice president of communications and pet parent relations for Merrick Pet Care. “These specialized diets represent the presence of positive ingredients pet parents are seeking without all the negative, select ingredients they’re avoiding.” Based in Amarillo, Texas, the company offers natural and organic wet and dry pet foods and treats under several brands.

Because of how closely aligned limited-ingredient formulas are with the trends toward simplicity and wellness, these diets are increasingly finding favor with pet owners. Brace cites data from GfK, a global marketing research firm, indicating that through September 2014, limited-ingredient products accounted for eight percent of the natural pet food category—a percentage that will certainly rise as these products move into the mainstream and as manufacturers continue to innovate. For example, Brace says that Merrick is focusing on providing more options to meet specific health needs of the pets, as well as owner preferences like providing potato-free formulas. 

These diets are also a helpful option for dogs with food sensitivities or allergies. Because of their restricted ingredients, these diets can help owners identify the cause of their pet’s problems. Formulas incorporating several different protein sources or with numerous non-protein ingredients can make it more challenging to determine which one might be troubling the animal. With limited-ingredient diets, pet parents can find and eliminate potential problem foods much more easily.

According to Lucy Postins, CEO and founder of The Honest Kitchen, a San Diego-based producer of 100 percent human-grade, dehydrated whole foods for dogs and cats, demand has grown consistently over the past several years. She expects this trend will only continue, particularly as awareness of these diets and their potential advantages increases.

“Most dogs can reap benefits from limited-ingredient foods, which may offer a healthier option than a food with a lengthy ingredients list,” says Postins. “This kind of diet cuts out most, if not all, of the problematic ingredients found in conventional dog food. Many of our customers have reported better digestion, a healthier skin and coat, and improved behavior and well-being from all of our recipes. Other reasons to consider this sort of diet could be weight management, health issues or as a supplement to conventional foods.”

Dispelling Misconceptions
Even though consumer interest in limited-ingredient products is on the upswing, pet specialty retailers should still be prepared to address some mistaken ideas about these formulas.

“We often see pet parents concerned their dog might not be receiving the ample amount of vitamins and nutrients regular formulas provide for their pets,” says Chanda Leary-Coutu, senior marketing communications manager for WellPet. Headquartered in Tewksbury, Mass., the company offers a variety of premium pet food brands for dogs and cats. 

“While the ingredient list is limited, it is a misconception to think pets will not be receiving the right amount of vitamins and nutrients should they transition to this diet due to food sensitivities,” Leary-Coutu continues. “Wellness Simple formulas are complete and balanced, including a well-balanced mix of vitamins, minerals and even guaranteed levels of probiotics to assist with digestion.”

Leary-Coutu says as the demand for limited-ingredient products has grown, she’s seen more natural pet food companies adding these formulas to their product offerings, with some offering novel protein sources like lamb and duck, along with grain-free options.

All the new entrants into this category brings up another issue pet specialty retailers should be aware of, says Maribeth Burns, vice president of corporate communications for Orrville, Ohio-based Natural Balance Pet Foods, Inc., which makes premium wet and dry foods and treats for dogs and cats. 

“Over the last several years, it has become more difficult for consumers to tell the difference between limited-ingredient formulas and other formulas, such as foods that are grain-free but not limited in ingredients,” she explains. “In order for pet parents to feel confident in their purchasing decisions, they need to be aware that limited-ingredient foods limit the number of ingredients pets are exposed to, but are still carefully formulated to provide complete nutrition for various life stages.”

Educate, Inform, Connect
Brace describes customer education as “essential,” a perspective Postins and other manufacturers share. “Education is particularly key in pointing customers to a limited-ingredient food,” Postins says, suggesting that retailers call attention to key ingredients and nutritional qualities. “We also believe in teaching pet store team members about common ailments and allergies that a limited-ingredient diet will frequently cure,” she adds.

Since there are specific formulas intended to address different issues, it’s important for staff to engage customers in conversation about their pets in order to make the most beneficial recommendation. 

“Retailers should also encourage pet parents with food-sensitive dogs to take a process-of-elimination approach when it comes to giving pets different proteins,” Leary-Coutu says. “We also encourage consumers to consult with their veterinarians along the way.”

Pet owners need to understand the reasons for making for a particular food choice, says Burns. “It’s important that they can look to the store associate to provide this expert advice because in many cases, consumers might be entering the store having only been educated through branded advertising, such as television commercials.”

However, Burns continues, every pet has different issues, lifestyles and needs. Customers may not be taking this reality into consideration, which is why it is always helpful to discuss their pet specifically.

“This is where the store associates, and our veterinary technicians and nutrition experts, become valuable resources, educating the consumer in an effort to create a positive experience and build a long-term, trusted relationship that leads to repeat sales,” she explains.

Staff should also inform customers of all the limited-ingredient options the store offers, such as canned, dry and dehydrated formulas. And don’t forget about treats, Burns reminds. “In cases where pet parents are feeding limited-ingredient meals, they will also want to treat with a limited-ingredient formula to get the full benefits of the diet,” she says.

Limited-ingredient formulas also lend themselves well to cross-merchandising. Rather than confining them to a specific space on the shelves—and it’s always a good idea to create a designated space for these kinds of products to make it easier for customer to locate them— consider placing them by the remedies, grooming and even waste-management/house-training items, since these diets often help with poop issues. If there’s a special puppy section in the store, or one for senior dogs, locating limited-ingredient products in these areas is also smart since puppies and older dogs are often prone to digestive issues and sensitivities.

And be sure to ask open-ended questions when trying to determine the best fit for the customer. Postins suggests inquiring about the dog’s activity level, general health, allergies or sensitivities, any food preferences, lifestyle, what the dog is currently eating and why the owner is thinking about making a change.

One of the best ways to kick off the conversation? Brace recommends a basic, but effective, prompt: “Tell me about your dog.” 


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