Into the Wild

Pet food manufacturers are introducing a steady stream of diets based around a wide range of exotic protein sources, arming retailers with a variety that not only appeals to the preferences of pet owners, but also meets the needs of companion animals.


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While most dogs and cats are happy to dine on beef, chicken or fish, some pets owners seek something different. These consumers once looked to exotic proteins such as lamb, duck and salmon, and eventually those novel meats became popular enough to be considered mainstream. Today, like restaurant-goers looking for the next foodie trend, pet owners want newer, more exotic proteins. Now, bison, venison, rabbit, ostrich and other meats are available in cans, kibble and treats. And more are on the way, industry experts say, as consumers seek exotic protein diets to solve certain issues for their pets.

“We like variety, and we value that; so, we project things onto our pets, and we think they would like variety too,” says Eric Emmenegger, Nature’s Variety’s senior brand manager for the Instinct brand. “Another thing that drives a lot of it is that people are looking for unique solutions for their pets who may have intolerances, allergies or sensitivities. Some of the exotic proteins are fantastic for that.”

Nature’s Variety offers exotic proteins such as rabbit and venison. Emmenegger says he has seen kangaroo, possum, quail and alligator in the marketplace too. “There are always new proteins out there,” he says. “As you think about the category, what makes something exotic is the limited availability of it. If it becomes more common, the uniqueness is lost.”

Consumers look for more than uniqueness. Some look for nutritional value and shop for exotic meats that boast high levels of amino acids and are especially lean. Other pet owners want meat from animals that eat grass in the wild, not grains and additives in a feedlot. Also, some shoppers want meats from countries such as Australia, and not China.

Even consumers who do not know much about the attributes of exotic meats know that they want to buy these foods for their pets. “People want to feed their dogs the types of protein that they perceive is healthy for themselves,” says Aaron Lucas, marketing specialist for Tasman’s Natural Pet. “People perceive these exotic proteins as being of higher quality, especially when compared to chicken jerky, which has had so much trouble recently with recall after recall. People are thinking more about the antibiotics and hormones that are pumped into our everyday food supply, and they simply don’t want their pets to have it.”

Lucas says bison is especially popular now. The newest products from Tasman’s include the single-protein treats Bison Goodie Bites and Bison Nimble Bites. There is also Bison Liver Jerky, which consists of a single ingredient.

Limited-ingredient diets appeal to pet owners who buy exotic protein foods. “Exotic proteins are becoming more and more sought after, because many pet parents have their pets on a limited-ingredient diet, which requires them to limit the kinds of proteins their pets can eat due to possible intolerances, allergies or adverse food responses,” says Heather Govea, general manager of Natural Balance Pet Foods, Inc. “Therefore, the availability of exotic proteins in pet food offers pet parents more choices and options when searching for the perfect diet for their pets.”

Natural Balance’s exotic protein options include several new products, including Original Ultra Whole Body Health dry formulas for cats, available in Original Ultra Calamari, Salmon Meal & Duck Formula, and Original Ultra Venison, Turkey Meal & Lamb Meal Formula. For dogs, Natural Balance, part of Big Heart Pet Brands—the new name for the pet division of Del Monte Foods—will soon introduce Limited Ingredient Diets Potato & Kangaroo dry formula, which contains Australian kangaroo.

Lucy Postins, founder and CEO of The Honest Kitchen, Inc., says most shoppers who buy exotic protein diets have pets with food sensitivities, so it is important to focus on a single protein. “A diet with duck plus chicken, for example, is less appealing to a customer whose pet has allergies to common poultry,” she says.

Consumers also find other features appealing. People want to know the source of the ingredients and details about animal welfare and sustainability. “We never use any ingredients from China,” says Postins. “We use a combination of wild, line-caught haddock and pollock, which is also Marine Stewardship Council certified, in our Zeal recipe.” Zeal is a grain-free dog food that also contains sweet potatoes, pumpkin and parsley. This month, The Honest Kitchen will launch a duck recipe with ancient grains, which include chia seeds and organic buckwheat, and two base mixes that consumers can prepare with their choice of meat.

For manufacturers, one of the challenges is sourcing raw ingredients, because exotic proteins are not exactly widely available. “If the buffalo doesn’t get delivered, we can’t just go to Walmart,” says Holly Sher, president of Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food Co., Inc. There are also the issues of price and storage. “We get requests for kangaroo, goat and crocodile. We could do it, but it gets expensive, and there is a price people want to pay. Also, how much room do I want to take up in my freezer?”

Sher says venison and buffalo are big sellers among Evanger’s exotic proteins. Evanger’s also offers wild salmon, pheasant, duck, rabbit and others. The company has even considered offering iguana. “I asked people at Global [Pet Expo] if they would buy iguana,” she said. “People who are from Florida, and who have cats who chase iguanas, said they would.”

Manufacturers have to think into the future when they introduce a new product. Emmenegger says Nature’s Variety makes sure it will have a steady supply of a new ingredient. “An important element is the reliability of the raw materials,” he says. “If we are going to introduce something unique, is it something we can source in a few years? Consumers rely on that. When that goes away, when you’re short or out of stock, consumers get frustrated or disappointed.”

Another pet food trend that ties in with exotic proteins is frozen food and freeze-dried food. Stella & Chewy’s recently added Phenomenal Pheasant to its family of exotic balanced dinners, which already had Simply Venison and Absolutely Rabbit. All three are made with 90-percent single-source meat, organs, bones, organic fruits and vegetables, and contain probiotics and antioxidants. Each has a frozen and freeze-dried version.

“We believe the future is bright, as purchasing behavior within pet foods parallel that seen when consumers shop for their own diet,” says Marie Moody, founder and chairman of Stella & Chewy’s LLC. “The same focus on health, variety and taste is driving interest in the exotic raw-food segment. We believe it represents a good growth opportunity for specialty pet retailers to differentiate themselves from other trade channels and capitalize on the growth opportunity the segment represents.”

Moody adds that retailers can benefit by offering a variety not only of protein options, but of different package sizes. It also helps to build in-store awareness through point-of-purchase and communication aids. “That, coupled with education of their retail sales staff on the features and benefits of the exotic segment, can pay dividends in planned and impulse purchases,” she says.

Education is key, says Postins. Store employees should know about the foods and how to identify signs of food sensitivities in pets, such as itching, ear infections, chronic gastrointestinal upset and chewing at the paws. “Asking pet owners about the food they’re currently feeding can help pinpoint what protein sources can be tried going forward,” she says. “It’s also helpful for retailers to understand the benefits of dietary rotation and encourage owners to rotate between different proteins.”

Consumers will ask how the animals were raised and how the meats were harvested, says Ron Jackson, assistant to the president for Hi-Tek Rations, so retailers should try to learn as much as they can. “Retailers would do well to check into the sources of exotic foods before stocking or recommending them,” says Jackson.

Variety is good too, as most pet owners will not buy the higher-priced exotic proteins for every meal. “Diets can be rotated successfully using lamb, chicken, fish and other more traditional protein sources, generally at lower cost than the exotics.”

Retailers should check the sources of the protein, says Jackson, and share the information on their website. Hi-Tek Ration’s latest introduction is its Leonard Powell Signature Series Dog Food, which includes three lines: Exotic, Classic and Baked. The Exotic line offers bison and duck formulations.

In addition to posting information about exotic proteins on store websites, retailers should also use social media. In-store merchandising can help too. “The use of shelf talkers, endcaps and special promotions like Exotic Meat Week will pique interest in customers to learn more about the variety of options available in this category,” says Govea. “Employee education also goes a long way in selling these items, because when retail workers can effectively communicate and educate customers about these formulas, stores can expect greater buyer satisfaction, and an increase in sales and repeat business.”

Another way to build repeat business is to verify that consumers are getting what they expect. “Make sure that the product is made completely of—or at least, mostly of—the unique protein that it is being billed as, and work closely with the manufacturer so that they know answers to any questions pet owners may have,” says Lucas. For example, he cautions, bison is becoming so popular that some companies use water buffalo from India and label it “buffalo” to make stores and customers think it is bison.   

The desire for exotic proteins will continue. Moody says consumers are interested in other new exotic proteins, and Stella & Chewy’s has been receiving requests for ostrich, quail, wild boar, bison and alligator.

Emmenegger says there will be additional exotic proteins in the future. “I don’t know which ones to predict are next,” he says. “I will say I am never surprised at the options that are brought to us.”

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