Fine Feline Fare

The cat food market is bursting with a variety of flavors and formats perfect for pleasing an increasingly choosy customer base.


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It paints a quaint image: a Calico lapping at a saucer of milk, or a pet owner adoringly popping open a can of Chicken of the Sea Tuna for their Persian kitten. However, these days, even human-grade fare is inadequate for today’s cat owners, who are at least as finicky as their feline charges when it comes to cat diets. 

The combination of a growing body of research on cats’ nutritional needs and an increasingly discerning population of cat owners has elevated the stakes for cat diet manufacturers and retailers. The result is a growing market of cat foods that meet various consumer needs and demands, from all-natural, grain-free and premium varieties to those boasting the latest in trendy ingredients and flavor profiles. 

According to Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice president and co-founder of Radagast Pet Foods, which produces Rad Cat Raw Diets, the cat food category is constantly growing and evolving. “As pets are truly being regarded as family members, pet owners are realizing that true health starts with the diets their cats are eating,” she says. “Manufacturers are responding with high-quality, high-protein, grain-free alternatives, and I believe there are more healthy options available now than ever before.”

Among the top trends in the market is the growing demand for premium foods, as consumers become more discriminating about the diets they serve their pets. It is becoming increasingly common for pet owners to scrutinize product labels, searching for whole-food ingredients that they recognize and perceive as nutritious. 

“There has been a real shift toward foods that contain ingredients that humans would eat, themselves,” says Hatch-Rizzi. “High-quality, human-grade ingredients are not only more palatable for cats, they are more nutritious, which is often quickly reflected in the health of the cat.”

Meanwhile, new introductions boasting improved flavor profiles are adding dimension to the category, reports Rashell Cooper, marketing director for Redbarn Pet Products. “One of the biggest improvements in the cat food market over the last decade is the enhanced palatability of the available cat food options,” Cooper says. “Cats are notoriously picky eaters, but the overall taste and quality of food options have helped cat owners find options to better capture their cat’s attention in recent years.”

As if the pressure on manufacturers to offer optimal palatability wasn’t enough, consumers are also on the look-out for limited-ingredient diets that more accurately reflect what cats’ would be eating if they were in the wild. “They are really learning about what ‘ancestral diets’ truly are,” says Hatch-Rizzi, adding that for many cat owners, ancestral equates to raw food diets. “Even though this term still means different things to different people, the general trend is toward our pets’ ‘evolutionary diet’ or as close as consumers can get to that and still fit their budget.”

Many of these trends reflect the changing mindsets of pet owners, many of whom no longer simply trust or settle for the cat food selection available at their local supermarkets. Pet specialty retailers today, Cooper points out, are dealing with educated, well-researched customers who treat their cats like valued family members that deserve top-quality diets. “That includes a renewed emphasis on ‘eating right,’” she says. “More consumers are looking to premium, limited-ingredient diets as a complement to their cat’s optimal health.”

Another market factor that retailers must keep in mind is that pet owners are not only more educated than ever about their cat food choices, they are also both more discerning and more willing to spend a little extra money on products they perceive to be of high quality and value. Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods, asserts that price point is always a consideration for shoppers when purchasing food for their dogs or cats, but it is certainly not the sole or even necessarily the most significant factor. “Although price is important, value for the money is the way most consumer evaluate their pet food purchases,” Nieman says. “The trend toward more nutritionally sound, premium pet foods is on the upswing.”

Of course, many customers’ perceptions of value and quality ties back to ingredients. Hatch-Rizzi contends that consumers are thinking more critically about the ingredients that go into their pet foods and how they are sourced and processed. Many cat owners, for instance, seek products that are antibiotic-free, and made from humanely raised meats and sustainably farmed ingredients.  

“These ingredients are significantly more expensive than ‘conventional’ ingredients, but consumers are willing to pay more for free-range and organic, natural foods,” she says.

Also driving cat food sales is a rising consumer demand for variety. Perhaps it is an outgrowth of pet humanization that drives pet owners to offer their cats a variety of flavors and diets—after all, many people like variety in their daily diets, so they assume their pets would welcome variety as well. Or maybe, pet owners want to make sure they are providing as nutritionally complete a diet as possible. Either way, many shoppers are seeking food lines that offer an assorted selection of diet recipes. 

“Just like you meal plan for your family, feeding them variety and well-thought out meals, pet parents are applying that philosophy for your pets,” Nieman says. “It’s something we wholeheartedly embrace at Fromm. Our variety-driven Four Star line of cat foods help pet parents offer variety and meal plan for their cats and dogs.”

At the same time, cat owners are not only looking for a variety of flavors and recipes, they are also growing more receptive to trying alternative proteins. Hatch-Rizzi points out that poultry still reigns supreme in the cat food market, as this is the protein to which pet owners’ most frequently gravitate. It has typically been the flavor most house cats were used to and perceive to be evolutionarily appropriate. Yet that is quickly changing. 

“There are more people that are looking toward other ‘alternative’ proteins like venison and lamb for their cats,” she says.  “With poultry, especially chicken, being fed for generations, there are some sensitivities that can develop and cat parents need to look for other ‘hypoallergenic’ proteins their cats will like.”

Nieman agrees, saying that feline diet shoppers are now more at ease with trying alternative protein options. “Cat owners often trend towards fish- and fowl-based recipes, as those flavor profiles do so well for felines,” he says. “However we are seeing pet parents also look for new protein sources for their felines, be that beef, rabbit or other meat options.”

While still representing only a small portion of the feline diet market, raw foods are also gaining traction with pet owners as they become more comfortable with the notion of feeding raw and more familiar with the benefits.  Some consumers’ desire to transition their cats’ off of dry foods may also be igniting sales in the raw diet category, Hatch-Rizzi suggests. 

“Raw is absolutely growing in popularity,” she adds.  “Freeze-dried varieties are getting a lot of attention, but the frozen category is also seeing explosive growth.  More stores are bringing in additional freezers or creating new freezer sections to accommodate the growing demand for frozen.”

However, despite the strong market for feline diets driven by an increasingly cat-loving customer base, pet specialty retailers that want to maximize sales in the category are wise to stay well-informed on cat nutrition and the foods on the shelves. They also need to pay careful attention to the merchandising and marketing of these products. 

Nieman says that retailers who work with Fromm’s sales managers understand what differentiates the company’s offerings, enabling them to assist their cat-owning customers. “This helps the retailer communicate the key features of the Fromm company and our products,” he says.  “There are so many great brands in the natural category that do not advertise as heavily as their mainstream competitors, us included. We rely on word of mouth and growth by grass-roots initiatives, including a dedicated and well-versed retail force.”

Manufacturers can also be a great resource for retailers looking to merchandise their cat offerings to their best possible advantage. Cooper recommends that stores work with their manufacturers to develop and display educational and marketing point-of-purchase materials to give sales a boost. However, as helpful as displays and POP materials can be, experts agree, nothing can take the place of a well-informed properly trained staff, who can clearly convey the value and benefits of the premium diets on the market today.

 

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