Healthy Food for Healthy Felines

Nutrition trends for cats include grain-free, hydration and more meat.




Cat parents want their feline friends to maintain good health, and the right foods can help them reach that goal. The meals and treats have to be delicious, though, because otherwise cats will decline to eat and fail to receive any nutrients. Luckily, manufacturers have developed some innovative products that deliver on-trend nutritional benefits in a delicious way.


“Cat owners have always been on the hunt for foods that please their picky pets, but some of the foods were not exactly nutritious,” says Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis. “Typical foods were high in fat, carbohydrates and contained ingredients that cats just can’t process. Today, cat owners expect products that deliver on flavor and even function—but the food must be healthy.”


Since cats are carnivores, healthy diets need to feature protein from meat. Hudson adds that cat owners seek low-carb solutions that won’t contribute to their cat being overweight.


Whitebridge is launching several foods in its Tiki Cat lineup. Tiki Cat Tummy Topper Pumpkin with Wheatgrass is made with GMO-free pumpkin and supplemented with wheatgrass to aid digestibility, with no added sugars, preservatives or flavors. Tiki Cat High Protein Mousse for Senior Cats features a silky-smooth texture that is easy for older cats to eat, and includes essential fatty acids (EFAs) from sunflower oil and fish oil, antioxidant-packed green tea, and pumpkin, for digestibility. Tiki Cat High Protein Mousse for Kittens has a silky-smooth texture that is easy for young kittens to eat, and it contains high-protein, flavorful, nutrient-packed chicken, chicken liver and eggs. The Mousse also includes DHA for cognitive development, and prebiotics to aid digestion and ease the transition to solid food.


What Humans Don’t Want

Sugars and preservatives are not the only ingredients that consumers want to avoid. Cat parents are looking to avoid grains in their pet’s diet as well.


“Grain-free diets in kibble, wet/canned food and of course raw diets continue to dominate in the feline pet specialty market,” says Kirk D. Dietz, regional manager-western USA for KLN Family Brands in Perham, Minn.


One reason for the interest in wet and canned food is that cats need water in their diet. “Some might not think of water as a nutrient but it really is the most important, especially for a cat,” Dietz says. “Introducing more water into the feline diet is a very important trend and high on the education agenda at most pet specialty retailers. Moderate to high protein, low phosphorous, low sodium and lots of hydration are important.”


To answer these demands, KLN introduced 11 new multi-protein wet food varieties in the NutriSource brand and five new single-source protein cans in the PureVita line. The company has also entered the freeze-dried cat treat market with six items, in flavors such as Minnows, Chicken Hearts, Duck Liver and others.


Dietz points to another factor that affects how consumers select cat food. Cats are creatures of habit, and when they are kittens their humans give them certain foods and often do not rotate other foods into the routine. The cat owner inadvertently puts the cat on the path to becoming a picky eater.


“Despite this, or maybe because of this, cat owners seem to lean toward offering variety, especially when shopping canned/wet foods,” he says. “Kibble cat food shoppers don’t necessarily rotate as often.”


Palatability is important too, as the food’s nutritional value does not matter if the cat won’t eat. “The perfect outcome is when the cat owner has found a highly nutritious food that their kitty finds delicious,” says Dietz.


Hydration is important, says Heather Acuff, product development manager for Austin, Texas-based Nulo Pet Food. “Cats simply don’t have a high thirst drive, so avoiding chronic dehydration isn’t always an easy fix,” she says. “As carnivores, our cats benefit from taking in water from their food just as they would do in the wild. A ratio of 2 ml of water per gram of dry matter food is similar to that of prey, and is a level achieved by most wet foods for cats, which are typically 78 percent or higher in moisture.”


Nulo offers a variety of high-moisture foods, including the newest addition, FreeStyle pouches for cats, with as much as 65 ml of water in a single pouch, which is about 25 percent of a 10-lb. cat’s daily water requirement. Nulo’s pouches for cats are made with five ingredients or fewer, with no starches, gums or additives, and are available in six recipes featuring high-quality protein sources like wild-caught yellowfin tuna, sardine, salmon and mackerel, shreds of chicken and duck, and minces of beef.


The company is working to educate retailers about nutrition so that staff members can answer consumers’ questions. Nulo offers in-store educational programs, interactive tools and live streaming events.


“The better Nulo is able to educate retailers on the benefits of high-meat, low-carb and grain-free diets, the better they are able to educate consumers and position Nulo’s product offerings,” says Acuff.


High-protein, grain-free diets continue to be on-trend, says Gina Zaro, marketing director for Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products in Englewood, Colo. In 2017, the company launched cleanprotein kibble and canned food for cats. The food is grain-free, gluten-free and the protein is more than 90 percent animal-based. “That’s a really great selling feature for people today,” Zaro says. “With both the dry and wet foods we’ve gotten really good response.”


Grain-free also means plant-free at Dr. Elsey’s. According to the company’s website, grains, vegetables and fruits contain oxalates, which lead to rapid metabolization. This actually increases the cat’s hunger. Feeding them a high-quality protein diet can curb their appetite and help the cat maintain a healthy weight. Also, protein is a good ingredient for cats with health problems ranging from kidney issues to diabetes, according to the site.


Consumers seek information from the manufacturer’s website and they also call with questions. “We really try to be thought leaders,” Zaro says. “We try to engage with customers. Today, they are way more educated, they read labels and they want the guaranteed analysis.”


They also want to see high-quality, single proteins as the first ingredient, says Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice president and co-founder of Radagast Pet Food, Inc. in Portland, Ore.


“With the rise in the ancestral diet model, manufacturers are focusing on the fact that cats are obligate carnivores and are following that model with limited-ingredient, high-protein diets,” she says. “Consumers are learning that foods that closely mimic what their cats’ wild ancestors ate are actually highly beneficial for their domestic feline carnivores.”


These domestic feline rely on their humans to read the labels, so people look for information about sourcing, whether the meat came from animals that were humanely raised and what these animals were fed. Non-GMO is another feature that is gaining popularity, and Radagast, which manufactures Rad Cat Raw Diet, fields questions about whether their products are non-GMO and if any of the animals were fed GMO feed.


“We use mostly all organic ingredients and pastured meats, so our products are absolutely non-GMO,” Hatch-Rizzi says. “In fact, we are working toward non-GMO certification because we get asked these questions on almost a daily basis.”


Radagast recently announced that its products are now distributed throughout all of the U.S. and Canada. The company signed with Freedom Pet Supplies to distribute products in eastern Canada, and with Avafina Pet Products distributing products in western Canada, the company has coverage throughout the country.


Hold the Chicken

When looking at the future of the cat food category, Glenn Novotny, president and CEO of Emerald Pet in Walnut Creek, Calif. says that chicken-free is the next big trend. “From talking to consumers we hear that some are told by vets their cats might have a sensitivity to poultry,” he says. “We decided to do a treat that has absolutely no chicken.”


The new Wholly Fish! treats are available in Salmon and Tuna. Both also contain turmeric and ginger root, natural digestive aids that can help cats with hairball relief. The crunchy treats are limited-ingredient and grain-free.


Novotny sees a bright future for the treats and for cat products in general, because cat ownership is increasing as people look for smaller pets for their smaller homes. Consumers, especially Millennials, are moving into apartments or condominiums, not large homes with big yards.


“It’s true in the whole industry,” Novotny says. “Even fish tanks are getting smaller.”  PB


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