The Purr-fect Diet

Retailers can help cat owners find the right natural nutrition product for their pet.


Cats are known to be finicky eaters, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Not only are cats likely to turn up their noses at something that doesn’t meet their standards, they also have a large number of complicated nutritional concerns that have to be taken into account. This frequently causes cat owners who like natural and holistic products to turn to pet retailers and their staff for help.

According to Dr. Al Townsend, staff veterinarian for Tewksbury, Mass.-based WellPet, retailers can help these cat owners by answering questions and making recommendations. Furthermore, he says, providing good advice will enhance both the store and the employee’s reputation. “When a store personnel makes the right recommendation, [one] that works for that cat, that really brings a lot of credibility to that store,” says Townsend. “We always say that if you take the time to sell the first bag, and you sell a quality product that will meet the needs of that cat, the next bag will sell itself because that customer will be back for more.”

Who’s Looking?
Cat owners who come in looking for a natural cat food are generally consumers who understand the value of being healthy and make a conscience effort to purchase natural products for themselves, as well as their pet, says Heather Govea, vice-president of independent sales and corporate marketing at Natural Balance Pet Foods, Inc. Customers who buy natural cat nutrition products believe that good nutrition is essential in providing their pet with a happy and healthy life.

Despite this general motive, natural customers may be looking for very different products. For example, within the natural nutrition category there are holistic, grain-free, raw and frozen diets, as well as a range of other specialty foods for cats of different ages and with specific health concerns. There are also different forms of this food–kibble, canned, moist food in a pouch–and treats for cats come moist or crunchy. According to Govea, retailers need to have a mix of all of these products in their store.

While most customers come in with some knowledge of what they want, many of them still rely on the store’s staff for specific recommendations. Staff should be sure to ask questions and listen carefully to the answers before recommending a product. The three biggest factors to take into consideration when matching a diet to a particular cat are that cat’s age, activity level and its weight.  The staff should make sure to ask about each of these points before offering a suggestion.

Staff should also find out if the cat has any specific health problems that have to be taken into account, and they should listen carefully to any requirements a customer may have for their pet food–for example, the customer may be concerned about the protein type used, where the company sources ingredients and/or whether the food contains probiotics.

Therefore, as with many other categories in the pet store, staff education is key. The conversation that an employee has with a store’s customer will shape that pet owner’s understanding of his or her cat’s nutritional needs.

Common Concerns
Not only does the staff need to know the products in the store, they should also be aware of some of the health issues customers may be looking to address with their choice of cat food. According to Dr. Townsend, one of the most common health problems cat owners run into are urinary tract infections. This is often because cats are desert animals and have a low thirst drive, so sometimes they do not consume enough water. As a result, many veterinarians will recommend including canned food in the diet of cats with poor urinary tract health. Dr. Townsend says store staff can also recommend that the cat owner offer multiple water bowls to help encourage the cat to consume more water. Items like pet fountains can also be recommended as a way to encourage cats to drink more water. 

Many customers who look online for nutritional information are aware that their cat needs certain amino acids, and they may inquire about taurine, a protein in meat, for example. According to Marie Moody, founder and president of Stella & Chewy’s, cats also need other omega-6 fatty acids, like arachidonic acid, which is also found in meat. Cats are obligate carnivores, says Moody, which means their bodies burn protein to make energy for their everyday use, adding an even greater emphasis on the protein level in their food. Many natural cat food manufacturers include information about these ingredients right on the bag. Staff members can point this out to the customer to help reassure them that their choice is a good one for their pet.

Many customers will have one final concern–if their cat will like the product’s taste. With this in mind, retailers should talk to manufacturers about sampling programs. Often with food and treat companies, samples may be available–sometimes they require a minimum purchase or have a reduced cost, but often they are completely free.

Retailers should ask about any taste guarantees the company may offer. Sometimes a manufacturer will offer to take back an opened bag of food if the animal refuses to eat it. Retailers can even consider offering this type of program themselves. The cost a retailer might have to absorb with this kind of a program may be worth the customer loyalty gained from giving a customer a second chance to match their pet with the perfect food.

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