Natural Pet Nutrition

It has become almost a given that shoppers will turn to independent pet stores first when looking for natural pet nutrition.


Pet owners want to buy foods, treats and supplements that are natural, and now more than ever, they are seeking these items mostly at pet specialty retailers. Not only does the term “natural” reassure consumers that the products will offer healthful benefits to their pets, shoppers also expect the experts at independent stores to offer guidance on these items. 

“The natural pet food category continues to grow at the retail level,” says Jayne Adamson, southeast regional sales manager for Tuffy’s Pet Foods. “Consumers are more educated to the benefits of feeding a
high-quality diet.”

Adamson adds that pet owners do not think it is enough for a product to be all-natural. Shoppers also seek specific health benefits from natural products, and they often are willing to spend extra for features such as organic, single source, limited ingredient and grain free. Consumers read claims made on packaging, and they look for key words or phrases, such as labels that boast meat as the first ingredient or the inclusion or exclusion of whole grains, and a lack of artificial preservatives. Some also want to avoid corn or soy. 

While natural does not exactly infer grain free, limited ingredient or some of the other trendy options available today, some consumers do equate natural with an important product trait—safety. Rockville, Md.-based Packaged Facts, in its February 2015 Pet Product Retailing in the U.S. report, noted that food safety is still a factor for pet owners, even though the well-publicized melamine-related food recalls occurred nearly eight years ago. 

“Since then, an ongoing focus on food safety has continued to benefit all things natural, and a steady stream of smaller-scale recalls has served to keep the issue of pet food safety high in the public consciousness,” wrote Shannon Landry Brown, a market analyst and the study author. “One of the ways that pet owners try to ensure the safety of their pets’ foods is by buying natural and organic products.” 

That creates opportunity for pet specialty retailers, especially the ones that can successfully position themselves as the authorities on natural products. 

“Stay current with the industry by offering new products and educating your staff on the features and benefits of these products,” Adamson suggests. “Become the expert on the products that are offered only to the independent pet specialty channel. This will build consumer and brand loyalty.” 

Perham, Minn.-based Tuffy’s Pet Foods now offers a 40-pound bag of NutriSource Chicken & Rice dog formula for the same price as a 33-pound bag, and a Small Breed NutriSource Grain Free Chicken Formula. Adamson says the company will soon introduce more products in the NutriSource, Pure Vita and Natural Planet lines. “These new offerings will include some very exciting exotic protein sources that our customers are asking for,” she says. 

Customers also seek expertise about supplements. Humans are taking omega-3 fatty acids and joint-support products for themselves, so they want their pets to benefit from similar products. According to Packaged Facts, pet specialty stores account for the largest percentage of pet supplement sales, followed by the veterinary channel. Combined, the two channels provided almost 80 percent of pet supplements sold in 2014.

“The demand for natural products, as well as grain-free and gluten-free treats and food, continues to grow,” says Dale Metz, director of companion animal business for Vets Plus, Inc. in Menomonie, Wis. Vets Plus recently launched Smart Fido USA for dogs and Smart Kitty USA for cats, veterinarian-formulated lines that include gluten-free and soy-free supplements and treats. 

Smart Fido USA soft chews have natural chicken flavor, and the supplements include formulas for joint and digestive support, calming, skin and coat, and common conditions. The jerky bite treats are available in four flavors that feature real Wisconsin cheese. Smart Kitty USA supplements and treats are available in four flavors. The supplements address the most prevalent conditions in cats, with grain-free formulas for hairball management, urinary tract support and l-lysine. The cat treats contain probiotics and ingredients to support dental health.

Metz says that in the natural space, the focus is on quality ingredients. “Most pet parents are looking to make purchases based on value, not necessarily on price,” he says. “So even though natural products are often sold at a higher price point, if the value is clear to consumers, they may still reach for the natural product. Retailers who can feature the benefits of natural products will help their customers make educated purchasing decisions.”

People who buy supplements are more likely to buy natural and organic products. Packaged Facts noted that 43.6 percent of pet owners agreed with the statement, “If natural/organic pet products were more available where I shop, I would buy them more often,” compared to 62.1 percent of cat and dog owners who purchase pet supplements. 

Michael Landa, CEO of Nulo Pet Food in Austin, Texas, says pet specialty stores can succeed by being the experts on natural pet nutrition. “Independent pet specialty retailers can drive more sales by continuing to focus on what they are good at—staff training and education, community involvement, and higher-touch services like home delivery. Their ability to know their customers at a personal level is a tremendous advantage,” he says. 

Nulo introduced its FreeStyle food brand in 2014 in partnership with independent pet specialty retailers, and the line is exclusive to the channel. Nulo FreeStyle is a high-meat, low-carb, low-glycemic diet for dogs and cats that also includes a patented probiotic that survives extrusion and improves digestive health. “We believe the product is a perfect fit for their discerning customers and complements their own nutritional standards and education,” says Landa.  

These consumers are seeking high-quality ingredients in pet foods. “Over the past few years, we have seen an uptick in pet food emulating human food,” says Chanda Leary-Coutu, senior manager of marketing communications for Tewksbury, Mass.-based WellPet. “This is a reflection of pet parents wanting only the best for their companions.”

Leary-Coutu adds that with the increasing popularity of clean eating, gluten-free, grain-free and Paleo-like diets among humans, WellPet wanted to create products with ingredients that pet owners are familiar with and are proud to serve their furry friends. “We are working to achieve a higher level of standards for pet food and treats that our pet parents expect for their loved ones,” she says. 

WellPet recently launched Wellness TruFood, which is blended by hand and baked in small batches. The meals are made with ingredients such as chicken, beets, coconut oil, kale, pumpkin and live, active yogurt cultures. TruFood features four categories of food options for dogs and cats: Baked Blends dry food, Tasty Pairings wet food, Protein Bites treats and CocoChia Bakes treats. WellPet also expanded its grain-free, protein-focused line, Wellness CORE. Wellness CORE Air Dried toppers for dogs and cats are made with raw proteins, fresh fruits, vegetables and botanicals. Wellness CORE Chunky Centers wet food recipes for dogs are made with gravy and cuts of meaty proteins and pâté, with ingredients like sweet potatoes, kale and spinach.

The natural pet nutrition category will likely remain strong as humans watch their own diets. “As consumers become more conscious of what they are putting on their plates, the same awareness and detail can be said for what ingredients are going into their dog’s food,” says Leary-Coutu.

David Yaskulka, vice president of marketing communications for Halo, Purely for Pets, agrees that consumers are looking for health foods for themselves and their pets. “Look for superfoods and health food like kale, kelp, quinoa, coconut oil and berries, and novel proteins like venison, quail and trout,” he says. “With humanization, consumers are recognizing that rendered ingredients like chicken meal, while they may sound fit for human consumption, in fact, they aren’t.” 

Halo’s Vigor line is designed for active pets, and features proteins like venison, salmon and quail to help build strong muscles, complex carbohydrates for energy and endurance, coconut oil to help elevate metabolism and enhance digestion, and superfood ingredients like quinoa, berries, kale and lentils. The new dry food recipe for dogs is Turkey, Chicken & Salmon, and for cats, Chicken, Turkey & Whitefish and Lamb, Turkey & Venison. Yaskulka adds that Halo diets are free of artificial colors, flavors or preservatives and never contain chicken meal or other rendered animal parts.


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