Healthy Feline Fare
by P.S. Jones
May 31, 2011
As cat ownership and consumer interest in natural products continue to grow, pet stores have a great opportunity to profit from natural feline diets.



According to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), there are over 86 million cats being kept as pets in American homes. Over 85 percent of pet owners who participated in a survey commissioned by the makers of Wellness pet foods in 2008 agreed that the health of their pet is the most important concern to them, and about two-thirds of those same owners said they preferred to feed their pets a natural diet. With numbers like these, it’s no wonder that  natural cat food diets have become a hot trend in the pet food industry.

Although natural cat food isn’t exactly new, there has certainly been a big increase in consumer interest in these products. Savvy pet specialty retailers can corner a piece of that market for themselves if they pay attention to the consumer trends.

Maggie Johnson is co-owner of Sojourner Farms, a company that’s been manufacturing Sojos European-Style Cat Food Mix since the the 1990s. When she and her husband, Ward, started selling natural cat food, it wasn’t trendy at all.

“Although we have seen cats benefit from the quality of this diet for two decades, it is also true that, more recently, there has been an increase in healthy cat food options because of a general shift in consumer demand for healthy fresh food,” she says.

Natural cat food buyers are focused on the numerous benefits associated with feeding these diets. The perception is that cats on natural diets have less health problems overall and tend to live longer. Cats with digestive irritations, chronic joint trouble and other chronic health problems often see a decrease in complications after switching to natural food. Owners who feed their cats this type of food also often report a big reduction in the smell of their pets’ urine and the messiness in the litter box. There are even reports of an increase in the animals’ appetite when a change is made, especially with raw products, because they model a cat’s natural prey diet.


What’s So Natural About It?
Natural cat diets come in many forms. From traditional kibble and wet foods to freeze-dried, frozen or fresh varieties, there’s a form of natural cat diet for every customer’s lifestyle. But what does “natural” really mean? There is actually no official definition or regulation that defines this term in pet food. Any cat food manufacturer can put “natural” on its packaging or in its advertising campaigns.

However, the defacto industry guideline for natural food is the set by The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The AFFCO’s feed guidelines specify no artificial colors, preservatives or flavors in products that qualify as a natural diet. Still, at this time, there is no law that prevents a company from calling its pet foods natural, regardless of what they put in it. Consumers and retailers must carefully check labels to ensure these products deliver on their promise of providing natural nutrition.


Do You Have The Customer Base?
Even if a retailer is ready to offer natural cat diets to customers, the logistics of selling the products may be daunting. One of the  first concerns is often whether or not a store’s customer base fits into the target demographic. Lanny Viegut, CEO and founder of raw pet food manufacturer Vital Essentials, understands this particular concern. He tells retailers that the market is there for natural cat food, but many stores don’t even realize how big the demand is until they start stocking these products. Just because no one is asking for it specifically doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be interested in it.

There is a bit of a stereotype about the target audience for natural pet foods, but Viegut says there’s no strict demographic. “When I got into this business, I had some preconceived notions of who would buy the product. That’s just turned out to be mostly wrong,” he says.

While a retailer might think that only customers in high income brackets are willing to buy natural cat diets, the price points associated with these products aren’t necessarily much higher than those of traditional offerings. The truth is that anyone with a general interest in healthy living is probably also interested in feeding their cats the same type of high-quality, natural diet they feed the rest of their family. Due to the proven health benefits, customers who are concerned with their cats’ health also have an interest in these products.


Diving Into the Market
So how do pet retailers get a piece of the natural cat food market for their own bottom lines? Well, first they have to get over any fears or preconceived notions they may have about carrying the products. A smart place to start is always the retailer resource section of manufacturer websites or the educational materials that many manufacturers distribute. These resources should contain information specifically designed to answer a retailer’s questions and concerns about carrying natural foods.

As always, a pet retailer’s biggest sales tool is the store’s team of sales associates. The consumers who are already in the market for natural food may need help finding it on the store’s shelves. Consumers on the fence may need some education on the benefits. A knowledgeable staff can match up  customers’ needs with the right products. If a retailer educates employees on the use and benefits of these products, they can, in turn, educate the customers.

“It’s extremely helpful when store employees are able to provide some education or testimonial,” advises Johnson. Customers are more likely to trust a store employee who is familiar with a product than any of the marketing copy on the packaging.  If a pet store has a staff that can speak knowledgeably about the concerns of the customer, the food practically sells itself.

Another way that pet stores can promote natural cat diets is by creating store displays that highlight their available selections. Just by segmenting natural food products from traditional ones and setting up some attractive signage, a retailer can see an almost immediate difference.  Some stores have also found success in offering customer education initiatives, including nutrition seminars, as well as free samples.

Whichever way a retailer dives into the natural cat food market, the time to do so is now. By 2014, the natural pet food industry is expected to increase to 14 percent of the market share. As the increase of cat ownership continues, the opportunities for profits and success in the natural cat diet market will be there for the taking.