Far from its beginnings as a niche category relegated to the shelves of only higher-end pet specialty shops, the natural and holistic dog food segment has gone mainstream, and it is proving to be one of the fastest-growing categories of the pet products industry today.
Natural pet foods no longer appeal to only the choosiest customers with generous personal budgets. These products are now a staple on many pet owners’ shopping lists, and retailers have discovered that offering natural and holistic diets is a mandatory part of doing business. Consequently, manufacturers continue to develop a host of products that not only satisfy customers’ demand for natural, wholesome foods, but also sate pet owner’s appetite for high-quality dog nutrition and competitive pricing.
The result of these market dynamics has been a boon for all involved—robust sales for both retailers and manufacturers; healthier dogs and more satisfied pet owners.
Among the most powerful sales drivers of natural and holistic dog food, of course, have been pet parents themselves. As they become more educated about their own health needs and how nutrition impacts their well-being, pet owners apply this understanding to their companion animals, as well.
“Consumers’ demand for healthier pet food selections mirror their demand for healthier grocery options for themselves and their human family members,” says Maggie Johnson, co-owner of Sojos, which makes shelf-stable, freeze-dried raw food mixes. “People care about clean living, the planet, preventing diseases, and ultimately, living long, happy lives; and they want to share this journey with their pets.”
Brad Gruber, CEO of Vets Choice, a holistic pet food manufacturer, concurs, adding that the make-up of retailers’ assortments is proof of pet owners’ growing awareness of natural and holistic options. “The once 90-percent grocery/10-percent holistic sections within retail has gradually been reversed to meet consumer demand,” he says.
The swing toward natural foods is a result of a growing population of dog owners who are eager to know more about how nutrition affects their dogs. “More and more people want to educate themselves to provide the best for their pet; and when they do that, they are led to natural dog foods,” he says.
These days, there is no shortage of resources for pet owners to tap into. Although it may be a dangerous policy to believe everything one reads on the Internet or hears on TV, a growing number of media sources are offering up information on pet nutrition, food safety and the benefits of natural and holistic diets.
“Consumers are definitely more informed and plugged in, today,” says Bryan Nieman, brand director at Fromm Family Foods, a manufacturer of gourmet pet foods. “Social media, website research and a more savvy shopper definitely drive the trend for the demand for premium and natural nutrition.”
Ten years ago, buying dog food may have been as simple as checking the supermarket circular for sales and grabbing a bag off the shelf for most customers. However, as pet owners continue to digest all that they are learning about nutrition, they are becoming more discerning about the foods they choose for their pets. Pet parents are taking the time to scrutinize labels, and it is no longer enough for a product to boast attractive prices or a prominent spot on grocer’s shelves.
Customers are focused on a revised set of criteria, according to Eric Emmenegger, brand manager for Nature’s Variety Instinct brand pet food. “The Nature’s Variety team understands that pet parents are looking for three things when making a purchasing decision: natural ingredients, a trusted brand and convenience,” he says. “Retailers play a key role in discussing these three factors with customers. Nature’s Variety works with its retail partners to educate their staff on the Instinct brand line of foods, including nutrients, ingredients and serving instructions.”
Still Price Conscious
Of course, while many consumers in recent years have been willing to pay more for higher-quality natural products, price remains a factor for many shoppers. A tough economy has left many consumers scrounging for the extra few dollars needed to feed their pets premium diets. So, as natural and holistic foods become more commonplace on the market—even popping up in mass and grocery retailers—many pet owners are seeking more competitive pricing on even higher-quality foods, according to some experts.
“I think price is driving consumer spending, unlike years before, when formulation and performance were driving pet food decisions,” says Kirk Young, executive vice president of Precise Pet Products—maker of holistic and natural pet foods. “The economy is now driving the decisions, and consumers are demanding natural pet foods at a fair price.”
However, manufacturers cannot afford to sacrifice quality—and even more importantly, safety—in an effort to be competitively priced. “This is driving manufacturers like ourselves to invest in innovative equipment to help drive down costs so that we can continue to bring breakthrough pet foods at a reasonable price,” Young adds. “Precise Pet Products will not substitute safety and quality for cost. What you see printed on the bag, is what is safely in the bag.”
Most industry experts concur that the public’s concern over pet-food safety has been largely responsible for the boom experienced in the natural pet food category. Consequently, safety has been the inspiration behind much of the product development in this category in recent years.
“Increased emphasis on food quality and safety on the part of consumers has been a leading driver of trends in our industry over the past several years,” says Ron Jackson, assistant to Leonard Powell, founder/CEO and president of Hi-Tek Rations—manufacturer of several brands of pet food, including the recently launched Leonard Powell Signature Series Dog Food. “The number of product recalls by domestic manufacturers, combined with off-spec, even dangerous ingredients from foreign suppliers, have put consumers on guard about what they feed their animals.”
On the other hand, product recalls and increased FDA scrutiny of pet food are not the only factors elevating people’s concern about food safety and quality. “The demographic and psychographic changes that have come about reflecting an aging U.S. population have also contributed to a concern for the quality and integrity of the food being made available to ‘family members,’ regardless of species,” Jackson says. “As dogs and cats increasingly fill the living rooms and hearts of empty nesters, concern about the quality and nutritional value of the food they eat will be at the forefront of consumers’ attitudes.”
A more educated and nutrition-focused customer base has also greased the wheels for a great deal of product development, as manufacturers increasingly produce diets meant to appeal to more discerning customers. Of course, the opposite is also true; the more that manufacturers—and retailers—tout the benefits of the latest all-natural and premium diets, the more customers are likely to buy them for their furred loved ones. Either way, several dog food trends have been gaining traction with today’s pet parents.
Grain-free foods, for example, make up a larger segment of the market these days, as word spreads about the potential benefits of excluding grains from a dog’s diet. Grain-free is also a great selling point for the many pet owners who are discovering that their dogs suffer from a gluten allergy—a condition that has been getting more attention in the media recently.
Precise is among the companies that has developed grain-free options for pets. “The rapidly changing consumer demand for affordable grain-free pet food was our main focus,” Young says. “Our Precise Naturals Grain Free pet foods have modest protein levels, natural ingredients and are attractively priced at a level that consumers demand. Retailers still enjoy very healthy margins so that they can compete with the brands that are jumping ship to mass retailers.”
Also focusing heavily on grain-free products has been Vets Choice, which recently expanded its treat line to include eight new grain-free freeze-dried varieties and is launching grain-free entrees. The company’s products, however, are tapping into another trend as well: the growing demand for products that are made in the USA. “We are proud to stamp the American flag on every single SKU of every category we offer and believe that is a growing importance to consumers,” says Gruber.
Raw food also seems to be steadily joining the ranks of the most in-demand diets on the market. These foods are gaining converts daily, as a growing number of consumers seek to feed their dogs a diet that more closely resembles they dogs would consume in the wild.
“The Nature’s Variety Instinct brand is continually introducing innovative raw diets into the marketplace,” Emmenegger says. “With each new Instinct product, we are focused on giving pet parents more options to conveniently feed raw nutrition and foods that mirror an ancestral diet.”
Many consumers were once wary of feeding raw food because of safety concerns, but manufacturers, along with retailers, have done a great deal to allay these fears. Food companies have also helped grow the category by developing products that take the guess work out of feeding raw foods.
“We have simple, wholesome foods made with real fruits and veggies, herbs, nuts, and raw, freeze-dried meats,” says Johnson. “Customers need safe, affordable, and convenient options when searching for the healthiest choice. We meet those needs by providing a shelf-stable raw diet that is easy to store—no freezer required—and easy to feed—just rehydrate with water. It’s also affordable; an eight-pound bag, when hydrated, yields 40 pounds of fresh raw food.”
Still, with so many new products hitting the market on a regular basis, the key to making the most of the category at retail is consumer education. Retailers need to have a clear understanding of the various types of foods manufactured today in order to help their customers identify which products work best for their dogs.
“Understanding the features and benefits of a particular brand will allow them to better educate and service shoppers,” says Nieman. “Additionally, retailers must stay current with trends, stock stores to suit demands, and remember to engage through social media and other tactics to excite and educate shoppers.”
He adds that independent retailers are particularly well suited to reach natural consumers. “At Fromm, we only sell to the independent pet stores, and we find most of our retailers do an excellent job of educating their customers. Their passion for the business shines through, and that matters to pet parents.”
ON THE SHELF: Natural Canine Cuisine
Raw Bistro (rawbistro.com) uses meats from 100-percent grass-fed cattle and free-range poultry pasture-raised on Midwest Family farms. The meats are antibiotic free, with no added hormones, and they are carefully sourced from local suppliers that practice and share the company’s values of humane, environmentally sound farming. Each 100-percent complete and balanced entrée is a single-source protein containing muscle meat, organ meat and ground bone, along with premium veggies and fruits like yams, kale, blueberries, cranberries and more. The entrees are made in small batches at Raw Bistro’s privately owned facility in Cannon Falls, Minn.
Gracie’s Gourmet Entrée for Dogs, by Three Dog Bakery (threedog.com) is a line of wet food for dogs with two recipes—Chicken, Carrots, Green Beans & Rice, and Chicken, Carrots, Broccoli & Rice. Each entrée is packed with premium ingredients such as succulent carrots, green beans and luscious chicken that has been slow cooked. Three Dog Bakery’s recipes are made in the USA, using simple, healthy, premium ingredients. Their Gracie’s Gourmet Entrée recipes are wheat free, corn free and soy free.
Blackwood 5000, by Blackwood Pet Food (blackwoodpetfood.com), is made using catfish meal and pearled barley, and it doesn’t contain corn, wheat or soy. The product is made using the company’s trademark slow-cooking process, which creates a kibble that is more bio-available to the animal. This means higher nutrient uptake inside the animal’s short digestive tract, and less waste for pet owners to clean up. The product is designed to be great for finicky eaters and as an everyday diet for all dogs.
Canidae Natural Pet Food Company’s (canidae.com) Life Stages Large Breed Adult with duck meal, brown rice and lentils is formulated especially for big dogs with big appetites. Duck meal has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which can play an important role in reducing inflammation within joints. Lentils help satisfy big appetites and offer sustained energy, and the lower-fat formula and protein levels help large-breed dogs achieve and maintain optimal weight. Another benefit is the product’s HealthPLUS Solutions—applied to every kibble after the cooking process, this special process ensures that all CANIDAE dry foods include guaranteed levels of live probiotic cultures, like those found in yogurt.
Spot’s Stew Healthy Weight Grain Free diet for Dogs - Turkey and Duck formula, by Halo, Purely for Pets (halopets.com), is a complete and balanced optimal-calorie formula for pet parents seeking a natural, holistic, grain-free food for their dog’s weight reduction and maintenance needs. Spot’s Stew Healthy Weight, like other Spot’s Stew formulas, has a blend of nutritious and highly digestible protein sources—real turkey, whole eggs and vegetable essences. Vegetables provide beneficial fiber, added nutrients and grain-free carbohydrates, and antioxidant-rich fruits support a healthy immune system. Omega fatty acids from high-quality salmon oil and nutritious flaxseed promote skin health. The diet is also enriched with vitamins, minerals and other trace nutrients.