Labrador Eating from Dog Bowl

Ever since the infamous 2007 pet food recall and the recent “scandal” that broke pet food—you know, the FDA’s pseudo-exposé of grain-free diets—pet parents have been hyper aware of the ingredients infused in their pets’ food. 

That ingredient-wariness is now coupled with pet owners’ personal preferences for better nutrition, as well as a greater awareness of recipes that address specific issues their fur babies might be facing. 

“The carnivores in our families would be healthier with a diet of meat as opposed to one filled with high carbohydrate kibble, and functional ingredients help to improve the overall health of our pets,” says Laela Johnson, Natural Pet Food Group. “Natural forms of omega-3 fatty acids, fiber and pre- and probiotics deliver health benefits beyond what is provided through basic nutrition. Healthy skin, a shiny coat and improved digestive health are just some of the benefits of feeding clean, high-meat treats and meals.”

However, functional nutrition is a newer concern and priority for pets, meaning this field is still a bit undersaturated—and the perfect opportunity for retailers to get in on the metaphorical ground floor. In fact, the functional pet nutrition market was valued at just under $2 million in 2020 and is expected to experience a 139 percent increase by 2030, according to “Functional pet food Market by Pet, Source, Application and Distribution Channel: Global Opportunity Analysis and Industry Forecast, 2021-2030” by researchandmarkets.com.

“We are in the seminal stages of breaking away from the status quo when it comes to providing targeted nutritional options that are designed to be supportive of pets with special needs,” says Travis Atkins, DVM and co-founder/chief science officer of SquarePet. “That can only be accessed within special channels of the market”—making this a key opportunity for retailers to profit.

 

The Drivers Behind Functional FOOD

Though many manufacturers have made functional ingredients the cornerstone of their diets and recipes for years, the functional pet food market as a whole is still in its infancy. However, it’s very closely following in CBD’s footsteps and quickly becoming a major deciding factor in pet food purchases. 

“Functional nutrition has been trending for the last few years as more pet lovers began to recognize the correlation between nutrition and health,” says Billy Frey, director of marketing for ORIJEN and ACANA pet food. “We saw even more demand for it during the pandemic as people started looking for ways to not only boost their own health and immunity, but their pets’ health, as well.”

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One of the primary influences moving functional nutrition into the forefront of pet owners’ minds is the increased research they’re conducting before buying. This self-education is twofold, as owners are interested in identifying the best nutrition for their pets while also identifying brands that deliver on their pre-determined criteria. 

“There is certainly an ongoing interest in nutrition as it pertains to health and well-being on both the human and animal side of things,” says Atkins. “Access to information has become increasingly easier for everyone to obtain. 

“As a result, the average pet nutrition IQ of everyday pet parents seems to be increasing at a logarithmic rate, driving a demand in areas that have been sparsely offered by the traditional pet food industry in the past. These include more catered nutritional diets to impart functionality or support certain needs.”  

It’s not just research influencing the functional nutrition increase, however, as pet parents are tightening the lens on obesity-related concerns and their subsequent health issues. Startlingly, research from VCA Hospitals shows that 25-30 percent of the general canine population is obese, with 40-45 percent of dogs aged 5-11 years old weighing in higher than normal.  

“Gut health, inflammation and pet obesity are consistent, persistent trends in functional nutrition,” says Johnson. “In recent years, managing the senior health of pets has risen to the top. Growing numbers of aging dogs and cats need immune support, cognitive help, and anti-inflammatory and pain management assistance.”

 

Sourcing Superior Ingredients

With sustainability and green initiatives at the forefront of many purchasing initiatives and a clear shift toward cleaner eating, pet parents are becoming very conscious of ingredient panels and sourcing regulations. Luckily, American pet food consumers are quickly removing the scarlet letter they branded on imported international ingredients as they realize certain countries deliver cleaner and nutritionally superior products compared to U.S.-based sourcing.  

For its part, SquarePet utilizes cage-free turkey necks and eggshell membrane collagen in combination with New Zealand green-lipped mussel to provide 100 percent natural sources of chondroprotective glucosamine and chondroitin to support joint health. Additionally, Atkins explained that the company includes sustainable krill meal for its omega-3 DHA and EPA content and its contribution of astaxanthin, an antioxidant that provides joint support. 

“We design all our diets with a health benefit or feature, and don’t promote the use of certain ingredients, withholding information or ‘free-from’ claim as it pertains to the ill-logic of whatever the currently trending vilified ingredient is,” Atkins continues.

Similarly, the Natural Pet Food Group responsibly sources its wholefood ingredients from New Zealand, which has “one of the cleanest supply chains in the world,” Johnson explains, adding that each of the company’s diets are backed by its in-house animal nutritionist approval and batch-tested before leaving the factory.  

“Nothing is more important to us than the safety and quality of our food,” she says. “Our food can be traced from the source to your pet’s bowl and being able to share it with the rest of the world is something we are very proud of.”

On the other hand, Frey explains that ORIJEN and ACANA diets are sourced through the brands’ collaboration with a “specially curated” group of farmers, ranchers and fishers.

“Our strong network of suppliers enables us to source only the best ingredients featured in our functional recipes,” he continues. “Further, our commitment to transparency means we employ a robust supplier vendor audit approval program and detailed traceability system for all ingredients in ORIJEN and ACANA pet food.”

 

Successful Selling 

All of those stringent testing measures and clean sourcing methods should be top of mind for retailers as they curate their selections of functional nutrition products. And while pet parents have gained the reputation of being well versed in the nutritional and sourcing aspects of functional consumables, they often just learn basic information. It’s ultimately up to retailers and their sales associates to guide customers to the best fit products.

“Identifying any health issues the pet is experiencing is the first step,” says Johnson. “That knowledge helps the retailer steer the consumer to the right product for that ailment. Knowing the life stage of the pet is also important in choosing the right nutrition – puppies have very different nutrient requirements than that of senior dogs, for example.”

Once that baseline is established, store employees should inquire about more specific issues, such as the pet’s preferred flavors or delivery methods.

“Since all dogs and cats are unique, retailers should always ask specific questions about the individual pet before making any recommendations,” says Frey. “Important questions to ask include the age of the pet, if there are any known food allergies or sensitivities and whether the pet has any specific areas of concern.”

However, all recommendations and suggestions are just ideas of what the best course of action will be. There’s no guarantee pet parents and the pets consuming functional nutrition products will be happy with the flavors and results, so it’s important retailers emphasize that there might be a series of trial and error before the appropriate solution is found.

“The role of functionality within a diet will vary from design to design,” says Atkins. “Some diets will exclude or lower a nutrient or nutrients to impart functionality whereas other diets will include certain ingredients to impart functionality. The overall benefits are measured by the pet’s response, or lack of response, to the diet based on the previous concern facing that individual animal.”

Functional nutrition has been in the industry for years, but it’s just now carving out its own niche as pet parents start tailoring their pets’ diet to address specific issues and provide better nutrition overall. 

As such, retailers must be armed with the latest information and remain up-to-date in the space to properly capitalize on the category’s potential.

“Retailers need to continue learning and reading about anything nutrition related,” says Atkins. “In a perfect world, garnering a solid foundation of basic nutrition would be ideal before branching off and delving into the far reaches of the internet for nuanced ingredients and their potential benefits.”  PB