Follow the Formula
Some pet owners seek out foods that are formulated to address their cats’ specific health issues.
Cat food makers report seeing a growing demand for specialized foods.
“As pet parents look to better their pets’ meals, we’re seeing a growing demand for high-protein, wet solutions for cats,” said Missy Werges, brand director for Nature’s Variety in St. Louis. “Since 2001, the biggest change we’ve seen is the exponential growth in the demand for both freeze-dried raw and raw frozen. Our research tells us that pet parents want simpler, more recognizable ingredients and nutrition that’s high in protein for their cats, which has certainly played out at retail.”
Similarly, Lindsay Tracy, director of new business and business development at Redbarn Pet Products in Long Beach, Calif., said consumer demand is manifesting in trends such as “natural products, clean labels, whole-food ingredients and diets that speak to the activity levels of individual pets.”
“We also see consumers desiring high-protein options, and we believe trends like freeze-dried meats and premium protein choices help deliver choices in the category,” Tracy added.
Pet specialty retailers agreed that the top requests customers have in specialty or functional foods for their cats are those formulated for weight management or to address kidney issues or urinary tract issues.
“They want to see if the specific words for their issue are printed on the bag or can,” said Tracy Alford, owner of Animal Nutrition & Grooming Center in Roseville, Calif. “They want to see the words ‘restricted’ or ‘limited’ on the product, [and] they want to have the reassurance that the product is going to work in their scenario without consulting a vet.”
Amanda Morton, store manager of Bon Pet Supply in Colorado Springs, Colo., also hears requests for “products to be made in the U.S., have natural ingredients, fit a specific age, and fit a specific protein amount or specific meat protein need.”
Following more than 25 years in the industry, Kathy Gross, director of clinical nutrition for Hill’s Pet Nutrition in Topeka, Kan., has seen “a growing popularity in age-specific cat food.”
A huge trend is in diets for cats with multiple issues, said Catherine Lenox, DVM, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and scientific affairs manager for Royal Canin USA in St. Charles, Mo.
“Nearly one in every two pets has multiple health conditions,” Lenox said. “The development of diets that help manage multiple conditions has been a great tool for cats with combinations of health conditions such as urinary disease and obesity or chronic kidney disease and adverse food reactions.”
Focused on Age
Cat food industry insiders report a significant increase in product offerings in the past decade. Catherine Lenox, DVM, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and scientific affairs manager for Royal Canin USA in St. Charles, Mo., attributes the hike “to multiple factors, including pets living longer and needing more targeted diets, as well as an increase in recognition of the needs of cats from nutritional research and development.”
The most recent introductions in specialty and functional cat diets include three Wellness Complete Health Grain-Free dry foods for cats from WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass. Launched in the first quarter of the year, the dry food line includes Deboned Chicken & Chicken Meal Kitten, Salmon & Herring Indoor and Deboned Chicken & Chicken Meal Adult recipes.
This spring, Hill’s Pet Nutrition in Topeka, Kan., unveiled Hill’s Science Diet Youthful Vitality Food. Specifically designed to fight the effects of aging in cats 7 years and older, the diet comes from more than 10 years of research at Hill’s Pet Nutrition that “shows that gene expression and activity are different in pets aged 7 and older compared to their younger counterparts,” said Kathy Gross, director of clinical nutrition.
Also this spring, Nature’s Variety in St. Louis introduced Instinct Originals dry and wet offerings for kittens. Created to provide high protein specifically for growing kittens, the foods are made from real, whole-food ingredients with cage-free chicken as the first ingredient, according to the company.
Highlight Function in Displays
The No. 1 indicator of successful product sales is a staff that understands and is excited about the items they’re moving, industry participants said. When they possess a foundational belief in the products they carry, they subsequently merchandise it as a “focus of the inventory, rather than a hidden, forgotten option in the back of the store,” said Missy Werges, brand director for Nature’s Variety in St. Louis.
Others agreed, recommending that retailers display specialty and functional cat foods in a single aisle. This simplifies the shopping process for very specific, health-conscious pet owners, said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass.
Lorin Grow, owner of Furry Face in Redlands, Calif., features a specific cat section that is categorized by food type.
To call extra attention to specific products, Amanda Morton, store manager of Bon Pet Supply in Colorado Springs, Colo., will sometimes place a sign near the food explaining why it’s there.
“Merchandising best practices include featuring the proper display of cat food with accompanying educational material and using sections of your store to highlight different diet types,” said Lindsay Tracy, director of new business and business development at Redbarn Pet Products in Long Beach, Calif. She also recommended featuring specific diets on an endcap as a product of the month.
For stores carrying raw and freeze-dried specialty diets, the freezer makes a great store centerpiece, Werges said.
“If supported by the store’s layout, signage and associate education, [the freezer] can draw curious customers,” she said.
Conversation Drives Understanding
In cat food, education is everything, according to both retailers and manufacturers. Most recommended conversation with customers as the most effective way to inform pet owners about specialty and functional cat foods.
“Consumer education is very important to the industry as a whole,” said Tracy Alford, owner of Animal Nutrition & Grooming Center in Roseville, Calif. “It gives people facts and information not given by their vet. Talking to the customer is key; have a conversation with probing questions.”
Because “buzzwords like ‘natural,’ ‘whole’ and ‘organic’ are cluttering the pet food aisles and overwhelming consumers,” Missy Werges, brand director for Nature’s Variety in St. Louis, emphasized the importance of offering “resources that provide credible and simple information pet parents are looking for.”
The first step for retailers is to truly understand what’s on their shelves, said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass.
Kathy Gross, director of clinical nutrition for Hill’s Pet Nutrition in Topeka, Kan., said that transparency with customers about what pet foods contain is important from both pet food companies and retailers.
Leary-Coutu also recommended that retailers offer on-site demonstrations so cat owners can explore new recipes and ask questions firsthand.
One way to ensure that staff are prepared to answer shoppers’ questions is to rely on manufacturer partners for detailed information on products.
“Working directly with the manufacturer to help educate consumers and store associates is paramount to correctly marketing premium, natural pet food diets,” said Lindsay Tracy, director of new business and business development at Redbarn Pet Products in Long Beach, Calif.
Experts report that the more cat owners understand about the importance of quality nutrition, the more likely they are to consistently offer their pets the best diets available.
“Consumer education helps drive compliance, and diets often cannot help a pet unless the owners are compliant,” said Catherine Lenox, DVM, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and scientific affairs manager for Royal Canin USA in St. Charles, Mo. “When owners have a better understanding of the overall plan and know why a recommendation is made, there is a better chance that compliance will happen.”
Despite how much more savvy consumers are, a lot of misinformation remains, Lenox said, adding that “having things like brochures available for them to read will help get them started in terms of understanding why a recommendation is made.”
As part of its consumer education, Furry Face in Redlands, Calif., keeps a model of a cat’s jaw and diagrams of their physiology so staff can “show and tell how [cats] eat, what their teeth are shaped like, and why the shape indicates what they’re meant to eat, and how their physiology and digestive system works to process what they eat,” said owner Lorin Grow. The store also uses social media to communicate with cat owners through posts, blogs, shared articles and more.
“No one buys a functional food that we don’t ask if they have questions, what’s going on and if there are issues,” she added.
Similarly, at Bon Pet Supply in Colorado Springs, Colo., store manager Amanda Morton said they spend a lot of time talking to cat owners to educate them. Staff members also share what’s worked with their own pets.