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Functional Value

Some of cats’ unique needs can be met with functional and specialty foods.


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Functional and specialty cat foods are growing segments, but many consumers still remain unaware of these nutritional options for their cats, which include weight-loss formulas, high-protein diets, hairball-control foods, breed- and age-specific diets, and more. In fact, as choices abound, consumers can become confused by all of the messaging that is out there. This is the perfect opportunity for pet specialty retailers to step up to the plate and assist.

Vince Fahringer, store manager for Dogs & Cats Rule, which has locations throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, said that as the quality of foods improves, and the number of choices grows, cat owners are increasingly more open to exploring their options. But they often still require guidance from an educated pet retailer on which direction to take. 

Because cats are obligate carnivores, their nutritional needs can only be met through the consumption of animal-based diets, said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for St. Louis-based Whitebridge Pet Brands, maker of Tiki Pets, which makes high-protein foods a beneficial option for many cats. 

“The cat has evolved to survive and thrive on a natural prey diet—a moisture-rich diet of fresh meat without carbohydrates,” Hudson added. “Live prey consists of an average of 55 percent protein and 35 percent fat. Cats derive energy and immune system support from proteins and fat. Dogs can convert plant proteins and carbohydrates to energy, but cats just can’t. Cats will literally starve if they don’t get meat.” 

For a long time, cat owners did not know this information—and many still don’t. Chris Achord, owner of The Cat Shoppe & Dog Store in Nashville, Tenn., said that she still sees cat owners who do not know why their cat’s health is struggling. It often turns out that they are on a kibble-only diet. 

“Cat parent education is so incredibly important,” Achord said. “They go to the grocery store and they see the claims on a label and they just accept them at face value. We need to get the messaging out to cat parents that cats need meat in their diet.” 

Karen Neola, founder of My Perfect Pet in Poway, Calif., added that cat owners are looking to make food choices that best address their pets’ highly individualized needs.

“Dietary needs may vary among breeds throughout the lifecycle, and the convenience of a ‘one size fits all’ food in pet selection is now migrating toward more functional food choices that address specific health concerns,” she said. 

Pet owners need to make the best choice for their individual cat, and that can really differ from pet to pet, agreed Ryan Wilson, Merrick innovation for Merrick Pet Care in Amarillo, Texas.

“Many cats experience common health ailments like digestive sensitivity, prevalence of hairballs, or may require a weight-management formula,” Wilson said. 

When pet owners select food designed specifically for their cat’s nutritional needs, breed or life stage, it can help the pet look and feel its best as well as help prevent health issues down the road, said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass. 

“Each specialty food contains targeted ingredients to help support a specific part of a cat’s growth or development, similar to what we see in baby food,” Leary-Coutu added. “When babies are young, we are particularly conscious of what we feed them because we know how certain foods can aid in growth and development. The same goes for kittens, which is why we make kitten recipes with ingredients like DHA for brain development. Since DHA is a major component in the brains of all mammals, incorporating it into their food can help ensure proper brain development as they grow.” 

Merchandising

Displays and Trials

While a lot of cat owners approach the independent pet specialty retailer because they already have nutrition-related questions, displays can be another way to draw attention and educate. 

Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for St. Louis-based Whitebridge Pet Brands, maker of Tiki Pets, said that the Tiki name naturally lends itself to using items such as grass skirts, palm trees, and brightly colored leis to build displays and draw attention. When creating a display for cat foods, Hudson suggested keeping the focus on felines.

“Cat people truly appreciate a creative display that focuses exclusively on cats,” she said. “No dogs invited!” 

Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass., said that displays that invite trial can also be effective. 

“Including free samples or coupons that customers can redeem in-store or online will help the category really stand out,” she said. “Giving cat parents an opportunity to try before they commit to buying recipes in bulk will help them see which recipes pass the test when it comes to both taste and nutrition.” 

Free trials are one way to help customers who might be concerned about their investment. Because specialty and functional foods can cost more—but are better for the cat—it is also helpful to put it all in perspective, said Curt Jacques, owner of West Lebanon Feed & Supply in West Lebanon, N.H.

“We start the conversation like this—‘Are you a coffee drinker?’” he said. “Most say, ‘yes.’ Then we ask them if they have any trouble dropping two or three dollars on a coffee each day. Most say ‘no’ without hesitation. Then we tell them that there is not a food in this store—particularly in the cat category—that is going to cost you more than two or three dollars per day. And, ultimately, because your cat will be healthier, it’s going to save you a lot of money in the long run. When customers think of it that way, it’s a no-brainer.” 

New Products

Meet Their Needs

Manufacturers are launching new specialty and functional foods to address specific needs in cats—covering everything from weight and hairball control to age-specific formulas.

This fall, St. Louis-based Whitebridge Pet Brands, maker of Tiki Pets, will introduce Tiki Cat Chicken & Egg for Kittens kibble and wet foods, Tiki Cat Kitten Mousse and Tiki Cat Senior Cat Mousse. 

Tiki Cat Chicken & Egg for Kittens is made with fresh meat and is high in protein and low in carbohydrates for superior digestibility and bioavailability of key nutrients for growth. It is supplemented with DHA for proper cognitive development and prebiotics to ease digestion in sensitive, young kittens, said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing. 

Both of Tiki’s new Mousse products have a velvety-smooth texture. The kitten recipe includes prebiotics to ease the transition to solid food, while DHA supplementation supports cognitive development. The senior product includes pumpkin for improved digestibility for older cats as well as green tea with super-antioxidant properties, Hudson said. 

WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass., recently launched Wellness Complete Health Grain Free Indoor Healthy Weight. It is a chicken and turkey meal recipe containing fiber and L-carnitine to assist in weight control, while glucosamine and chondroitin help healthy hips and joints in cats that might be carrying extra weight, according to the company. 

Merrick Pet Care in Amarillo, Texas, now offers Purrfect Bistro Complete Care, a lineup of cat food that provides pet owners with health-focused benefits addressing hairball control, sensitive stomachs and weight control, according to the company. The Hairball Control formula features natural fiber sources to help control hairballs as well as omega-3 and -6 fatty acids to nourish skin and fur. The Sensitive Stomach formula features prebiotics and probiotics to support optimal digestion and is crafted with easily digestible protein. The Healthy Weight formula is low in calories and contains L-carnitine to support a healthy metabolism.

Consumer Education

Making Recommendations 

When it comes to specialty and functional foods for cats, nothing is more important than education. It can be a confusing category for consumers, and they are often flooded with a lot of different messages. 

“Consumers are bombarded with claims from all pet food manufacturers that their products are superior, meatier, safer, more natural, more nutritious and so on,” said Karen Neola, founder of

My Perfect Pet in Poway, Calif. “Retailers who invest in educating their staff and helping pet parents understand how to interpret product labels, select more species-appropriate diets and make healthier choices for their pets become more than just a vendor to their customers. They form a relationship built on a foundation of supporting overall pet health.”

Curt Jacques, owner of West Lebanon Feed & Supply in West Lebanon, N.H., pointed out that the end goal of consumer education starts with employee training. 

“The foundation of consumer education is making sure you are holding regular training sessions with your employees,” Jacques said. “We do one every week, educating our staff on anything that is new since our last meeting—maybe a new product line or even a line that’s expanded.” 

In fact, Jacques said that because cat owners are typically only in to see the veterinarian once or twice a year—and might be in the store as often as every three weeks—the responsibility of nutrition education is undoubtedly on the retailer. 

Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for St. Louis-based Whitebridge Pet Brands, maker of Tiki Pets, agreed. Generally speaking, cat owners tend to visit the veterinarian even less than dog owners do, she said.

“Because cats are more independent, they are also less likely to be handled or watched as closely as dogs,” Hudson added. “When a dog food isn’t working, it is quickly apparent to the owner—but not so much for cats. I think retailers need to be prepared to discuss nutrition with cat owners and help them pick the right food for their cats.” 

Annabelle Immega, trade marketing manager for Petcurean Pet Nutrition in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada, said that the key to determining the right recipe for a cat is to ask questions. 

“Once a retailer understands the nutritional requirements of the pet by discovering details, such as age, breed, medical history and activity level, they can then match the cat with the food that will best suit their needs,” Immega said. 

Neola said that certain breeds are more prone to health issues that could be prevented or at least moderated with more functional dietary choices. 

“As pets age, their systems become less efficient at processing foods, and they need fewer calories to maintain proper weight,” she said. “Pet food companies are capitalizing on this by offering a variety of diets for just about every breed and age, and consumers are increasingly challenged to sift through often exaggerated marketing claims to determine which is truly the best diet for their pet.” 

In the end, education might be the difference between whether a pet owner chooses a conventional food or a specialty food for their pet, said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass.

“We, as pet parents, all share the same desire of wanting to do the best we can for our pets, so understanding the significant benefits of functional or age- and breed-specific foods is a major driving factor in making the switch,” she added. “Most frequently, it happens when pet parents notice a change in their cat’s health or behavior, which causes them to do their own research or ask their veterinarian for potential solutions. Oftentimes, functional diets can help.” 

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