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Functional Fare

New innovations in functional and specialty diets are keeping up with consumer demand and canine needs.


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With more pet owners noting recurring canine health issues such as allergies, poor digestion and skin conditions, the demand for functional and specialty diets that may help address these concerns are on the rise, according to pet specialty retailers.

“[Pet owners are] stepping into the independent pet retailer looking for options, like a raw diet, which you wouldn’t find in a traditional vet office,” said Darci Petercheff, business partner and nutritional consultant for The Local Wag in Lexington, Ky.

Fabiola Rosales, assistant manager at Choice Pet in Stamford, Conn., reported that dog owners are trying out grain-free diets and new proteins.

“They’re removing chicken and grains to prevent the dog from getting sensitive to it,” she said. “Grain free is the biggest trend right now, and more raw foods are coming into the picture to avoid the processing, and it’s easier for [dogs] to digest the raw meat.”

Pets are a significant part of the family, especially for millennials, reported multiple industry participants.

“Millennials are now the largest pet-owning segment in the U.S.,” said Robert L. Downey, president and CEO of Annamaet Petfoods Inc. in Telford, Pa. “They are 77 percent more likely to have a pet than any other generation.”

Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis, agreed, adding that “in some ways, pets have become a sort of replacement for children,” which translates into a customer base that is as choosy about pet foods as many parents are about baby foods. “They want to know where ingredients come from, know how products are made and believe in the companies that they buy from,” Hudson said. “They don’t want to be marketed to; they want to be educated.”

Pet owners are also looking for foods with USA-sourced ingredients that do not contain grains, gluten and meat byproducts, as well as options that exclude preservatives, according to Kyla Sternlieb, founder and president of Under the Weather in South Burlington, Vt.

“Companies that can deliver this, and a positive social mission, become top picks for today’s consumers,” she added.

Sustainability is one such mission, as it’s a significant focus for dog owners, Downey said.

“Sustainability is becoming a major concern for people worldwide, with over 71 percent of Americans considering the environment when they shop,” he said.

Today’s manufacturers are responding with more transparency as well as “an increased focus on quality ingredients and variety within recipes,” said Bryan Nieman, brand director of Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis. “The elevated status of pets within the family unit and the accessibility of information and variety of products on the market are driving forces behind these developments.”

The Need to Know

While some customers are quite savvy about nutrition for their dogs, retailers and manufacturers agreed that most consumers need key information about functional and specialty diets in order to make the best choices for their pets.

“When someone takes the initiative to come to a pet specialty retailer, they are seeking knowledge to understand and help their pets,” said Darci Petercheff, business partner and nutritional consultant for The Local Wag in Lexington, Ky. “You’re not selling anything; you’re educating. The sales will come as you educate.”

Pete Brace, vice president of communications and pet parent relations for Merrick Pet Care in Amarillo, Texas, recommended that “when speaking to pet parents, ask about their pet’s experience with other foods.”

“If the pet parent mentions any issues, this can be the opportunity to educate them on the benefits of limited-ingredient diets and how pet parents can alleviate any food sensitivity issues by eliminating certain ingredients from their pet’s diet,” he said.

To be successful, industry insiders said, retailer and staff education is imperative.

“Within the pet specialty segment, it is incredibly important for retailers to have a good working knowledge of the brands they are bringing to their customer base, and the features and benefits of the products they sell,” said Bryan Nieman, brand director of Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis.

At Furry Face Inc. in Redlands, Calif., staff members “answer all questions, provide facts, have medical models of dogs and cats showing their jaws and physiology, break down pricing” and more, said owner Lorin Grow.

“There are many ways to obtain the education and knowledge necessary, and it does take time, but it’s so well worth it,” Grow said.

Fabiola Rosales, assistant manager at Choice Pet in Stamford, Conn., said employees are educated about all the foods the store carries and are trained to ask customers about their needs and direct them to the food that will best meet those needs, such as functional and specialty diets.

“We show customers how the foods are different and direct them to look at labels, ingredients and protein levels for what’s appropriate for their dog’s age and weight,” she added.

To help with retailer knowledge, many manufacturers offer educational options including brand websites, point-of-sale materials, webinars and in-store training. Under the Weather in South Burlington, Vt., even offers Skype training calls when more education is needed.

Meeting Consumer Requests

To ensure that diets meet the needs of dogs and the demands of owners, several manufacturers launched innovative functional and specialty foods this year. 

This spring, Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis., launched Four-Star Nutritionals Chicken au Frommage to meet demand for variety-based diets, the manufacturer stated. Chicken au Frommage is a grain-free entrée crafted with chicken, cheese, lentils, peas, eggs, sweet potatoes, prebiotics and probiotics.

Under the Weather in South Burlington, Vt., recently added three flavors to expand its freeze-dried bland diets. According to the manufacturer, Hamburger, Rice & Sweet Potato uses 100 percent grass-fed beef hamburger, white rice and sweet potato; Salmon & Rice contains 100 percent USA wild-caught salmon and white rice; and Turkey, Rice & Sweet Potato has 100 percent cage-free turkey breast, white rice and sweet potato. Each 6-ounce bag is formulated to rehydrate to two to four servings, depending on the size of the dog.

In September, Whitebridge Pet Brands introduced its Tiki Dog Aloha Petites line of kibble, wet food and morsels. The fresh-baked dry kibble is sized and shaped for smaller mouths and comes in fish, chicken, lamb and pork varieties.

“The diets contain superfood ingredients like pumpkin, coconut, kale and salmon oil,” said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for the St. Louis-based company. “Nutrient-dense organ meat, like chicken liver, adds taste and texture for superior palatability.”

Also formulated for smaller dogs, the wet food comes in seven whole-food combinations of flaked fish and shredded chicken that are steamed fresh and hand-packed in pouches and cans, the manufacturer stated. Made from USA-sourced chicken and New Zealand-sourced lamb, the morsels’ 100 percent meat pieces are diced into small cubes and cooked by circulating warm, dry air, the company added.

Tiki Dog Bisque, which is a meat-based gravy with chunks of pork, beef, lamb and chicken, is designed to be served over kibble or alone as a treat.

Out of the Box 

Many dog owners today seek pet foods that serve a purpose, and  this demand has pushed manufacturers to innovate.

“The increased demand for variety results in more brands thinking outside the box when it comes to ingredients and formulations,” said Bryan Nieman, brand director of Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis.

In addition to grain-free diets, some dog owners also want potato-free recipes for their pets, said Pete Brace, vice president of communications and pet parent relations for Merrick Pet Care in Amarillo, Texas. 

Some of the novel ingredients now seen in specialty and functional dog diets include whole-food ingredients and superfoods, said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis. 

Companies are also adding ingredients such as turmeric, blueberries and cranberries for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, said Robert L. Downey, president and CEO of Annamaet Petfoods Inc. in Telford, Pa.

“Studies in dogs have shown that turmeric has the potential to help reduce the symptoms associated with arthritis, and turmeric boosts the liver’s ability to metabolize fat and removes waste from the body,” he said. “Blueberries and cranberries are known for their antioxidant properties, which means they can protect cells against the effects of free radicals.”

Despite lingering concerns about international ingredient safety, Hudson reported that “global ingredient sourcing is no longer viewed as negative.”

“Sometimes the best-quality ingredients come from other countries,” she said. “Intelligent and thoughtful sourcing is important.”
Hudson is also seeing increased use of human-cooking techniques such as baking and hand-packing becoming more mainstream in the category.

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