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Cat Marketplace: Specialize in Cat Nutrition

Posted: Sept. 25, 2012, 7:35 p.m. EDT


Targeted feline diets offer more ways to address customers’ concerns.
By Karen Shugart

As cat owners take a closer interest in their pets’ nutrition, food manufacturers have followed suit with an ever-broadening array of specialty diets that aim to meet a wider range of feline needs.

The growth in specialty diets stems in large part from a more informed pet-owning public, said Dr. Brent Mayabb, DVM, manager of education and development at Royal Canin USA in St. Charles, Mo.

“Pet owners can now easily learn about their pets’ nutritional needs and, as a consequence, make more informed choices,” Dr. Mayabb said.

Age-specific cat food
Employees can explain the benefits of age-specific foods to curious customers. Carrie Brenner/BowTie Inc. at George
Rachael Pridham, assistant store manager for Clark’s Pet Emporium in Albuquerque, N.M., has noticed a rise in food allergies among cats. That’s one reason she carries limited-ingredient products such as Dick Van Patten’s Natural Balance Limited Ingredient Diets, she said.

“People seem to be a little bit concerned with allergy issues right now,” Pridham said, adding that she often recommends grain-free diets. “Some cats are developing intolerance to certain ingredients in products.”

At Pet Lovers Warehouse, Ray La Rocca recommends dietary changes for cats with such issues.

“If we’re dealing with allergies, then we normally steer the customer toward something that the customer’s [pet is] not used to eating,” said La Rocca, president of the Uniontown, Ohio, store. “Maybe we can put them on a red meat diet or a duck diet that’s grain-free.”

An estimated 8 million dogs and cats are affected by food sensitivities or allergies, reported Chanda Leary-Coutu, senior marketing communications manager for WellPet’s Wellness brand in Tewksbury, Mass.

Those numbers support the brand’s recently expanded offerings for cats with food sensitivities; it added three dry and four wet recipes to its Wellness Core Grain-Free diets, Leary-Coutu said. The diets include formulas for kittens, indoor cats and cats with specific protein allergies, she reported. Wellness Core Grain-Free Turkey, Turkey Meal & Duck Formula is fish- and chicken-free, as are its new Beef, Venison & Lamb and Turkey & Duck canned formulas.

“Just as we’ve learned about the different ways food sensitivities and allergies can affect humans, interest in more specialized natural diets for pets have followed suit,” Leary-Coutu said.

Many cat owners are seeking out low-residue cat foods, reported Allie Guffey, manager of The Green Paw in Golden, Colo.

“It’s good for cats that have urinary problems,” Guffey said. “That’s something we’ve been trying to help our customers with. There are a lot of people who come in with specific needs.”

Sandy Schultz, store manager for Bark ‘n Purr Pet Center in Austin, Texas, said the diet she recommends for cats with urinary tract problems—Fromm’s Four-Star Grain-Free Surf and Turf—is also her store’s bestseller.

In 2010, the store sold more than 4,000 bags of it with only eight returns, including two packages that were sent back because their intended feline recipient died, she noted.

“That’s an amazingly low return rate,” Schultz said. “Every cat seems to love it no matter what.”

Cat specialty diet
Shelf talkers that highlight a specialty diet’s benefits draw shoppers’ attention. Carrie Brenner/BowTie Inc. at Pet Country
Specialty diets for other health issues also are gaining popularity. Weight-control and senior formulas are currently in demand at Let’s Pet in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“Folks who come in here, typically they’re going to make sure they get exactly the right diet that they need for their cats,” said Scott Myers, store manager. “If they’re not sure, they’ll ask us.”

Weight control remains a significant concern for veterinarians and pet owners, a trend that Royal Canin’s Mayabb expects to grow.

“More widespread use of diets designed to prevent obesity will be essential to help combat this problem,” Mayabb said.

Bark ‘n Purr recently began carrying WellPet’s Wellness Core Grain-Free Indoor Formula, Schultz said. Ten days after placing it on an endcap, store staffers started noticing some movement.

“I think it’s going to be a good formula,” she said.

In July, WellPet’s Holistic Select released Grain-Free Indoor Health/Weight Control Turkey, Chicken and Herring Meals Recipe, Leary-Coutu reported.

With prebiotics, probiotics, natural fiber, digestive enzymes and botanicals, “the formula has 30 percent less fat and higher fiber than the traditional adult health chicken meal recipe to support indoor cats’ less active lifestyles,” she said, adding that it also contains L-carnitine.

One cause of obesity remains the aftereffects of spaying and neutering, Mayabb said.

Industry Voices
How can retailers grow sales of specialty diets and meet their customers’ needs?

“The biggest thing is just communicating with your customers. The only way a retailer is going to truly be able to recommend the best possible diet for the owner’s pet is just to give them superior customer service.”
Scott Myers, store manager at Let’s Pet in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“Talk to them about their pets. When they come in, [talking about their cat] shedding outrageously, the first thing we ask about is the food. If it’s dandruff, we ask about food. If it’s urinary tract, we talk about the food. There are always issues with cats. Whether it’s a stinky litterbox or shedding issues, there’s always something.”
Sandy Schultz, store manager at Bark ‘n Purr Pet Center in Austin, Texas

“The first thing I would do is ask about what issues we’re dealing with. Is it a weight issue? Is it diabetes? Allergies? Then I would ask how active the animal is. Once we’ve established some things, we can narrow it down to the proper protein source.”
Ray La Rocca, president of Pet Lovers Warehouse in Uniontown, Ohio

“In just 48 hours after spaying and neutering, we see hormonal changes that lead to increased appetite and decreased metabolism in cats,” he said.

That’s why Royal Canin has a new spay/neutered line with fewer calories that is designed to help control appetite with “a special proprietary blend” of fibers, Mayabb reported, noting that diets targeting the needs of aging cats also will grow in popularity.

“We want to start early for mature cats with nutritional changes, such as increased antioxidants and higher levels of EPA and DHA to help address the changes associated with aging,” Mayabb said. “And aging isn’t a static thing. When a cat gets older, some needs will continue to evolve. Those needs will need to be addressed with even more specific nutrition, so one diet won’t be the best to fit all levels of maturity.”

Kostas Kontopanos, president of Hill’s Pet Nutrition Inc.’s U.S. operations in Topeka, Kan., expects interest in senior diets to continue.

“A food that’s appropriate for growth will contain levels of fat, sodium, protein and other nutrients that are too high for the older pet,” Kontopanos said.

Cats more than 11 years old exhibit changes that pet owners should consider: weight changes, decreased sense of smell and hearing, sensitivity to light and less agility, he said.

The company’s new Science Diet Senior 11+ Age Defying formula is aimed at fighting the signs of aging and contains an antioxidant bundle that is intended to help defend the body and brain, Kontopanos said. The diet, which also contains omega-6 fatty acids to help promote skin and coat health, can help aging cats feel and act younger in as few as 30 days, he added.

Regardless of the specialty diet chosen, the increase in targeted nutrition is just one more sign that cat owners are becoming more educated about their pets’ needs, manufacturers and retailers reported.

“People are starting to think more about their pets’ nutrition in the way they think about their own nutrition,” Pridham of Clark’s Pet Emporium said. “People are starting to realize, ‘If I can eat better, why can’t my cat eat better?’ It’s been a long time coming, but over, say, the last 10 years or so we’ve had a lot of development into the natural and the holistic and the organic and raw foods coming out of the pet industry. People are starting to think about what they’re feeding their animals.” 

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