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Give Them Something Good

Posted: Oct. 28, 2011, 3:00 p.m. EDT


Cat owners crave nutritional foods made with high-quality ingredients.
By Karen Shugart

As cats continue to claw their way into the hearts of the pet-loving public, leading longer and healthier lives, food manufacturers are offering more specialty varieties that felines—and their caretakers—need.
 
These days, specialization of diet appears to be moving closer to being the norm. Many retailers and manufacturers reported that more cat-owning customers are eschewing catch-all chow in favor of specialty diets, whether in formulas that target a particular health concern or in a product that offers high-quality ingredients for general good health.
 

Cat specialty diets
Cat owners are drawn to foods with high-quality ingredients. Courtesy of Tomlinson’s Feed & Pet Supply Inc.
From prescription diets by established manufacturers to all-natural fare from small companies, the range of cat specialty diets is expanding, both retailers and manufacturers stated. And they expect the trend to continue.
 
“Cat owners are becoming just as concerned with their cats’ nutrition as they are their own,” said Paula Anderson, inventory manager of Chuck & Don’s Pet Food Outlet, a small chain based in Mahtomedi, Minn.
 
Nathaniel Fastinger, senior nutritionist for Natura in Mason, Ohio, sees the trend taking two forms. On one hand, he said, are caretakers who simply want a premium diet that’s designed for overall prevention and good health. On the other are cat owners seeking foods that address diseases and conditions such as kidney problems, obesity, senior needs and fur issues.

I think those diets that go after a specific concern help pet parents feel really empowered that they’re able to help their pet,” Fastinger said.

A Natural Alliance
Many cat owners are increasingly turning to food manufacturers for products that address their pets’ health concerns, making the retailer-veterinarian relationship more important than ever, according to industry sources.

Without proper diagnoses from a trained health provider, cat owners can be left at a loss on how to best help their pets; they need an adequate supply of proper food choices to find nutrition that promotes their cats’ health, retailers and manufacturers reported. That’s why many retailers and manufacturers said that fostering alliances between veterinarians and storeowners is key to meeting customers’ needs.

“There are a lot of concerns that can’t be prevented with pure diet,” said Nathaniel Fastinger, Ph.D., senior nutritionist for Natura in Mason, Ohio.

Veterinarians often sell prescription diets in their practices, such as those offered by Hill’s. The manufacturer recently launched two formulations: Hill’s Science Diet Senior 11+ Age Defying and Hill’s Prescription Diet y/d Feline Thyroid Health. Prescription diets offer scientifically reviewed ways to address health problems, but they must be dispensed by a veterinarian, putting them out of reach for most retailers.

Dr. Alice Liberson, DVM, owner of Dogma Catmantoo, a retailer in Ann Arbor, Mich., sees the issue from both sides as a veterinarian and storeowner. A lot of veterinarians don’t have the time to discuss nutrition at length, she said, so developing a relationship with a knowledgably staffed pet store can make sense.

“We try to educate people about these kinds of things that they don’t necessarily hear from their veterinarian,” Dr. Liberson said. “We do get referrals from vets to discuss nutrition.”

Retailers should seek out veterinarians who share philosophies and outlooks, recommended Morgan Bedell, manager of Pet-Pourri, a retailer in Everett, Wash.

“You obviously have to agree on what dog and cat foods are the best and what you should be staying away from,” Bedell said.

Such relationships can be mutually beneficial—the retailer can refer new patients to the veterinarian, who can send new customers to the retailer.

As Paula Anderson, inventory manager of Chuck & Don’s Pet Food Outlet, a retail group based in Mahtomedi, Minn., said, “When you have partnerships with a vet, it works both ways to the benefit of the cat.”—KS

Many retailers and manufacturers have noticed a growing customer demand for grain-free cat foods, whether it be from pet owners concerned about their cats’ weight, allergies or overall health.

“It’s pretty much all I sell,” said Marcia May, owner of Urban Pet Supply in College Park, Ga.

In Moline, Ill., customers at Teske Pet and Garden Center are turning to grain-free foods for myriad reasons, including skin issues, aging and even diabetes, said manager Darcy Rogers. One customer told Rogers that she was able to cut back on her diabetic cat’s insulin dosage while using Evo canned foods.
 
Most recently, Natura launched California Natural Grain Free Chicken Formula Cat & Kitten Food to appeal to those customers, Fastinger said. As with others in the California Natural line, it uses limited ingredients. 
 
Cat owners are also seeking variety as well as a grain-free assurance, noted Allison Dugen, manager of Dogma Catmantoo in Ann Arbor, Mich., adding that they want different meat—beef, venison, even rabbit. They also like identifiable ingredients, she said. Earlier this year, Dogma Catmantoo began carrying Tiki Cat, a wet food line from Chino Hills, Calif.-based Petropics.
 
“It’s very popular,” she said. “It’s caught on much better than I was expecting it to. They like the chunky style of it and the identifiable ingredients. You can open the can and see little fish chunks or chicken chunks or egg.”

Morgan Bedell, manager of Pet-Pourri, a retailer in Everett, Wash., said grain-free offerings from brands including Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food Co. are popular among her customers.
 
The Wheeling, Ill.-based manufacturer introduced several products this year, reported Chelsea Sher, marketing director for Evanger’s. In July, the company added two flavors—beef hearts and beef lungs—to its natural freeze-dried treats. Months before, Evanger’s introduced 100% Sweet Potato, which Sher said can help reduce the severity of conditions in which inflammation plays a role.
 
“Adding sweet potato to a cat’s diet may also reduce hairballs,” she added.

Bedell’s store recently added Fromm Family Foods to its inventory. In February, the manufacturer, based in Mequon, Wis., began spreading the word about its new 15-lb. bags of Grain-Free Surf & Turf dry food.

Demand for grain-free is high, as is customers’ desire to buy bags big enough for their multicat households, reported Lauren Grimm, public relations director for Fromm.
 
“Cat parents are more keyed in to nutrition than ever before,” said Grimm, whose company held a grand opening for its new manufacturing facility in Columbus, Wis., in August.

Just as cat owners are attuned to nutrition, many are keen on appeasing their more finicky household members. Dr. Brent Mayabb, DVM and manager of education and development for Royal Canin USA in St. Charles, Mo., said the company’s Selective line is designed to appeal to picky eaters.
 
Research conducted at Royal Canin found that some cats are attracted to aroma, while others are drawn by how food feels in the mouth or even by the post-ingestion feeling it provides, Dr. Mayabb reported. The results of the study are three foods designed to meet these feline preferences: Selective 31 Aromatic Attraction, Selective 34/29 Savor Sensation and Selective 40 Protein Preference.

Specialty variety
Cat foods with novel proteins, such as rabbit, are gaining in popularity. Courtesy of Tomlinson’s Feed & Pet Supply Inc.

The key is finding the right triggers,” Mayabb said. “It’s cool to watch how they make their choices and their decisions.”
A picky palate may seem like a minor issue, but it can lead to weight loss or a poor coat. If unchecked, it can trigger hepatic lipidosis, a liver disease in which fat builds up in the organ’s cells, according to Mayabb.
“It’s not common, but when it happens it has the potential to be pretty serious,” he added.

Even cats that aren’t picky crave variety, whether through eating a range of specialty formulas or sampling human food. Dr. Alice Liberson, DVM, owner of Dogma Catmantoo, encourages her customers to mix it up.
 
“If someone gave you a bag of people chow and said, ‘This is everything you need,’ you wouldn’t do it,” she said.
 
The growing body of research into cat nutrition, along with cat owners’ heightened awareness, can only mean that specialty cat foods will become even more popular, according to many retailers and manufacturers.
 
“I think well that there’s more and more specific nutrition [formulations], not just with life stages but also with lifestyles,” Mayabb said.

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