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Cat Marketplace: Stop Health Issues Before They Start

Posted: Feb. 23, 2012, 9:05 p.m. EST


Preventive diets that address a range of feline ailments are gaining ground with cat owners.
By Audrey Pavia

In years past, the only cat foods designed to prevent health care issues were prescription only. Whether the issue is allergies, obesity, urinary difficulty, diabetes or hairballs, pet food companies are creating diets that help owners feed cats that have a propensity toward these ailments. Retailers can now offer their customers a wide range of over-the-counter preventive brands, from grain-free to high-water content to novel protein-sourced formulas.

Grain-free diets such as those offered by Halo are often selected for cats with digestive issues, such as gas, bloating, vomiting or diarrhea, reported Dr. Donna Spector, DVM, DACVIM, a board-certified veterinary internal medicine specialist and consulting veterinarian to Halo, Purely For Pets in Tampa, Fla. These types of formulas, which eliminate grains such as corn or wheat in the diet and replace them with meat and vegetables, are also for those pets with suspected food allergies and grain sensitivities, she noted.

Cat food
Grain-free diets can be marketed for cats with digestive issues. Courtesy of Smitten Kitten.
Grain-free diets help prevent a number of health issues, said Dr. Spector, who suggested that refined grains, such as white rice, be avoided in cat food. These grains are overprocessed and have lost most of their nutritional value, she continued, and they often lead to blood sugar spikes and hormonal signals that have long-term detrimental effects on metabolism.

Many in the industry, according to Spector, have found that the use of excess amounts of refined grains contributes to the high rates of pet obesity in the U.S.

Pets may also have allergies to cheaper grains that are commonly seen in cat foods, such as wheat and corn, and these grain sources are best avoided, she added.

Wellness, a WellPet brand, is responding to this need by expanding its canned offerings for cats in the grain-free category.

“We are offering diets with high-quality proteins such as chicken, turkey, salmon and tuna,” said Chanda D. Leary-Coutu, senior manager of marketing communications at the Tewksbury, Mass., company. “For those cats in need of a single-protein-source diet, chicken-free and fish-free varieties are available within this line.”

Grain-free diets are the only type of cat food sold at Healthy Paws, a pet supply store in Bend, Ore.

“The cat foods I carry do not have grains in their formula,” said owner David Golam. “Grains can have a high-glycemic value that spikes the blood sugar level up and down in cats, which is one of the leading causes for obesity in cats, as well as diabetes. Carbohydrates are just empty calories for carnivores.”

Utopia For Pets in Princeton, N.J., also carries only grain-free cat food.

Show Them the Benefits
Because sales of special diets for cats are dependent on a knowledgeable consumer, manufacturers of these products are assisting retailers in helping customers understand these products. In turn, retailers are reaching out to consumers, educating them on the benefits of preventive diets.

David Yaskulka, vice president of marketing communications at Halo, Purely For Pets in Tampa, Fla., provides an educational website to help retailers understand the company’s products so they can educate customers.

Retailers can click here for a number of articles on holistic pet nutrition, including Halo’s Philosophy on Grains for Dogs and Cats, Yaskulka said.

“There are many consumers who believe they need grain-free who may actually be better off with a standard formula that avoids chicken meal or other rendered animal parts, yet uses beneficial whole grains such as barley or oats,” he said.

Education is crucial when it comes to selling specialty diets, said Chanda D. Leary-Coutu, senior manager of marketing communications for Wellness, a WellPet brand, in Tewskbury, Mass.

“We place a high value on the benefits of education and go to great lengths to educate store associates and customers about our natural pet food,” she said. “We offer retailers a wide variety of assets outlining the benefits of natural pet foods for all of our brands, including shelf talkers and brochures.”

At Holistic Pet Center in Clakamas, Ore., owner Chip Sammons places a lot of emphasis on showcasing special diets and exposing customers to these foods for cats.

“We merchandise this category by giving the good foods more space in our store and more signage,” he said. “We market them by taking food samples to street fairs, employee health fairs and other business events, as well as by talking about them on my weekly radio program. We also walk our customers to the section of our store where we want them to see our foods.”
—AP

“Grain-free foods are the biggest trend in preventive diets,” said owner Michael Growney. “Cats do not need to digest tremendous amounts of grains, as they are pure carnivores. We have had great success with cats with diabetes, either becoming undiabetic or getting their insulin dramatically reduced, just by getting grains out of their diet.”

The prevalence of cat urinary issues has long meant a need for special diets. Halo has a high-water content in its canned food, which can help cats that have a tendency to develop urinary crystals, bladder infections or other types of bladder disease, Spector reported.

“A one-year controlled clinical study of cats with urinary problems was recently conducted, and the only treatment that resulted in significant improvement in urinary signs was increasing daily water intake,” she said. “Urinary signs occurred less often and were much less severe in cats that ate exclusively canned food. This study revealed no change in signs based on varying the magnesium or ‘ash’ content of the food. Many veterinarians used to focus on the ash content of food for the prevention of crystal development.

“However,” she continued, “all leaders in this field now agree that diets intended to minimize the production of urinary crystals have no scientific rationale in the management of this condition. Simply put, ash is just not important.”

Not only will a higher water intake reduce the likelihood of urinary issues in cats, but so will eating a diet with the proper pH, Spector noted.

“When cats eat a natural diet of rodents or other small prey, their urine pH will be in the region of 6.3,” she added. “For best urinary health, it is best to maintain this pH, and Halo foods were designed with this in mind.”

Allergies can be a significant cause of health problems in pets. Feline allergies often trace back to proteins that most commonly in commercial pet foods, including chicken, beef and lamb, according to cat nutritionists. In response, Addiction Foods produces a line of special diets using unique proteins—venison, brushtail, kangaroo, salmon and rabbit—that are less likely to result in allergies.

“These proteins make our foods ideal for cats allergic to traditional proteins,” said Jerel Kwek, CEO of the Singapore-based company. “Our foods have been developed by our founder, a holistic veterinarian and clinical nutritionist, who also pioneered treatment of food allergies, food sensitivities and irritable bowel disease using hypoallergenic nutrition.”

At Smitten Kitten in Des Moines, Iowa, many customers come in to the store not knowing what kind of food they want; they do know, however, that they want a solution to their pet’s problem, said store owner Betsey Qualley.

“It is important to ask probing questions about the cat relating to their weight, skin condition and sensitivity levels,” she said. “By determining the cat’s needs, I can determine what type of food to recommend. With all of the different choices in cat foods now, it is important to talk to customers about their cats.”

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