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These days, there is no shortage of food options for cat owners to choose from. Even so, dry food remains a top pick among many who have cats that prefer the crunch and palatability it offers.

Cat owners are raising their standards for dry food choices, said Heather Acuff, Ph.D., director of research and development for Nulo Pet Food, a manufacturer in Austin, Texas.

“Elements like high-quality protein, life-stage and solution-specific formulas, and featured superfood ingredients have proven to resonate with health-conscious pet owners,” she said. “But even more influential are the health benefits tied to them, such as unique formulas for growing kittens, indoor adults and senior cats, as well as special need solutions like weight and hairball management. Premium cat food consumers expect the same solutions as conventional products with the added confidence that what they are putting into their pet’s bowl really is the best choice for their long-term wellness.”

Acuff said that Nulo’s cat kibble formulas are made with a high proportion of protein from animal sources, are low in carbohydrates, and contain grain-free low-glycemic carbohydrate sources. They also offer solutions to issues. For example, Nulo’s FreeStyle Senior Cat recipe addresses palatability for aging cats by featuring Alaska pollock as the primary protein source; muscle tone and maintenance through its high meat/low-carbohydrate design; and weight management with the inclusion of natural insoluble fibers from Miscanthus grass, Acuff noted.

“As carnivores, acceptance of our high-meat formulas by cats is naturally very high,” she added. “And by minimizing the level of carbs and using only low-glycemic ingredients, Nulo’s diets coupled with our active-lifestyle approach are crucial in the battle against feline obesity and other weight-related issues.”

Dana Paris, chief marketing officer for Canidae Pet Food, a manufacturer in Stamford, Conn., noted that cat owners are seeking highly nutritious food that is also tasty. This combination keeps both humans and cats happy.

“The quality of the protein source continues to be extremely important,” she added. “Having real poultry, fish or meat as the first ingredient is important for pet parents.”

Canidae recently launched a problem/solution-based dry cat food line called Goodness. The Joints and Skin & Coat formulas have real salmon as the first ingredient, the Indoor Cats formula has real whitefish as the first ingredient, and the Digestion formula has real chicken as the first ingredient.

Celeste Nemeth, team lead at The Barking Lot, a pet store in Wheaton, Ill., said that in general, the trend has been toward premium foods. No matter what format pet owners are choosing, they want to know the food has high-quality ingredients, she said.

“There has definitely been more of a movement toward raw among our cat-owning customers,” Nemeth said. “But, for those that prefer kibble, they want something higher quality.”

Of course, palatability must also be considered. Caroline Gunther, owner of Wag! A Unique Pet Boutique in Hendersonville, N.C., said that a premium food that doesn’t get eaten is not very helpful for cats.

“I would argue that palatability must come first—even ahead of quality—because cats are so incredibly picky,” she said. “Ideally, if cats aren’t currently on a healthy diet with a high-quality food, we can look for ways to help them switch slowly.”

Switching a cat’s food or adding something new to the diet can take time and patience, said Alison Schwartz, general manager of All Pets Considered, a retailer with two stores in Greensboro, N.C.

“It can even be difficult to switch a cat from one kibble to another because the cat gets so used to how the shape of the food they eat feels on their tongue,” she explained. “We are heavy on promoting wet and raw foods, because cats need hydration, but we also know that it’s absolutely necessary to carry kibble as that’s all some cats will eat. For cat parents that want to start introducing some wet or raw food into the diet, they should do it slowly.”

Schwartz said that she learned from a raw training session that feeding raw in a separate area—where the dry food isn’t fed—and making it more like a hide-and-seek playtime activity can get cats interested.

“Once you’ve got them engaged, you might be able to start adding that as a topper to the dry food over time,” she said. “But it can take weeks or months for finicky cats to try something new.”

Nemeth said owners should watch out for upset stomachs when adding anything new to a cat’s typical diet.

“Besides being picky, many cats do have sensitive stomachs and won’t feel well if you introduce something new too quickly,” she said.

Acuff said that retailers might need to support pet owners as they ease into changes.

“With cats being notoriously finicky, trial sizes, free samples and/or money back guarantees are all excellent tools for encouraging cat parents to try something new,” she said. “This low-cost entry point can provide consumers with the affirmation that their cat will enjoy the product.”

Gunther noted that free samples are a lot more popular among her cat-owning customers than her dog-owning ones. She said this is absolutely due to the selective preferences of cats.

The variety of products on the market, including wet, frozen and freeze-dried raw, bone broths and mixers, gives cat owners more options than ever. Retailers and manufacturers said that it doesn’t have to be “all or nothing.”

Many pet owners are feeding their cats a combination of options, Paris said.

“Cat parents are more likely to use a mix of dry and wet food,” she said. “This presents an opportunity to cross-promote wet and dry products in the same product line to encourage this behavior and build the basket. At Canidae, our wet and dry formulas complement each other or can be used on their own for a complete and balanced meal for cats. We know that taste and variety are really important to pet parents, so providing a variety of wet food as a topper to the dry food can work to drive both types of food.”

Calling Attention to Cat

Considering the many different types of cat food available, pet specialty retailers should dedicate ample space to promoting dietary options for cats.

Gunther said that in her store an entire room is devoted to cat food and treats as well as other cat products.

“Cat parents sometimes feel as though cats don’t get as much attention as dogs—so we’ve tried to combat that sentiment with an entire dedicated cat room,” she said. “Cat people are willing to spend a lot of money on their pet when they’re presented with the options.”

Acuff said that retailer education and support is really important when it comes to selling more cat food.

“Additionally, adding clip strips and endcaps with trial-size packets within the primary kibble aisles can help suggest a mixed feeding approach, while clip strips in sections like nutritional supplements can suggest a tailored solution for those searching to resolve a common issue like dry skin with their pet,” Acuff said. “For those owners who aren’t ready to commit to a diet overhaul, having small packages placed around the store can be an intriguing invitation to try it.”