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The natural cat food and treats category has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, and with it, so have consumers’ knowledge and expectations regarding what they feed their pets.

Consumers have a better understanding of what cats need from a nutritional standpoint, said Melinda Miller, CEO of Bravo Pet Foods, a manufacturer in Manchester, Conn. As a result, the demand continues to trend toward species-appropriate foods and treats that are nutrient rich and high quality, she added.

Treats aren’t just an afterthought for cat owners.

“The ‘must-haves’ for treats closely mirror the requirements of the main meal,” Miller said. “It also helps to offer treats that serve a functional benefit so there are no empty calories being consumed. Of course, since consumers are seeking healthy, all-natural products, it follows that there’s going to be a strong demand for transparency in all areas, including ingredients, sourcing, production methods and locations, sustainability and animal welfare. Made in the USA/USA sourced is also still very attractive to consumers.”

Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of Caru Pet Food Co., a manufacturer in Vero Beach, Fla., said that, in general, pet owners are looking for “fresh, healthy ingredients.” In other words, Pettyan added, cat owners are looking for something that resembles a “homemade meal.”

“Consumers also want high-quality ingredients in the food such as chelated minerals for better bioavailability, and food and treats that are free from gums, GMO ingredients, [and] artificial flavors, colors and preservatives,” Pettyan continued. “The inclusion of functional ingredients is another current trend consumers look for in natural food and treats.”

Brittany Keck, regional sales manager for Western USA at Petcurean, a manufacturer based in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada, has also witnessed interest in functional ingredients.

“When it comes to treats, we are starting to see more of what we like to call ‘functional treats’ that fit a specific need,” Keck added. “This ranges from treats that aid digestion and are supplemented with probiotics to treats that support hip and joint care to [chews with] CBD, which can assist with many different ailments such as pain relief, anxiety and overall wellness.”

Keck also said that there is increasing interest in alternative diets including freeze-dried, raw and lightly cooked options. Pet owners today really value having a wide assortment to choose from for their furry family members, and alternative diets play a part in that, Keck added.

“They want to feed a variety of foods to switch things up, which is why alternative diets are becoming so popular,” she said. “By mixing some freeze-dried or raw food with their cat’s regular kibble, they are giving their cats variety, just as we humans have in our diets.”

Petcurean recently updated the packaging and branding for its Now Fresh line to better communicate the brand’s “fresh ingredient” messaging, with updated kibble packaging emphasizing that the recipes are made with fresh deboned muscle meat, are minimally processed with no byproduct or meat meals and contain more than 20 nutrient-rich superfood ingredients.

The company also revealed a new tagline with the refresh, “Fresh. Simple. Whole. For every size and stage of life,” as well as a new standalone website, Facebook page and Instagram account.

The rebrand includes minor changes to the recipes that do not affect nutritional performance or palatability, according to the company.

Additionally, Petcurean will soon be unveiling new SKUs for its Go! Solutions line.

Consumer Perception

Natural and Beyond

While cat owners often mention words like “natural” in their search for food and treats, what this means exactly can differ from customer to customer—and among retailers and manufacturers.

Denise Strong, co-owner of Pawz on Main, a pet store in Cottonwood, Ariz., said that words like “natural” can be confusing if they’re used purely as a marketing ploy.

“When it comes to labels, it’s often a keyword or a gimmick used,” Strong said. “It sounds good, but oftentimes it means nothing and simply makes the food look better than it really is. Overall, a minimally processed food free of chemicals and synthetics is my ‘go-to.’ When it comes to treats, my customers look for single-source-protein treats, usually freeze-dried.”

Strong said shoppers will dig deeper when shopping for natural options. They don’t just want to see the word “natural” on the front of the bag—they want to see that claim reflected in the ingredient label.

Typically, consumers believe that the natural designation means that nothing artificial or synthetic has been added to the food or treats, said Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of Caru Pet Food Co., a manufacturer in Vero Beach, Fla.

“The product contains only natural ingredients that are found in nature—not man-made,” Pettyan added. “Natural products are not produced in a lab or genetically engineered. They also don’t contain pesticides or added hormones, and they’re free of antibiotics.”

Natural aside, there are other factors that cat owners are also considering in their food and treat choices.

In terms of what makes a product “good quality” in the consumer’s mind, Melinda Miller, CEO of Bravo Pet Foods, a manufacturer in Manchester, Conn., said that the product must align with the consumer’s list of “must-haves.”

“It’s not enough to make a ‘healthy, all-natural’ claim on the package,” she said. “The product must stand up to that scrutiny that comes with this claim, and it also needs to deliver on the promise. The consumer is likely looking for a short ingredient list where they can pronounce all of the items on that list, [and] those ingredients must be reputably sourced. Made in the USA carries a lot of weight, as does the absence of grains and fillers.”

Whether a cat will consume a food is a key factor, too.

“The biggest consideration beyond natural that consumers look for in cat food and treats is palatability,” said Brittany Keck, regional sales manager for Western USA at Petcurean, a manufacturer based in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. “Consumers will ultimately only buy what their cat will eat.”

Pettyan agreed, noting that several aspects contribute to whether a cat will accept a food or not. “Palatability is the most important factor for a good-quality cat food since cats are especially finicky and no matter how nutritious the food is, it is no good if the cat refuses to eat it,” Pettyan continued. “A high meat content, taste, texture and aroma all play an important role in elevating the appetite appeal of a given food.”

Alex Eaton, a certified clinical pet nutritionist and the owner of Healing Bay Pet Nutrition, a pet nutrition consulting business based in Detroit, said that palatability is imperative to getting a cat to accept a food.

“Texture is the most important thing for a cat,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize that cats have very few taste buds and they rely on their sense of smell. This is why cats are so picky and why texture is such a big deal.”

Eaton said that it takes a lot of time and patience to make a food transition with a cat.

“At the very minimum, it will take a couple of weeks,” she said. “But realistically, it’s usually a month or more. The key is to advise your customers to make an incredibly slow switch—adding 10 percent at a time. That means day one is 90 percent original food, 10 percent new food. Stick with that for three days, then add 10 percent more so that it’s 80/20. Continue to progress by 10 percent every three days. Even then, some cats will still turn their noses up and you’ll have to slow down.”