When it comes to sustenance for the furry set, few will argue that many pet owners today are seeking out high-quality foods. However, throw the “natural” or “all natural” designation into the category mix, and the lines can blur.

“The problem within the pet industry is there really is no true definition of ‘natural,’” said Rob Downey, president and CEO of Annamaet Petfoods in Hatfield, Pa. “Everyone wants to use the term for better customer recognition, but the term ‘all natural’ has now become the No. 1 target for a growing number of class action lawsuits in the pet industry.” 

Yet natural foods within the pet specialty space are evolving, with a clear focus on using quality, minimally processed ingredients, said Brian Connolly, CEO of Natural Balance Pet Foods in Upland, Calif.

“We follow the guidance of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) in regards to whether a product should be labeled ‘natural’ or ‘natural with added vitamins and minerals,’” Connolly said. “AAFCO defines a feed product or feed ingredient as ‘natural’ if it is derived from plant, animal or mined sources, not produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process, and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts that might occur in good manufacturing practices.”

Despites AAFCO’s definitions, there are still many shades or degrees of “naturalness” in commercial pet foods, said Rob Cadenhead, general manager of Gott Pet Products, parent company of St. Francis, Wis.-based Hound & Gatos.

“Without getting too technical, we’d characterize a natural diet as minimally processed food composed of ingredients that are as close to their original, unadulterated state as possible,” he said.

Cadenhead added that today’s pet owners expect more from a value-added natural brand than their parents did, and are especially receptive to diets formulated with ingredients that serve a functional purpose.

“These consumers actively seek out products made with limited, whole-food ingredients, real animal proteins, and healthy superfoods such as cranberries, blueberries, broccoli and dandelion greens,” he said. “They’re starting to steer clear of products that are high in cheaper, plant-based proteins, such as peas, lentils or chickpeas.”

Pet owners are generally looking for a wide variety of attributes in natural food categories such as clean, limited-ingredient diets, plant based or vegetarian, and vegan, organic, farm raised or ethically sourced products—all formulated with ingredients that they know, trust and recognize, Connolly noted.

Sherry Redwine, co-owner of Odyssey Pets, a pet store in Dallas, noted that because the term “natural” is generally vague, the label can be used inappropriately by marketers.

“I believe ‘natural’ means no artificial colors, preservatives or byproducts,” she said. “By the time consumers reach us, they have either done their own homework or they have exhausted themselves trying different foods for a pet that may be experiencing health problems.”

Many pet foods on the market are highly processed and rendered, or utilize synthesized ingredients as supplements, both for shelf-life sustainability and to attain reasonable pricing, noted Jusak Yang Bernhard, co-owner of Wag Heaven, a pet store in Georgetown, Texas.

“But, the term ‘natural’ refers to something that comes directly from nature, without added chemicals or processing,” Yang Bernhard said.

Because of this confusion, education is crucial.

“We educate our guests about the importance of feeding a natural diet by explaining the features and benefits,” said Kally Wilson, store manager of Pet Pros’ Benson Plaza store in Renton, Wash. “Also, teaching them to read an ingredient panel allows for educated decisions regarding a pet’s diet and lifestyle.”

New Products

Recent Introductions and Products in the Pipeline

As the natural pet food category continues to expand, manufacturers within the segment look to satisfy consumer demand with refined recipes and premium ingredients.

“Natural Balance recently became an independently owned company, focused on products for the pet specialty market,” said Brian Connolly, CEO of Upland, Calif.-based Natural Balance Pet Foods. “We are in the process of developing a strong, innovative pipeline and will have a lot of exciting things to share within the next 12 months.”

The company announced several grain-inclusive, limited-ingredient dry dog food upgrades in early 2020. The foods highlight natural, wholesome grains, and animal protein sources such as duck, salmon, farm-raised chicken and lamb are the No. 1 ingredient in each recipe, according to Connolly.

Grain-free dry dog food reformulations followed, including Chicken and Sweet Potato, Salmon and Sweet Potato, and Duck and Potato Recipes. All feature added taurine with no peas, legumes or lentils, and fewer potatoes than previous formulas.

In February, the company introduced a Beef and Brown Rice Recipe and exotic limited-ingredient diets, including Sweet Potato and Bison as well as Sweet Potato and Venison.

“In addition to these diets, we recently launched our Targeted Nutrition Dog Food line,” Connolly said.

Related: Natural Balance Tailors Pet Food to Meet Specific Nutritional Needs

These dry formulas highlight natural ingredients and are designed by Natural Balance’s expert team of veterinarians, animal nutritionists and food scientists, according to the company. They feature consumer-friendly names, such as Zen Life, which includes chamomile and naturally occurring tryptophan from turkey, or Gentle Balance, which is formulated with prebiotics and a special fiber blend. On The Move combines natural sources of glucosamine and chondroitin to support joint structure and promote lean muscle mass. For overweight pets, Fat Dogs’ low-calorie formula features a special protein and fiber blend to help dogs feel full as they lose weight in a healthful way.

Rob Cadenhead, general manager of Gott Pet Products, parent company of St. Francis, Wis.-based Hound & Gatos, teased several upcoming launches.

“During these extraordinary times, we have been focusing our efforts on maintaining a steady, high-quality supply of products to our retail and distributor partners,” he said. “But stay tuned, because we have several innovative additions to our dry and wet lines on the drawing board.”

Annamaet Petfoods is currently developing a feline formula to combat the growing trend of obesity in cats. This product will feature a fresh-caught invasive species of fish with an excellent nutrient profile, according to the company.

“Using this novel protein will provide a superior natural ingredient for cats while protecting our natural resources—a win-win situation,” said Rob Downey, president and CEO of Annamaet Petfoods in Hatfield, Pa.

The release is planned for the second half of 2021.

Product Development

A Nutritional Balancing Act

At Natural Balance Pet Foods, a manufacturer in Upland, Calif., formulas are regularly evaluated to ensure that nutritional concepts are current and being incorporated while responsibly following current Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines, said CEO Brian Connolly.

“Natural Balance is passionate about providing safe, healthy and high-quality food for pets,” he added. “Our pet food and treat products are developed under the direct supervision of pet nutritionists, veterinarians and technicians.”

Officials at Annamaet Petfoods are keeping an eye on promising ingredients.

Rob Downey, president and CEO of Annamaet Petfoods in Hatfield, Pa., noted that polyphenols and carotenoids found in fruits and vegetables have become increasingly popular, and ingredients such as turmeric, herbal extracts or pomaces are making their way into pet foods for their nutritional qualities.

“At Annamaet, we are proponents of these healthful additions, as well as things like carnitine and taurine to ensure sufficiency of some of the naturally formed amino acid derivatives as an ‘icing on the cake’ for optimal health depending on the life stage that our diets are designed for,” Downey said.

Vitamin and mineral levels are another consideration in crafting natural diets. 

“Studies have shown that appropriate levels of vitamins and minerals in a dog’s diet have been associated with increased longevity and a decrease in overall health issues,” he said. “Pet food companies are aware of this, and in the last 15 years, vitamin supplementation on average has increased in pet foods by 30 percent.”

Perhaps the most difficult component to developing a dog or cat food is determining how to formulate foods that nourish naturally without relying on synthetic chemicals or additives, said Rob Cadenhead, general manager of Gott Pet Products, parent company of St. Francis, Wis.-based Hounds & Gatos.

“Then you have to perform an intricate, science-based balancing act to provide all the nutrients to help dogs and cats thrive,” he added.

Consumer Education

Raising Awareness

From a shopper’s perspective, the term “natural” denotes a variety of characteristics, according to Brian Connolly, CEO of Natural Balance Pet Foods in Upland, Calif., who added that insight into the individual pet is fundamental to dietary decisions.

“It’s important that a sales associate asks a lot of questions so they can best understand the shopper’s needs,” Connolly said.

At Wag Heaven, a pet store in Georgetown, Texas, shelf talkers indicate whether or not a pet food brand uses natural or organic ingredients; however, co-owner Jusak Yang Bernhard said that developing a strong rapport with the customer is central to determining the specific needs of each pet.

Chelsea Bair, manager of Pet Pros’ Bothell, Wash., store agreed, noting that employee knowledge is a key factor.

“Talking one-on-one with a guest is where the connection is made, and we can tailor the discussion to specific needs,” she said. “Our well-trained team is able to answer those questions. That is our greatest strength.”

Educating consumers regarding the complexities of the term “natural” or “all natural” is also important, said Rob Downey, president and CEO of Annamaet Petfoods in Hatfield, Pa.

“An independent retailer should be careful in throwing around the term ‘all natural’ too loosely,” he said. “For instance, a food might be made with all-natural ingredients; however, a manufacturer may get their fat sources from a supplier that uses a synthetic preservative, and as long as the manufacturer did not put that preservative in the food, they can call it ‘all natural’—but, in fact, it may have traces of synthetic preservative.”  

Fliers covering a broad range of nutritional issues are on hand at Odyssey Pets, a pet store in Dallas, and these topics are also addressed in social media and blog posts. The store is a proponent of raw diets.

Customers unable to embrace a full raw diet—for example, due to financial reasons—are advised to incorporate as much of the food as possible into their pet’s diet, said co-owner Sherry Redwine.

“For those that don’t like the raw idea at all, we encourage adding moisture or fresh ingredients to a pet’s kibble,” Redwine added. “Of course, there are different grades of kibble, but besides carrying no foods with corn, gluten, or byproducts, we seek out companies that source their own ingredients rather than having a co-packer do it for them.”

Instruction at the store level is valuable when promoting a raw diet, said Karen Roice, manager of Pet Pros’ Puyallup, Wash., store.

“Our team is very knowledgeable in the products we carry and the benefits provided,” she said. “They can address a part-time raw diet and how the benefits outweigh the increase in the monthly food bill.”

In order to introduce customers to specific natural brands, enterprising retailers might consider showcasing a natural pet food “brand of the month” promotion, highlighted in social media feeds, e-newsletters, fliers and point-of-sale displays, said Rob Cadenhead, general manager of Gott Pet Products, parent company of St. Francis, Wis.-based Hounds & Gatos.

“It also pays to give away free sample packs at checkout or place them in cartons for pickup at the curb,” he said.