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As cat owners become more knowledgeable about their pets’ dietary needs, natural cat food manufacturers are recognizing that shoppers expect to be able to understand the ingredients in their pets’ food.

“As the humanization of pets continues and premiumization and wellness trends extend into the pet category, pet parents are paying closer attention to ingredients and the quality of their pet’s food,” said Stephanie Arnold, chief commercial officer for Freely, a manufacturer in Brentwood, Mo. “At Freely, we believe that what we feed our pets is a critical choice and pet parents should know and understand what goes into their cat’s bowl. We truly want what’s best for every cat parent and their cat, which is why all Freely recipes are made from high-quality, thoughtfully sourced ingredients.”

With no set definition of “natural” that the industry holds manufacturers to, different manufacturers have different approaches in this category.

For Nulo Pet Food in Austin, Texas, “natural” in cat food constitutes a nutritional approach that aligns with the needs of carnivores, uses high-quality ingredients from reputable suppliers, and takes into account elements such as protein sources, diets that are life stage and solution focused, and superfood ingredients.

“This means most of the protein in a cat’s diet should be coming from meat, poultry and fish, rather than plants, carbs should be kept at minimal levels, and unnecessary ingredients should never be included, like artificial colors or controversial preservatives,” said product development manager Heather Acuff.

Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products also focuses on fulfilling a cat’s ancestral needs for high-protein requirements without fillers and additives. The Cheyenne, Wyo.-based manufacturer launched its Cleanprotein diets in 2017. The diets are formulated to provide a similar nutritional profile to a mouse, with high protein and low carbohydrates.

“The instinctual diet of a cat should be derived from animal-based proteins, not plants and filler ingredients high in oxalate,” said director of marketing Gina Zaro. “Felines require over 36 percent protein to prevent muscle wasting and over 50 percent protein to promote an ideal body mass.”

Zaro said low oxalate levels promote healthy kidney function and an active lifestyle for cats. Oxalic acid is an organic acid produced in animals and plants when sugars, other carbohydrates and carbon sources are metabolized. Plant-based ingredients are high in oxalate, and Dr. Elsey’s keeps oxalate levels low by excluding certain plants from Cleanprotein recipes—more than 90 percent of the diets’ protein comes from animals, Zaro said. 

What Cat Owners Want

Limited-ingredient diets are on the upswing for cats, and customers are also increasingly interested in feeding wet or canned diets, said Christine McCoy, owner of The Natural Pet Enrichment Center, a pet store in North Royalton, Ohio.

Pattie Zeller, owner of Animal Connection, a pet store in Charlottesville, Va., said shoppers are buying up more frozen, freeze-dried and shredded canned food.

Texture is one of the most important elements for cat owners to consider when looking for a diet their cat will enjoy. Acuff said Nulo’s highest-growth formats are those that feature diverse protein and texture options.

“[Nulo’s] cat food sales have been soaring in the wet food category, which is a driving factor in deciding where to focus our attention for new product developments,” she said. “We offer a broad assortment of product formats that each bring unique textures and flavors to the bowl, ranging from kibble, pâtés, minces and shreds, purées, mousse, broths and freeze-dried raw foods.”

Most of Nulo’s cat foods feature three to five different animal protein sources from similar species, such as red meat, poultry and fish formulas.

While chicken and fish are still the top proteins sold at Zeller’s store, more novel proteins such as rabbit, lamb and pork are becoming increasingly popular.

Both Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products and Freely recently released new rabbit recipes.

“Freely has seen success across our cat lineup, with our rabbit recipes being particularly popular,” Arnold said. “Rabbit is a low-fat, high-protein option and a great choice for picky eaters or cats with sensitive systems.”

New Products

Introductions from Emerging and Established Brands

Freely, a new manufacturer based in Brentwood, Mo., entered the premium pet food category in 2020 and has brought grain-free turkey, rabbit, and salmon dry and canned recipes to market. The company’s limited-ingredient, single-source-animal-protein diets are made with picky cats and sensitive stomachs in mind. Freely also offers limited-ingredient bone broth toppers made with 100 percent human-grade ingredients.

“We focus on creating foods that deliver all the nutrients cats need to thrive, and nothing they don’t, which is why our recipes do not include fillers, artificial flavors or preservatives,” said chief commercial officer Stephanie Arnold. “We use real ingredients—real animal protein, real vegetables, real vitamins and minerals that serve a real purpose for cats.”

In March, Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products in Cheyenne, Wyo., released three new Cleanprotein premium kibble diets: Turkey, Rabbit and Duck. These recipes join Chicken and Salmon kibble and nine pâté flavors in the Cleanprotein lineup. Each Cleanprotein diet features at least 90 percent protein from animals and is made with no grains, GMOs, meals or fillers.

“At Dr. Elsey’s, we speak for cats, and providing cats with a food that delivers high protein for all cats, especially older cats that can experience muscle wasting, has been extremely rewarding,” said director of marketing Gina Zaro. “We’ve also seen an incredible amount of positive response from cat owners with pre-diabetic or diabetic cats. Cleanprotein is an ideal diet for this audience since it is high in protein and low in carbohydrates.”

Nulo Pet Food in Austin, Texas, has several new product launches planned for 2021. Later this summer, Nulo Frontrunner for cats and kittens will be available to pet specialty retailers. The value-premium, high-meat kibble line has animal-based protein levels of up to 85 percent.

Frontrunner cat formulas include Turkey, Salmon, Herring, Beef and Lamb paired with ancient grains such as oats, barley and millet. The diets also feature functional supplements, including taurine and the patented GanedenBC30 probiotic.

The company is also launching Nulo Hydrate, a functional water enhancer for cats. The shelf-stable liquid doesn’t require refrigeration and will be available in Beef and Chicken Liver flavors.

“Our goal with this product line is to provide a new wellness solution by focusing on the water bowl,” said product development manager Heather Acuff. “Encouraging cats to drink more water can have many health benefits, and just a squeeze of our water enhancers delivers exceptional flavor plus a nutritional boost with B vitamins, electrolytes, and amino acids such as taurine and DL-methionine.”

Consumer Education

Supporting Cat Owners

Manufacturers and retailers agree that, on the whole, cat owners are becoming more interested in learning about their pets’ nutritional needs.

“There is an overall focus on simplification and getting back to the ancestral diet of a cat,” said Gina Zaro, director of marketing for Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products, a manufacturer in Cheyenne, Wyo. “Consumers want to feed high-quality ingredients that help their cats live longer, healthier lives.” 

Christine McCoy, owner of The Natural Pet Enrichment Center, a pet store in North Royalton, Ohio, said shoppers are increasingly aware of the need for moisture in cats’ diets.

“Customers are more educated now and have spent more time researching,” she said. “They are beginning to understand that cats need moisture to keep them healthy and avoid kidney and urinary issues.”

McCoy said canned diets are her best-sellers, with many owners adding freeze-dried toppers or treats. She tries to encourages customers to add raw food whenever possible, but she finds many cat owners try to introduce raw food too quickly for it to be accepted by the cat, rather than adding it in slowly and gradually.

Pattie Zeller, owner of Animal Connection, a pet store in Charlottesville, Va., encourages budget-conscious cat owners to boost kibble diets with broths, toppers or mixers, and gives credits, exchanges or returns if they don’t work out.

“Many times, we’ll suggest a kibble meal with add-ins for a better bowl of food,” she said. “Better pet food is definitely a higher price, but when you feed better pet foods, your vet bills can be decidedly lower.”

Freely, a new manufacturer in Brentwood, Mo., was founded with the goal of being a better pet food brand that is an honest partner to pet owners, said chief commercial officer Stephanie Arnold.

“The industry has grown so much, and along with that growth it became extremely complicated for pet parents to navigate,” she said. “The number of options, confusing claims and ways to feed have left the pet parent largely unsupported and left to answer ‘What is best for my pet?’ all on their own.”

The Freely Nutrition Center is a free pet nutrition service staffed by experts who provide advice and consultation to pet owners, Arnold said. It can be reached via live chat at freelypet.com, email at nutrition@freelypet.com or by phone at 833-918-1236.

Arnold noted that the resource is especially geared toward millennials, who have become the largest group of pet owners and have higher expectations of the brands they choose than generations that came before.

“Millennial pet parents want to feel knowledgeable and engaged in every choice they make for their pet, and we’re now making that possible in pet food by arming them with resources they’ve never had before that allow them to learn, ask questions, and feel supported by a transparent and unbiased resource,” she said. “Our commitment is to be an honest broker for the pet parent—even if it means recommending a food other than Freely.”

Assortment Optimization

Cast a Wide Net

Retailers looking to capture a maximum audience should diversify their assortments across protein, format and price point to offer something for everyone.

Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va., and The Natural Pet Enrichment Center in North Royalton, Ohio, each carry about 30 natural cat food brands with various protein and format options.

Animal Connection’s owner, Pattie Zeller, said she stocks frozen, freeze-dried, gently cooked then frozen, dehydrated, canned and kibble diets at a range of price points.

“Our market ranges from young professionals to retirees, so we have a good variety,” she said. “We are close to a recently closed Pet Valu and have absorbed many of their former customers, so we do have foods at a price point that allowed for an easy transition to shopping with us.”

When building the store’s assortment, Zeller focuses on taurine levels and the top five to 10 ingredients in each food.

Christine McCoy, owner of The Natural Pet Enrichment Center, said she looks for high-quality foods with no byproducts, high-quality proteins and low carbohydrates.

“Cats are so picky,” she said. “We carry as much as we can shelve. … Since we only carry high-quality cat foods, we look to carry several different price points, since we feel that it is so important to add wet food to cats’ diets.”

McCoy said some of her favorite wet foods are made by Weruva, which offers lower-cost options in its Best Feline Friend (B.F.F.) line and more premium options through the TruLuxe line; Fromm Family Foods, which offers a wide variety of proteins at a mid-level price point; and Dave’s Pet Food, which offers premium ingredients at a more affordable price point. For dry diets, McCoy’s go-tos are Fromm and Fussie Cat.

“We do offer good, better, best options, so customers can have natural health options on different budgets,” she said. “We look for options within a food line that will meet our customer needs, which may mean we will only carry a few SKUs of a brand so we can offer a wider selection.”