Cats are carnivorous creatures by nature and need protein to survive and thrive. And while that protein is available in a plethora of feeding formats, industry insiders reported that wet food is doing particularly well right now.
“Wet food far outsells everything,” said Kris Lamoreaux, co-owner of Healthy Pets Mountain West, a pet supply store in Cottonwood Heights, Utah.
Lamoreaux added that canned food and raw diets both seem to be gaining traction with pet owners seeking to address bladder stones and kidney issues in their cats.
Heather Hickey, vice president of North America sales for Ziwi USA, a pet food manufacturer in Overland Park, Kan., said she sees a trend toward wet pet food and whole-animal nutrition.
“Because cats are obligate carnivores, they require moisture in their diets,” Hickey said. “Our Peak Prey recipes provide that moisture while also eliminating unnecessary carbohydrates that cats do not need.”
Ziwi debuted the Ziwi Peak Provenance Series earlier this year.
“The series includes three complete and balanced multiprotein recipes of a combination of five meats and fish sourced from specific regions in New Zealand,” Hickey said. “The recipes are available in wet canned and air-dried pet food.”
Cat owners are typically open to trying new food with their picky pets. And while a cat may want to eat only one kind of food, nutritional needs might push cat owners to seek alternatives, said Nancy Fedelem, owner of Salty’s Pet Supply, a pet supply store in Portland, Ore.
“Even though kibble is convenient, I would say that we are seeing cat owners more interested in feeding wet food,” Fedelem said. “People are looking for foods that can help their cats stay better hydrated, or they are trying to help a health condition. A lot of times, canned cat food is the first choice to support these issues. Luckily, we are seeing lots of changes in the wet cat food category as brands try to get more competitive with each other and continue to improve the quality of their lines. So we have more options to offer even the pickiest cat.”
Owners want to cater to their pets’ taste preferences, but they’re also aware that getting enough moisture into cats’ diets is crucial.
“Most cat owners are looking for cat food that their cats enjoy eating since felines are very picky,” said Holly Sher, owner and president of Evanger’s Food for Dogs & Cats, a pet food manufacturer in Markham, Ill. “It doesn’t matter how good a cat’s food is perceived [to be] if the cat doesn’t eat it. People understand cats need moisture. Canned cat food sales are going up, and it was flat for a while. With [the COVID-19 pandemic], wet is going up.”
Sher said that the company’s Against the Grain Nothing Else line, in particular, has been popular with cat owners.
“We find that cats are eating the Against the Grain line, specifically the chicken formula,” Sher said. “It doesn’t have water added. This is loaded with the natural meat and bone broth through the process. It’s always a challenge to create a formula that’s palatable, and this product only has one ingredient.”
And although Evanger’s launched Catch Of The Day Whole Uncut Sardines in 2006, Sher said the food has recently become a lot more popular with cat owners.
A Focus on Texture
One of the biggest cat food trends is that brands are offering all types of textures of wet food, Fedelem said, adding that she believes most brands now have lines that reflect pâté, chunks and gravy, shreds and minced.
“You name a texture, and we probably have it in a can or a pouch,” she said. “Our wet food section is always expanding.”
There’s no question that cats are carnivores and need to eat meat, though some debate what form that meat should come in, said Kim McCohan, chief happiness officer of Bend Pet Express, which has two stores in Bend, Ore.
“The disconnect with dry processed foods versus high-meat diets—canned/freeze-dried/raw—happens when we use the big cat zoo example,” McCohan said. “The thought of any zoo cat being fed kibble immediately turns off cat parents. This opens up the conversation about how much meat is really in kibble and the issue with moisture and cats.”
McCohan added that she is still waiting for a mousse-texture food that doesn’t have fish in its ingredients and is complete and balanced. The popularity of mousse-textured treats has led to cat owner requests for foods with this texture, she said.
“We are all pretty familiar with the cat’s behavior of lapping up the juices and gravy of their canned food and leaving the solid foods behind,” McCohan said. “This next move is to take that behavior and make it complete and balanced.”
Gina Zaro, marketing director for Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products, a pet food and litter manufacturer in Englewood, Colo., said that, overall, the company has seen a focus on simplification. She said that customers look at the guaranteed analysis and nutrition values to decide what foods will be the best fit for their cat’s needs. High protein and low carbohydrate levels are important to cat owners, especially if they own an overweight or diabetic cat.
Pet owners are extremely educated about their cats’ foods, and they want to feed high-quality ingredients that help their cats live longer, healthier lives, she added.
Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products’ Cleanprotein canned line is available in a variety of pâté formulas, including single-source animal proteins and multisource proteins. The foods have no grains, gluten, fillers or artificial preservatives, Zaro said.
“Dr. Elsey developed Cleanprotein making a very important but often overlooked distinction—cats are not small dogs, so we shouldn’t feed them the same,” Zaro noted.
For many pet owners, rotating food to keep variety in cats’ diets is a priority.
“We talk to a lot of people about rotating foods to keep variety in their diet, and then we will turn around and talk to another customer about a health issue they need help with that a food change could help,” Fedelem said.
Lamoreaux reported that shoppers are often seeking brands that offer rotational feeding options within lines.
“Some are looking for senior and weight-loss foods, but most of our customers are all about rotational feeding,” Lamoreaux said.
The Way to Display
Pet specialty retailers have a variety of options when it comes to displaying cat food.
All cat food cans should be placed together, said Heather Hickey, vice president of North America sales for Ziwi USA, a pet food manufacturer in Overland Park, Kan.
“For retailers selling air-dried recipes, bags should be displayed in the alternative-to-raw sections, smaller bags should be clip stripped in aisles promoting kibble diets, and trial-sized bags should be promoted with a counter display near the front to promote impulse purchases,” Hickey added.
For retailers looking to entice customers into trying raw foods, placement, combined with conversation, is important.
Kris Lamoreaux, co-owner of Healthy Pets Mountain West in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, said almost all of her customers who switched to raw or were new to raw have been educated by her or her staff and weren’t really looking to feed a raw diet.
“As far as merchandising, our raw is straight back from the door with a lighted sign and a big freezer,” she said. “We had it up front but realized that most people just looked past it.”
Lamoreaux also suggests having signs over each endcap or shelving display.
“Our dog products are on the right and cats are on the left, which makes it very easy,” she added.
For Bend Pet Express, which has two stores in Bend, Ore., glass-front freezers have helped stimulate raw food sales.
“We swapped out solid-door freezers to glass-front freezers ASAP, and that’s helped our raw sales significantly,” said Kim McCohan, chief happiness officer. “When we have a new brand we are trying out with canned foods, we display it on the endcap that people have to pass to walk into the canned cat food area. Whatever does well, we end up bringing in that line, and usually more flavors.”
McCohan added that free samples are key to cat food sales.
“If someone is buying cat food, kibble or canned, we usually hand out one can they didn’t grab as a sample for them to try,” McCohan said. “We tell them if it’s a hit, just rip off the label and bring it back and we can show you what it was.”
Both retailers and manufacturers agree that there are many cat food products that may be nuanced and require more education, and manufacturers are available to help educate staff members.
Online training tools can help staff get information more quickly, even if manufacturer visits to the store are welcome too.
“We like to talk to customers about the benefits of changing up their pets’ diets to benefit their health,” said Nancy Fedelem, owner of Salty’s Pet Supply, a pet supply store in Portland, Ore. “Fortunately, our manufacturers are always happy to come into our stores and train our staff about the benefits of their food. We are starting to see some great online training tools that let staff get that information faster, and then we can follow up with the rep the next time they visit the store.”
Ziwi offers a variety of resources to retailers.
“Ziwi’s product line is simple to understand; we have a great story of optimum nutrition and exceptional sourcing,” said Heather Hickey, vice president of North America sales for Ziwi USA, a pet food manufacturer in Overland Park, Kan. “Ziwi provides messaging assistance to retail partners through our resource library that includes online training, social media posts and videos.”
Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products makes the overall positioning and presentation of its products simple and straightforward, said Gina Zaro, marketing director for the Englewood, Colo.-based pet food and litter manufacturer.
“We do offer a variety of educational resources and messaging assets for our retailers,” Zaro added. “We even try to have a little fun and have developed our very own brand character, who is appropriately named Purrfessor Cat.”
Evanger’s Food for Dogs & Cats focuses on in-store education.
“We have brochures, printed material, and a crew of sales reps that go into the stores and try to educate the managers, the sales staff and owners,” said Holly Sher, owner and president of the Markham, Ill.-based pet food manufacturer. “We stop in as many stores as we can and we go through a training session. We do a lot of educational seminars all the time.”