shutterstock_1431856394.jpg

With increased concern regarding better foods and ingredients, as well as a focus on caring for the environment, today’s pet owners are willing to spend more money on foods they perceive are higher quality and better for their animals and the world.

“Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in natural diets because they fit these criteria,” said Rob Cadenhead, general manager of Gott Pet Products, parent company of Hound & Gatos, a manufacturer based in St. Francis, Wis. “[Pet] parents are quick to read the labels and ingredient list before making a purchase and often look for foods that are free from GMOs and any other synthetic ingredients.”

While the word “natural” remains undefined and unregulated in pet food, there are two common interpretations industry insiders use. The first has to do with lack of synthetics and processing.

“A natural diet derives the base of its nutrients from unprocessed whole foods ingredients, which are recognizable and not heavily manipulated or derived from artificial or chemical processes, or additives including hormones, antibiotics, sweeteners, colors, preservatives or flavorings,” said Jeremy J. Petersen, founder, president and CEO of Identity Pet Nutrition, a manufacturer in Denver.

The second common perception of natural pet food is a diet that “only contains ingredients that are in line with how an animal’s body was designed to eat,” said Johnna Devereaux, CPN (clinical pet nutritionist), director of nutrition and wellness for Bow Wow Labs, a Novato, Calif.-based manufacturer of dog treats and chews, and owner of Fetch RI, a pet store in Richmond, R.I.

In looking at natural pet foods, Lauren Nelson, office manager for My Pet Market, which has locations in Arizona and California, posed the question: “What are our pets’ wild counterparts eating?

“One of the first ingredients should be a healthy protein derived straight from meat, poultry, fowl or fish, limited carbs and absolutely no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives,” Nelson said.

Within this segment of natural pet products, insiders reported seeing an increase in limited-ingredient and alternative diets.

Randy Klein, owner of Whiskers Holistic Pet Care, which has two locations in New York, said frozen and freeze-dried diets are more available and popular now. Nelson agreed.

“People are leaning more toward a raw diet for their pets, or at the very least supplementing their pets’ meals with frozen raw, freeze-dried, dehydrated or lightly cooked,” she added.

Legumes are out, and superfoods are in, Cadenhead said, as well as more novel proteins for cats.

“We’re seeing a lot of limited-ingredient, meat-first recipes prepared without any legumes,” he said. “The inclusion of superfood ingredients is also on the rise thanks to the many added health benefits they provide.”

Cat owners are especially interested in “high-quality diets with an emphasis on nutrient composition including vitamin and mineral levels,” Petersen said. “So many cats have developed an issue like kidney disease, IBD [inflammatory bowel disease], diabetes or urinary concerns that cat owners want high-quality meat-based diets with lower phosphorous, magnesium and ash.”

On the Market

Top Sellers in Natural Dog and Cat Food Offerings

Manufacturers of natural pet foods are often innovating their diets to match what pets need and what their owners demand from these products.

Launched in June of this year, Nature’s Logic introduced its first grain-free diet for dogs. Distinction Grain-Free is 100 percent natural with no synthetic vitamins, according to company officials. With 95 percent of the protein coming from animal ingredients, not from plants, these dry food diets are high in natural taurine, and they contain no potatoes, peas or other legumes such as soybeans or chickpeas, officials added.

“More sustainable protein sourcing is increasingly important [to pet owners],” said David Yaskulka, CEO of the Lincoln, Neb.-based company. “We just introduced [Marine Stewardship Council] MSC-certified seafood in our Nature’s Logic Distinction Grain-Free, and the reaction from consumers has been terrific.”

All three recipes—Land & Sea, Fowl and Red—are formulated for dogs of all ages, sizes and breeds, officials said.

Hound & Gatos released its line of natural dry food for dogs and cats in August 2019. It includes three grain-free options for cats, three grain-free options for dogs and two ancient grains formulas for dogs.

Each recipe is prepared with more than 84 percent animal protein, contains no peas, lentils, chickpeas or white potatoes, and includes superfoods such as cranberries, blueberries, broccoli and dandelion greens, company officials said. The ancient grains formulas feature a medley of spelt, quinoa and oats.

“Our Ancient Grain recipes are naturally high in fiber and rich in protein,” said Rob Cadenhead, general manager of Gott Pet Products, parent company of Hound & Gatos, based in St. Francis, Wis. “Ancient grains contain a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals and help support a dog’s digestive system, skin and coat.”

In a rolled-out launch starting last December, Identity Pet Nutrition introduced its Persona Collection of canned dog and cat foods. The collection includes three single-protein, limited-ingredient diets containing high-quality rabbit, quail and bison, company officials said.

“We are the first to put the country of origin on the label to take away concerns about ingredient origin for the consumer,” said Jeremy J. Petersen, founder, president and CEO of the Denver-based manufacturer. “It’s currently our fastest-growing product line.”

The dog foods come in 6-ounce cans, while the cat foods come in 3-ounce cans.

Consumer Education

It Starts with Staff

Nutrition is a critical piece of every pet’s well-being, so making sure customers are empowered to make the best choices for their animals’ diets is crucial. Industry insiders agreed that the best education starts with a properly trained staff.

“There are so many options that it can be overwhelming for customers,” said David Yaskulka, CEO of Nature’s Logic, a manufacturer in Lincoln, Neb. “That’s why it’s so important to us to support independent retailers. They are the front lines for educating customers and helping them find the right food for their dog or cat.”

Because the key to a well-educated customer starts with a well-educated employee, many manufacturers take an active role in disseminating that learning.

“Hound & Gatos offers a wide range of materials to educate our retailer partners on our complete product line,” said Rob Cadenhead, general manager of Gott Pet Products, parent company of Hound & Gatos, a manufacturer based in St. Francis, Wis. “We also provide training sessions throughout the year to help further employee knowledge.”

Updated and easy-to-navigate websites enable stores and end users to learn more about product offerings, while shelf talkers and danglers can help with in-store education, he said.

“We also use social media as a tool to educate and engage with consumers,” he added.

Many pet owners are smart and do their own research before even coming to the store, retailers said.

“We just need to add to what they have already learned,” said Michelle McConnell, co-owner of A Natural Pet Pantry, a pet store in Osprey, Fla. “Or, if they have a hesitation, we can provide information and find the proper fit for their situation.”

She recommended in-person, face-to-face discussions as the best way to educate customers, and others agreed.

“The best way to educate customers is to take the time to talk with them,” said Lauren Nelson, office manager for My Pet Market, which has locations in Arizona and California. “Encourage them to ask questions, try to ignite a passion for a more personal knowledge of what they are putting in their pets’ bodies, and really listen to them when they are telling you about the reason they came into your store.”

Randy Klein, owner of Whiskers Holistic Pet Care, which has two locations in New York, said to ask the pet owner a lot of questions.

“We don’t do cookie-cutter recommendations,” she explained. “All our recommendations are based on the pets’ individual needs. What’s natural for my cat might not be natural for your cat, and it’s the same with dogs.”

For general topics, like the basics of nutrition, Johnna Devereaux, CPN (clinical pet nutritionist), director of nutrition and wellness for Bow Wow Labs, a Novato, Calif.-based manufacturer of dog treats and chews, and owner of Fetch RI, a pet store in Richmond, R.I., said blogs and workshops have worked well, “but that’s just the surface,” she said.

“You have to go beyond general information; you have to focus on the individual animal and their individual needs,” she noted. “That is the best way to help pet parents with their specific pet.”

Packaging Trends

Natural Pet Food Packaging At a Glance

The top trends in pet food packaging this year center on convenience and sustainability. In convenience, the pet food segment is seeing more easy-open and resealable packaging.

“I talk a lot about food oxidation in my store and how best to prevent it,” said Johnna Devereaux, CPN (clinical pet nutritionist), director of nutrition and wellness for Bow Wow Labs, a Novato, Calif.-based manufacturer of dog treats and chews, and owner of Fetch RI, a pet store in Richmond, R.I. “My customers are very receptive and understanding of this concept and tend to prefer resealable packaging.”

Kibble customers at My Pet Market, which has locations in Arizona and California, and at A Natural Pet Pantry, a pet store in Osprey, Fla., also prefer resealable bags, the retailers said.

For wet foods, manufacturers typically use pouches, cans, trays and Tetra Pak cartons, with cans coming out on top.

“As a wet food company, we are seeing consumers demand cans, [especially] among North American consumers,” said Jeremy J. Petersen, founder, president and CEO of Identity Pet Nutrition in Denver. “The Tetra Pak is just not resonating with North American consumers.”

However, Randy Klein, owner of Whiskers Holistic Pet Care, which has two locations in New York, reported seeing many more pouches on the market. She attributed the surge, in part, to sustainability.

“My guess is that pouches are cheaper for manufacturers and there’s a perception that they are more environmentally appropriate,” she said. “They’re also easier to open.”

Minimal and recyclable packaging is important to clients at A Natural Pet Pantry, because they are very eco-conscious, said co-owner Michelle McConnell.

Lauren Nelson, office manager for My Pet Market, noted similar trends.

“Across the board, our customers are becoming more aware of the packaging their products come in and frequently ask about BPAs and the recyclability of the packaging,” she said.

Pet food manufacturers are responding to consumer demand for more sustainable packaging,

“Our kibble and bags are produced using 100 percent renewable electricity,” said David Yaskulka, CEO of Nature’s Logic, a manufacturer in Lincoln, Neb. “We’re also using post-consumer recycled material in our newest packaging.”