The finicky nature of cats is legendary, which can make it challenging for a pet owner to maintain a healthful diet for them. Pet food manufacturers are burning the midnight oil trying to create the right formula of food that will satisfy not only the nutritional needs for every life stage given cats’ picky nature, but also the humanistic values and tastes of the doting pet owner.
The category is expanding with new options as manufacturers seek to meet customers’ varied demands.
"The cat food category is clearly following in the footsteps of dog food, with an increased number of natural offerings and unique protein sources," said Ann Hudson, vice president at Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis. "The pursuit of the perfect feline diet has led manufacturers to new sources of meat and fish, and new ways of processing to be able to incorporate more fresh proteins into dry foods. Everyone knows cats are carnivores, but figuring out how to get the perfect carnivore diet into a can or bag is still a challenge for most manufacturers."
Dry cat food continues to dominate sales in the category. According to a report published by Statista—an online statistics company based in Hamburg, with regional headquarters in London and New York—in 2016, U.S. premium dry cat food sales topped $534 million in sales, compared to just $219 million for the wet varieties.
"Dry food is certainly still favored for its convenience and palatability," said Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice president and co-founder of Radagast Pet Food Inc. in Portland, Ore. "But balancing that dry food with wet food is more widely recommended now. Consumers are also showing more interest in formulas that address their cat’s specific lifestyles or life stages."
Hudson agreed that dry foods are more popular with customers.
"The wet category is clearly under-penetrated in pet specialty. It’s an enormous opportunity for pet specialty retailers, and a high-quality range of nutritious wet foods gives [pet specialty retailers] a way to effectively compete," she said, adding that Whitebridge recently released its Tiki Cat After Dark wet food line, with unique proteins and real organ meat in a safely prepared and ready-to-serve package.
Leasa Greer, manager of nutrition and regulatory affairs for Solid Gold Pet Food in Chesterfield, Mo., pointed out another reason why pet specialty retailers may want to steer their cat-owning customers toward wet food—this type of food may, in fact, be thirst quenching as well as nutritious.
"There’s … a greater focus on wet food formulas as information continues to surface about cats deriving more of their hydration from food than was previously thought," she said, adding that Solid Gold has dramatically increased its wet cat food lines recently, including the introduction of sub-brands like Holistic Delights, "which pairs high-quality proteins with nutrient-rich coconut milk."
Greer also noted a trend toward foods that align with felines’ innate biological needs.
"Overall, we’re seeing a demand from cat parents for recipes that mimic a more natural diet with higher protein and lower carbohydrate content," she said.
For similar reasons, raw foods are gaining traction for cats with consumers as well. In fact, Stephanie Catalfio, store manager for Lou’s Pet Shop in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., said raw feeding is not merely a trend, but a movement among cat owners.
"More and more people are catching on to the fact that it’s a cat’s evolutionary diet," Catalfio said. "Cats were the ones that would be put into the granary not to eat the grain, but to eat the vermin that would eat the grain. In the end, at least feeding your cat a little bit of raw is better than none at all."
Still, Hatch-Rizzi said there is a great of deal misinformation circulating in the cat-owning community about raw food diets.
"It is really because the veterinary community is much divided about raw food diets, but when you walk into your local independent pet store, you see raw diets all over the place," she said. "So you’re left wondering why there is division on one side, but the healthful pet stores are all carrying all kinds of raw, raw freeze dried and even kibble with raw incorporated into it."
Catalfio sees a trend toward high-end premium cat food choices that carry a reputable, trustworthy name.
"Personally, I feed my cat raw food and freeze dried," Catalfio said. "We usually recommend the higher-quality brands of canned for our customers who we know would appreciate it. If they’re going to go dry, we have brands like Fromm Family Pet Food or Champion Petfoods, for example."
Kibble is Still King
Despite the increasing popularity of raw foods, kibble is still a mainstay in the cat food category, and many consumers appreciate the convenient format.
"It is correct to say that carbohydrates are not an essential nutrient for cats," said Rick Rockhill, executive vice president of Lucy Pet Products in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "They need protein, fat and fiber. Yet carbohydrates fulfill a function in that they provide texture and they are literally what gives the kibble its form by pulling all the other nutrients together."
Rockhill said he believes that sometimes people forget that cats have been domesticated for thousands of years and no longer live in the wild, which is why manufacturers continually strive to create nutrient-dense formulas that are healthful and pleasing to the cat, and easy to deliver for the pet owner.
Dr. George Fahey Jr., the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor emeritus who helped developed formulas for Lucy Pet, pointed out that, occasionally, diets are tailored to address particular issues, such as hairballs.
"We know how to control that with a specialized diet that prevents it from happening," he said.
Brendan Sykes, a sales representative for Specialty Pet Supplies in Plymouth, Mich., recommended specific diets for certain ailments.
"We go to a specific hairball control formulation, which, usually, will be higher in fiber, making it easier for a cat to pass a hairball rather than them having to throw it up."
Fahey added, "Others may be predisposed to renal issues, but prescription as well as over-the-counter diets can address these problems or prevent them from developing. Making these informed choices is up to the pet parent, so educating them is critical."
Manufacturers are often more than willing to help educate pet owners.
"When consumers reach out to Solid Gold with pet nutrition questions, they talk to our consumer engagement specialist," Greer said. "The consumer engagement specialist’s job is to keep our customers and sales reps properly educated and trained in the nutritional needs and functions of cats."