Overall, professionals in the dog food category report increased customer curiosity in high-protein diets; sales are also on the rise. The reasons given for the uptick, however, vary.
"Sales are up," said Lori Johnson, owner of Healthy Tails, which has two stores in Reno, Nev. "I can only attribute it to pet owners being more aware of the ingredients in the foods they’re giving their pets. There’s so much information out there; customers coming in are more knowledgeable and asking more questions when they come in."
Eric Huston, marketing director for Mars Petcare U.S. in Franklin, Tenn., agreed that consumer education plays a huge part in the segment’s popularity.
"As consumers continue to educate themselves on benefits of high-protein and grain-free diets for their pets, they will continue to seek out these offerings in the marketplace," he said.
A company spokesperson for Natural Balance Pet Foods in Burbank, Calif., however, attributed the continued growth in high-protein dog foods to owners’ desire for foods with real meat as the No. 1 ingredient and human food trends.
Leasa Greer, manager of nutrition for Solid Gold Pet in Chesterfield, Mo., agreed.
"As seen in many other segments of pet food, the interest in high-protein diets for dogs has largely been driven and influenced by the trends in human food," Greer said. "This is seen most recently in the popularity of paleo and ketogenic diets. At the core of these diets is low carbohydrate intake paired with high protein and fat in an effort to maintain an ideal weight and promote optimal health."
Of course, fewer veterinary bills and optimal canine health greatly contribute to these food trends, experts said.
"Having the right amount of protein with the correct amino acid balance is what promotes good nutrition and ultimate wellness," said James Crouch, founder and CEO of Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo. "Balancing the protein and amino acids with the fat and fatty acids, along with soluble and insoluble fiber and vitamins and minerals, will lead to a lifetime of good health."
Consumers at Petzlove in Lone Tree, Colo., "want to turn over the bag and see foods they can relate to and that make sense to them," said owner Aidan Gannon. "Seeking ingredients they can understand naturally takes them to more meat-based diets."
And a return to nature remains relevant in dog food trends, sources said.
"The ancestral trend, which is rooted in a high-protein, meat-first diet, is becoming a popular choice for many pet parents looking to cater to their pet’s instinctual needs with a premium quality diet," said Mark Fannin, Crave brand manager at Mars Petcare U.S.
The Skinny on Wet and Dry Formulations
Manufacturers are launching diets to meet consumer demand for high-protein foods for dogs. In January, Mars Petcare U.S.’ Crave brand introduced Adult Wet Dog Food with 99 percent of protein from animal sources and real meat as the first ingredient, according to officials for the Franklin, Tenn.-based company. Formulas include Beef Paté with shreds of real chicken, Chicken Paté with shreds of real chicken, Turkey & Lamb Paté with shreds of real chicken, Turkey Paté with shreds of real chicken, Beef Paté, Chicken & Beef Paté, Chicken Paté and Turkey Paté.
This month, at Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla., Bixbi Pet plans to unveil two new lines in its Rawbble food family: a "fresh meat, no meals, affordable kibble and [a] complementary wet food line containing at least 94 percent, single-source protein and no carrageenan or guar gums," said James Crouch, founder and CEO of the Boulder, Colo.-based company.
Several other companies reported plans to add high-protein dog foods to their portfolios this year. Beginning in spring, Mars Petcare U.S.’ Wild Frontier brand will introduce recipes that "explore new technologies and ways to better connect pets to their ancestral instincts," said Christina Wang, Wild Frontier brand manager.
In May, Natural Balance Pet Foods in Burbank, Calif., will expand its Limited Ingredient Diet (L.I.D.) High Protein formulas with Pollock formula, Small Breed Bites Beef formula and Large Breed Bites Beef formula. Each formula features animal-sourced protein and two carbohydrate sources, company officials said.
WellPet will add even more Wellness CORE RawRev recipes this year.
"As more pet parents understand the benefits of feeding life-stage and breed-specific recipes, we also plan on releasing new high-protein recipes that cater specifically to these groups, like new Wellness CORE Small Breed dry food in new Healthy Weight and Puppy recipes, as well as new Wellness wet recipes for small breeds," said Elaine Obergfell, director of brand marketing for the Tewksbury, Mass.-based company.
The company also plans to unveil air- and freeze-dried topper recipes made with raw meat to enable pet owners "to customize their dogs’ meals with a boost of pure protein," she said.
Under its grain- and gluten-free Barking at the Moon sub-brand, Solid Gold will expand the line with flavor varieties formulated for dogs with sensitivities to chicken protein and potatoes.
"With the increasing demand for toy- and small-breed recipes, Mighty Mini will also expand in 2018," said Leasa Greer, manager of nutrition for the Chesterfield, Mo.-based company. She added that the line is tailored for toy- and small-breed dogs and features "some moderately high-protein diets at 30 percent protein."
Know the Essentials
Across the board, experts familiar with high-protein diets for dogs said educating staff and customers plays a crucial part in selling these products.
"Much like our brand manifesto, we encourage store associates to ‘keep sniffing,’" said James Crouch, founder and CEO of Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo. "We want them to ask questions and do research. The more educated stores become, the better off their shoppers will be."
In his experience, Michael Levy, president and founder of Pet Food Express, a multistore chain in California, said that customer education is key in the food category in general. And because consumers seek more knowledge about these products, he said retailers must as well.
Leasa Greer, manager of nutrition for Solid Gold Pet in Chesterfield, Mo., agreed that education is important across all segments of pet food, but she said it is particularly relevant when it comes to high-protein diets.
"It is extremely important for pet parents to feed their dogs the appropriate food for their size and activity level," she said. "There are so many products with innumerable qualities that choosing the right food for a specific dog might seem intimidating, especially for the new dog owner."
Two ways Greer recommended that pet specialty retailers educate their shoppers about specific diets are "face-to-face conversations with pet parents who seek retailers as knowledgeable experts and point-of-sale educational materials to aid in the shopping experience."
"Nothing beats a one-on-one conversation with a pet store associate that knows her stuff," he said.
At Petzlove in Lone Tree, Colo., owner Aidan Gannon said most of his customer education happens in-store.
"We might put up a Facebook post, but really we talk to customers face to face on an individual basis," he said. "We’ll spend as much time as we need to—often 10 to 20 minutes—explaining the pros and cons of a particular food."
Because Gannon finds that well-made diets can be quite expensive, it is important to talk with and educate the customer on why they should believe in these diets and that they’re worth the cost, he said.
"For the customer, the overall cost of ownership goes down when a dog is healthy," Gannon said. "We explain how it works and what [the food] does in the body. Customers must see the result and believe in what it’s doing in the body."
Several manufacturers said they offer a variety of resources to help educate pet specialty retailers and their customers.
"Independent retailers play an integral role in how we educate our consumers—especially when it comes to specialty diets and high-protein recipes," said Elaine Obergfell, director of brand marketing for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass. "To help, we arm our independent retail partners with plenty of resources and educational materials, from in-store displays to literature and more, so that they are fully equipped to pass their knowledge along to consumers."
To aid in-store education, she recommended offering trial options as a way for consumers to see what works best for their pet before fully committing to a high-protein diet.
Giving out samples is one way Healthy Tails, which has two stores in Reno, Nev., educates customers. Owner Lori Johnson also recommended one-on-one conversations.
"Talk to them," she said. "Ask questions and make suggestions. Find out what the issue is and what they’ve already tried."
Because high-protein diets benefit dogs with active and healthy lifestyles, Christina Wang, Wild Frontier brand manager at Mars Petcare U.S. in Franklin, Tenn., said, "Pet specialty retailers can continue to help consumers match their pet’s lifestyle with a diet that helps fuel that lifestyle and help find recipes with the ingredients and nutrition the dog enjoys."
Unique Proteins Are Trending
In this segment of canine diets, the newest ingredient trends settle on unique proteins, insiders reported.
"As pet parents look to add variety to their dog’s mealtime routine—and ensure they get the best nutrition out of each bowl—we’re seeing a thirst for more unique protein sources," said Elaine Obergfell, director of brand marketing for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass.
Leasa Greer, manager of nutrition for Solid Gold Pet in Chesterfield, Mo., agreed, adding, "The protein source chosen for high-protein dog foods is of utmost importance."
Quality proteins are those such as duck from France, lamb from New Zealand and beef from the U.S., she said.
Ingredients deemed more natural also are on-trend in this segment, according to industry insiders.
"We see a push away from chicken fat or adding seed-based oils instead," said Aidan Gannon, owner of Petzlove in Lone Tree, Colo. "We’ve seen a big push away from grain and potato to peas and lentil, as customers want a lower glycemic point and more plant-based ingredients."
At Healthy Tails, which has two stores in Reno, Nev., owner Lori Johnson said in addition to better-quality protein sources, "manufacturers are using other protein options like eggs, lentils and peas."
James Crouch, founder and CEO of Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo., reported similar trends in peas and plant-based ingredients.
"While we are seeing the addition of ingredients such as pea protein to increase protein levels, some of the more exciting new food ingredients include coconut products, pumpkin, agar-agar, which is replacing carrageenan and other types of gums, and dandelions, which provide exceptional prebiotic power," he said.
Prebiotics, probiotics and superfoods such as pumpkin, broccoli, blueberries, salmon oil and carrots are increasingly included in dog foods, Greer said.