When it comes to mealtime, few would dispute the discerning nature of the feline gastronome. In search of the consummate kitty meal, owners have often sacrificed nutrition for taste gratification.
"Taste is usually the first factor for cat parents when it comes to choosing a food for their cat, with nutrition taking a backseat to satisfaction," said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass.
However, more cat owners are beginning to realize the importance of nutrition and, as a result, the natural cat food category is growing.
"Cat parents today are selective shoppers, and sales of natural and holistic cat foods are continuing to rise," said Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of Caru Pet Food Co. in Vero Beach, Fla. "Cat owners realize the direct link between the quality of the diet and the overall health of their pet."
Further, millennials are driving the pet food industry, and their top concern is protein quality, according to David Yaskulka, vice president of social investment and engagement for Halo, Purely for Pets in Tampa, Fla.
"These consumers want to know that their cat food offers real, whole, humanely sourced meat," Yaskulka said.
Natural selections at The Green K9 in Mount Dora, Fla., reflect this growing awareness as cat owners gravitate toward more-digestible, higher-protein selections, said co-owner Marni Lewis.
"Our canned food selection for cats is enormous," she said. "Healthy, natural canned cat food is our biggest seller over dry, as customers are looking for all-meat, human-grade foods for their cats."
Canned cat foods are growing in popularity due to the importance of hydration for pets, said Jeremy J. Petersen, owner, president and CEO of Denver-based Identity Pet Nutrition, a new brand of pet food that was slated for a May debut as of press time.
"We’re also seeing an increasing trend, not only towards novel protein, high-meat canned diets, but also an increase towards sustainable, humane and clean high-quality-ingredient canned diets," he added. "This is why we have made it our goal at Identity to offer a high-meat can using only the highest-quality, sustainable and humane ingredients."
When it comes to natural cat food, local demographics might play a role in what is selling in any given pet specialty store. Anna DePaolo, owner of Dollys Pet Shoppe in Sandy, Ore., said that her community is more rural, and while consumers are interested in both organic and natural products, this awareness has translated to a call for more dog food rather than cat food selections.
"It’s country, and our customers feed lots of feral barn cats," she said. "I often hear, ‘What do you have that’s cheap?’ I don’t carry cheap cat food, but I understand their reasoning. These people are not going to feed their feral barn cats a $40 bag of food."
However, the human food industry, in general, is focused on more natural foods, with consumers turning to natural, organic, minimally processed and ethically farmed foods, said Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice president and co-founder of Portland, Ore.-based Radagast Pet Food, maker of Rad Cat Raw Diet.
"Consumers are starting to think of their own health in a proactive way, using food as a preventative health care," she added. "It’s a natural progression for pet parents to focus on these options for their cats."
Natural, Tasty and Nutritious
In the U.S., a majority of cat owners consider their pets to be family members, resulting in a growing demand for natural cat foods, said Rob Downey, founder and president of Annamaet Petfoods in Telford, Pa.
"This simply follows the trend we see with people establishing a healthier lifestyle that begins with better nutrition," Downey said. "Now, with the humanization of pets, we are also establishing the same parameters for ‘fur babies.’"
Annamaet Petfoods’ new release, Feline Sustain No. 29, is a fish-based formula certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC certification allows the company to trace fish from "boat to bag." Featuring two sources of MSC-certified fish, the product is being lauded for palatability, according to Downey.
"Sustainability is becoming a major concern for people worldwide, with a record high of 71 percent of Americans considering the environment when they shop," Downey said. "Feline Sustain No. 29 is enriched with a blend of algae and fish oils for optimal dietary omega-3 fats and also contains natural antioxidants from turmeric, blueberry and cranberries."
As of press time, Identity Pet Nutrition planned to launch its food in select U.S. regions in May, with eight SKUs of canned cat food and eight SKUs of canned dog food, said Jeremy J. Petersen, owner, president and CEO of the Denver-based company.
"We believe we [are offering] one of the highest-quality cans at great value and are committed to using only top-quality ingredients that are fresh—never frozen—and which are from sustainable and humane farming sources," Petersen said. "Our mantra is ‘Real Meat. Crafted Fresh. Never Frozen. That’s our Identity.’
"We will add distribution throughout the United States during summer 2018 before turning our focus to our longer-term plan of building out a portfolio of premium canned products, treats and freeze-dried diets."
The Wellness brand is offering new recipes for indoor cats. Wellness Complete Health Indoor and Wellness Core Indoor Ocean are formulated for the unique needs of the indoor cat, with high-quality proteins to support a healthy weight and lean muscle mass, said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass.
The company also has introduced Wellness Core 95%, a grain-free pâté created with 95 percent meat that is available in four flavors: Chicken, Turkey, Chicken and Salmon, and Beef and Chicken.
Caru Pet Food Co.’s Classic Stews for Cats debuted at this year’s Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla., in March. Formulated for cats and kittens, the grain-free recipes are available in four meat-first varieties: Chicken Stew, Chicken with Crab Stew, Wild Salmon and Turkey Stew, and Turkey Stew.
"Like all Caru Stews, these foods contain 100 percent human-grade, non-GMO ingredients and are made in a human-grade facility in the USA," said Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of Caru Pet Food Co. in Vero Beach, Fla. "They are prepared using an exclusive, low-temperature process that delivers all the flavor, texture and aroma of food that’s homemade."
While Halo, Purely for Pets’ kibble and wet foods for cats have always been formulated with real, whole meat, every recipe now features non-GMO and OrigiNative humanely sourced proteins, said David Yaskulka, vice president of social investment and engagement for the Tampa, Fla.-based company. OrigiNative is a trademarked term that Halo uses to refer to its sustainable, humane and natural approach to sourcing.
"Our new certifications include GAP (Global Animal Partnership) and MSC," Yaskulka added.
What Does "Natural" Mean?
Today’s cat owner is more invested in pet health and is engaging in research and asking questions before making a decision about the food going into their pet’s bowl, said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass.
For this reason, many shoppers in the natural category understand the difference between natural and organic foods; however, labels and ingredients can still be confusing, she said.
The two terms are not interchangeable and do not mean the same thing, said Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice president and co-founder of Portland, Ore.-based Radagast Pet Food, maker of Rad Cat Raw Diet.
"The term ‘natural’ implies that foods and ingredients should be healthier, but this term is used rather loosely," she said. "The term ‘organic’ has very strict regulations attached to it, both for ingredients and for finished products."
For these reasons, pet owners and retailers are paying more attention to the list of ingredients, regardless of the label designation, she added.
At Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va., helping consumers make the distinction comes down to education.
"We have a printed guide with definitions of ‘natural,’ ‘grass fed,’ ‘hormone free,’ ‘organic,’ etc., that we give to our customers," said owner Pattie Boden. "It’s so confusing, and many of our customers think that everything called ‘natural’ is also organic. This helps clear things up."
The pet supplies market is undergoing change, with nutritionally aware millennials being the largest pet ownership group in the U.S., said Rob Downey, founder and president of Annamaet Petfoods in Telford, Pa.
The millennial generation is definitely savvier when it comes to what they feed their cats, said David Yaskulka, vice president of social investment and engagement for Halo, Purely for Pets in Tampa, Fla.
"‘Natural’ labeling is not enough for [millennial pet owners]," he said. "They want the best-quality holistic pet food, real whole meat, and are suspicious of animal-feed-only ingredients like chicken or fish meal."
Because many shoppers frequenting pet specialty stores are already in the natural food camp, it is up to retailers to knowledgeably detail the differences between brands, according to Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of Caru Pet Food Co. in Vero Beach, Fla.
Specialty store shoppers often possess a different nutritional philosophy than those who choose to purchase foods through grocery channels and are typically looking for natural, more healthful options, Hatch-Rizzi noted.
"Retailers have a great opportunity to educate new customers coming into their store about the nutritional and quality differences between brands while still finding the right lifestyle choices," she added.
To find success with cat owners, retailers need to be able to concisely convey the unique selling propositions of high-quality cat foods, said Jeremy J. Petersen, owner, president and CEO of Identity Pet Nutrition in Denver.
The role of a proper feline diet as a preventive to urinary organ issues is stressed at The Green K9 in Mount Dora, Fla.
"We definitely educate cat owners about the need for a high-protein diet with no carbohydrates and plenty of moisture," said co-owner Marni Lewis.
At Dollys Pet Shoppe in Sandy, Ore., owner Anna DePaolo frames a discussion of natural foods in easy-to-understand terms.
"I use the McDonald’s hamburger and fries analogy versus home-cooked meat and fresh vegetables," she said. "People seem to really grasp that comparison, so that’s my fallback to quickly get their attention."