Today’s pet owners are vitally concerned about the nutritional value of the diets they give their furry companions, and many believe there’s a connection between food and health and wellness.
"Increasingly, we see people applying the same standards for ingredient quality and freshness in pet food decisions as they have in their own food choices," said Julie S. Washington, chief marketing officer for Champion Petfoods in Auburn, Ky.
As such, more pet owners are looking to feed their pets something beyond a kibble that will merely satisfy a dog’s hunger.
"They are calling for foods that will nourish a dog from the inside out," said Leasa Moltke, manager of nutrition and regulatory affairs at Solid Gold Pet in Chesterfield, Mo.
Value-added ingredients and nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids for skin and coat health and immune system support, prebiotics and probiotics for gut health, and antioxidant-packed superfoods are in high demand, she added.
Pet owners are responding to supplements, such as probiotics, in a kibble, said Anna DePaolo, owner of Dolly’s Pet Shoppe in Sandy, Ore.
"Supplements can be fed separately, but if it’s in the food, it is so much more convenient," she said. "Customers lean towards selections that offer more than just a dry piece of dog food."
Freeze-dried or raw coatings are also sought-after attributes, she added.
"Because raw is becoming more popular, kibble with a raw coating instantly grabs attention," she said. "Although the price tag might stop some from making a purchase."
Budget considerations often factor into a kibble purchase, said Sherry Redwine, co-owner of Odyssey Pets in Dallas.
"Most customers want a well-priced, digestible, simple-ingredient, all-life-stages pet food, even if they don’t realize it," Redwine said. "I explain on a regular basis that a good, quality food works for all life stages; puppies eat more because they burn calories, and seniors east less because they sleep all day."
Redwine added that pet owners with multiple dogs in the home are pleased to know that these foods exist, allowing them to feed the same diet to all of their charges.
Recognizable ingredients are another significant consideration consumers make when selecting a kibble, Moltke said.
"Consumers want ingredients that they might eat themselves, such as whole, named meats like chicken, lamb, bison and beef, along with carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, lentils and brown rice, and healthy fruits and vegetables like apples, carrots and berries," she added.
Additionally, there is a call for foods that address the needs of specific types or breeds of dog, as well as size, activity level, age or targeted health issues, Moltke said.
Pet owners across the board are demanding transparency and clarity in pet foods, including kibble, and they want to know where ingredients are sourced and the steps taken to ensure food safety, Washington said.
"The source of ingredients is just as important to the consumer as the ingredients themselves, so Champion’s partnerships with regional farms, ranches and fisheries is a vital part of responding to their quality expectations," she said.
Size is another factor, according to DePaolo.
"Nobody wants a really big kibble anymore," she said. "They would rather feed a small-sized kibble."
On the Market
As consumers seek kibble diversity, manufacturers are answering the call with innovative selections.
Annamaet Petfoods has released Re-Juvenate, a grain-free senior diet. The formula includes turmeric and coconut oil, which provide major health benefits to aging dogs, according to Rob Downey, president of the Telford, Pa.-based company.
"Given the great results we’ve seen already with this formula, we are in the process of formulating a grain-inclusive senior diet," Downey said. "Annamaet has also released two new puppy formulas, our grain-free Ohana Puppy and a grain-inclusive Original Puppy."
Solid Gold Pet recently added a beef recipe and a weight-control salmon recipe to its Mighty Mini kibble line for small and toy breeds.
"Small- and toy-breed dogs tend to have faster metabolisms and require a nutrition-packed smaller kibble so they don’t have to consume as much food to obtain the nutrients they need," said Leasa Moltke, manager of nutrition and regulatory affairs for the Chesterfield, Mo.-based company. "Our Mighty Mini line offers five flavors, with elevated levels of protein and fat, in a tiny heart-shaped kibble perfect for smaller mouths."
The formulations are gluten and grain free.
Solid Gold also added a new flavor to its high-protein Barking at the Moon line. The Duck, Eggs and Peas recipe is ideal for active dogs needing a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet to fuel their energy, Moltke said.
Champion Petfoods added two recipes to its Acana Singles product line: Beef and Pumpkin and Turkey and Greens. The biologically appropriate, limited-ingredient diets are perfect for healthy dogs with food sensitivities and are chock-full of meat, said Julie S. Washington, chief marketing officer for the Auburn, K.Y.-based company.
"Our limited-ingredient products answer pet lovers’ interest in shorter ingredient statements, featuring fewer carbohydrates and single-source proteins, which can be particularly helpful for healthy dogs with dietary sensitivities," Washington said.
Merchandising & Education
Making the Sale
Well-thought-out displays, organization, product and nutritional knowledge, and an awareness of consumer demand are key components to strong kibble sales, according to pet specialty retailers and manufacturers.
"We have stack-outs of our best-selling kibbles at the front of the store and around our dry food section," said Sherry Redwine, co-owner of Odyssey Pets in Dallas. "We meticulously organize our front and face our food shelves so they are pleasing to the eye."
Redwine added that samples are provided to customers.
"If they are not ready to purchase, they can take samples home and usually come back saying their dog liked this over that," Redwine said.
Kibble is organized by brand at Dolly’s Pet Shoppe in Sandy, Ore., according to owner Anna DePaolo. However, she noted, more expensive, super-premium foods are grouped together in their own special section.
"I have a section with those foods that offer more and are a little bit more expensive," she said. "I’ve found that if you put an $80 bag next to a $40 bag, the more expensive bag will not sell. So, I have those foods grouped together so the prices don’t look so shocking in comparison."
At Loyal Biscuit Co., which has five locations in Maine, owner Heidi Neal organizes each store with a nod to favorite pet foods.
"Our go-to foods are closest to the counter, and those farther away seem to have their own following, but [I] don’t really put people onto them," Neal said. "I currently have six or seven favorites that answer a wide array of issues, and these are lined up next to each other. This makes it easier for my team to have conversations about the foods we love."
With hundreds of options in the pet food space, the decision for a first-time purchaser or one switching foods can be overwhelming, said to Leasa Moltke, manager of nutrition and regulatory affairs at Solid Gold Pet in Chesterfield, Mo.
"Brand blocks are best, but at each brand, shelf signage can assist the shopper in product selection," Moltke said. "Questions to answer in the signage might include: ‘What makes this brand different than the others?’ and ‘Which food option is right for what type of dog?’"
While shelf talkers can be helpful, manufacturers and retailers agree that well-educated staff members are invaluable in assisting in dietary decisions.
"We are big on personal conversations with our customers and asking questions about their needs and wants in order to help them find the best food for their dog," Neal said.
DePaolo also emphasized the importance of education.
"Education is everything," DePaolo said. "I dive in deep to learn everything I can about every single bag on my shelves. I also stay informed about the foods I don’t carry."
This type of study allows DePaolo to assist her customers in understanding the differences between the myriad kibble options on the market today.
"Without knowing the obvious differences, people will choose the cheapest food," she said.
However, many shoppers at Dolly’s Pet Shoppe have already done their homework.
"Some people surprise me; they want to know how many recalls a company has had or have read Dog Food Advisor," she said.
Employee training is a vital link in the chain of communication to help answer questions about the differences between brands and what’s offered, said Julie S. Washington, chief marketing officer for Champion Petfoods in Auburn, K.Y.
"The deeper story underneath pet food making is an important part of the added value retailers can provide to their customers, both in-store and online," she added.
Knowing the story behind how a product was made can make a difference in the customer choosing one kibble over another.
"There is a lot more to selecting a kibble than just reading the back of the bag," said Rob Downey, president of Annamaet Petfoods in Telford, Pa.
Ingredient and Manufacturing Trends
Manufacturers Fine-Tune Kibble
In the past few decades, the manufacturing process of kibble itself hasn’t changed significantly; however, the sheer number of food options and ingredients used has dramatically increased, according to Leasa Moltke, manager of nutrition and regulatory affairs at Solid Gold Pet in Chesterfield, Mo.
"As human nutrition evolves, pet nutrition tends to follow," Moltke said. "Increased emphasis has been placed on a more ‘natural’ diet for dogs, focusing on what a canine would naturally eat in the wild."
Grain free, whole-muscle meats, higher meat protein and lower carbohydrates are many of the changes that have occurred, Moltke added.
"Kibble has certainly changed over time with consumer demand, and most importantly, with the availability of more research," said Rob Downey, president of Annamaet Petfoods in Telford, Pa. "Annamaet prides itself on research and creating innovative formulas that will offer the best nutrition for dogs."
Annamaet staffs two nutritionists, including a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, to provide better checks and balances on optimum dietary formulations, Downey added.
Since 1975, Champion Petfoods has been a leader in biologically appropriate pet food diets, said Julie S. Washington, chief marketing officer for the Auburn, K.Y.-based company.
"Fundamentally, we believe that pet foods must match the eating anatomy and physiology of dogs," Washington said. "For these reasons, our pet foods are made with fresh and raw, regionally sourced meat, poultry and fish ingredients."