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As pet owners seek more natural nutrition in their own lives, they are discovering that minimally processed raw foods, formulated with real, recognizable ingredients, are often the best choice in sustenance for their pets, industry insiders reported.

“Besides the natural food movement, there has been increasing talk online about the benefits of raw pet food,” said Gordon Dumesich, chief growth and marketing officer at Instinct Pet Food in St. Louis. “This, plus more scientific support of raw, has contributed to a booming category.”

The advantages of a raw diet are myriad and include better health for pets as evidenced in clean teeth, smaller, less odorous stools, healthy skin and coat, lessening of food sensitivities, better digestion, optimal body weight and less joint problems, according to Patti Salladay, sales and marketing manager for Northwest Naturals, a Portland, Ore.-based manufacturer.

“Pet parents want fresh, whole-enzyme intact, safe, high-quality raw foods for their dogs and love the convenience of having all of those benefits in a complete and balanced meal,” Salladay said.

Dumesich said that emerging scientific research is providing better understanding of the impact of raw nutrition.

“The University of Helsinki’s DogRisk research program has shown that starting dogs on raw while they’re young can help prevent health issues later in life,” he said. “Raw-fed puppies grow up to have a lower likelihood of developing environmental allergies or inflammatory bowel disease than those fed kibble.”

The more variety and customization, the better, and recipes tailored to a pet’s life stage or health needs are increasingly popular, Dumesich noted.

“Raw is an investment in a pet’s lifelong health, and feeding raw can be simple since it comes in a variety of forms to meet the needs of the pet and pet parent,” he said.

As more consumers have begun to feed a raw diet to their pets, they have sought further options to integrate this diet into their everyday routines.

“Freeze-dried is a newer form of raw food that provides the nutritional benefits of frozen raw, with the convenience of a shelf-stable scoop-and-serve product,” he said. “This makes it great for a quick mealtime experience or for feeding on-the-go.”

Raw toppers are another rapidly growing category, according to Dumesich, adding flavor and variety to any bowl with a number of protein flavor selections, as well as options that include functional benefits such as gut health, skin and coat health, immune health and more.

Healthy Pet Products, a retailer with three locations in the Pittsburgh area, is experiencing a surge of first-time pet owners, according to owner Toni Shelaske.

“These pet parents are looking for the healthiest diet for their pets, which are often picky eaters,” she said. “Raw and freeze-dried foods are great for this customer because these are the best categories to feed and pets love it.”

Included in the Healthy Pet Products mix is a variety of food toppers to enhance meals.

In addition to looking for feeding ease, pet owners are also noticing cost, noted Randy Klein, owner of Whiskers Holistic Petcare, which has two locations in New York.

“Although brands are important, there are so many choices these days that it can be confusing,” she added.

At Modern Pet Foods, a retailer in Houston, Texas, freeze-dried toppers, complete meals and mixers are in the product mix, according to owner Trace Menchaca.

“We also carry frozen raw meat; body parts, such as duck feet and trout heads; meat cooked sous vide; and novel items such as frozen rats, which we originally carried just for snakes but later realized were biologically appropriate for dogs and cats, too,” she added. “In addition, we carry whole frozen rabbits from the local Future Farmers of America.”

Dog owners are becoming more aware of the impact of gut health on the immune system of their dogs, according Michelle Griffin, owner and founder of MuttGut, a manufacturer based in Los Angeles.

“Domestic dog food over the past decades has prioritized convenience for humans over dogs—until now,” she said. “We now understand that the natural hunting behaviors of the dog prior to domestication led to a stronger immune function overall.”

In reality, a dog exposed to “good” bacterial strains creates microbiome diversity. The effect is an enhanced immune response, she said.

“Pet owners are seeking the benefit of raw food formulas in a safe and efficient manner,” Griffin said.


Fine-Tuning Strategies

Pet specialty retailers can fine-tune their freeze-dried and raw product mix by providing the variety that consumers crave, according to industry insiders.

Creating a raw destination within the store is another sound merchandising strategy, said Gordon Dumesich, chief growth and marketing officer at Instinct Pet Food in St. Louis.

A neatly organized product mix is also important, noted Randy Klein, owner of Whiskers Holistic Petcare, a retailer with two locations in New York.

“And try not to overstock, especially in the summer heat,” she added. “It is not fun to lose an entire freezer-full of food if a freezer craps out.”

When displaying raw foods, glass-door freezers are key, according to Toni Shelaske, owner of Healthy Pet Products, a retailer with three locations in Pittsburgh.

“Customers need to see product and are hesitant about opening solid freezer doors,” she said. “Freeze-dried foods should also be merchandised together.” 

At Modern Pet Foods, a retailer in Houston, Texas, sampling takes center stage, according to owner Trace Menchaca.

“We put our freeze-dried complete meals in countertop dial-to-dispense cereal dispensers,” she said. “Customers can dispense samples into small take-out bowls to try. This is a very popular new feature.”

Educated store associates are a central factor to promoting the benefits of raw foods, Dumesich said.

“At this point, knowledge is the sales cornerstone,” he added.

Menchaca agreed.

“Education is critical,” she said. “At Modern Pet Foods, we are always working on training with our in-house training program.”

At Healthy Pet Products, countless hours are spent on training, according to Shelaske.

“Our highly educated staff members listen to concerns and asks a lot of questions in order to provide potential solutions,” she said.

Manufacturers also offer their own training curriculum.

“Instinct provides retailers with an array of merchandising tools and educational resources, such as secondary display options and [point of sale] POS materials,” Dumesich said. “In addition, we offer literature to highlight not only our portfolio, but also to educate consumers and associates on the science of raw and the investment Instinct has made in pet nutrition research.”

Training via Instinct University’s online training portal provides immense value with industry-leading expert-created courses that cover a wide range of topics, he added.

“Retailers need to educate themselves and their staff on the incredible health benefits to our four-footed carnivores when consuming a raw diet,” said Patti Salladay, marketing manager for Northwest Naturals, a manufacturer in Portland, Ore.

To facilitate the learning experience, Northwest Naturals offers training directly through sales representatives and distributors.

“Retailers can always contact us for individual assistance,” she added.

Klein said that there is value in pet retailers’ knowledge and expertise; however, conversely, she noted that many of today’s consumers are often well-versed when it comes to pet nutrition.

“With the internet these days, people come in having already done their searches and research,” she said.

New Products

Fresh on the Raw Front

As consumers actively manage their own healthy lifestyles and take a more proactive approach to the health and welfare of their pets, manufacturers are responding with innovative formulations.

“Initially, [consumers’] awareness manifested itself in the importance of ingredients and ingredient sources, but over time that has begun to shift to food processing and its related health benefits or drawbacks,” said Gordon Dumesich, chief growth and marketing officer at Instinct Pet Food in St. Louis. “This has helped to fuel interest in, and growth for, the raw pet food market.”

Instinct’s Raw Longevity is a new line that brings the most advanced science to raw nutrition, according to Dumesich.

“The ingredients in these enhanced raw recipes were selected with purpose—to create a blend of high raw meat protein with a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, and to deliver guaranteed health outcomes at each life stage,” he said. “In addition, every Instinct Raw Longevity recipe supports a healthier heart, immune system, gut, and skin and coat to ensure dogs and cats have a chance at a longer, healthy life.”

The new line features selections tailored for puppies and kittens, adults, and adults seven-plus-years-old. The product is available in a variety of proteins across multiple forms including frozen raw, freeze-dried raw and a 20 percent raw-plus-kibble blend.

“Pets have unique nutritional needs at every life stage, and Instinct wants to ensure the best for every age,” Dumesich said. “Raw Longevity provides more guaranteed nutrition, customized for each life stage.”

Northwest Naturals’ Trout frozen diets for dogs and cats, launched in 2020, will be followed up with a fall 2021 release of a Beef and Trout formula. The new flavor will combine the high palatability of beef with the richness of trout, said Patti Salladay, marketing manager for Portland, Ore.-based Northwest Naturals.

“We are also introducing a new bulk size for our Beef, Chicken and Turkey freeze-dried diets from our current 12-ounce packaging to 28-ounce bags,” Salladay said.

This larger size is expected to be available early this fall.

Recently released MuttGut is a microbiome support system based on a patent-pending proprietary fermented bacteria formula. The product is formulated with the highest-quality organic ingredients such as turmeric for its anti-inflammatory qualities, and alkaline water to reduce acidity, according to Michelle Griffin, owner and founder of the Los Angeles-based company.

“MuttGut provides the benefits of raw food and immune support without the need to complicate feeding,” she said.

More than 100 billion colony forming units (CFUs) are the basis of this supplemental formula, generating metabolites, proteins and cytokines to deliver the immediate benefits of a healthy gut, at the same time as developing a substantially more diverse microbiome in dogs, Griffin said. The result is overall improvement in health and sense of well-being, she added.

“The unique properties of this scientifically tested formula activate, restore and regenerate cells, promoting superior immune response, energy and [an] efficient digestive system in your dog,” Griffin said.

Research and Development

Calling on Feedback

Steady input from distributors and retailers as to the demands of pet owners is central to developing new raw food products for some manufacturers. Northwest Naturals is one such manufacturer that relies on this kind of feedback, said Patti Salladay, marketing manager for the Portland, Ore.-based company.

“We pay attention and focus on customer needs,” she said. “Because we have been in the meat manufacturing/processing industry since 1956, we also have strong relationships with commodities experts.” 

By putting together what is wanted and what is available, Northwest Naturals is able to discern trends for new products, she added.

“Ensuring the health and well-being of pets is always our first consideration,” Salladay said.

At Instinct Pet Food, an understanding of the consumer experience, knowing what’s working or not working in existing pet food options, providing recipe variety, and bringing cutting-edge health benefits while ensuring pet safety are key considerations, according to Gordon Dumesich, chief growth and marketing officer for the St. Louis-based company.

“In addition to our focus on science, we keep on top of what consumers want and need,” he said. “We look at marketplace trends—what product groupings are taking off or lagging—as well as consumer research, including ethnographic studies, feeding diaries, feeding trials, product-concept tests and more.”

Additionally, Instinct is the only raw pet food company in the United States to sponsor researcher Dr. Anna Hielm-Björkman and the DogRisk research program at the University of Helsinki, Dumesich noted.

“We pride ourselves in leading and discovering more research to prove the power of raw nutrition for our pets,” he said.

In the supplement category, MuttGut is conducting in-vitro and in-vivo studies to show the benefits of the company’s innovative and breakthrough formula for optimum gut and immune function, said Michelle Griffin, owner and founder of the Los Angeles-based manufacturer.

“The real evidence is a dog’s improved health,” Griffin said.