The pendulum has swung from consumers purchasing pet food high in vegetable-based and grain-based proteins to diets high in meat protein, according to Heather Hickey, vice president of North America sales for Overland Park, Kan.-based Ziwi USA, a dog and cat food and treat manufacturer.
"As carnivores, it is important for dogs and cats to receive their essential amino acids from meat protein," Hickey said.
It’s a notion that pet owners are starting to put their dollars into.
"Consumers have embraced the perception that higher-protein foods are healthier for our pets, and this philosophy fits well with an active lifestyle community that associates protein with maintaining muscle tone and a lean body condition for themselves and their pets," said Heather Acuff, product development manager for Nulo Pet Food in Austin, Texas. "In conversations with our retailers, we’ve found that protein is not only an important selection criteria for consumers, but it’s a necessary qualifier for premium foods in the independent pet specialty channel."
Pet food brands with proven track records and high-quality ingredients are key in choosing what to sell at Lisa’s Doghouse, according to Joe Lebeau, manager of the pet store in North Bay, Ontario, Canada.
"Given our standards, we carry brands like Orijen and Merrick, which have very high protein levels, but are also well-known and well-respected brands," Lebeau said.
Getting a grasp on what’s considered a "high-protein" pet food product sounds easy enough, but it’s not as straightforward as one would think.
"‘High protein’ is not a regulated term, but a working definition as a food or treat that provides protein levels in excess of what dogs or cats need for normal maintenance," Acuff said.
Protein is particularly important in scenarios where added stress is placed on the body, such as during growth, gestation, lactation, high activity levels or in extreme environments, she noted. Protein is also required for new muscle growth, maintenance and repair of cells throughout the body, and a strong immune system.
"Thanks to the wide scope of processing technologies available today, high-protein products come in many formats, including kibble, cans, pouches, freeze-dried and raw," Acuff added. "In order to differentiate within the high-protein space, protein source and quality are the first considerations that should be made. Each protein source contributes a unique profile of amino acids, flavors and functionality to the product."
Animal-based protein has always been a cornerstone of Nulo’s nutritional philosophy, according to Acuff.
"[This] not only lends itself to optimal amino acid levels, but also contributes to the high palatability of our products," Acuff said, adding that the percentage of animal-based protein is a key highlight on the brand’s "packages to engage pet parents in this conversation."
While chicken, beef and lamb continue to be top-selling proteins, many new exotic proteins are hitting the market, including venison, duck and goat, according to Hickey.
"All healthy carnivores can benefit from a diet high in meat protein," Hickey said.
Lebeau said it’s worth taking the time to discuss the benefits of such foods with customers.
"We don’t really necessarily highlight the high-protein foods with displays," Lebeau said. "We do keep them next to one another and always are sure to mention to customers which foods are higher in protein and the benefits of these products."
Industry insiders also noted that pet owners should consult with their veterinarian about high-protein diets if the pet has specific health issues or a condition that needs to be managed nutritionally.
It’s Popular to Be Single
Limited-ingredient diets, including those containing a single animal protein source, are becoming favored by pet owners, said Heather Acuff, product development manager at Nulo Pet Food in Austin, Texas.
"With the rise of the clean-label trend, limited-ingredient sales have been steadily increasing," Acuff said. "Some pet owners are looking for fewer, more recognizable ingredients on the label, and limited-ingredient diets check those boxes by design."
And when it comes to options, the market is not limited in variety.
"There are a variety of options on the market today when it comes to single and multiprotein recipes," said Heather Hickey, vice president of North America sales for Overland Park, Kan.-based Ziwi USA, a manufacturer of dog and cat food and treats. "All proteins have a unique nutrient profile, and healthy pets benefit from a variety of proteins. Rotation can be beneficial to their diet."
It’s also important for pet food companies to offer a variety of recipes in the event that a pet is allergic to a particular protein, Hickey said.
"Just like humans, pets may have allergic reactions to specific protein types, so offering customers a choice is important," Hickey added.
Ziwi aims to offer variety, and its air-dried recipe lineup, which contains 96 percent meat, organs and bone, according to the packaging, includes: Ziwi Peak Mackerel & Lamb, Ziwi Peak Venison, Ziwi Peak Lamb, Ziwi Peak Beef, Ziwi Peak Tripe & Lamb and Ziwi Peak Free-Range Chicken.
Ziwi’s air-dried recipes also include 3 percent New Zealand green mussel, according to its product description, "for natural glucosamine and chondroitin, and 7 percent species-specific tripe for added palatability and digestive benefits."
When Nulo first decided to launch a line of limited-ingredient diets, company officials set out to apply its high-meat, low-carb nutritional philosophy to the category, Acuff said.
"Most of the limited-ingredient diets today are the opposite: low meat, high carb, and so focused on the number of ingredients in them that they lose sight of the larger picture of the other supporting elements that pets need," Acuff said.
Nulo Limited+ recipes are made with up to 76 percent animal-based protein from a single source—turkey, salmon or Alaskan pollock—and exclude many of the most commonly reported food allergens, such as chicken, egg, beef, corn, wheat and soy, Acuff added.
"Going beyond this, we’ve added a resilient probiotic to support digestive and immune health, and developed a unique fiber blend to help support excellent stool quality," Acuff said.
With dog owners focused on protein-forward pet food recipes, manufacturers are debuting new products to meet their needs.
As of press time, Ziwi planned to launch a line of air-dried and canned dog and cat food called Provenance at Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla., in February. The new line features recipes that include five unique proteins sourced from different regions throughout New Zealand, according to Heather Hickey, vice president of North America sales for Ziwi USA in Overland Park, Kan. It will include 96 percent and 97 percent muscle meat, organs and ground bone content in air-dried and wet can lines, Hickey said.
"This will be our first multiprotein line in our catalog, but just like our current product line, all recipes are complete and balanced for all breed and life stages and can be flexibly fed as a complete meal, nutritious topper or guilt-free training reward," Hickey said.
Nulo Pet Food launched two completely new product lines in late Q3 2019: Nulo Challenger and Nulo Frontrunner.
"Nulo Challenger is an ultra-premium, high-meat kibble line with industry-leading animal-based protein levels of up to 90 percent," said Heather Acuff, product development manager at Nulo Pet Food in Austin, Texas. "Our Challenger will feature a variety of meats sourced from sustainable systems, including pasture-raised lamb, U.S.-raised guinea fowl, and wild-caught Acadian redfish paired with nutrient-dense ancient grains like organic oats, organic barley and organic millet. Challenger is not available for e-commerce, a request we are honoring for our valued independent retail partners."
Nulo Frontrunner is a line of grain-based formulas that opens up the Nulo family of products to additional consumers, Acuff said. It gives the company a competitive value positioning that still maintains high animal-based protein levels (77 percent) and a commitment to low carbohydrate levels and wholesome grains like oats, barley and brown rice, Acuff added.
Both new lines, according to Acuff, contain guaranteed levels of taurine and the patented GanedenBC30 probiotic for optimal digestive and immune support.