Leading the Pack

When humans abandoned a simpler diet in favor of highly processed fare, the sustenance of their pets followed suit. Today, pet owners have a better understanding of the role quality food plays in the overall health and well-being of their companion animals and, just as humans are eating cleaner, there’s a desire to return pets to a more natural diet, according to manufacturers and retailers.

"The key trend is humanization," said David Yaskulka, vice president of marketing communications at Halo, Purely for Pets in Tampa, Fla. "Pet parents treat their dogs and cats like members of the family and want diets that mirror healthful human food."

Consumers are becoming increasingly suspicious of the ingredients in commercially prepared foods, and many shoppers believe that it’s safer and healthier to serve their families—including pets—simpler, less-processed foods, said Rob Cadenhead, vice president of sales and marketing for Performance Pet Products, maker of Spring Naturals pet food, in Mitchell, S.D.

Closely associated with this concept is the idea that whole food ingredients are nutritionally better because they’re closer to being in their natural state, Cadenhead added.

"Pet parents treat their dogs and cats like members of the family and want diets that mirror healthful human food."

Clean Eating

Poor nutrition can lead to increased incidents of health issues including allergies, digestive problems, poor weight management and a dog that just seems unhealthy, said Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of Caru Pet Food Co. in Vero Beach, Fla.

Likewise, diseases such as cancer, diabetes and being chronically overweight have affected a large percentage of the pet population, said Bette Schubert, co-founder and senior vice president of sales, new product development and education for Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn.

"Pet owners and curious veterinarians suspected these issues were due to poor diet," she added. "From a benefits perspective, raw diets and all-natural products provide pets with a high-quality, nutritious diet that can help prevent health problems and increase longevity. So in a way, the market created itself out of a real need."

Natural Options

Halo has added a new Grain-Free Turkey, Chicken & Salmon dry recipe to its Vigor line for dogs, Yaskulka said. As with the entire line, the product is formulated with real meats, and it is completely free of rendered meats, chicken meal and byproduct meal, he said.

"Specialty retailers cater to the growing number of consumers who don’t want to feed their pets ‘animal feed’ proteins and are feeding their pets raw, dehydrated, human-grade or home-cooked diets," Yaskulka said.

For pet owners wishing to add variety to their dog’s diet, The Nutro Co. recently released Nutro Rotations, said Keith Danoff, marketing director for the Nutro brand for Mars Petcare, which is based in Brussels. Each recipe is designed to complement the other, with consistent macronutrient profiles (protein, fat and fiber) for effortless transition between bags, Danoff said. The product is available in Lamb & Potato, Salmon & Barley and Chicken & Brown Rice Recipes.

Nutro’s new Farm’s Harvest meals combine meaty kibble with real, colorful, farm-raised fruits and vegetables that are harvested at the right time and then freeze dried to lock in the nutrients dogs need, Danoff said.

Farm’s Harvest is available in Chicken & Whole Brown Rice Adult and Small Breed Adult Recipes, Lamb & Whole Brown Rice Adult and Small Breed Adult Recipes, and Salmon & Whole Brown Rice Adult Dog Recipe.

In response to growing consumer demand, Solid Gold Pet recently launched six grain- and gluten-free holistic dry dog food recipes, said Jennifer Berglund, director of marketing for the Greenville, S.C., company.

"As with all of Solid Gold’s formulas, these new products do not contain any byproduct meal, corn, wheat, soy, sugar, artificial preservatives or flavors added," Berglund said. "And none of our ingredients are sourced from China—ever."

The new recipes feature a variety of exotic proteins including quail, lamb, buffalo, turkey, salmon and venison.

Solid Gold also has introduced Fit and Fabulous low fat/low calorie weight control formula, created with fresh-caught Alaskan pollock.

A Natural Shift

"People are finally realizing the impact of diet on an animal’s overall health," said Lorin Grow, owner of Furry Face in Redlands, Calif. "Thus we felt it was time to make some big changes in product offerings at Furry Face."

These changes include the addition of six freezers in-store, with six overflow freezers for raw diets and treats. Three more in-store freezers and four overflow freezers are planned for the future, she said.

"We increased our selections of freeze-dried and dehydrated foods and treats as well; this applies to both the dog and cat sections," Grow said. "Technically, 100 percent of our inventory is ‘natural,’ using the industry’s definition of ‘natural.’"

Living up to its tagline, The Health Food Store for Pets, Natural Pawz, with locations in the Houston area, promotes less-processed, natural diets for pets, said co-owner Nadine Joli-Coeur.

"We don’t carry anything with corn, soy or wheat and stay away from fractured grains or vegetables," she said. "Basically, our philosophy is not too many ingredients and only whole ingredients."

In order to determine that foods are prepared to Natural Pawz’s standards, and proper safety protocols are in place, the manufacturing plants of the brands carried are paid personal visits.

Leading the Pack

Brand blocking and using color can call attention to natural foods.

"When we tell customers we have seen the manufacturing process, and can talk about the cleanliness and how the foods are packed, people’s eyes light up," said Joli-Coeur. "It carries a lot of weight."

At Healthy Spot, which has several locations in Southern California, co-owner Andrew Kim has also witnessed a growing consumer awareness of natural foods. The stores’ food product mix reflects that attitude.

"We consider our baseline to be natural," Kim said. "We are Healthy Spot—it’s in our name. Carrying anything less would be inconsistent with who we are and what our customers expect from us."

Kim has noted a shift away from traditional canned and kibble food products to raw and raw alternatives.

"People see the value of feeding better-quality products and the improvements in health," Kim said. "We won’t carry anything we wouldn’t use for our own furry family, meaning anything less than natural."

Leading the Pack

The Right Fit

Education is key in marketing natural selections, Bravo’s Schubert said.

"We find that better-educated retailers have the most success because they are better able to match the customer with the right product for his or her pets," Schubert said.

With so many options in the natural category, it’s easy for customers to be confused, said Halo’s Yaskulka, adding that educational content from trusted sources is a great way to begin the process.

"We’ve recently produced a short informative video explaining how chicken meal and byproduct meal, while not necessarily bad ingredients, may not be what some consumers believe they are," he said.

At Natural Pawz, staff members undergo extensive training and are considered probationary until completing 100 hours of education. Once meeting this training requirement, employees proudly wear a "nutritional consultant" badge, Joli-Coeur said.

Educational resources are readily available at the Customer Information Center, sited in every Natural Pawz store. Each center’s computer is at the disposal of both staff members and customers wishing to investigate and discuss food ingredients and other products.  

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Pet Product News.