With more pet owners becoming choosier about the foods they feed their pets, demand for natural dog food is on the rise. Industry insiders report that sales of natural dog foods are climbing; however, the category has become more competitive, which is prompting manufacturers to get more creative with the products they bring to market.
Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Tiki Pets, a brand of St. Louis-based Whitebridge Pet Brands, said pet food companies must work harder to differentiate themselves and their products.
"The natural category is over saturated, and you really have to work hard to stand out from the crowd," she said.
Natasha Davis, client service manager for the POS tracking (pet) team at GfK, a German market research firm with U.S. headquarters in New York, agreed.
"More shelf brands are trying to find distinctive points of differentiation because it’s not enough to just say you’re natural," she said. "First it was grain free; now [it’s] with specific functions and superfood ingredients and how they help with longevity and health."
Human trends continue to significantly influence natural dog foods, according to industry insiders.
"The single most important influence on the natural diet category continues to be the human food market," Hudson said. "‘Natural’ means good, and good means eating whole ingredients, fruits, vegetables, lean meats, etc. And many of the things we feel good about eating will eventually end up in our pet’s food."
Even if pet foods have more recognizable ingredients, pet owners still expect more from natural food companies—this is particularly true of millennials, who Davis said have a unique mindset when it comes to which products they support.
"Millennials can see through the fluff marketing and are looking for more information from brands, such as ‘How is it more natural?’ and ‘What are your business practices?’" Davis said. "They look for holistically natural products, from sourcing to production to U.S. made—there is strong U.S. sentiment."
In addition to seeking greater transparency from manufacturers, Julie Washington, chief marketing officer for Champion Petfoods in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, said that pet owners desire more ancestral feeding regimens.
"They seek foods pets once sought in nature, so a greater presence of fresh and raw meat ingredients," Washington said. "They’re [also] looking at micronutrients in diets, and choice rotation is a topic coming up more than before. Limited ingredient has continued to grow because of dogs with sensitivities, allergies or preferences."
Tracy Alford, owner of Animal Nutrition & Grooming Center in Roseville, Calif., said she’s seeing more customers move away from kibble to feeding canned, raw, dehydrated or freeze-dried diets.
Barb Emmett, president and owner of Godfrey’s—Welcome to Dogdom in Mohnton, Pa., reported similar trends in her store.
"Our growth is in raw," she said.
The internet and social media largely influence what’s becoming popular with pet owners, according to insiders.
"These trends are coming from the internet blogs, Instagram and Facebook posts, and warnings from the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]," Alford said.
Bryan Nieman, brand director at Fromm Family Pet Food in Mequon, Wis., agreed.
"The ease in which pet parents can access information through digital outlets and social media continues to drive awareness and prompt demand," he said.
Insiders concurred that dog owners increasingly want quality, nutritional diets for their dogs and do not hesitate to educate themselves to make sure they are providing the very best.
"We have new customers every day who want to switch to something healthier," said Michelle McConnell, co-owner of A Natural Pet Pantry in Osprey, Fla. "People are educating themselves and not necessarily taking their veterinarian’s recommendations without doing some research on their own.
Diets Meet Specific Needs
Recently introduced natural dog diets are focusing on limited ingredients and specific pet sizes. Still, grain-free and novel protein varieties remain on trend, according to manufacturers.
In May, Fromm Family Pet Food in Mequon, Wis., added a recipe to its Four-Star Nutritionals line: Rancherosa. The canine kibble features a blend of beef, lamb, pork and trout paired with pinto beans, peas and chickpeas to offer consumers a grain-free entrée, said company officials.
The food is formulated to meet the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) dog food nutrient profiles for all life stages, including growth of large-sized breeds that weigh 70 pounds or more as an adult, officials added.
The company also launched its Four-Star Nutritionals Shredded Turkey in Gravy Entrée in July. Formulated as a nutritionally complete wet diet for all life stages and lifestyles, the food contains shredded turkey simmered in broth with vegetables, including potatoes, carrots, green beans, peas, and pinto, kidney and white beans.
At SuperZoo in Las Vegas in June, Champion Petfoods debuted two SKUs for its Acana Singles dry food line: Turkey & Greens and Beef & Pumpkin. The Edmonton, Alberta, Canada-based company also enhanced its other Acana Singles recipes—Duck & Pear, Pork & Squash and Lamb & Apple—by increasing the real meat ratio from 50 to 60 percent, reducing the carbohydrates to 25 percent and shortening the ingredient panel, according to the company.
Tiki Pets, a brand of St. Louis-based Whitebridge Pet Brands, recently added three products to its Tiki Dog Aloha Petites line, which is formulated to meet the nutritional needs of small dog breeds. Aloha Petites for Puppies is a grain-free formula that comes in Chicken, Peas and Lentils Luau flavor in a 3.5-pound bag.
Aloha Petites Mousse for Puppies is a chicken-flavored wet food that contains chicken liver, pumpkin, salmon oil and probiotics for increased digestibility, said company officials. Aloha Petites Mousse for Seniors comes in a chicken and beef flavor and includes salmon oil, turmeric and pumpkin.
Tiki Pets also introduced Tiki Dog Meaty cups in five all-meat, limited-ingredient formulas, which include: Chicken, Chicken & Egg, Chicken & Beef, Chicken & Salmon and Chicken & Duck. The 3-ounce cups are protein packed and completely grain and carbohydrate free, officials said.
Pet specialty retailers and manufacturers report that despite rising natural dog food prices, sales have continued on an upward trajectory because customers understand the value these diets offer their pets.
In fact, Natasha Davis, client service manager for the POS tracking (pet) team at GfK, a German market research firm with U.S. headquarters in New York, said, "Adding benefits to natural diets helps add a more premium dollar point to the base offering.
"For example, you have Natural Brand A at $2.11 price per pound, and you have Natural Brand Y, which looks similar, but says it includes probiotics and is great for digestion," she said. "Natural Brand Y can now charge a little more for its natural benefit or more perceived quality ingredients."
Small changes, such as using millet and quinoa instead of rice or peas, or sweet potato in place of white potato, make all the difference, she added.
Price is not the sole driver for pet owners, according to Bryan Nieman, brand director at Fromm Family Pet Food in Mequon, Wis.
"Today’s pet parents are in search of high-quality products from reputable manufacturers," he said. "Price itself is not the only motivator, especially when it comes to the safety and quality of the food they feed their pets."
Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Tiki Pets, a brand of St. Louis-based Whitebridge Pet Brands, agreed.
"Consumer dollars are being stretched across a number of categories, and pet owners are looking for affordable solutions," she said. "But they will pay a premium if they genuinely believe the quality and functional benefits will be truly worthwhile for their pet."
Retailers across the nation reported similar findings.
"Over the years, I have been amazed at what most people will pay for their pets’ health; I thought I was the only one," said Michelle McConnell, co-owner of A Natural Pet Pantry in Osprey, Fla. "People will pay for quality, and they realize that good food is not inexpensive."
Barb Emmett, president and owner of Godfrey’s—Welcome to Dogdom in Mohnton, Pa., agreed.
"For the most part, in the pet food industry, the higher the price, the better the food will be," she said.
Novel Proteins Take the Lead
Trends from human diets continue to impact natural dog foods, according to industry insiders. Better-educated consumers and their desire to give their pets the very best are influencing manufacturers to search for more innovative ingredients.
"There continue to be trends from human diets," said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Tiki Pets, a brand of St. Louis-based Whitebridge Pet Brands. "Innovative concepts include ingredient sourcing—like [from] New Zealand and Thailand—limited or fewer ingredients in a diet, and formats like whole foods."
Fromm Family Pet Food in Mequon, Wis., now offers recipes with nontraditional ingredients, including rabbit and unique protein blends such as beef, pork, trout and lamb.
Natasha Davis, client service manager for the POS tracking (pet) team at GfK, a German market research firm with U.S. headquarters in New York, said she noticed that many pet foods that were launched at trade shows this year boast ingredients such as turmeric, lavender, coconut and rabbit.
"One thing we’re finding is some ingredients that have moved to front of pack have always been in there, but now they are being highlighted," she said.
Other notable proteins include catfish, goat and kangaroo, said Barb Emmett, president and owner of Godfrey’s—Welcome to Dogdom in Mohnton, Pa. She also reported seeing companies using montmorillonite dry clay for trace minerals instead of synthetics, goat’s milk and kefir.
"Anything fermented in products is going to be hotter," she said. "Mussels and sardines are going to come up [as well]; it’s a hot topic right now and a big deal for dogs making their own taurine or not."