The availability and popularity of dog foods containing novel proteins and superfood ingredients is growing, according to pet specialty retailers and manufacturers.
Beyond marketing buzzwords, the terms "novel proteins" and "superfoods" point to specific attributes in the pet industry.
"In the simplest of terms, a novel protein could be any protein that a particular pet has not encountered previously in their diet," said Norm Shrout, co-owner of Long Leash On Life in Albuquerque, N.M. "According to a stricter definition, novel proteins include unique animals that are commonly used in limited-ingredient diets."
Conventional dog food proteins include chicken, beef, lamb and salmon. Examples of proteins that industry insiders might consider novel include rabbit, wild boar, kangaroo, pheasant, bison, elk, venison, pork, goat, duck, quail, guinea fowl and alligator, along with different fish such as catfish and whitefish.
"They could also be considered novel due to their limited availability to manufacturers and/or availability to consumers," said Jim Reimann, brand manager of American Pet Nutrition in Ogden, Utah.
Superfoods, also called functional ingredients, typically "pack an extra nutritional punch not necessarily found in staple ingredients such as meats and grains," said Leasa Moltke, manager of nutrition and regulatory affairs at Solid Gold Pet in Chesterfield, Mo. "Certain fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, seeds and fats can be considered superfoods in that they provide levels of vital minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients, antioxidants and omega fatty acids that promote whole body health."
Sales of these special dog diets are rising rapidly, according to insiders. Shrout reported that "sales of [dog diets containing] novel proteins have more than doubled over the last two years," and he expects no slowing down as companies expand their lines each year.
Sherry Redwine, co-owner of Odyssey Pets in Dallas also noted the increasing availability of these offerings on the market.
"Five years ago, my only novel proteins that I can remember were rabbit and buffalo/bison," she said "There’s so much more now, and I’m loving it."
To keep up with the excitement and demand from pet owners, dog food manufacturers continue to expand their lines.
"We’ve seen that rising food trends for humans often translate into similar trends for pets, like the growing interest in clean eating and responsibly sourced protein sources," said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience and marketing for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass. "To cater to this, we recently launched a new line of clean, limited-ingredient, high-protein dry food recipes for dogs: Wellness Core Six."
Released in February, the diet is formulated to provide dogs with balanced nutrition sans grains, chicken, potatoes, tapioca, dairy or wheat, as well as without artificial flavors, colors or preservatives, Leary-Coutu said. The line features superfood ingredients such as peas, chickpeas, canola oil, flaxseed and tomato pomace, and it comes in four recipes with less-common protein sources: Free-Range Lamb, Cage-Free Duck, Sustainably-Sourced Salmon and Small Breed Sustainably-Sourced Salmon.
Superfoods are being used more in recipes across Merrick Pet Care’s portfolio, said Jilliann Smith, director of communications for the Amarillo, Texas-based company. Last summer, the company introduced Castor & Pollux Pristine Bone Broths, one of which is seasoned with the superfood turmeric.
In dog diets with novel proteins, Merrick plans to launch two recipes this month: Merrick Backcountry High Plains (Beef, Wild Boar & Turkey) and Merrick Backcountry Wild Fields (Duck, Rabbit & Quail). The introductions were "based on the continued growth of our Merrick Backcountry dry dog food offerings and interest among pet parents in ‘kibble plus’ and ‘freeze-dried raw’ offerings," Smith said. "As with our entire Backcountry line, these recipes start with real, deboned beef or duck as the No. 1 ingredient."
To help specialty pet stores distinguish dog diets with novel proteins and superfoods, several manufacturers reported using packaging to their advantage.
"We believe in using our packaging to help educate pet parents," said Jilliann Smith, director of communications for Merrick Pet Care in Amarillo, Texas.
WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass., takes a similar approach, said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience and marketing.
"We work to ensure that our product packaging has concise yet detailed information about the product so pet parents can make better decisions about what they choose to feed their dogs," she said.
At Long Leash On Life in Albuquerque, N.M., co-owner Norm Shrout said manufacturers help by providing colorful bag variations for novel dog foods.
"Ribboning them in several adjacent stacks can be quite an attention-getter for color-savvy dog parents," he said. "For endorsed brands, we use endcap displays for best visibility. Cans are merchandised right along with the dry offerings."
Sherry Redwine, co-owner of Odyssey Pets in Dallas, said her store, too, creates special displays as appropriate.
"If we run a special on certain items, we display them separately for that time period on a table at the front of the store," she said. "Otherwise, I display them with their corresponding brand."
Because personal conversations are so effective in selling products, Smith said Merrick emphasizes store staff education.
"Pet parents are always seeking advice and personal recommendations," she said. "The more we can do to help pet specialty store associates understand the value these foods provide, the more likely they are to recommend them."
Building Awareness to Boost Sales
Experts in the dog food category reported that though the niche of novel proteins and superfoods is growing, additional awareness is needed.
"Retailers, for the most part, recognize this segment and the benefits it provides," said Jim Reimann, brand manager of American Pet Nutrition in Ogden, Utah. "But consumers could still use some educating."
Jilliann Smith, director of communications for Merrick Pet Care in Amarillo, Texas, agreed.
"These categories are a small, but growing, segment of recipes offered in pet specialty," she said. "Pet parents are becoming more familiar with these categories, but there is still an opportunity to increase awareness."
Heather Blum, co-owner of Petagogy, which has three stores in Pittsburgh, reported that dog owners continue to be more aware and have a greater interest in these products.
"It’s a growing segment, but not at a level that other trends in pet foods (e.g., grain free), so there can be a lot more education," she said.
Norm Shrout, co-owner of Long Leash On Life in Albuquerque, N.M., said seeing major brands each provide offerings in this category helps increase customer awareness of the novel protein trend.
The trend is also being driven by the connection consumers are making between human food trends and dog food patterns.
"Superfoods especially are becoming more and more visible in human food markets, which trickles down into pet food," said Leasa Moltke, manager of nutrition and regulatory affairs at Solid Gold Pet in Chesterfield, Mo. "Customers are recognizing the novel proteins and superfoods in pet food now that they’re familiar."
According to Reimann, "Digital media is a great tool for manufacturers and retailers to utilize to reach the right consumers."
Sherry Redwine, co-owner of Odyssey Pets in Dallas, added, "Getting the pet stores on board and recommending the products directly to customers is the very best way to grow [awareness]."
Premium Pricing Is Expected
For various reasons, dog foods containing novel proteins and superfood ingredients often cost more than traditional formulas. Fortunately, that’s not a deal breaker for many pet owners, according to category experts.
"Generally, recipes with novel proteins are more expensive than those without primarily because those protein sources cost more than conventional ones," said Jim Reimann, brand manager of American Pet Nutrition in Ogden, Utah.
However, according to Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience and marketing for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass., diets with novel proteins and superfood ingredients demand a higher price point because of their higher nutritional value.
"Responsibly sourced, natural ingredients simply cost more," she said.
Pet specialty retailers reported that large dry dog foods with these premium ingredients cost $60 to $80. Yet retailers and manufacturers said consumers understand and are willing to spend the money.
"We know pet parents are willing to pay a premium for high-quality ingredients," said Jilliann Smith, director of communications for Merrick Pet Care in Amarillo, Texas.
When moving a pet from chicken to another protein, most customers know there will be a price jump, said Heather Blum, co-owner of Petagogy, which has three stores in Pittsburgh.
"A lot of customers who are having issues—such as allergies or digestive problems—and are seeking out limited-ingredient diet or novel protein foods already are spending a lot of money," she explained. "They’re trying to get off expensive vet foods or testing out different foods."
Sherry Redwine, co-owner of Odyssey Pets in Dallas, agreed, adding that some dog owners will pay whatever they must because their pets are allergic to the regular proteins.