Interest in raw food for cats continues to advance, according to pet specialty retailers who attribute the trend to better education and a greater understanding of what cats need to thrive. As more pet owners look to feed their pets a raw diet, the demand for choices in the category has also grown.
"Cat owners are researching nutrition and reading labels," said Lindsay Meyers, marketing manager for Primal Pet Foods in Fairfield, Calif. "They are learning that their house predator’s diet requires primarily meat protein. Once a pet parent decides that they want the best in natural, whole food options for their feline companion, raw food is the only logical answer. The choice then becomes about convenience, price point and palatability."
Cat owners, she added, seek a variety of unique protein options in an easy-to-serve format that their pets will love.
To this end, Primal introduced its Raw Frozen Feline Venison Formula to its quick-thaw Primal Pronto line in a one-pound size earlier this year. And in June, the company launched a line of frozen whole-food topper products called Primal Edible Elixirs in three varieties: Winter Squash Puree for Digestive Support, Healthy Green Smoothie for Immunity Boost and Omega Mussel Mélange for Joint Health. These broth-based moist, flavorful toppers are easy to store in the refrigerator and add to any meal, whether it’s kibble, canned or raw, Meyers said.
Laura Bogart, senior brand manager for Tiki Pets, part of Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis, said that the recent launch of Tiki Cat Raw, a line of uncooked, pure protein cat food—without added fruits, vegetables or grains—is the company’s response to consumer demand for protein. Today’s well-educated cat owners realize that their pets want protein-based meals, Bogart said.
"They know that cats are natural carnivores, and that high-quality meat is what their bodies need and what they enjoy eating," Bogart said. "As more and more cat parents are educating themselves about feline nutrition, they’re also seeing that cats don’t need carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables—so they’re looking for raw cat foods that avoid these unnecessary ingredients. The quality of the protein is also under the microscope, as more cat parents are demanding protein that’s non-GMO, sourced in the USA and with no added hormones."
Often, cat owners require a lot of education on raw. However, these days, many customers come in having already researched the topic, according to Dan Lavallee, manager of Pet World in Natick, Mass.
"I think a lot of people want to get back to feeding their cat what they would have been naturally eating in the wild," Lavallee said. "As a result, we’re seeing the category continue to gain interest, and we’re getting a lot of people who have already done their homework before they even set foot in the store."
The raw category is growing rapidly, reported Mark Sapir, chief marketing officer for Stella & Chewy’s in Oak Creek, Wis.
"Freeze-dried is growing by 17 percent, and frozen is growing at 23 percent, as measured by GfK [regarding] cat sales in neighborhood pet stores in 2018 versus 2017," Sapir said.
"We are seeing a significant shift in cat pet parents wanting better solutions for their animals; they are excited to discover raw and all the benefits it provides," Sapir added. "Cat pet parents are looking for better nutrition, and they are looking for more natural, less-processed solutions to fuel their animals. Cat pet parents are realizing cats are obligate carnivores, and a 98 percent meat organ and bone raw diet is the perfect solution."
This summer, Stella & Chewy’s launched Freeze-Dried Raw Coated Kibble and Raw Blend in an effort to make raw food more accessible and bring new pet owners to its brand.
"While we do believe a raw diet is best for cats, we also recognize raw is not yet available to all," Sapir said. "This product line is the ultimate high-protein, grain-free cat kibble. This is best-in-class nutrition that cats go wild for. [It has] pristine ingredients, and every piece of kibble is coated in raw goodness."
The new kibble lines have three protein flavors: Raw Coated Cage-Free Chicken Recipe, Raw Coated Wild-Caught Salmon Recipe and Raw Blend Cage-Free Recipe.
Exploring the Options
Expanding Choices in Raw
As the interest in raw cat food grows, so do the options. Cat owners can choose from various shapes—such as patties, chubs, nuggets and smaller morsels—and textures as well as different formats, primarily frozen raw or freeze-dried raw, which has made it easier than ever to assist cats in their diet transition to raw. In fact, some manufacturers are creating raw freeze-dried topper options that can be added to kibble as an entry point for consumers who are hesitant to jump right in to feeding an all-raw diet.
Vital Essentials, for example, offers freeze-dried toppers, said Melissa Olson, marketing director of the Green Bay, Wis.-based company.
"For those cat parents who are not fully committed to a raw diet, our Mini Nibs and toppers are great meal mix-ins to get them more excited at mealtime and to get an added boost of protein and nutrition without having to supplement with other non-meat-based products," Olson said. "We recommend rotating proteins for cats as well to keep their interest at mealtime, which is why we provide four different options across all of our products including chicken, turkey, rabbit and duck."
Olson said the company offers both frozen and freeze-dried options in order to give cat owners plenty of customizable options.
"Our freeze-dried mini patties offer a highly flexible meal for cats," she said. "Simply crumble the patties, add water, bone broth, goat’s milk or any other liquid, then stir and serve. This option gives cat parents the ability to mix the meal to the consistency and moisture levels each cat prefers. Another very popular product for cats are our frozen mini patties, as they come in convenient two-ounce serving sizes and are naturally high in moisture content."
Mark Sapir, chief marketing officer for Stella & Chewy’s in Oak Creek, Wis., said that freeze-dried foods cost slightly more than frozen raw and agreed that the format is often used as a mix-in.
"We find our freeze-dried is both fed exclusively and cats enjoy the texture, but many pet parents purchase our freeze-dried to mix in with cat kibble to make mealtime special and introduce an element of raw to their cat’s diet," Sapir said.
On the other hand, Sapir noted, those who purchase the company’s frozen raw cat food tend to feed it exclusively.
Dan Lavallee, manager of Pet World in Natick, Mass., said that freeze-dried foods are often popular with customers who have concerns over handling frozen raw food or who need a product that they can easily travel with. He added that freeze-dried raw is an ideal gateway product to raw.
"Once customers get more comfortable with freeze-dried, they may consider transitioning fully to raw," he said.
Samantha Henson, a certified clinical pet nutritionist and merchandising manager for Premier Pet Supply, which has stores in Michigan, said that, given the finicky nature of cats, having various raw formats available in stores is important so that cat owners can find a product their pet will eat.
"We’re incredibly raw-focused here so we have everything, giving our customers a lot of options," she said. "Because cats are so texture-based, it helps to find a format that mimics what they like—the idea being to trick their brain. For instance, if they really like kibble, raw food that is shaped in tiny beanlike pellets may be a preferred texture."
A Gradual Introduction
As pet owners consider the raw food format that will be best for them, it’s important for retailers to set them up with realistic expectations.
A transition to raw can take quite some time, said Samantha Henson, a certified clinical pet nutritionist and merchandising manager for Premier Pet Supply, which has stores in Michigan. Henson said that staffers usually tell pet owners to anticipate taking up to six weeks for a cat to switch over to raw, which makes store support vital during this time so that the cat owner does not give up.
"It’s best to make a switch like this gradually—and on a trial-and-error basis," Henson said. "That’s why we offer a lot of samples and guarantee our food. Pet parents know that they can return the food if it doesn’t work out, so it makes trying raw risk free. But we encourage them not to give up. Our advice is to keep trying until you find the food that works."
Taking it slow may be the best approach for pet owners to take when changing a cat’s diet, agreed Lindsay Meyers, marketing manager for Primal Pet Foods in Fairfield, Calif.
"Cats have a reputation for their picky and finicky nature," Meyers said. "Cats are known as imprint eaters, and whatever they were fed as kittens is generally what they prefer as adults. Many of our more finicky felines are looking for consistency in the ‘Three Ts’: texture, taste and temperature. If a new food item is different in one or more of those categories, they may refuse it. We always recommend a gradual transition and only changing one of those Ts at a time, slowly."
Gradually introducing a new food also helps minimize digestive upset, noted Laura Bogart, senior brand manager for Tiki Pets, part of Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis.
"Start by having customers add a scoop of the raw food to their current diet," Bogart recommended. "Each day, add a little more raw food and a little less of the current food until they’ve switched completely to raw."
Getting customers interested in raw cat diets means making sure these foods have a conspicuous presence in the store. Lindsay Meyers, marketing manager for Primal Pet Foods in Fairfield, Calif., said that, too often, raw foods are lost in the back of the store or mixed together with raw dog food.
"Cat owners love to consume information and to see products specifically designed for them and their feline companions," Meyers added. "A dedicated glass-front feline freezer including transitional items, like goat’s milk, raw bones for cats, and an assortment of frozen diets and formats, is essential. It’s also nice to add signage discussing a slow transition and tips and tricks for success."
At Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va., owner Pattie Boden requested empty raw food bags and containers from manufacturers and stuffed them with shipping peanuts to be able to display them alongside shelf-stable cat foods.
"That made a huge difference and allowed us to discuss frozen as an alternative to heat-manipulated processed food," Boden said. "Some suppliers already do this at trade shows, so why not offer this as a cross-marketing opportunity in your store?"
Samantha Henson, a certified clinical pet nutritionist and merchandising manager for Premier Pet Supply, which has stores in Michigan, said that the retailer’s focus on raw is backed up with "freezers everywhere" as well as eight feet of shelf space devoted to freeze-dried foods.
"A lot of stores have their freezers in the back, but we redesigned so that you have to walk through the freezer section first," she said. "If you really believe in raw, you need to give it prominent placement."
While product placement is key, Mark Sapir, chief marketing officer for Stella & Chewy’s in Oak Creek, Wis., said that the best advertisement for the power of raw is in a neighborhood pet store’s sales associates.
"In our minds, it is less about visually drawing attention to freezers and more about a mindset in-store that associates engage with pet parents and encourage them to discover the power of raw," Sapir said. "Certainly, we provide clings and point-of-sale (POS) material to enhance freezers, but really the magic in neighborhood pet is the true power of raw and associates advocating on its behalf."