With the wealth of nutritional information available to them today, many cat owners are keeping their pets’ health and longevity in mind and making the leap to premium diets.
"As pet parents, we have the ability to influence [cats’] health by providing the best foods available, and, thus, most pet parents would agree that paying more for a better food is worth it for their pet," said Dave Fedorchak, vice president of research and development and procurement for PetGuard, in Sewickley, Pa.
Fedorchak said ingredient quality is the No. 1 factor that sets premium cat foods apart from others.
"Premium or super-premium foods have the best ingredients, like antibiotic-free chicken without animal byproducts and generic fats," he said.
"They also do not contain added fillers, artificial preservatives, colors or flavors. Regular, value-based cat foods do not champion natural, wholesome ingredients."
As a raw pet food company, Primal Pet Foods in Fairfield, Calif., never gets lumped into the "regular cat food" category, said product development and veterinary channel manager Lindsay Meyers.
"For us, ‘premium’ means that our meats are always sourced ethically and human-edible grade, and that our produce and whole food supplements are always [U.S. Department of Agriculture] (USDA)-certified organic," Meyers said.
Calvin Smith, director of New Zealand-based Pet Nutrition and its derivative Kiwi Kitchens, said he sees premium cat food trending all over the world.
"I’d say the trend is probably a bit stronger in Asia than it is in the U.S.," Smith said. "… It’s just a macro trend in Asia that cats have become very popular because they’re easier to look after for urban-dwelling apartment [residents], and I think that’s the drive in the U.S., too. Dogs are getting smaller, or people are going for more cats. Both of those don’t eat as much, so [customers] are willing to pay more for premium products."
Kiwi Kitchens has seen rapid growth in the past few years, Smith said. It sent its first shipment to the U.S. in March 2017 and is now sold in about 140 U.S. stores. The brand’s nutritional philosophy is, "Dogs and cats eat meat, so feed it to them."
Smith said the perfect way to feed a cat would be a raw, moist diet, but feeding all raw meat can be inconvenient or "icky"—and that’s where canned diets come in.
"Women tend to prefer to use [canned foods] rather than bloody raw meat, and they tend to be the decision makers," he said. "We think about 80 percent of the decision-making for buying the food is made by females, so we do need to keep that in mind."
PetGuard, which has been making premium cat food since the early 1980s, offers balanced diets that include grains, vegetables and meats.
Though PetGuard produces one dry cat diet and a variety of products for dogs, wet cat food is its specialty, Fedorchak said.
"Wet cat food is what we do," he said. "We make delicious, nutritious wet cat foods which cats love, and we have the sizes which are most convenient for cat parents."
NorthPoint Pets & Co., a retailer in Cheshire, Conn., has actually cut its cat kibble offerings in half while expanding its canned and raw options, said Nicci Decrisantis, owner and clinical nutritionist.
As some premium brands migrate out of the independent channel and into the mass and online markets, the raw-only brands are "the real MVPs," Decrisantis said, adding that she believes it’s an unpopular fact that scaling and sourcing high-quality raw food for the mass market is practically impossible.
Manufacturers such as Stella & Chewy’s, which has designated certain products as exclusive to independent retailers, have helped "the little guys" flourish, Decrisantis said. She hopes more manufacturers will follow Stella & Chewy’s lead, unlike brands that say they support independent retailers, but then turn around and offer all their products online.
"I wish they could be there to answer the phones or see customers come in who literally take our advice, and then purchase it online," Decrisantis said. "… Many of these brands would never have survived if it wasn’t for the work independents did on their behalf."
Amanda Nosis, senior food consultant for Rocko’s Pet Stop in Macomb, Mich., named Fromm Family Pet Food, Farmina Pet Foods and Fussie Cat as brands that have supported independent retailers by holding back from selling to big chains.
Smith said Kiwi Kitchens has made a strong commitment to supporting the independent market.
"We’re not going to sell to Amazon, and we’re not going to sell to Chewy," he said. "Not that I have anything against those companies at all—it’s just that we want to support the people that support us. And you don’t develop a brand from scratch on Amazon or Chewy."
Premium Education Balances Premium Prices
Educating consumers is key to addressing potential concerns over the price points attached to premium cat food, said Dave Fedorchak, vice president of research and development and procurement for PetGuard, a Sewickley, Pa.-based manufacturer.
"At PetGuard, we realize that consumers want to save money, but there is always a trade off," he said. "… Often, a savings in food will lead to long-term costs for health-related expenses, which will far outweigh the cost of the premium foods."
To help customers and retailers stay in the know, PetGuard is making its website into a resource "for all things pet health," Fedorchak said.
The site now includes a blog written by veterinarian contributor Michael Dym, VMD, full ingredient statements for each product, and an interactive page with details about each ingredient’s sourcing.
When retail staff members know their products well and have information to offer customers, the price of premium foods becomes less of a concern, noted Calvin Smith, director of New Zealand-based Pet Nutrition, maker of Kiwi Kitchens food.
"As long as we’ve educated [customers], price doesn’t even become a part of the discussion point," he said. "They always want the best thing for their cat."
Retailers agreed that it’s important for consumers to understand the reasoning behind feeding premium cat food.
"I don’t think any ‘uneducated’ consumer would walk in and blindly purchase a $2-plus cat can just because they felt like it," said Nicci Decrisantis, owner and clinical nutritionist at NorthPoint Pets & Co. in Cheshire, Conn.
Decrisantis added that there is lots of good nutritional information out there, but it is clouded by misinformation, advertising and sometimes even deceptive tactics.
Amanda Nosis, senior food consultant for Rocko’s Pet Stop in Macomb, Mich., noted that the amount of information available to consumers can be overwhelming.
"Beginner pet parents and even veterans can find sifting through all the information available daunting," Nosis said.
With this in mind, Nosis typically goes over the ingredients list with customers who express interest in switching to a premium food, and discusses whether the cat has any protein or texture preferences. She then helps the customer choose a brand that fits the cat’s needs.
In particular, many cat owners are looking for foods that are kidney safe and may help with issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Smith said.
Shoppers are also seeking solutions for specific conditions, such as chronic urinary tract infections (UTIs), bladder stones and urinary crystals, Decrisantis noted.
"The most important thing is to remember that every cat, dog and human is an individual and therefore has unique needs," Decrisantis said.
"If you’re going to try the same diet protocol for every cat with recurrent UTIs, you’re going to be unsuccessful. … Of course, our entire philosophy is to get to know the customer and their concerns so we can best address their needs, even if it means they aren’t getting a product we sell."
Retailers can also help cat owners make small changes to their pets’ diets, said Lindsay Meyers, product development and veterinary channel manager for Primal Pet Foods in Fairfield, Calif.
"Help them to realize that a little bit goes a long way," she suggested. "We are sometimes stuck as retailers or consumers with an ‘all or nothing’ approach, and that’s silly. Adding a bit of whole, fresh, raw foods to your cat’s diet can make a huge difference, and if that’s all that is in the budget for your customer right now, that is OK."
Positioning Premium Products
Opportunities for customer education should tie in to a store’s merchandising, said Dave Fedorchak, vice president of research and development and procurement for PetGuard, a Sewickley, Pa.-based manufacturer. One way PetGuard accomplishes this is by providing brochures that contain ingredient statements and guaranteed analyses for each product.
"This allows consumers to compare and contrast quality foods versus a lower-quality food," Fedorchak said.
He also suggests that retailers place premium foods at mid-height positions on their shelves.
Lindsay Meyers, product development and veterinary channel manager for Primal Pet Foods in Fairfield, Calif., recommends that stores add a small dedicated freezer for raw foods to their cat sections.
Retailers should also post signage that reminds owners of cats’ need for fresh food and points them toward premium options. For example,
Primal Pet Foods offers shelf talkers, freezer adhesives and other point-of-purchase materials, Meyers said.
Coupon placement can help, too.
"Adding shelf talkers and coupons directly to the bags or cans of food catches the eye and encourages customers to try something new," said Amanda Nosis, senior food consultant for Rocko’s Pet Stop in Macomb, Mich.
Kiwi Kitchens, a brand of New Zealand-based Pet Nutrition, has a designer who works directly with retailers to create merchandising materials that suit their individual needs, said director Calvin Smith.
"Each one of our retailers does a different thing," he said. "What works in Pet Food Express in California may not work for All the Best in Seattle."
Stores that are running low on space should consider reducing the number of brands they carry, said Nicci Decrisantis, owner and clinical nutritionist at NorthPoint Pets & Co. in Cheshire, Conn.
"For an independent store, having too many brands confuses and overwhelms the consumer," she said. "As scary as it sounds, cut the number you carry in half, and you’ll likely see your cat business grow. Do you believe in that product? Are they transparent? Do they actually work for you and your business? Would you feed it to your own cat? If the answer is no, get rid of it."
More Premium Offerings to Choose From
With many cat owners interested in offering their pets high-quality nutrition, manufacturers are introducing a variety of premium mealtime selections.
At press time, Dave Fedorchak, vice president of research and development and procurement for PetGuard in Sewickley, Pa., said the company is planning rollouts for early this year. There are two new dry diets—details still in development—and two new wet diets, Duck and Salmon, on the way.
"The two new wet cat items will move away from our traditional pâté formulas, helping us diversify the portfolio to meet consumer needs," Fedorchak said.
New Zealand-based Kiwi Kitchens, a Pet Nutrition brand, recently rolled out three canned diets for kittens: Lamb & Mussel, Chicken & Mussel and Beef & Mussel. And at press time, Calvin Smith, director of Pet Nutrition, said the brand also had a new dry cat food in the works for the first quarter of 2020.
Last summer, Primal Pet Foods in Fairfield, Calif., introduced its Edible Elixirs line of whole food toppers for both cats and dogs. The elixirs come in three flavors: Omega Mussel Mélange for joint health, Healthy Green Smoothie for immune system support, and Winter Squash Puree for digestive support.
"The Omega Mussel Mélange is great for joint support but is also an excellent no-fish option for those kitties who may have allergies or sensitivities to fish but either need omegas or simply love the flavor of a seafood option," said Lindsay Meyers, product development and veterinary channel manager.