Consumers are concerned about eating more healthfully themselves, which translates to their purchasing habits when it comes to their pets, said industry insiders.
"As the ‘humanization of pets’ movement continues to grow, so does the rise in natural and healthy choices," said Steve Ball, co-founder and CMO of I and Love and You in Boulder, Colo. "As long as pet parents are making natural and healthy choices for themselves, they are also going to make those choices for their pets."
Melissa Hoover, owner of Nature Dog in Omaha, Neb., said demand for natural diets continues to climb as people experience how food affects their own lives and how they feel.
However, cats remain under-represented in the natural food category, said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Tiki Pets, part of Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis.
"Most companies, big and small, focus first on dogs, and there really hasn’t been much attention paid to cat owners who want a natural product," she said.
In addition to demanding natural options, Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice president and co-founder of Radagast Pet Food in Portland, Ore., said cat owners want foods formulated to address their cats’ lifestyles and life stages.
On the canine side, Hudson reported that the growth of the small dog population has fueled the need for a better understanding of the differences between small and large dogs, and a rise in natural diets specifically formulated for petite pets.
In general, retailers report that both dog and cat owners want natural, grain-free diets that are more nutritious and less processed.
"Customers want to find a more natural, less-processed food," said Aaron Gallegos, manager of Yorba Linda Feed Store in Yorba Linda, Calif.
Nancy Stewart, manager and buyer at Bark Avenue Pet Supply in Mesa, Ariz., agreed, adding, "Customers are asking for minimally processed, nutritious foods."
With regard to processing, Hudson said, "Human cooking techniques like baking and hand-packing are becoming more and more mainstream.
"Fish and chicken are hand-shredded, foods are hand-packed, and treats and kibbles are baked," she said, adding that whole ingredients and superfoods also are trending in the natural food space.
Brad Gruber, president and COO of Health Extension Pet Care in Deer Park, N.Y., also reported seeing "more nutrient-packed superfoods like chia, kale, sweet potatoes, broccoli and carrots added to foods."
Matthew Connors, owner of Pets Plus in Tewksbury, Mass., cited antibiotic-free diets, humanely raised sources and alternative proteins as trends he’s seeing in natural diets category right now.
Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis., agreed.
"[Consumers] are seeking out brands that they can know and trust, along with manufacturers that have a history of excellence and an output of products that are safe and nutritious," he said.
Intelligent and thoughtful sourcing is important to consumers, especially millennials, Hudson said.
"Millenials now represent the largest percentage of pet owners and have more spending power than other groups," Hudson added. "They are environmentally conscious and nutritionally savvy, and want to know where ingredients come from and know how products are made."