Natural pet foods remain a popular seller, with innovative offerings emerging at a quick pace.

Citing statistics from market research company Packaged Facts, Michael Landa, CEO of Austin, Texas-based food manufacturer Nulo, said that U.S. retail sales of natural pet food through all channels are forecast "to surpass $12.2 billion by 2022, accounting for about a third of the $36 billion market of U.S. pet food and treat sales."

The popularity of natural foods for dogs and cats is being propelled by people focused on their own eating habits and how foods impact overall health, industry insiders said, and sales are up. Customers want the best for their pets, and many equate minimal processing and foods close to their natural state as beneficial for their furry companions.

"Natural as a category progressed from being heavily ingredient focused to a much broader scope that considers how a food is processed," Landa said. "Raw-frozen, fresh-refrigerated and freeze-dried foods are leaning into innovative technology and packaging to deliver nutrition to pets in new ways without the need to rely on traditional preservatives. This is a niche where technology and ‘natural’ intersect and has potential to fuel exciting pet food and treat innovations for the next several years."

Nicci Decrisantis, owner of NorthPoint Pets & Co., a pet store in Cheshire, Conn., reported sales of raw foods rising due to consumers’ increased understanding of the link between nutrition and health. She also provides nutritional counseling for pets and focuses on natural foods that are biologically appropriate for animals to digest.

Demand on the dog side is up for natural toppers, treats and high-meat, grain-inclusive foods with functional benefits, insiders reported. For cats, the emphasis is on clean eating—a concept that is also prevalent in the human natural market—as well as human-grade bone broths and freeze-dried raw offerings.

Of equal importance to what’s in the foods are the ingredients that are not contained inside.

"Many pet parents find reassurance in claims such as ‘no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives,’ ‘grain free,’ ‘no corn, wheat or soy,’ or ‘made without white potatoes or tapioca starch,’" Landa said. "Some pet parents are simply looking to avoid certain ingredients in their search for the best natural food or treats for their pet."

Because "natural" means different things to different people, Christine McCoy, owner of The Natural Pet Enrichment Center, a pet store in North Royalton, Ohio, focuses on helping customers choose the most healthful option for their individual pets, lifestyles and budgets.

"The goal is finding the best choice for overall health and that addresses any specific issues that pet may be having," she said.

Ultimately, customers want to understand the benefits of natural foods, she added. For example, "What’s going to be the outcome of switching to this healthier food? It could be a better coat, a healthier weight or just overall improved longevity," McCoy said. "Customers want to understand those benefits."

Ingredient transparency is another important component in the natural pet food market.

"Ten years ago, it was rare for consumers to read an ingredient panel before putting it into their cart, but now it’s the norm," Landa said. "They are much more likely to purchase products which contain recognizable ingredients and when companies are transparent about ingredient sourcing and quality control."

Natural pet products clearly have a strong foothold in the marketplace, and pet specialty retailers have a continued opportunity to drive sales in dog and cat. As demands evolve, companies are working to reimagine how these natural ingredients are grown, prepared, distributed and ultimately served to pets, Landa added.