Cats are often known to be picky eaters that leave their owners scrambling to find the most palatable diets for their pets. Yet many owners are equally as focused on buying the most nutritious and highest-quality cat food options available.

“Pet food quality and nutrition is not something pet parents are willing to skimp on,” said Molly Mulcahy, vice president of brand marketing at Stella & Chewy’s, a manufacturer in Oak Creek, Wis. “They want to know the ingredients are responsibly sourced. Of course, they want great taste for their cats, but as important are the nutrients included in the meal and treat recipes.”

While meat as the first ingredient is not a new focus in cat food, pet specialty retailers reported seeing an uptick in the amount of protein included in these diets.

“Meat first has been around for a while, but the percentage of protein coming from the meat source itself [is up], where it is not being pulled from the carb,” said Tara Belzer, owner of Pet in the City, a retailer in Charlotte, N.C.

Martin Thompson, sales associate and warehouse manager at Bark Avenue Pet Supply in Mesa, Ariz., agreed, adding that cat owners want more meat for their pets.

“Canned foods seem to be leaning more towards formulations with 90 percent or more meat content, which feed incredibly well and fit the high demands of a cat’s need for protein,” he said. “The top three ingredients cat owners look for in diets are all proteins: lamb, chicken and salmon.”

Pet owners’ demand for foods with high protein content is largely driven by their understanding that cats are obligate carnivores, said Tyler Atkins, chief sales and marketing officer at SquarePet, a manufacturer in Austin, Texas.

“The trend will be to continue to supply nutritional diets that cater to [cats’] desire and need for higher proportions of their energy requirements to derive from proteins and fats,” he explained. “Supplying energy-dense nutrition from high-quality animal-based protein ingredients while diminishing the amounts of unnecessary carbohydrate ingredients appeals to cats’ carnivorous nature.”

Another demand reported in the cat food segment is for “variety—both in formulations and with ingredients used,” said Bryan Nieman, brand director at Fromm Family Foods, a manufacturer in Mequon, Wis.

Miscanthus grass is a trending ingredient because of its health benefits, he said. This functional ingredient provides “insoluble fiber that promotes GI [gastrointestinal] health and hairball management for cats—a common feline problem,” Nieman said.

Cat food manufacturers are also increasingly including ancient grains into their formulas, industry insiders said. Thompson noted that he especially sees this in kibble diets.

“It seems the shift towards ancient grains has come in response to the controversial studies surrounding DCM [canine dilated cardiomyopathy] and the impact that grain-free foods can have in the absorption of taurine,” he said.

Variety is also found in the plethora of food formats available. Many cat owners offer their pets a combination of diet textures, such as both dry and canned food. Wet foods often provide a variety of flavors and proteins as well as choices in consistency, such as pâté, shredded, minced, stew, flaked, bits and more.

“Wet food has taken the biggest jump,” Belzer said, noting a significant increase in wet food purchases. “I have a lot of options, and most people are not brand loyal but look for ingredients that the cats like—ingredients and textures [because] cats can be picky.”

An uptick of kidney issues in cats is another reason for the variety and popularity of canned diets, Thompson said.

“We are seeing pet food manufacturers starting to focus on increasing the moisture content in their canned foods, particularly pâtés and broths,” he said. “Companies are starting to see they need to provide an adequate amount of moisture that cats so badly need in their food.”

Thompson also reported that raw foods are on the rise.

“We have seen an increase in customers feeding freeze-dried and frozen raw diets as the public knowledge of species-appropriate foods becomes more widespread,” Thompson said.

New Products

Introductions in Kibble

Several pet food manufacturers recently launched unique kibble offerings for cats.

SquarePet, a manufacturer in Austin, Texas, introduced its High Meat, Low Carbohydrate Turkey & Chicken Formula. Marketed as a convenient alternative to raw feeding and home cooking, the gently cooked diet derives 98 percent of its protein from cage-free turkey and chicken, whole eggs and salmon, and contains less than 11 percent carbohydrates. The food is made without grains, peas, legumes or potatoes and comes in 4.4- and 11-pound bags.

Stella & Chewy’s, a manufacturer in Oak Creek, Wis., recently added two recipes to its cat kibble line: Raw Coated Kibble Cage Free Duck Recipe and Raw Blend Kibble Wild Caught Recipe. The foods are made in the USA with no ingredients from China, and meat is the No. 1 ingredient followed by animal meal—there’s no corn, wheat, pea or soy protein, the company stated. Each piece of kibble is coated with the manufacturer’s freeze-dried raw recipe, and the meals come in 2.5- and 5-pound zip-tight bags.

Along with debuting new packaging for its life-stage-specific Fromm Gold line for cats, Mequon, Wis.-based manufacturer Fromm Family Foods unveiled a new formulation: Healthy Weight Gold. Designed for senior and less-active cats, the new diet features lower caloric, protein and fat levels and contains Miscanthus grass and L-carnitine. It comes in 4- and 10- pound bags.


Pet Health Partners

Communication between pet specialty retailers and pet food manufacturers is crucial in promoting cat diets.

“When it comes to our retail partners, we believe communication and education is incredibly important,” said Bryan Nieman, brand director at Fromm Family Foods, a manufacturer in Mequon, Wis. “When new recipes are introduced, we provide a series of email communications that share features and benefits, and often accompany them with videos featuring the Fromm nutritionist discussing the nutritional benefits of certain ingredients and formulations and how your pet will benefit.”

Like Fromm, many cat food manufacturers ensure their retail partners know about all upcoming products and new recipes. Using a variety of communication methods, savvy companies work to make sure information is available and questions are answered.

“SquarePet supports the independent retail channel and provides in-store training, video-conferencing training, as well as digital and hard copy product resources,” said Tyler Atkins, chief sales and marketing officer at SquarePet, a manufacturer in Austin, Texas.

Web-based training programs are especially helpful for busy retailers who have limited time but want to stay up-to-date.

“We invest in educating our retail partners by offering an online training program,” said Molly Mulcahy, vice president of brand marketing at Stella & Chewy’s, a manufacturer in Oak Creek, Wis. “The trainings help keep retailers informed on industry trends and our latest new product innovations.”

Retailers focused on pet food sales tend to take staff training seriously and are proactive in using multiple channels for education.

“We educate the staff here at Bark Avenue through a combination of brand training, nutrition certifications geared towards feline nutrition and individual research,” said Martin Thompson, sales associate and warehouse manager at Bark Avenue Pet Supply in Mesa, Ariz. “We host customer seminars and staff training, and have had veterinarians, nutritionists and even board-certified nutritionists come to talk to staff and customers about what to look for in pets’ foods.”

Thompson added that he is working toward his certification in feline nutrition.

Tara Belzer, owner of Pet in the City, a retailer in Charlotte, N.C., said her highly passionate team members are self-motivated to learn.

“They challenge each other to learn more, and they use tools given to them, such as vendor classroom programs and online nutrition tests,” she said. “It is a great personal satisfaction to solve a cat’s need or problem. We live for that!”

Assortment Optimization

Options for All Owners

To meet consumer demand, independent pet retailers aim to provide an ideal assortment of cat foods featuring various formulas and a range of price points. A frequent stocking recommendation is providing an appropriately tiered selection.

“Each market and each store is unique and has different requirements based on their customer base,” said Tyler Atkins, chief sales and marketing officer at SquarePet, a manufacturer in Austin, Texas. “That being said, stores should consider ‘good, better, best’ product philosophy when curating their product selection and should have a variety of highly palatable dry, wet, freeze-dried and treat products available for customers to choose from.”

This is precisely the concept used by Tara Belzer, owner of Pet in the City, a retailer in Charlotte, N.C.

“I want everyone to feel as if they are doing the best they can, so selection is key,” she said. “I have an entry to natural with Victor [Pet Food], and we sell a lot of Primal [brand] frozen raw food. A wide range of customers equals a wide range of items.”

Bark Avenue Pet Supply in Mesa, Ariz., focuses on “premium, species-appropriate formulas that we can make work for each of our customer’s budgets,” said sales associate and warehouse manager Martin Thompson, whose store offers a wide variety of options, from canned to kibble, from several brands.

It’s important for retailers to provide enough options that shoppers can pick and choose.

“By offering a collection of foods that include canned and dry diets in a variety of flavors and featured ingredients, retailers can ensure that they will have enough options for the shopper to try,” said Bryan Nieman, brand director at Fromm Family Foods, a manufacturer in Mequon, Wis. “Beyond that, carrying quality brands and having a good insight [into] their features, benefits and why a pet parent should consider them is critical in closing the sale and often building a relationship with their shoppers.”


Trade Talk

Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis

What are the top ingredient and format trends in cat food right now, and how do they cater to cat owners’ needs?

For cats, the two primary drivers of palatability are aroma/flavor and what we call mouthfeel, which is basically texture. Tiki Cat is probably one of our best-known brands, and within the Tiki Cat range, we offer 85 flavor and texture combinations, so we are kind of experts in the area. Tiki was one of the first whole food brands using shredded chicken and flaked fish. Hand-packed with broth, every can offered a different fish or chicken combination topped with things like shrimp or lobster. Those products remain the core of the line and are made in the same simple way.

Since 2015, we have increased the pace of innovation and introduced diets with lots of different proteins and many new textures, including a Velvet mousse that feels like hummus, After Dark meaty diets that have chunks of organ meat, Complements, which are high-protein shredded meat food toppers, and new, soft pâtés. Almost all pâtés are made with carbohydrates, using a grain or gum as a thickener to make them hold their shape when the food comes out of the can—think canned cranberries at Thanksgiving. But cats are carnivores and cannot digest the nutrients found in grains or vegetables. We were able to formulate a range of nutritionally appropriate pâtés that are made with 100 percent meat or poultry. The texture is softer than a typical pâté, there is more moisture for the cat, and it is easier to get out of the can, so the owner is happy too. After Dark Pate, from New Zealand, is one of our fastest-growing segments. Lamb and Duck are popular, but the new Rabbit formula is outselling any of the other flavors.