The Key Reasons Why Owners Are Buying Raw Cat Food

Interest in raw cat food remains steady as knowledge about the benefits of feeding a natural raw diet is increasingly shared amongst owners. As more look to offer their cats a healthier lifestyle, retailers and manufacturers both expect demand to grow.

"Over our 20-year history in the industry, we have seen a dramatic rise in the number of people seeking raw because they know someone who has seen great results in their pets by feeding raw," said Stacy La Point, owner and president of Fresh Is Best, a pet food and treats manufacturer in Milwaukee. "Word-of-mouth, more than anything, has driven our growth. People trust referrals from friends, family and social media testaments." 

Fresh Is Best recently introduced new freeze-dried Wild Alaskan Salmon Fillets and Pacific Whiting Fillets. La Point said that they can be cut easily with kitchen scissors into small pieces and can be fed dry as a treat or rehydrated as a meal replacement.

Lindsay Meyers, BS, CVT, product development and veterinary channel manager for Fairfield, Calif.-based Primal Pet Foods, a pet food and treats manufacturer, said that there’s no doubt pet owners’ increasing attentiveness to health and wellness—including the importance of consuming fresh and less-processed foods—is also playing a role in more raw sales.

"If we are moving toward less-processed foods for ourselves, then purchasing raw, meat-based foods for our carnivorous house companions seems logical," she said.

The company’s new Raw Toppers line makes it easy to feed cats these foods. Primal has reformatted its Mixes and Grinds—traditionally sold in a frozen chub format—and rebranded them for ease of thawing, portioning and serving. The Butcher’s Blends (formerly Grinds) now come in a two-pound bag and a frozen pellet format. The Market Mixes (formerly Mixes) now come in a five-pound package and a frozen pellet format. Both products are labeled and appropriate for dogs and cats, but the Butcher’s Blends are traditionally used for cats as they are meat only with no vegetables, Meyers noted.

Joey Weichmann, national sales manager for Vital Essentials in Green Bay, Wis., which also makes pet food and treats, said there are three things driving the raw movement—accessibility to education, a reduction in price and a stronger comfort level due to the increase in food safety standards. Even so, Weichmann said that most cat owners are not converting until after their pet has experienced a health issue or has stopped eating their current food.

This is on par with what pet specialty retailers expressed. Errin West, co-owner of Cat Connection in Dallas, said that when cat owners come and talk to her about raw, they’ve already "exhausted all other options."

"They have some sort of health issue that isn’t resolving, and they feel they’ve tried everything," West said. "That being said, once people do make the switch to raw, they almost always say they wish they’d done it sooner." 

Matt Aschendorf, co-owner of The Paw Depot of Boca Raton in Florida, said that problems are what drive people into his store as well. They might have purchased products online or at big-box stores in the past—but now they need to make a change. 

"We’re here to answer their questions and suggest solutions when they come in with a problem they can’t figure out," Aschendorf said. "Ultimately, it’s a differentiator that we can help cat people with answers they’ve been struggling to get."  

A Variety of Formats

As the interest in raw has grown, so has the number of options, making it easier for cat owners looking to start feeding raw to find a food that works for their pet, whether they want to use frozen raw or freeze-dried raw. 

These foods come in various shapes and sizes, including patties, chubs, nuggets and small bite-sized pieces. Given cats’ finicky nature, industry experts said that this variety is important. 

Nicci Cammack, owner of NorthPoint Pets & Co., a pet store in Cheshire, Conn., said that because cats’ preferences can differ dramatically, pet owners might need to try a few options.

"We definitely do very well with the freeze-dried raw category, but, in the end, cats are picky, and it comes down to their personal preference," Cammack said. "We need to offer variety so that our customers can find what’s right for them." 

La Point noted that Fresh Is Best has completely transitioned to freeze-dried products and no longer offers frozen options. She said sales for freeze-dried products had been outpacing frozen dramatically.

"Freeze-dried raw food is more convenient, and cats seem to love it," La Point said. 

Vital Essentials’ Vital Cat raw food is available in both frozen and freeze-dried varieties. Weichmann said that chicken is the most popular protein in both categories, followed by turkey.

"[Our] freeze-dried food includes two different formats, mini patties and mini nibs," he said. "The mini nibs are an attractive option for cat parents currently feeding kibble.

They can be added into the cat’s current food for added nutrition or served as a complete and balanced diet. For those owners who are currently feeding canned food, our mini patties are a good option for transitioning. Mini patties were designed to be crumbled and rehydrated with water or other liquid to make a meal that has the consistency of a pate."

In frozen raw food, Weichmann said the company offers two-ounce mini patties and 14-ounce resealable containers.

"The frozen food works well for those who feed canned food as the texture would be similar to their current diet," he added.

Meyers said that Primal Pet Foods sells both frozen raw and freeze-dried raw, as well. The frozen raw comes in two shapes—one-ounce nuggets and smaller bite-sized pieces that can be scooped.

"Frozen foods are easy to portion, more economical and don’t require a lot of prep," Meyers said. "Our freeze-dried raw food is popular because it is shelf-stable and lightweight, but it’s a bit more expensive and does require some simple prep—crumbling and hydrating. Having these options helps our customers to easily follow our advice on transitions." 

Making the Switch: Tips for Success

While the interest in raw is clear, getting cats to actually make the switch can be a barrier to sales. Cats are inherently picky, and changing up their diet can be challenging.

Retailers that are most successful with this category are those that can assist customers with the transition.

"Cats are creatures of habit," said Lindsay Meyers, BS, CVT, product development and veterinary channel manager for Primal Pet Foods, a pet food and treats maker in Fairfield, Calif. "They often prefer very specific textures for their foods and can become frustrated when those textures are changed. We tell our consumers to focus on the three T’s for their cats—texture, temperature and taste. If your cat is reluctant to try a new food, go back and attempt to change only one of those three T’s at a time—and slowly." 

For example, Meyers said that if a cat is used to eating dry kibble that is crunchy and room temperature and tastes like cooked meat, and you switch to thawed raw frozen food, you’ve switched all of the T’s.

"Instead, start with a bit of crumbled freeze-dried, which is a different taste but the same texture and temperature," Meyers suggested. "Once your cat is eating that regularly, you can slowly change the texture by adding a few drops of warm or room temperature water and increasing the amount over time." 

Joey Weichmann, national sales manager for Vital Essentials, a pet food and treats manufacturer in Green Bay, Wis., said that cat owners who need assistance in helping their pet make a change in diet represent a great opportunity for retailers to shine. He said it is important for retailers to have the educational material and know-how to support this effort.

He also recommended offering product samples so customers considering feeding raw "can try something new with their cat before investing in a full-size product purchase."

Nicci Cammack, owner of NorthPoint Pets & Co., a retailer in Cheshire, Conn., said that helping pet owners with these types of changes is what the store is known for and what makes it different from other places where pet owners could purchase their food.

"We take the time to sit with customers and really teach them about the different types of raw and how to successfully switch," Cammack said. "We have worksheets that I’ve made up which help guide customers in that process. Some cats adapt quickly, whereas others could take up to six months. It’s important that we set customers up with realistic expectations—that it could take awhile—or they might give up. Cat parents also need to understand it’s going to be worth the effort in the long run." 

Similarly, Matt Aschendorf, co-owner of The Paw Depot of Boca Raton, said the Florida store has also developed a reputation for problem solving. He is always offering cat owners tips to help them succeed. When making the switch to raw, he said that cat owners must consider the finicky nature of their pets.

"Whether it is taste, texture or smell, if anything is different some cats will just walk away—sometimes after just sniffing it," Aschendorf said. "Getting them to even try it can be really challenging. So, I suggest putting the smallest bit on the cat’s nose, forcing them to lick it off and do a little taste test. A lot of times, cats will then realize the food is actually very good—and for some cats, that’s enough. Other cats may require an ongoing effort." 

Trade Talk

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

Is raw food for cats being more accepted by cat owners? Why or why not? How does Tiki Cat make the raw category accessible to them?

Cats are obligate carnivores, which makes raw food an ideal diet. A complete and balanced raw diet is high in protein, provides natural hydration and is easy to digest. But feeding raw was never the easy choice, and there were not many good options unless you wanted to formulate a diet yourself. Many raw feeders were vets or breeders with years of experience.

Today there are more brands, and more retailers have freezer space, so the decision to feed raw is less difficult, causing the category to grow. We wanted to simplify the process even further and make it easy for the everyday cat owner to choose raw. After speaking with vets, breeders and cat owners, we launched Tiki Cat Raw diets, keeping four things in consideration.

Nutrition: Cats cannot utilize carbohydrates. Tiki Cat Raw diets are formulated to be complete and balanced and are made with only meat and added vitamins and minerals. They do not contain other unnecessary ingredients like grain, fruit or vegetables.

Safety: Tiki Cat Raw diets are pasteurized to protect against pathogens like salmonella, E. coli and listeria. Pasteurization is not a cooking process and does not use heat, so the natural enzymes and nutrients found in raw meat remain intact.

Freshness: Tiki Cat Raw diets are packed in plastic, easy-to-store, resealable cups that reduce freezer burn. Once thawed, the cup is a convenient way to keep the product fresh in your refrigerator without leaking or contaminating your own food.

Quality: Tiki Cat Raw is made in our own Missouri-based, [Safe Quality Food] SQF3-certified manufacturing plant. USA-sourced meats are received from nearby suppliers and quickly turned into a soft-textured, complete and balanced diet that is packed by hand and immediately sent to be pasteurized.