Many cats favor kibble—and given cats’ finicky nature, making a switch to anything else can be daunting. However, while cat owners might favor dry food for its convenience and palate-pleasing nature, they still want the best for their pets and are looking for top-quality foods that will promote optimal health.
"Cat parents are more open than ever to doing as much as they can to improve their cats’ health," said Matt O’Leary, owner of Felix & Oscar, a pet supply store in Springfield, Va. "When it comes to dry food, I think a lot of cat parents recognize it might not be the ideal choice, but their cat is addicted to kibble and refuses to switch. So, finding the best dry food choice is important to them."
Fortunately, O’Leary said, there are some great-quality dry products available, with more manufacturers paying attention to sourcing and listening to consumers’ demands for more healthful options.
Samantha Henson, a certified clinical pet nutritionist and merchandising manager for Premier Pet Supply, which has stores in Michigan, agreed. Though she would rather see more cat owners switch to raw, she said that dry food has come a very long way in terms of quality and health benefits. Whenever possible, she said she prefers to see her customers combine at least some raw into their pet’s diet.
Sherry Redwine, co-owner of Odyssey Pets, a pet supply store in Dallas, also said that a combination diet can work well. She has seen dry cat food sales decrease—while wet and raw sales have increased—but added that some owners say they are doing one meal wet, and then one dry.
"We only sell high-quality kibble here," she added. "Personally, I feed wet and raw to my cat, but if I go out of town for a weekend, I’ll put down dry—so I always keep at least some on hand. I think customers often do the same thing."
With demand favoring higher-quality dry foods, manufacturers are adding beneficial ingredients to promote improved health in cats.
"Many pet food manufacturers are looking into adding taurine into their dry food, an amino acid important for heart health," said Brian Willard, North America marketing manager for Addiction Foods in Kent, Wash. "More than 20 years ago, our clinical nutritionist at Addiction Foods had seen the link between taurine deficiency and dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs. This is why all Addiction Foods products have [had] taurine added since the beginning."
Holly Sher, owner and president of Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Co. in Markham, Ill., also stressed the value of providing foods with ingredients that promote good health.
"Evanger’s recognizes the importance of promoting a feline’s health from the inside out and has recently added important and health-promoting ingredients like coconut oil for digestive health and skin and coat health, as well as natural lauric acid, which contains antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial properties," she said. "Cat parents are seeking affordable yet USA-made foods their cats enjoy eating because they taste great, have health-promoting ingredients based on the optimum and unique nutritional needs of felines, and offer ingredients that cat parents recognize."
Retailers can use cat food displays to spark interest, more easily meet consumers’ specific needs and foster dialogue.
Matt O’Leary, owner of Felix & Oscar, a pet supply store in Springfield, Va., said that at his store, the brightest and most colorful bags are placed in prominent places to draw customers’ attention—and hopefully start a conversation. O’Leary added that he occasionally moves food around to encourage shoppers to make new discoveries.
"We’re always looking for ways to encourage cat parents to try something new and perhaps healthier," he said. "But there is a fine line between moving items around too much and mistakenly allowing the customer to believe you stopped selling the food they normally buy. Ultimately, we put the biggest focus on having a lot of conversations with our customers about what’s best for their pet."
Brian Willard, North America marketing manager for Addiction Foods in Kent, Wash., suggested setting up food displays based on a problem/solution scenario in order to help educate shoppers.
"There is an opportunity to merchandise the product in a way that meets specific customer needs," he said. "Instead of just putting all cat food in one section, there’s a way to organize the products based on the cat’s specific needs. For example, setting up displays in terms of sensitive cats, or weight control, or even skin and coat health."
Because it’s critical to educate owners that cats on a primarily dry food diet need to drink more water, Samantha Henson, a certified clinical pet nutritionist and merchandising manager for Premier Pet Supply, which has stores in Michigan, said there is a great opportunity for using displays that cross-merchandise bubblers and water fountains to promote this messaging.
"It’s so important that cats are receiving enough liquid elsewhere in their diet if they’re on a kibble diet," Henson said. "It’s important that retailers are educating pet parents about this. We often find that cat parents don’t realize that their cat needs to be drinking more water if they’re primarily eating dry food."
In addition to having effective displays, retailers can assist customers by curating a high-quality dry foods selection in their stores.
"I think that cat parents want to know that any dry food choice they make in our store is going to be a good choice," O’Leary said. "We try to curate a selection of products that we really believe in."
Willard stressed the importance of being prepared for questions from customers who come in looking for a better food choice.
"Retailers should provide good, detailed information about the brand, the story and the sourcing," he said. "They should provide their customers with more than just basic information. Be more detailed about the ingredients, the manufacturing process and the place of manufacturing."
On the Market
Cat Owners Go for Quality
Manufacturers are meeting demand for premium dry cat foods by offering lines with health-boosting ingredients.
Hound & Gatos, a brand of Francis, Wis.-based Gott Pet Products, now offers a line of limited-ingredient dry pet food. Each recipe is made with more than 84 percent of the highest-quality meat, poultry or fish, plus whole eggs, company officials reported. The recipes also contain a medley of superfoods. Grain-free varieties for cats include Cage Free Chicken, Wild Caught Salmon and Cage Free Turkey.
Stella & Chewy’s recently launched its first lines of cat kibble, delivering high-protein, grain-free diets.
Raw Coated Kibble for cats is available in Cage Free Chicken and Wild Caught Salmon.
"Each piece of kibble is carefully coated with our irresistible freeze-dried raw for unmatched nutrition and taste," said Molly Mulcahy, vice president of brand marketing for the Oak Creek, Wis.-based company.
The company also introduced Raw Blend Kibble for cats in Cage-Free Recipe. It contains freeze-dried raw-coated kibble as well as freeze-dried raw pieces.
Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Co. in Markham, Ill., offers Evanger’s Grain-Free Catch of the Day Dry Cat Food for weight management.
"It is a great pick for indoor cats, formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO nutrient profiles for all life stages," said Holly Sher, owner and president of the Markham, Ill.-based company. "This food contains chelated minerals and Alltech Probiotics and Actigen."
Ann Hudson, vice president of Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis
In recent years, what types of innovations have been seen in the dry food category for cats? Has there been a call from consumers for more premium dry selections? If so, how is your company responding to this demand?
In general, the nutritional options for cats are so much more abundant and are so much healthier than even five years ago. The market has evolved significantly over the last few years, as the cat population has grown, and as the concept of humanization in the form of healthy food has bled over into the cat space. Premiumization is a function of better nutrition and more choices for educated cat owners—life-stage and special needs products are now basic parts of every brand portfolio and a big miss if you don’t have them. Tiki Cat Born Carnivore is a better product—it’s full of fresh meat and as low in carbohydrates as possible to meet the needs of the obligate carnivore.
One of the ways we have approached dry food, which is different from other manufacturers, is that we have a baked kibble. It is a different cooking process from extrusion and allows us to use higher levels of fresh meat. Baking seems like an intuitive way of preparing a more natural food, but it is time-consuming and more expensive, so it is not commonly used in our industry.
Though it will always be an important component of a healthy diet, I think we may see a slower pace of breakthrough innovation on the dry side as more consumers understand the importance of protein and hydration for cats. Pet owners are looking for a holistic approach to innovating, both inside and outside the bag. We continue to update and upgrade our diets as we learn more about feline nutrition, but we are also focusing on continuing to refine our ingredient sourcing requirements and reviewing opportunities to be better corporate citizens through a greater dedication to protecting the environment—more to come on that in Q1.