Feeding pets a healthful, well-balanced diet is no longer a trend—it’s a lifestyle, according to industry insiders. However, when looking at specific dog food formulations and ingredients, there are some key areas to keep to an eye on.

“Pet guardians are increasingly interested in their pet’s well-being and feeding a higher level of nutrition,” said Michelle Granger, general manager of global brand and innovation for Ziwi, a New Zealand-based manufacturer. “This has led to an increase in demand for more natural or healthful products. Pet guardians are often interested in protein-rich recipes with whole ingredients. There is also a stronger awareness and concern regarding food preparation. This is likely contributing to significant growth in products that are more gently prepared than traditional kibble, such as fresh, raw and raw-alternative foods.”

Beth Kidd, owner of Dogs by Design Holistic Wellness Center, a retailer in Irwin, Pa., has also seen a boost in demand for the raw and freeze-dried raw diets.

“My clients want a complete diet made with whole foods without the use of synthetic vitamins,” Kidd said.

At Feeders Supply Co. stores, with locations in Kentucky and Indiana, Tabitha McKinney, senior category manager of dog and cat food, is seeing more people buy canned food, in addition to freeze-dried and raw dog food.

“We have educated our customers to understand that moisture is important for urinary health, as well as overall health, and we are seeing canned food become a popular add-on as a result,” McKinney said.

As far as trends in dog food ingredients, consumers are looking for synergistic ingredients that work together to provide functional benefits for dogs, McKinney said.

“For example, you may see cartilage being used in conjunction with organ meats as sources of protein and as a way to get natural vitamins and amino acids into the food,” McKinney added.

Grain-inclusive options are also in high demand, McKinney said. She connected this boost in demand to the initial public reaction to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA)’s 2018 advisory alerting pet owners and veterinarians to a potential link between dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and certain grain-free diets. The agency has since acknowledged there is no clear-cut evidence of this link, but there remains a growing consumer interest in alternative grains.

“Run-of-the-mill rice is out in favor of grains like oatmeal and quinoa,” McKinney added. “‘Ancient’ or ‘wholesome’ are the buzzwords for the grain-in category.”

Some pet owners are going the vegetarian route.

“With people becoming more earth conscious and animal aware, they are not eating as much meat themselves,” said Sherry Padgett, executive sales and service director at Walk About Pet, a manufacturer in Lancaster, Pa. “They are also feeding their dog a vegetarian lifestyle. We are seeing more manufacturers add more wholesome ingredients like flaxseeds, healthy oils, and real fruits and vegetables to their foods as well as preparing vegetarian recipes.”

Padgett also noted that pets are showing signs of sensitivities to the traditional barnyard proteins like beef and chicken.

“Some scratch, some have upset tummies, some bite at their paws; all are different reactions to some sort of an allergy or sensitivity,” Padgett said. “There are now great alternative proteins like kangaroo, alligator, wild boar and rabbit, to name a few.”

Such alternative proteins, which can be seen in a variety of feeding formats as well as treats, are increasingly finding a place on store shelves.

“In recent months, we added formulas to our shelves that have more unusual protein sources, such as rabbit and kangaroo,” McKinney said. “We also offer many formulas that contain fish, venison and duck. Giving consumers the ability to purchase a novel protein for their dog is important, as many pets in the U.S. suffer from allergies that impact their quality of life. It’s important that we have options for pet parents who need to make a switch.”

While pet owners are increasingly on the hunt for dog food with novel proteins, transparency in ingredient sourcing is the top concern for many customers, according to Granger.

“Like trends in human nutrition, food provenance, sustainability and animal welfare are important to discerning pet guardians,” Granger said.

Not all brands are created equal, Granger pointed out.

“It’s important for pet guardians to dive deeper and do their research to truly understand the entirety of the food they select,” Granger said. “For example, pet guardians may be focused on selecting a grain-free food. Some are high in carbohydrates, like potato—not ideal for animals that don’t require carbohydrates. Alternatively, they may choose a low-carbohydrate food but it’s been cooked at high temperatures, compromising nutrition in the cooking process. Just like any product, it’s essential to not focus on one feature—trendy or not—but to look at the entire offering.”

Power in Premium

In general, premium diets are going strong, according to industry insiders.

“Premium diets have retained a good share of the market,” said Melissa Van Vactor, vice president of sales of Bixbi, a manufacturer in Boulder, Colo. “Freeze-dried sales [have remained] strong throughout the pandemic; [these foods offer] an easy, shelf-stable way for pet parents to add fresh ingredients to their dog’s diets as a topper, a full meal or a treat.”

Granger noted similar trends.

“Premium foods, including meal toppers and raw-alternative products, such as Ziwi’s air-dried recipes, are experiencing strong growth,” Granger said. “While these categories were growing prior to the pandemic, the pandemic has likely contributed to their popularity. With people staying at home more, and in some cases are under a greater amount of stress, the bond between dogs, cats and their human companions seems to be stronger than ever. Pet adoptions have increased, and people are simply spending more time with their pets. As a result, this has likely increased the desire to give their faithful companion a higher level of nutrition.”

New Products

A Range of Choices

Manufacturers are supplying a variety of dog foods to enliven retailers’ shelves.

Walk About Pet in Lancaster, Pa., reported that it will have new pet food products ready for store shelf placement this month.

“We are coming out with a new 10-pound bag of kibble that will include dehydrated farm fresh fruits and vegetables, and pieces of our jerky in one of three recipes: Kangaroo, Wild Boar and Quail,” said Sherry Padgett, executive sales and service director.

In late 2020, Boulder, Colo.-based Bixbi introduced Liberty dry food for dogs.

“Liberty uses the same fresh meat approach Rawbble pioneered years ago—always fresh meat and never any rendered meat powders,” officials say on the company’s website.

Liberty comes in six recipes and a variety of ancient-grain, grain-free and small-breed options.

Earlier in 2020, Ziwi introduced the Ziwi Peak Provenance Series.

“Inspired by the rich culture and diverse landscape of New Zealand, these three new air-dried and wet recipes feature five meats and fish, ethically and sustainably sourced from a single region in New Zealand,” said Michelle Granger, general manager of global brand and innovation for Ziwi, which is based in New Zealand. “Like all Ziwi Peak foods, they are crafted with high inclusions of raw meat and organs, made without unwanted carbohydrates, and packed full of superfoods, like cold-washed green tripe, whole New Zealand mussels and organic kelp. Available for both dogs and cats, they are perfect as a complete meal or topper.”

Lasting Impressions

A quick look into how the dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) debate has impacted the dog food category.

The potential link between canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and grain-free diets became a hot topic back in 2018 when the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issued an advisory alerting pet owners and veterinarians about the “animal health concern.” While the FDA has since acknowledged that there is no clear evidence linking the two, the impression of the correlation has had far-reaching effects.

“The DCM crisis has played a large role in reshaping the entire industry, from the manufacturers to the retailer to the pet parent,” said Tabitha McKinney, senior category manager of dog and cat food at Feeders Supply Co., which has stores in Kentucky and Indiana. Feeders Supply also has a subsidiary called Chow Hound, which is based in Michigan. “Manufacturers and retailers alike have had to pivot to make sure they could meet the demand for grain-inclusive options. It has been extremely important to grow with the changing attitude of the consumer.”

Bixbi did just this, expanding its food options to include a few grain-inclusive choices for those pet owners who felt like they needed the option, said Melissa Van Vactor, vice president of sales for the Boulder, Colo.-based company.

After the FDA announcement, some pet owners moved to foods with grains, and others upgraded their grain-free kibble to fresh, raw and raw-alternative diets, said Michelle Granger, general manager of global brand and innovation for Ziwi, a manufacturer based in New Zealand.

Beth Kidd, owner of Dogs by Design Holistic Wellness Center in Irwin, Pa., noticed a change, but it took an interesting turn.

“A lot of people switched to grain-inclusive foods only to have their dogs become itchy, and they eventually switched back to grain free,” Kidd said.

A Lack of Evidence

While the FDA’s initial reports were distressing, in September, the agency clarified certain points at a virtual scientific forum hosted by Kansas State University. Some of these points included reiterating that DCM is a scientifically complex, multifaceted disease, and that the development of DCM in dogs has a clear genetic component, and other potential factors, such as nutrition, may contribute. More research was required, officials said.

After hearing the FDA acknowledge during the forum that there is no clear evidence indicating that grain-free foods with pulse ingredients are inherently dangerous for dogs, industry insider nodded in unison as if to say, “I told you so.”

“The evidence was clear from the start—there is no clear evidence that grain-free foods cause anything other than clearing up issues that many pet parents face with their dogs—itchy skin, dull coats and poor nutrition,” Van Vactor said. “Filler grains have been used as cheap ingredients choices for years, not because they are nutritionally appropriate, but because they are cheap. Fresh meat and whole food ingredients are best, which is the reason we only use 100 percent fresh meat and we stand proudly behind our grain-free recipes.”

Education is paramount, according to industry insiders.

“Retailers in our industry have a responsibility to continually research and learn when it comes to pet nutrition, no matter what is happening,” McKinney said. “Pet owners seek advice from the places they have trust in—their vet and the pet specialty retailer. By staying up-to-date on the findings released by the FDA and maintaining our in-depth nutritional training for all associates, we are poised to be able to guide the customer through whatever nutritional challenges they face.”

Britt Sturm, vice president of Agri Feed Pet Supply, which has stores in Knoxville, Tenn., agreed. For information, Sturm said he turns to FDA notices and industry and consumer pet food groups, to name a few. Anything you find on social media you have to take with a grain of salt, he added.

That’s why unbiased sources are key, Van Vactor said.

“If an article or ‘study’ is pointing you in the direction of one specific pet company or against smaller companies in favor or larger companies, think twice,” Van Vactor said. “Unbiased evidence is presented in clear and concise ways, and shows no predisposition of a desired outcome.”