Pet owners aren’t just dabbling with premium dog food anymore; they are actively seeking and purchasing it with full steam, according to industry insiders.
Just as consumers want healthy, sustainable products for themselves, they want the same for their pets, said Heather Hickey, senior vice president of sales for Ziwi USA, a pet food manufacturer in Overland Park, Kan.
“There is also an increased level of education among consumers,” Hickey said. “They understand that cats and dogs are carnivores, so they are looking for high-quality, meat-based recipes that are sourced from a company they trust.”
Sales in the premium dog food category are rapidly growing, according to Ben Pratt, general manager of Lucky Dog Barkery in Dallas.
“In our store—and industrywide, based on conversations with other retailers, distributors and manufacturers—the freshly cooked/frozen food category is rapidly growing, as is the raw category,” Pratt said. “Much of the growth appears to partly stem from an increased awareness by the consumer of the benefits of fresh over highly processed ingredients, as well as the importance of sustainably and ethically sourced ingredients.”
Some pet owner buying decisions, however, have been affected by the recent pandemic, reported Addie Schuhle, buyer at Pet Food Depot, a pet store in Phoenix.
“During COVID-19, we have seen a shift in food [purchases],” Schuhle said. “More people are looking for economic foods, high quality at a reasonable price. We have seen people move away from the high-priced foods such as Acana to the Fromm or NutriSource world. Even some to Victor.”
However, not everyone is looking to cut costs by changing their dog food. In fact, raw pet food is still one of the fastest-growing categories in pet food, according to Gordon Dumesich, chief growth and marketing officer for Instinct Pet Food, a manufacturer in St. Louis.
“When Instinct got started in raw food back in 2002, it wasn’t nearly as common as it is today,” Dumesich said. “With the growth of the raw category, pet parents have proven that raw nutrition is much more than a pet food trend—it’s a movement. More people are becoming raw advocates because they’ve seen that raw feeding works.”
What Does a “Premium” Diet Mean?
Fresh, high protein content and free of fillers, byproducts and artificial preservatives are just some of the ways industry insiders describe premium pet food.
“A premium diet must be biologically appropriate, high in meat and contain superior ingredients,” Hickey said. “The recipes must contain superfoods for optimum health benefits.”
According to Dumesich, premium pet food should be complete and balanced, start with real meat, contain a high level of animal protein and include healthy fats, vegetables and fruits.
“We believe that raw pet food is the ultimate premium diet because it’s the most minimally processed option—and because raw food is never cooked, it retains more nutrients than cooked pet food,” Dumesich said.
Pratt also pointed to freshly cooked and raw diets as being the pinnacle of the premium category—so long as the ingredients are ethically and sustainably sourced, and are whole foods and not rendered or byproduct ingredients. Fruits and vegetables should be fresh and ideally organic, Pratt added.
“These same standards apply to premium kibble diets; however, kibble being more processed and not ‘fresh,’ there are few kibbles that I would call premium,” Pratt said. “A premium kibble is one that has the same ingredient standards named above but is also high meat with fewer carbs (like raw), has fewer fillers like peas/legumes, and is perhaps baked instead of extruded. If it has grain, they use grains like quinoa or millet rather than barley, corn, wheat, etc.”
Schuhle prefers a short ingredient panel, one that has meat as the first ingredient and has added taurine.
“Our best-selling premium diet right now is NutriSource Elements,” Schuhle said.
However, it’s more than just ingredients that make a diet premium, according to Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet, a manufacturer in Tewksbury, Mass.
“Premium diets go beyond just the ingredients that make up a recipe, but [include] how the recipes are developed,” Leary-Coutu said. “We believe that a premium diet for pets is one that combines the perfect balance of high-quality natural ingredients with the latest scientific research and technologies so that every recipe delivers health benefits that pet parents will be able to actually see, and that pets will feel.”
Healthy Choices Beyond the Bowl
Various studies have shown that proper diet has a direct impact on human health, and today’s pet owners know that the same is true for dogs. Manufacturers are responding with research-backed formulas.
Instinct Pet Food has partnered with the DogRisk research program to use its “groundbreaking work” as the basis of its new line of recipes called Instinct Raw Longevity, Dumesich said.
“Emerging science is showing us that a raw pet food diet has a positive impact on specific health conditions in dogs compared to conventional cooked foods,” Dumesich said. “The University of Helsinki’s DogRisk independent research program has linked a raw diet to a reduced risk in developing canine atopic dermatitis (aka environmental allergies) and inflammatory bowel disease when fed to puppies.”
The most common health conditions that Pratt hears about are pancreatitis, diabetes and kidney issues or bladder struvite stones.
“These types of issues often have very specific dietary requirements, which are most often addressed with a veterinarian; however, fresh premium options are also available and researched with the customer as requested,” Pratt said.
The biggest concern Pet Food Depot encounters is sensitive digestion issues, with pancreatitis, diarrhea, vomiting, allergies and candida following, according Schuhle. Removing potatoes from the diet and rotating foods are also helpful, Schuhle added.
Overall, retailers should choose to carry recipes that are complete and balanced for all life stages to ensure that pets are getting all of the essential nutrients they need no matter their age or breed, Hickey said.
“In addition, some pets benefit from superfoods like green-lipped mussels, which contain natural glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health, and omega fatty acids, which can promote healthy skin and coat,” Hickey said.
Pet food manufacturers are cooking up some innovative recipes in the premium diet category.
Ziwi has been going strong with brands such as its Ziwi Peak Provenance Series, launched in 2020, but company officials are particularly excited about what’s on the horizon.
“Next year will be a big year of innovation for Ziwi,” said Heather Hickey, senior vice president of sales for Ziwi USA in Overland Park, Kan. “We are building a new kitchen in New Zealand, and when it opens, we’ll be expanding into some exciting new categories.”
It’s been a big year for Instinct Pet Food, particularly when it comes to product launches, said Gordon Dumesich, chief growth and marketing officer for the St. Louis-based company.
“Pets have unique nutritional needs at every life stage, and Instinct wants to ensure the best for every age—this insight and the latest scientific research on raw were the basis for Instinct’s 2021 innovation,” Dumesich said.
The Instinct Raw Longevity line, which launched in July, is the next evolution in raw, combining the latest research with natural nutrition and guaranteeing the right nutrition customized to the unique health needs of each life stage, according to Dumesich. In this new line, pet owners can find dog and cat recipes tailored for puppies, kittens, adults and adults age 7-plus, available in a variety of proteins across multiple forms: frozen raw, freeze-dried raw, and a 20 percent raw and kibble blend. Instinct Raw Longevity is exclusively available at neighborhood pet stores, Dumesich said.
Other recently launched products from Instinct include: Instinct Raw Boost Frozen Mixers with functional ingredients, available in Gut Health and Skin & Coat Health formulas, for use as a topper or healthy treat; and Instinct Raw Boost Mixers Powder, a freeze-dried raw powder that makes it easy to add the flavor and benefits of raw to any meal, according to Dumesich.
WellPet recently launched two products under its Wellness Natural Pet Food brand. The first is Wellness Core Digestive Health for dogs and cats, the company’s first recipe line crafted with digestive enzymes, developed in response to the growing number of pet owners looking to naturally support their pets’ digestive health through daily meals and nutrition sources, said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for the Tewksbury, Mass.-based company.
“Each kibble and pâté recipe incorporates prebiotic fibers and probiotics that promote full-body well-being from the inside out—plus, they’re highly digestible, support a healthy microbiome and immune system, and encourage vitality for optimal energy,” Leary-Coutu said. “Available for both dogs and cats with dry and wet recipe variations, Wellness Core Digestive Health has an option for nearly every pet belly.”
WellPet also recently introduced its Wellness Core Bowl Boosters Functional Toppers, which were crafted by the company’s team of professionals, including animal nutritionists, to deliver guaranteed nutrients, protein and flavor that support a lifetime of well-being, according to Leary-Coutu.
“Not only are the new toppers naturally healthy and delicious, they’re also conveniently ready to serve in less than a minute and target four key areas of well-being: digestive health, heart health, joint health, and skin and coat health,” Leary-Coutu said.