As cats become more popular pets, both consumers and retailers are embracing grain-free and raw meat diets.

Move over Fido, it’s Kitty’s time to shine! According to the American Pet Products Association, there are more than 94 million pet cats in America today—the result of an upward trend that shows no signs of stopping. And with so many feline mouths to feed, both owners and manufacturers have renewed their interest in cat diet options.

“Cats are growing in popularity as pets, so we’ve seen a greater focus on just about everything ‘cat,’” says Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice president and co-founder of Portland, Ore.-based Radagast Pet Food, Inc.

Modern cat owners aren’t passive about their feline’s wellbeing; they’re actively looking for products that improve their cat’s quality of life. So, they’re not settling for whatever kibble is on sale anymore.

“[Pet parents] are reading labels carefully,” explains Gina Zaro, marketing director for Dr. Elsey’s Precious Cat Products. “They want to feed high-quality ingredients that help their cats live longer, healthier lives. Cat owners are more informed than ever and willing to pay more for a diet that meets the true demands of their cat.”

This increase in consumer education has resulted in a trend toward more natural ingredients. According to the 2016 Nielsen report, Humanization of Pet Food, pet owners want food labels they can understand, free from scientific-sounding preservatives and genetically modified ingredients.

Manufacturers like Dr. Elsey’s Precious Cat Products have noticed consumers’ concerns, and they’re responding. The Colorado-based company’s newest line of cat food—cleanprotein—embraces the all-natural trend wholeheartedly. The high-protein kibble contains zero grains, fillers, preservatives, GMOs or gluten.

Inspired by the protein levels found in feline’s natural prey, more than 90 percent of the protein in cleanprotein food is animal based. Since protein metabolizes slower than carbohydrates, such as grains, fruits and vegetables, it is key to maintaining a healthy body weight throughout a cat’s life. 

Back to Basics

Ancestral or evolutionary diets have been a major source of inspiration for many pet food manufacturers in recent years. These foods try to recreate, as closely as possible, what cats would be eating in the wild—raw meat.

“People are really learning about what ‘ancestral diets’ truly are,” explains Hatch-Rizzi. “For cats, dogs and ferrets, that’s really a raw diet. Raw has been a small, but fast-growing category for many years now.”

Hatch-Rizzi, along with her co-founder, Janice Hatch-Rizzi, initially created Rad Cat Raw Diet products for one special kitty: Juno. As a kitten, she had major digestive problems caused by a grain allergy. A raw diet was suggested, but unfortunately, most raw cat foods at the time included both grains and vegetables. So, they developed their own grain-free recipe, and today, Juno is one happy and healthy feline.

Rad Cat Raw Diet cat foods come in a variety of flavors designed to appeal to cats’ carnivorous nature, including turkey, chicken, lamb, beef, venison and pork. All of the food comes from free-range, grass-fed and pasture-raised meat—the same quality you might expect from a high-end natural grocery store. Plus, the meat is USDA-inspected and hormone and antibiotic free.

Another important raw pet food manufacturer is Wisconsin-based Vital Essentials. The raw food pioneer has been producing high-quality raw and freeze-dried products since 1968.

“Since cats are obligate carnivores, grains, fruits, vegetables or other types of fillers are not part of an appropriate diet, and awareness of this fact is on the rise among pet parents,” says Kevin Malnor, vice president of marketing and sales for Vital Essentials. “Our products, based on the ‘Alpha Prey-Model Diet,’ are among the best limited ingredient foods on the market today.”

Last year, Vital Essentials released its new Vital Cat line, which includes a variety of frozen and freeze-dried complete and balanced meal options. Every Vital Cat product is made with single-sourced proteins and zero additives, so pet parents know exactly what they’re feeding their furry friends.

The increasing popularity and health benefits of raw cat foods doesn’t mean they’re without drawbacks, though. One of the biggest concerns about raw diets is safety. Compared to other pet foods, raw products do come with an increased risk of contamination from bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella. That’s why it’s important for both retailers and consumers to only choose brands that follow strict food safety protocols. Pet parents should also take care to follow manufacturer instructions regarding safe handling and storage.

Breaking Down Barriers

One of the major obstacles that pet retailers face when marketing high-quality cat diets to customers is, of course, the higher cost that often come with these foods. Luckily, retailers can help cater to owners on a budget by offering high-quality cat food products at a variety of price points.

“Modern pet parents are very educated when it comes to pet nutrition, but cost is still a key factor for them when selecting a food,” says Scott Whipple, co-owner and co-founder of California-based Canidae Pet Foods.  “They want a natural, grain-free option with high-quality ingredients — like a meat protein first — at an affordable price-point. That’s why we launched Canidae ‘Under The Sun.’”

All of the products in the “Under the Sun” cat food lineup are completely grain-free and made from a single protein source. They come in both dry and wet formulas, as well as a range of flavors, including turkey, tuna, chicken, salmon and duck. Plus, they’re all under $25.

While today’s cat owners are more informed than ever before, they still often need help from retailers to navigate the increasing number of options in the cat food aisle. Signage can be a particularly useful, and relatively inexpensive, merchandising tool. Bright signs can help attract attention to special displays of grain-free products, while shelf talkers can direct customers to websites for more educational information.

Since raw food products must be kept in coolers or freezers, they offer a unique marketing challenge. Hatch-Rizzi recommends opting for freezers with glass fronts if possible, but retailers with solid door freezers can still drive sales with a little extra effort.

“Having colorful and informative signage for freezers is always beneficial for stores that don’t have glass front merchandisers,” she says. “It really draws the eye to an otherwise white freezer and encourages conversation about what is waiting for them behind the door!”

Digital marketing efforts are also a must for reaching modern cat parents, especially Millennials. Share educational information about cat diets on social media or send out special offers on raw products via e-newsletters.

The best way to boost cat food sales, though, is to connect with customers—both online and in the store.

“Stores that have very successful cat categories have found ways to really connect with their cat customers,” explains Hatch-Rizzi. “If retailers work with their employees on how to engage their cat customers and discuss the benefits of different products, it can really go a long way to increasing their cat food sales. Friendly dialogue and knowledgeable store associates can make all the difference.” PB

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