Keeping up with the latest developments in pet nutrition is essential for retailers who want to successfully drive dog and cat food sales.

Pet owners want their beloved animals to eat well, and manufacturers are offering a wide variety of ways for these consumers to nourish their pets in a healthy way. And while the sheer depth and breadth of products on the market make it difficult to keep up with what is truly the most healthful option for feeding dogs and cats, retailers can succeed if they know the key trends in pet nutrition and can explain them to consumers. The key, industry experts say, is to know what exactly consumers are seeking.

“Pet parents want to see simplification of ingredients, meaning real whole-food ingredients, similar to what they would eat themselves,” says Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice president and co-founder of Radagast Pet Food, Inc., makers of Rad Cat Raw Diet. “They’re looking for high-quality, natural products and transparency from manufacturers. People are making more informed choices than they used to and are seeing the changes that happen in their pets as a result of proper diet and nutrition.”

For these reasons, Hatch-Rizzi says, the raw category continues to grow at an impressive rate.

“There is a real focus on evolutionary diets and ancestral diets,” she says. “When pet parents begin exploring what these terms really mean, they often come across raw diets in their research and find that raw diets are the true ancestral diets for their cats, dogs and ferrets.”
Last year Radagast, which is based in Portland, Ore., expanded its product line with Grass-fed Beef and Pasture-raised Venison, two proteins that are not often found for cats.

Hatch-Rizzi says that pet owners are hungry for knowledge, and retail staff can help them decide which products are best for their cats. For example, some retailers are developing specific criteria that raw foods must meet to be carried in their stores. At the same time, some stores are creating educational programs for their employees to better advise customers on what foods best meet their pets’ needs. At the very least, staffers should learn how to read pet food labels, understand ingredients and make sense of the guaranteed analysis. It helps to have a nutritionist come in to educate staff too.

To Cody James, regional sales representative for KLN Family Brands, manufacturers of Tuffy’s Pet Foods, the key trends in pet nutrition right now are raw, freeze-dried and high meat content formulas in dry foods.

“Consumers that are becoming more knowledgeable about their own nutrition are also paying more attention to their pet’s nutrition, and what these pets would be consuming in a natural setting,” James says. “Consumers understand that as carnivores, these pets require a higher meat content diet.”

This summer, the Perham, Minn.-based company is introducing Beef and Red Lentil formulas into its Pura Vita Grain Free single-source-protein line. Also coming this summer, under the company’s NutriSource Grain Free label, are Woodland Select wild boar and turkey, as well as High Plains Select beef and trout.

James agrees that it helps if retailers know about the differences in the foods. “Retailers should be very knowledgeable about nutrition,” he says. “They should be able to answer consumer questions on why one formula is preferable for a pet. They should be able to explain how the nutrition content can improve certain health issues, which formula is more appropriate for the breed, age and weight of the pet.”

Another prevalent trend in pet nutrition is the rise of add-on products such as meal toppers, broths and gravies, says Chanda Leary-Coutu, senior manager, marketing communications at Tewksbury, Mass.-based WellPet LLC. “These new recipe formats are a unique way to deliver additional vitamins and nutrients while satisfying various pet palates, especially those of finicky cats, and across all stages of life,” she says. “We foresee this trend to continue in the coming years with more natural and mainstream pet food companies adding meal toppers as extensions to existing lines.”

Leary-Coutu says these toppers add to the pet’s enjoyment and help pet parents foster a bond with their furry friend. The toppers are designed to fit many scenarios.

CORE Air Dried morsels are moist, tender, meaty bites that can be sprinkled over a wet or dry meal to increase the protein level and also provide a rich taste for picky eaters. CORE Air Dried can also be served by itself as a meal.

The company recently announced the latest extension to the Wellness TruFood line—Wellness TruFood Complements for dogs and cats. The meal toppers can be mixed with a pet’s current food, or used as a snack. Also new from Wellness is grain-free Wellness CORE 95 Percent, a protein-packed topper or complete and balanced meal filled with rich, hearty meats paired with antioxidants from superfoods.

Food with a Purpose
Consumers are looking for foods to solve certain issues, says Kevin Malnor, vice president of sales and marketing for Vital Essentials. They are looking for raw-frozen and freeze-dried offerings, grain-free, gluten-free diets that are made from single proteins and limited ingredients sourced in the USA.

“We see many consumers who have pets battling food allergies switch to a grain-free, gluten-free raw diet that is rich in nutrients and high in protein, with no added carbohydrates, fillers or synthetic vitamins,” he says. “Good nutrition will lead to happy, healthy pets. Many food allergies can be traced back to the ingredients in a pet food.”

Malnor adds that pet retailers should know the differences between raw foods and processed kibble, and should be able to explain the features of various diets to customers. They should also know what it means to be grain-free.

“Grain-free does not equal carbohydrate free,” he says. “Retailers should explain this to consumers when they come in looking for a grain-free option. Many consumers have questions regarding cost, quality, and sourcing of meat and ingredients that should be easily answered by a retail employee.”

Earlier this year, Vital Essentials launched Freeze-Dried Minnows, whole freeze-dried minnows as a treat for dogs and cats. The Vital Treat line now consists of 11 treats. Also new, the VE Raw Bar, featuring premium freeze-dried snack selections, will hit retail stores early this summer. The 12-item lineup includes Duck Feet, Duck Necks, Turkey Wing Tips, Chicken Necks, Pig Ears, Turkey Tails, Beef Lung Sticks, Twisted Cod Skins and Braided Bully Sticks, Rolled Salmon Skins, Bully Sticks and Turkey Necks.

Redbarn Pet Products, which is based in Long Beach, Calif., has two new lines of Natural Canned Food for Dogs and Cats. The All-Natural, Grain-Free Canned Patès and Stews feature less than 10 and 13 ingredients respectively, plus added vitamins and minerals to support all AAFCO profiles for life stages.

Redbarn’s Canned Patè line features added functional ingredients to support common canine health issues including immune support, weight control, and skin and joint health. The Patè line has six  formulas and protein choices including Beef, Chicken, Lamb, Ocean Fish, Duck, and Turkey. Redbarn’s Canned Stews are available in five different recipes, including Beef, Chicken, Lamb, Turkey and Steak and Egg. Each flavor of Canned Stew features fresh garden vegetables and poultry, beef or lamb in gravy.

When talking with customers, retailers should emphasize that these diets are formulated with recognizable, whole-food ingredients plus added vitamins and minerals with no added fillers, says Redbarn’s marketing director Rashell Cooper.

“Everything on the label is something your pet needs to live a healthy life,” says Cooper. “In addition, limited-ingredient diets can sometimes offer less risk for pets with food allergies or food sensitivity. Understanding the customer and their pet’s specific health needs will help retailers choose the right diet with the best mix of ingredients.”

Some ingredients work especially well together. With this in mind, Nutram Pet Products, based in Elmira, Ontario, Canada, offers Optimal Combinations, such as Salmon Oil + Turmeric for Immunity Boost and Cranberries + Celery Seeds for Healthy Bladder. The foods have no added corn, wheat or soy.

“Humanization of pets is very important,” says Kirill Tikhomirov, vice president of brand and customer development for Nutram Pet Products. “People are passing their understanding of what is healthy to their pets.”

Nutram diets are available in 20 countries, and made their U.S. debut last year.

“We are in just shy of 100 stores,” says Tikhomirov. “The feedback has been positive.”

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