Exotic proteins are making significant inroads in the food and treat markets, offering pet parents novel and nutritious alternatives to traditional meats.
As pet parents look for new and healthier ways to feed their dogs and cats, manufacturers are venturing further afield from the standard beef, chicken, pork and lamb in search of alternative protein sources. Besides providing customers with an ever-greater number of feeding and treating options, exotic proteins can help pets avoid allergy issues and provide unique nutritional benefits. Despite current limitations on supply, pet specialty retailers can expect to see this category continue to expand as demand and protein sources grow.

While exotic protein diets can include such unusual options as alligator and kangaroo, options like venison, wild boar, salmon and rabbit are popping up in food and treats from a growing number of companies. One of the biggest drivers of this category is increased awareness of allergies to some of the most common traditional proteins, especially chicken and beef. These exotic options can provide dietary variety and offer nutrient-rich alternatives for allergy-prone pets. 

“From a training perspective, the variety of tastes keeps dogs on their toes and hungry for more, and for consumers who have dogs with allergies to the most commonly used proteins, they offer a much-needed solution,” says Chris Meiering, director of innovation at Zuke’s. “If your pup can’t eat chicken, then a treat made from duck, rabbit or salmon is much more than a luxury, it is a necessity.” 

Aside from providing an alternative to traditional proteins for dogs that suffer from allergies or sensitivities, novel proteins can offer additional specific nutritional benefits. As owners continue to look for ways to give their pets the best diets possible and address common health problems like weight management and skin and coat issues through food, those benefits can help drive demand and provide retailers with helpful selling points.

“Obviously, the demand for exotic proteins is growing,” says Ward Johnson, co-founder of Sojos. “And beyond the novelty and wilderness imagery, more and more pet parents are discovering the unique nutritional attributes.” For example, Sojos uses lean and heart-healthy venison and wild boar and omega-3-rich salmon as the first ingredients in its high-protein Sojos Wild freeze-dried diets. 

But despite the benefits and appeal of exotic proteins, the category is currently held back by supply that cannot yet meet rapidly growing demand. As Johnson says, “novel proteins are just that—novel.” There often aren’t as many or as reliable sources for the proteins, and those sources don’t operate on the same scale as large beef or chicken producers. Manufacturers are working to secure high-quality sources for exotic proteins so that retailers and consumers can be ensured of a consistent supply.

“Consistent sourcing is really a big issue,” says Dan Schmitz, national sales manager for Tuffy’s Pet Foods. “Before a product is introduced we like to feel comfortable that there will be an adequate source, and ultimately, we attempt to have multiple vendors sourcing for us.”

Kevin Malnor, vice president of sales and marketing for Vital Essentials, agrees that securing a consistent supplier is key to successfully launching a new product and ensuring the continued growth of the category.

“Exotic proteins can be pricey and hard to come by for some manufacturers,” says Malnor. “It can be challenging when they get the product and do not have the ability to keep up with the demand from the consumers. We’ve aligned ourselves in our processing plant to be able to keep up with and push the demand for new exotic protein choices.”

Despite the difficulties in sourcing, retailers can expect to see demand for exotic proteins continue to grow as consumers learn more about these alternative protein options and manufacturers find new ways to expand the category. 

“Feeding our dogs high-quality protein will always remain a priority for pet parents,” Meiering says. “As exotic proteins become more widely appreciated and easier to source, I expect to see a greater number of pet specialty manufacturers incorporating these options into their pet food and treat products.”

For manufacturers, the volume of the protein required for a treat line is less than is needed for food, making it easier to secure the necessary supply. Several companies are incorporating venison, boar and other exotic proteins into their treat offerings, making it easy for owners to extend novel proteins into all parts of their pets’ diets, or try out the trend in a smaller format. 

Exotic proteins also lend themselves well to other trends in pet food, such as the demand for meat-first formulas, helping grow their popularity. Schmitz has seen significant growth in exotic proteins in the rapidly expanding freeze-dried, dehydrated and raw segments as well.

Especially as manufacturers begin to incorporate new types of proteins and expand the category, it is critical for retailers to stay on top of the unique attributes of exotic proteins. 

“It’s essential for pet specialty retailers to ensure their team members are well versed on the brands they carry, as well as the ins and outs of feeding freeze-dried, raw food,” Johnson says. “There’s no question that quality exotic protein foods can make mealtime more satisfying for dogs and their owners, and properly trained, knowledgeable sales associates can quickly break down perceived barriers.” 

Knowing the difference between the types of novel proteins on the market can help retailers determine what the best choice is for a particular pet, especially if the owner is looking to address a health issue.

“They really need to know their customers’ pet issues to determine what will work best for them,” Schmitz says. “Sensitive stomach, immunity, stress relief and skin and coat all are factors in choosing what will be appropriate for their customer’s pet. Each protein source offers attributes for these different issues and good retailers succeed at this.” 

Besides any hesitation pet owners might have about trying out an unfamiliar protein, the premium price tag that usually accompanies high-quality exotic protein products can also be a deterrent. However, retailers can suggest ways to incorporate novel proteins in ways that still provide a nutritious boost to pets’ diets without breaking owners’ budgets.

“Even if a pet parent chooses not to feed exotic protein as an every day main meal, Sojos Wild can serve as an excellent topper for their dog’s daily diet,” Johnson suggests. “That way, their pet will enjoy the added nutritional benefits.”

As with any emerging trend, education is key to sales success with exotic proteins. Meiering encourages retailers to look into manufacturers’ sources and utilize any educational resources the manufacturer has to make sure sales staff is prepared to provide informed advice to customers. 

“Retailers should check the sources of the product’s protein and make that information easily accessible to consumers by using in-store merchandising and posting on the store’s website and social media pages,” Meiering says. “They should also work closely with the manufacturer to ensure that the products are made primarily of the exotic protein that is being advertised. This way consumers get what they expect and are more likely to be repeat customers.”
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