Cat owners are increasingly interested in better-quality foods, and manufacturers are offering natural diets with the intention of providing cats with the nutrition they need—without unnecessary ingredients and processing.

Amelia Perches, social media and PR manager at Nulo Pet Food, a manufacturer in Austin, Texas, said that many of the current cat food trends have been in line with human nutrition trends. People are avoiding highly processed, synthetic and GMO ingredients, she added.

'To Nulo, 'natural' means our cat food aligns with the nutrition required for carnivores and that the ingredients are high-quality sources from reputable suppliers,' Perches explained. 'This means most of the protein in a cat's diet should be coming from meat, poultry and fish rather than plants; that carbs should be kept at minimal levels; and that unnecessary ingredients should never be used—like artificial or controversial additives.'

Rob Cadenhead, general manager at St. Francis, Wis.-based Gott Pet Products, parent company of pet food brand Hound & Gatos, said that to qualify as 'natural,' a food should be sourced from whole food ingredients, prepared without additives or artificial preservatives and be as minimally processed as possible.

Consumers are looking for a brand they can trust and food with recognizable ingredients, said Dan Markenson, head of retail at Dr. Marty Pets, a Los Angeles-based manufacturer.

'They are looking for an ingredient deck that's easy to understand and a food their cats will love, naturally,' Markenson added. 'They're also looking for a high-protein diet. Cats are obligate carnivores, so they need a diet rich in real meat to thrive.'

As more options become available, many cat owners are doing their research. 'Today's cat parents are more enlightened than they used to be,' Cadenhead said. 'Besides looking for a diet that features real animal protein, they're seeking diets with ingredients that serve a functional purpose, such as sweet potato, broccoli, berries and whole eggs.

They're steering clear of wet recipes with controversial ingredients such as rendered animal fats, carrageenan or guar gum, and avoiding dry recipes prepared with highly processed, rendered poultry meals. Every Hound & Gatos recipe is specifically designed with these requirements in mind.'

Shoppers are taking a closer look at what is in their pets' food, agreed Sherry Redwine, owner of Odyssey Pets, a retailer in Dallas. 'When customers come in and say they want a 'natural food,' what they really want is a food that's healthy with high-quality ingredients,' Redwine said. 'But it's not enough for them to just see the word 'natural' on the bag. They still want to look at the ingredients—as they should.'

Elements such as high-quality protein, life-stage and breed-specific formulas, and superfood ingredients are important to cat owners, Perches said.

'But even more influential are the health benefits tied to them such as unique formulas for growing kittens, indoor adults and senior cats—as well as special-need solutions like weight and hairball management,' Perches added. 'Premium cat food consumers expect the same solutions as conventional products with the added confidence that what they are putting into their pet's bowl really is the best choice for long-term health.'

Cat owners who want the best for their pets are willing to pay a bit more, according to Cadenhead. 'Freeze-dried diets are gaining in popularity, despite their relatively high price,' he said. 'I'd attribute this to the perceived quality and purity of the ingredients. Wet diets also remain a top choice for pet parents.'

Serving Up Hydration

The natural cat food category continues to broaden with new varieties, and many manufacturers are turning their attention to offering cats more hydration.

'Current trends in the marketplace show an increased focus on the hydration needs of cats,' Perches said. 'Cats have evolved from ancestors which had very little access to free water, so our cats have a low thirst drive and are metabolically oriented to obtaining water from their food sources. Providing moisture during mealtime through a canned food, topper or broth will increase a cat's water intake in a way that is in sync with its natural behavior.'

Perches said that Nulo is innovating in the cat hydration space with a variety of wet foods and toppers including Hydrate water enhancers as well as three recently introduced product lines for cats: Nulo FreeStyle Signature Stews, Nulo FreeStyle Pâté Cans and Nulo FreeStyle Chunky Broths.

'Nulo's new recipes for cats include irresistible options like silky smooth pâtés, rich and hearty stews, and tender morsels in a savory broth,' Perches said. 'In addition to delivering high-quality, animal-based protein for cats, these new recipes also feature high moisture levels to help cats get their daily hydration.'

Cat owners are seeking fresher formats, including raw food or gently cooked, human-grade food, Markenson noted. 'They're beginning to understand the potential problems with kibble that is cooked at high temperatures, and then coated with palatants,' Markenson added.

Dr. Marty Pets launched Dr. Marty Nature's Feast Essential Wellness last year, which is selling well, he reported. The freeze-dried raw cat food line includes three formulas with different protein blends: Poultry; Fish & Poultry; and Beef, Salmon & Poultry.

'Each formula is made with premium meats for protein and omega-3s to support healthy teeth and skin, easy digestion, balanced energy and vital organs—and antioxidants and prebiotics from real seeds, veggies and fruit to support lasting health,' Markenson said.

Upgrading Cats' Meals

Cats are notorious for being picky eaters, so even those pet owners who want to make a switch to a higher-quality, natural food may face an uphill battle. But independent pet specialty retailers are well suited to help. Kaitlin McGrath, owner of Belmont Pet Shop in Belmont, Mass., said that many of her customers do require some guidance. This includes education on why making a switch to a more healthful food is worth the effort.

'Temperature, taste and texture are three of the most important factors to a cat,' she said. 'If the cat is already eating a pâté, stick with a pâté, but find a healthier option. If they really like shredded meat, look at the shreds. We can help to transition a cat by keeping it similar to what they're used to eating.'

Mark Tincher, manager at The Pet Bowl, a retailer in Delaware, Ohio, agreed and said that cat owners commonly need some guidance. 'We only carry higher-quality brands here, but about half of cat food sales are issue driven,' Tincher said. 'The cat is experiencing a problem, so they make a switch. The other half are customers who realize there are better options out there but need some help. We are very selective about what we carry, so any choice here is a quality choice.'

Amelia Perches, social media and PR manager for Nulo Pet Food, a manufacturer in Austin, Texas, said that with cats being so picky, trial sizes, free samples and/or a money-back guarantee can be excellent tools to encourage cat owners to try something new.

'Additionally, adding clip strips and endcaps with trial-sized packets within the primary kibble aisles can help to suggest a mixed feeding approach, while clip strips in sections like nutritional supplements can suggest a tailored solution for those searching to resolve a common issue like dry skin,' Perches continued. 'For those owners who aren't ready to commit to a diet overhaul, having small packages placed around the store can be an intriguing invitation to try it.'

by PPN

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