Between dry food, canned diets, frozen-raw and freeze-dried-raw meals and toppers, broths, milks and more, cat owners have an abundance of choices at their disposal when planning their pets’ menu, yet kibble remains a category staple.
On the whole, retailers said, the cat food category has remained steady throughout 2020. Manufacturers report year-over-year growth and attribute this to consumers seeking higher-quality diets for their feline friends.
For Nulo Pet Food, a manufacturer in Austin, Texas, the cat food category is no afterthought, said product development manager Heather Acuff.
“Nulo has historically over-indexed in cat food sales as a percent of its total pet food sales—with many of our retail partners experiencing north of 30 percent of their total Nulo sales coming from cat,” she said.
Nulo offers a range of cat food and meal enhancement formats, including dry, wet, freeze-dried raw, bone broths and toppers.
“Our wet foods outpace our dry foods in terms of sales, but many of our customers still favor dry food for its exceptional quality, familiarity, convenience and competitive price point,” Acuff said.
Many owners still pick one kibble—and often one protein—and stick with it each time they shop, said Kim McCohan, senior manager of Bend Pet Express, which has two stores in Bend, Ore.
“Fear of those persnickety cats turning up their nose on new food is something cat owners don’t want to risk by purchasing something new,” she said.
Even if they are incorporating other food formats into their cats’ meals, most owners still view kibble as the main component of their cats’ diet, said Billy Frey, cat portfolio director of marketing for Edmonton, Alberta, Canada-based Champion Petfoods, maker of Orijen and Acana brands.
“Beyond the nutritional balance and food safety benefits that dry kibble offers, there’s an element of convenience that we know our pet parents enjoy, too,” he said.
Christine McCoy, owner of The Natural Pet Enrichment Center, a store in North Royalton, Ohio, agreed that kibble’s convenience is what keeps it on top.
“Cats are still one of the easiest pets to feed with our customers,” she said. “They can fill a bowl and go away for the day and feel good about it.”
But McCoy is seeing an increase in sales of wet foods, freeze-dried raw foods, mixers and broths to increase hydration. And McCohan said raw foods have been gaining a lot of traction at Bend Pet Express, but that some of this growth has stalled out during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Due to the cost of freeze-dried diets, most cat owners use these as toppers and not complete meals,” McCohan said. “Cans are as universally understood as kibble, resulting in higher sales than raw, but not more than kibble.”
Help Customers Mix Up the Menu
The increasing interest in alternatives such as wet diets, frozen raw and freeze-dried raw, bone broths and mixers creates an opportunity for retailers to upsell these products while also educating consumers about one of kibble’s biggest drawbacks—lack of hydration.
“We take a strong stance on moisture-rich diets for cats, and kibble just doesn’t cut the bill,” McCohan said.
McCohan’s staff encourages customers to replace a quarter of kibble at every meal with something like wet, or freeze-dried or frozen raw food. The store offers free samples of products such as broth and goat’s milk to increase hydration.
“If it works, most owners come back and continue buying the new product with their kibble purchases,” McCohan said. “If it doesn’t work, but the conversation of moisture-rich diets really stuck with the owners, then we start to walk the canned food or raw food road.”
McCoy recommends products such as broth, goat’s milk, kefir, or fish stock that coax more liquid into cats’ diets.
Nulo encourages customers to combine different types and textures of food through its Mix-It Meal program, an array of culinary-inspired recipes designed to make mealtime healthful and fun for cats and their owners.
“Using Nulo’s portfolio of cat food products, cat parents can now make hundreds of different meal combinations that mix a variety of flavors of high-meat kibble, freeze-dried raw, pouches and bone broths,” Acuff noted.
“This strategy has proven to be much more effective than asking customers to mix and match product formats on their own,” she added.
The best marketing tactic for kibble is education, Acuff said. Retailers can market their products by knowing their assortment inside and out, and sharing why they have chosen to carry each diet on their shelves.
The Natural Pet Enrichment Center carries only super-premium diets. McCoy looks for products that are high in protein and have small ingredient panels. The store is also committed to only diets that have no corn, wheat or soy, and no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.
“Only carry the highest quality if you must feed dry,” McCoy said. “We find that our cat parents want to feed well and see the importance of a good diet for their cat if they choose to only feed dry.”
“Only carry the highest quality if you must feed dry. We find that our cat parents want to feed well and see the importance of a good diet for their cat if they choose to only feed dry.”—Christine McCoy of The Natural Pet Enrichment Center
An Evolution in Kibble
Cat kibble formulations have evolved over time to better meet the nutritional needs of cats.
“The addition of the amino acid taurine in the late 80s, the grain-free movement to differentiate high-quality foods, [and] where the protein is coming from—plant versus meat—are just a few examples of how kibble has evolved throughout the years,” said Kim McCohan, senior manager of Bend Pet Express, which has two stores in Bend, Ore.
McCohan feels the industry may soon steer toward judging foods based on the World Small Animal Veterinary Association guidelines, transparency and other measures before considering ingredient panels and analysis.
“If I were able to control where the next ‘movement’ comes from, it would be feeding trials,” she said. “Any company can have great ingredients and their analysis can look awesome, but this is all on paper. It may be a complete and balanced diet according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials model regulations, but having it be fed out over an extended period of time can prove the food.”
Like other areas of the pet industry, humanization and “premiumization” trends have influenced the dry cat food category, said Billy Frey, cat portfolio director of marketing for Edmonton, Alberta, Canada-based Champion Petfoods, maker of Orijen and Acana brands.
“The most significant change that we’ve seen, and worked to evolve, is the protein content of dry food for cats,” Frey said. “Within our kitchens, our team actually helped pioneer a new high-protein kibble for cats. Most recently, we launched four new recipes within our Acana Cat line that are protein rich and crafted using fresh regional ingredients.”
Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods, a manufacturer in Mequon, Wis., said consumers are demanding higher-quality options and more variety.
“We’ve witnessed an overall industry evolution in product offerings and accessibility for cats,” he said.
Today’s manufacturers offer a variety of proteins at a wide range of price points for both dry and wet diets, Nieman added.
The dry cat food category has come a long way, said Heather Acuff, product development manager for Nulo Pet Food, a manufacturer in Austin, Texas.
“Decades ago, dry foods were commonly formulated to contain high proportions of starch-rich ingredients, combined with dried meat meals, and were constrained by the processing capabilities of that time,” Acuff said.
Nulo, Fromm, Orijen and Acana all prepare their dry cat foods using extrusion rather than baking.
Nieman said Fromm’s low-heat, high-moisture extrusion process cooks foods without compromising ingredients’ nutritional benefits.
Acuff said extrusion has allowed for an increase in both fresh and dried animal-based ingredients.
“Extrusion technology has evolved with the pet food industry over the years to accommodate higher levels of fresh meat, improve nutrient availability, mitigate pathogen risk, and optimize piece shapes and sizes to enhance palatability,” she said. “Its adaptability is well suited to a market that demands flexibility and continuous innovation.”
Most of Nulo’s cat diets feature a blend of poultry and fish as their first three or four ingredients.
“We use this approach to maximize the level of animal-based protein while optimizing the amino acids and essential fatty acid profiles of our diets,” Acuff said.
Meat Focused and Life-Stage Specific
As always, there are plenty of options for dry feeders to choose from, and manufacturers added even more options this summer, with some targeting specific life stages.
In July, Champion Petfoods in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, launched two new dry diets under its Acana brand: First Feast and Indoor Entrée. These products join Homestead Harvest and Bountiful Catch in the premium Acana Cat line, in which each diet features 65-70 percent small-prey ingredients, one-third of which are fresh or raw.
“We’re committed to making meat a priority ingredient in our food and use a variety of small-prey sources, from poultry to fish, for a boost of protein and flavor,” said Billy Frey, director of marketing for Champion Petfoods’ cat portfolio.
First Feast is a kitten life-stage diet designed to support brain and eye development, muscle and bone growth, and a healthy skin and coat. Proteins include chicken and herring.
Indoor Entrée for indoor cats is formulated to help maintain lean muscle and a healthy body weight, along with a healthy skin and coat. It features ingredients such as chicken, turkey, herring and rabbit, as well as L-carnitine, which promotes weight loss, according to the company.
Also in July, Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis., introduced new packaging for its Kitten Gold and Adult Gold. The manufacturer also released new Healthy Weight Gold, which replaced Gold Mature Cat.
Healthy Weight Gold is intended for senior and less-active cats. It is lower in calories, protein and fat than other Fromm cat food recipes. Ingredients include chicken, barley, rice and eggs in addition to probiotics that aid in digestion and salmon oil that helps keep coats smooth, according to the company. The recipe also features L-carnitine and miscanthus grass, a fiber that helps cats feel full and supports gastrointestinal and bowel regularity, which can benefit cats that struggle with hairballs, said company officials.
“We have observed an increase in sales for feline diets that can be contributed, in part, to a growing demand for higher-quality, more variety-driven diets for cats,” said Bryan Nieman, Fromm’s brand director. “As a company, we are working to meet these demands through the introduction of a number of new canned and dry entrees for cats through 2020 and into the new year.”