Today’s dog owners are scrutinizing everything in their pets’ food, which has led to a growing interest in “natural” choices. While that word might have slight variations in meaning to different people, the general message from many dog owners is that they want a higher-quality, healthier food choice, industry experts report.
“Pet parents generally believe that products labeled ‘natural’ do not contain overly processed or synthetic ingredients and are, therefore, healthier for their dog,” said Rob Cadenhead, general manager of parent company Gott Pet Products. of Hound & Gatos, a food manufacturer in St. Francis, Wis. “They are scanning packages to make sure this recipe is from a pet food supplier they can trust. Most modern pet owners prefer to buy natural foods because they are making similar purchasing decisions for their families and for themselves.”
Heather Hickey, senior vice president of sales for Ziwi USA, a manufacturer based in Overland Park, Kan., agrees, noting that consumers are turning away from superfluous ingredients.
“At its core, they’re looking for a recipe that includes real food and functional ingredients without unnecessary artificial additions like colors, flavors and preservatives,” Hickey said. “Our animals depend on us for all their nutrients, so it’s important that every bite counts.”
Natural pet food is an evolving category with a lot of room to grow, Hickey said.
“We’ve noticed that minimally processed recipes sell well in the natural dog food category,” she continued. “Customers want recipes that are packed with maximum nutrients and that haven’t been over-processed and drained of everything [their] natural benefits. Air-dried and freeze-dried foods are another growing category when it comes to foods that provide natural nutrition. These options are the best of both worlds as they can provide all the natural benefits of a frozen raw diet with the convenience of feeding dry food.”
Katie Ast, co-owner of Just Dog People, a pet store in Garner, NC, said more shoppers are reading the tags in the store.
“For pet parents, natural dog food is about clean ingredients,” Ast said. “It’s simply a matter of foods having little or no additives and ingredients that they actually recognize.”
At the Belmont Pet Shop in Belmont, Mass., most customers consider “natural” synonymous with limited ingredients and filler-free foods, said manager Cia DiTommaso. For many dog owners, she added, that means choosing raw foods.
“People seem more aware of feeding their pets higher quality foods without a lot of artificial color or flavor,” she said.
Keith Henline, store manager at Asheville Pet Supply in Asheville, NC, said some customers may think natural food is the closest to what an animal might actually find in the wild.
“That definitely means a limited ingredient with no byproducts and fillers,” she said. “Dog owners are also interested in overall high-quality choices.”
The cost of natural foods
While natural dog food options typically cost more, industry insiders agreed that dog owners are generally willing to pay.
“Whole foods tend to command a higher price tag due to the quality of the ingredients,” said Rob Cadenhead, general manager of Gott Pet Products, parent company of Hound & Gatos, a manufacturer based in St. Francis, Wis. “While it is clear that many consumers are becoming more conscious about their spending, we are still confident that they will continue to pay for high quality food. This is because they won’t want to compromise their pet’s health by switching to a less nutritious brand.
Cost is always a factor when a consumer is considering what type of food to buy; however, quality also has an impact, said Heather Hickey, senior vice president of sales for Ziwi USA, a manufacturer based in Overland Park, Kan.
“We make our recipes in our air-dried kitchen in our home in New Zealand,” she said. “Sourcing our ingredients from New Zealand ensures that our rigorous standards of sustainable and ethical practices are met and reflected in our final product. Customers understand that when they purchase a premium product, they are investing in their pet’s long-term health and are unwilling to compromise for anything less.”
Pet specialty retailers are noticing similar sentiments from in-store shoppers.
“Price is always a consideration for customers, but when it comes to food, it’s more about value,” said Katie Ast, co-owner of Just Dog People, a pet store in Garner, NC. customers believe they are getting better value for money, they are willing to pay more.Pet parents understand that health and nutrition are connected.
Cia DiTommaso, manager of the Belmont Pet Shop in Belmont, Mass., said that because most of the products in stock are of higher quality, customers are already shopping with those expectations in mind.
“Most of our customers are willing to pay more for food if they know it’s better quality,” he said.
A spotlight on the natural
Independent pet specialty retailers play an invaluable role in making customers aware of natural food options on the market, according to industry experts.
“A great way to highlight natural foods is to have a natural products section located in the front of the store,” said Heather Hickey, senior vice president of sales for Ziwi USA, a manufacturer based in Overland Park, Kan. “We suggest marketing raw frozen diets alongside air-dried and freeze-dried diets to help customers easily find high-meat, minimally processed recipes.”
Keith Henline, store manager at Asheville Pet Supply in Asheville, NC, said that when they introduce something brand new, like insect protein foods, they put it on a cap ahead of time so they can answer the questions. However, because about 85 percent of the store’s offerings would be considered “natural,” they do nothing extra to appeal to those choices, he said.
“We always keep at least a few entry-level food options for pet parents specifically looking for it,” she said. “But the vast majority of what we carry is already natural, so it’s all together. People come here because they want higher quality choices. Most of our customers are already educated on these options.”
Rob Cadenhead, general manager of Gott Pet Products, parent company of Hound & Gatos, a manufacturer based in St. Francis, Wis., said that when a pet store has a broader mix of options, it definitely helps to separate the “natural” choices.
“We recommend our partner retailers create a ‘store within a store’ where they can showcase the most natural pet nutrition brands,” he said. “It’s important that they landscape the area with signage that concisely communicates the benefits of feeding natural versus conventional dog food.”
Aaron Merrell, CEO and founder of Plato Pet Treats in Fresno, California.
Consumer demand for natural pet diets is high, but this preference for natural ingredients and products extends to the treat category as well. What criteria drive pet owners’ treat buying decisions, and how does Plato’s product portfolio address those needs?
Now more than ever, pet parents expect more from their dogs’ treats, looking for simple, natural ingredients, looking for products they can trust and know are sustainably sourced.
Natural, local and sustainably sourced ingredients have always been at the core of who we are. California leads the nation in agricultural production, and as the top producing county, Fresno is the heart of California. This means that making our treats at our facility here in Fresno gives us incredible access to ingredients and proteins sourced from local farmers throughout California.
With our most recent product innovation, Plato Chicken Jerky, we not only meet these criteria, but have added functional ingredients such as goat milk, pumpkin and bone broth, which provide additional benefits for our pets. We’ve intentionally included chicken hearts and livers to provide an incredibly appetizing treat that’s even more nutrient dense and more sustainable at the same time.