Final sales data for 2021 have revealed that the U.S. pet care industry reached a new mark of $123 billion, with pet food alone hitting $51 billion, according to the American Pet Products Association (APPA). For pet food, the largest segment of the overall pet industry, sales increased 13.6 percent over the previous year, according to APPA.
Of the myriad of pet food categories, “natural” pet food is one that has been showing strong sales since the somewhat vague term has been coined. More pet parents are embracing natural diets, which are often perceived to be crafted with higher-quality ingredients. That said, the term “natural” tends to have different definitions, which vary based on how it is being discussed.
Dehydrated, freeze-dried and air-dried raw pet food have been showing strong momentum in recent years. According to a report by NielsenIQ, sales of freeze-dried pet food increased 31.1 percent in 2021. That same report showed the dehydrated category recording 25.9 percent growth. While the report did not include a category for air-dried, one only need to look at the growing popularity of ZIWI pet food to understand the popularity of the category.
Another growing area of pet foods are diets that contain functional ingredients meant to provide more than just basic nutrition. Formulations meant to address allergies, weight management, joint health, stress relief and gut health have been among those functional pet food formulations that are in demand by pet parents.
Pet food manufacturers and suppliers need to remain cognizant of what’s important to consumers. Consumers, including pet owners, are demanding sustainability and environmental transparency from the brands they purchase, Those demands cover such specific topics as clean label and ethical ingredient sourcing.
More pet food companies are touting their sustainability. In fact, several new brands and even a few established brands are offering insect protein-based diets as regulatory approval are starting to take hold in the United States. Insect protein ties in well to sustainability, especially compared to traditional animal-based pet food ingredients. In addition, it’s gaining acceptance among consumers, especially those who want their pet’s diet to mirror their own.
Sound nutrition is critical to promoting a pet’s well-being, with key nutrients helping support a dog’s or cat’s growth and structure, body systems and metabolism. According to Pet Food Institute (PFI), the trade association whose members account for the majority of dog and cat food made in the United States, a “complete-and-balanced” pet food recipe will contain the vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and proteins and amino acids considered essential to these processes. PFI notes that any pet food labeled as “complete and balanced” must contain nutrients at levels established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials for each animal and different life stages.
In addition, according to PFI, all pet food is required to provide a Guaranteed Analysis on the product label. The Guaranteed Analysis provides product information to regulators, who review each label for compliance with nutrient requirements and voluntary label claims. The Guaranteed Analysis also provides information to consumers to help them find the levels of at least four nutrients: protein, fat, fiber and moisture. The moisture level is important to note when trying to compare different foods. Additional nutrients must be included in the Guaranteed Analysis if a product label makes a claim that mentions a specific nutrient, such as calcium for strong teeth and bones.
What follows is a sampling of pet food manufacturers, their views on pet nutrition and their recommendations to retailers to help better serve pet parents:
What is your take on pet nutrition and a balanced diet for dogs and cats?
Dogswell: (Jessika Zulic) The concept of pet nutrition is evolving and becoming increasingly associated with functional pet food. More pet parents are looking for dog and cat foods that not only contain healthy nutritional ingredients, but also offer functional supplemental benefits in specific areas such as skin, digestive and joint health. Allied Market Research predicted that the global functional pet food market, totaling $1.95 billion in 2020, will reach $4.67 billion by 2030, rising at a CAGR of 8.8 percent from 2021-2030. Factors cited for this growth include the pet humanization trend and increasing awareness of the role functional pet foods can play not only in addressing existing health issues, but also in proactively maintaining pets’ ongoing wellness. COVID-19 has also contributed to the category’s growth due to the surge in pet adoptions and the intensified focus on health that resulted from the pandemic. Dogswell is meeting this demand with new Dogswell Nutrisca Functional Dry Dog Food, a range of USA-manufactured, GMO-free food with high protein and supplemental benefits in top-performing functions.
Earth Animal: (Dr. Bob and Susan Goldstein) Since 1979, Earth Animal’s philosophy with regard to pet nutrition starts at the core of the animal, recognizing that each and every dog and cat is an individual, with individual wellness and healing needs. The nutritional objective is to meet these needs with an appropriate neutral food, as neutrality does not cause or incite inflammation. Functional foods as condition specific serve a high purpose, provided they meet the highest level of nutritional standards. This includes veterinary and food science expertise, formulation, food safety and quality control at the manufacturing level. Last but not least, come the ingredients themselves which must nurture and support the animals healing from the condition. A balanced diet far exceeds food and in fact, we believe that far too much is expected from food. The best food on Earth needs support from bioavailable vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients. The right food combined with supplements, along with a healthy lifestyle, act as sparkplugs for the animal’s immune system and overall well-being.
FROMM: (Danielle Opetz, MSc and PhD Candidate) Pet nutrition is the foundation to a healthy and prosperous life for our companion animals. It is without doubt that nutrition is the foundation to longevity and total wellness, but functional nutrition takes it a step further, giving enhanced purpose and additional benefit to key areas of focus. Those key areas of focus will depend on each pet individually and the desire of the pet owner. Functional nutrition is absolutely gaining momentum in the industry. Many manufacturers are using ingredients that provide enhanced purpose and drive health benefits in pets, as owners continually seek to increase a pet’s longevity and total wellness. Functional ingredients have been researched for their benefits, including their role in promoting and supporting digestive and immune health. This encompasses many commonly used ingredients (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) and purpose driven diets, from those that support skin/coat health, weight management, senior pets to those tailored to oral/dental health. As we all know, every pet is an individual, and therefore has unique nutritional needs – depending on their stage of life, activity level, health ailments and so forth. During all periods of life, a complete and balanced diet is vital, as it provides everything your pet needs, nutritionally. Ultimately, a high-quality diet, with purpose-driven ingredients, and a nutritional profile that is complete and balanced, helps to optimize the nutritional and health status of companion animals.
Guardian Pet Food: (Jim Galovski) What we choose to feed our pets is one of the most impactful decisions we will make for them. It not only influences their physical health but their behavior as well. With so much depending on nutrition, it is critically important to understand what a pet really needs and what manufacturers offer. Much like everything in the pet food industry, there is what is marketed to consumers and then there is reality. I believe that if we focused on pet health vis a vis pet nutrition, we would find ourselves in a very different world. The goal of any pet food that is manufactured should be to provide everything that a pet needs, nothing that they don’t in a form that is most advantageous for the pet. As for “functional” pet food, every diet should be functional. If the industry focused on health and wellness (as a true priority, not just a tagline), we wouldn’t need the plethora of SKUs we currently have in the industry. This isn’t to say that we don’t need different protein preferences or limited ingredients for allergies and sensitivities, just acknowledging that the proliferation of items is all about a good old-fashioned retail “land grab” and marketing.
Nulo: (Amelia Perches) Pet owners who live a healthy, active lifestyle understand the importance of the food they choose for themselves, and they are applying the same or even greater level of care when choosing foods for their companions. Elements like high-quality protein, life-stage and breed-specific formulas, and featured superfood ingredients have proven to resonate with health-conscious pet owners. But even more influential are the health benefits tied to them, such as heart health, energy, weight management, and gastrointestinal health. Premium pet food and treat 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 their long-term wellness.
SquarePet: (Tyler Atkins) Our team of veterinary professionals including a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and PhD animal nutritionists provide a portfolio of premium and all-natural solutions-based diet options to help support individual needs. Our VFS (Veterinarian Formulated Solutions) line ability to meet these needs stems from the SquarePet nutritional philosophy of pairing premium high-quality ingredients with solution-based veterinary style nutrition- which is a combination never available before now.
ZIWI: (Jessica Krueger) At ZIWI, we believe that cats and dogs can only thrive when they eat a high meat, whole prey diet that satisfies their biological needs as carnivores. Crafted for peak nutrition, our PeakPrey recipes feature unmatched variety and inclusions of pure New Zealand meat, organs, seafood and bone, with added superfoods for a nutritional boost. This addresses concerns from pet guardians who are seeking limited ingredient diets with functional ingredients like New Zealand green-lipped mussels for skin and joint health to green tripe for digestion and palatability in our minimum 10 percent superfood blend, that provide benefits to their pets to live long and healthy lives. Also, all ZIWI recipes are complete and balanced for all breeds and all life stages that are 95 percent digestible, which means your pet will be able to absorb all the nutrients they need and will feel satisfied longer.
What is your preferred form of pet food?
Annamaet: (Maryalice Jansky) My dogs and cats have always had kibble as their base nutrition. Kibble has evolved from the cereal-based biscuit of the early years to the meat-based formulas with great life stage nutraceutical inclusions of today. Innovative, science-based companies like Annamaet are upping the game with new manufacturing processes that allow for a slower cook for better digestion and stability of nutrients. Kibble has stood the test of generations of successful feeding and evolved thru the most science-based updates to meet the ever-evolving discoveries in pet nutrition and sustainable ingredients.
Champion Petfoods: (Jen Beechen) Our preferred form of pet food is what works best for the pet. We understand no two pets are alike, which is why we have a wide range of ORIJEN and ACANA options—from dry, to freeze-dried, to wet. Our focus remains on the quality of nutrition, for example, the amount of WholePrey, fresh and raw animal protein featured in the diet, versus the format. ORIJEN diets contain 85 to 90 percent premium animal ingredients and ACANA recipes contain 50 to 90 percent. While dry food remains the top choice among pet parents, freeze-dried and wet food have increased in popularity for those looking to add diversity to their pets’ meals or use as meal toppers.
Earth Animal: We obviously cannot be completely objective on this one, as Earth Animal’s food Wisdom is air-dried. However, in concept, our preferred form of pet food is made with conscious and sustainable ingredients that have not been over-processed and subjected to high temperatures and lengthy cooks. Foods should be made in a certified Safe Quality Food (SQF) facility.
Guardian Pet Food: Historically, wet/canned was the preferred choice. In the late 1950s, Purina introduced extruded kibble and, shortly after, semi-moist was introduced. We see new formats now because consumers are demanding less-processed foods, they want “cleaner/better” ingredients and, to be honest, they don’t trust the industry as much as they did in the past. Each new format was meant to address some “undesirable” variable in the previous format. Prior to founding Guardian in 2017, I started looking at what dogs needed nutritionally, how those nutrients worked together for the pet and then the best way for a dog to utilize/absorb them. Marketing in the industry has trained consumers to look to ingredients (“The First Five”). The thing is, dogs don’t require ingredients; they require macronutrients (fat, protein and carbohydrates). When I looked closer at the various food formats, each was a series of give and takes between consumer convenience and manufacturer profitability. I chose the freeze-dried format for Guardian because it contained the most “wins” for the dog. It is minimally processed, doesn’t need artificial or synthetic ingredients to be added and has (or should have) higher digestibility and greater bioavailability.
PureBites: (Andrea Bourne) Our PureBites RAW freeze-dried dog and cat treats and toppers without a doubt have amazing nutritional benefits. When treating or feeding freeze dried treats or toppers, dogs and cats receive many of the same nutritional benefits that raw proteins have to offer. These advantages include high protein levels, low calorie levels, Omega-3 and Omega-6, calcium, taurine and other essential nutrients and minerals. Freeze-dried food and treats are especially great for dogs and cats that are overweight, diabetic, have allergies, gastrointestinal disorders, or are on restricted diets (low carb, low sodium, low calorie, no wheat or raw). In addition to its health benefits, the gentle, freeze-drying process preserves the natural aromas, taste, and texture that dogs and cats crave.
SquarePet: Our preferred form of pet food is all-natural kibble, and this is the form of food in our five VFS formulas. Our kibble provides a nutrient dense way for pets to get the nutrients they need for a healthy life. Kibble is also shelf stable and a simple way for pet parents to feed their pets.
ZIWI: We are firm believers in air-dried recipes, as they provide the nutrition of a raw diet with the scoop and serve the convenience of kibble. ZIWI was born out of our founders’ love and passion for their pets, which includes nutritional needs. ZIWI modernized and refined the ages-old artisan technique of preserving meats to create an innovative new product known as air-dried. Our proprietary twin-stage, natural preservation process eliminates pathogens while preserving the nutritional integrity of our food, resulting in an extremely nutrient-dense and palatable food that closely mirrors the whole-prey, biologically appropriate ancestral diet of dogs and cats.
What role do food toppers play in a balanced diet for pets?
Annamaet: Toppers are great for enticing a pet to eat that has refused to do so. Toppers are often relied on to increase consumption which can often lead to weight gain and accidental obesity. Pet Owners are often too worried about a dog not eating their full meal, when it can be healthy for a dog to occasionally eat lightly or skip a meal entirely. Toppers as an occasional treat are fine but can often create a monster that refuses to eat their meal without them. Over feeding toppers can also unbalance an already finely balanced base diet. Moderation is key.
Champion Petfoods: Food toppers are an excellent way to diversify a pet’s diet. ORIJEN and ACANA freeze-dried and wet food are packed with premium animal ingredients, providing a boost of nourishing, animal-derived protein, when served as a topper to a pet’s usual dry food. They also act as a nutritious meal enhancer for picky eaters or can be fed as a complete and balanced meal on their own.
Earth Animal: Toppers provided they are nutritious, and not just delicious, are a convenient way to enhance heavily cooked foods, such as kibble. Toppers are a life saver for finicky animals as well. Ingredients in toppers should include humanely raised proteins, fruits, vegetables and oils that are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.
Guardian Pet Food: Toppers should not be used to make a food “complete” or “balanced.” If that’s what you are using it for, you need to find a different food. Toppers are usually offered by manufacturers to 1) add variety to a dog’s diet 2) provide some level of better nutrition and/or 3) as a palatability enhancer. The first two are good reasons; the third, not so much. There are way too many choices in the market to stick with a low palatability brand that requires some type of topper to get your dog to eat.
PureBites: Toppers and mixers are a great way to add extra nutrition, variety, and flavor to a pet’s regular meal. Being a relatively new category, it has really gained popularity among pet parents with 23 percent of dog parents purchasing toppers and mixers in 2021 (Source: Packaging Facts August/September 2021 Survey of Pet Owners). We see a growing demand for freeze dried toppers, as they are convenient, highly palatable, and packed with protein and nutrients. Wet toppers and mixers are also popular as they provide hydration and the feeling that you are adding something fresh to otherwise dry kibble. In any form, toppers are a great way to create excitement around mealtime and special bonding opportunities with your pet.
ZIWI: As consumers are becoming more educated on the ingredients in their dog’s food, they are looking to boost the nutritional value that may be lacking in their current diet. There is a growing interest in the use of toppers and supplements to fill this need and enhance a pet’s diet especially when it comes to supporting a function or taste. ZIWI’s recipes include a minimum of a 10 percent superfood boost to provide many of the nutritional benefits lacking in many traditional dog foods. And because it is complete and balanced, ZIWI can be used as a topper or a complete meal.
What do you feel is an overlooked aspect of pet nutrition?
Annamaet: The science and testing behind a product is often overshadowed by the glitzy buzz word marketing to entice consumers to buy the product. There should be more said about the nutrition of the ingredients. The pet’s food should be about the nutrition it assimilates from the food, not just about the trendy ingredients.
Champion Petfoods: Frequently overlooked are how many fresh and raw animal ingredients are used. Many other pet foods list animal protein as the first ingredient only. The first ingredient in every ACANA dry recipe and the first five in every ORIJEN dry recipe always come from fresh or raw animal sources, leaving out low-cost ingredients that don’t add any real nutritional benefit like corn, tapioca or potatoes. Additionally, quality ingredients are often overlooked in pet nutrition. When formulating our newest line of dog food, ORIJEN AMAZING GRAINS, we wanted to ensure a premium blend of grains were included for optimal nutrition. That’s why a hand-selected blend of quinoa, chia and oats are featured versus commonly used low-cost grains.
Dogswell: One aspect that has been overlooked in the past, but is gaining awareness, is how nutrition and functional foods can play an important role in, not only reacting when an issue arises, but also in proactively promoting pets’ health and wellness. By being proactive and feeding healthy pets functional diets targeted to their specific characteristics and needs, pet parents can support their dog or cat’s continued good health and even help prevent problems from arising down the road. For example, dog breeds prone to skeletal problems can be fed a supportive diet like Dogswell Nutrisca Hip & Joint food to promote long-term joint health, or long-haired dogs can be given Dogswell Nutrisca Skin & Coat to maintain the shine and luster of their coats. This proactive strategy can become part of a holistic approach toward a pet’s diet, which, in addition to functional food, can include products in other categories such as treats, chews, toppers and supplements with the same active ingredients that offer the same functional benefits. Merging the benefits of the same proven actives across different product formats provides a powerfully effective holistic dietary solution.
Earth Animal: Areas of concern, which in many cases are overlooked, include the adverse effects of heat and over-processing. Possible impurities found in factory-farmed animals and feed-grade ingredients may have adverse effects on health. Recent research is suggesting that overcooking proteins may produce advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which may have adverse health risks. Some research is pointing to contamination of pet foods with chemical residues, such as glyphosate, which have been linked to affecting the microbiome and causing cancer. While this type of research is not conclusive, it should alert consumers on the importance of doing their homework when selecting the food for their dog and cat.
Guardian Pet Food: There isn’t a single, “end all-be all” food solution for every pet. There are a lot of pet variables that come in to play, and the confusion created by marketing and sales (and the internet) make it that much more difficult to get to the “right product” for a pet. If we as manufacturers were more transparent and forthcoming on what we use, why and the analytical results, our consumers (and customers) would be able to make more informed decisions. It would go a long way in the world of trust and even further in the care of our pets!
Nulo: Creativity and innovation are sometimes undervalued in nutrition-focused discussions. Thinking outside the box for how we can deliver nutrition to pets in a way that’s more engaging, more cost effective, and more convenient for pet owners ultimately helps companies drive advancements in pet food science. It’s an exciting time for innovation as the humanization of pet food and treats inspire new ideas for food and treat formats, packaging, and functional ingredients. As the lines between human and pet foods continue to blur, we’re looking beyond the constraints of traditional manufacturing capabilities to the human CPG industry for novel processing technologies and packaging solutions. The inability of large organizations to quickly adapt to changes in consumer demands also creates an opportunity for smaller, more agile brands to disrupt and innovate within the rapidly evolving market for premium dog and cat foods.
PureBites: One aspect of pet nutrition that we often see overlooked by new pet parents, is toppers. Since its a relatively new category, many pet parents are unaware of the benefits of adding toppers to their pets’ meals. We recommend that retailers educate their customers on all the different topper options available and their numerous benefits. Additionally, offering promotions in which you receive a topper sample with the purchase of food, is a great way to introduce pet parents to the category and get them hooked.
SquarePet: A lot of the focus within the pet food industry surrounds the promotion of features that pet diets contain. Most commonly these include promotion of specific ingredients, the sourcing of these ingredients, highlighting sometimes elusive percentages of these ingredients, or calling out the lack of certain ingredients. What is surprisingly missing is the promotion of benefits that nutrition can provide. In today’s independent pet food space, it is an ante into the game to provide the highest quality ingredients – what is plainly and uniquely different is the promotion of how these ingredients are combined to offer nutritional benefits. SquarePet’s VFS line of solution-based diets leverage the innate quality of premium and responsibly sourced ingredients while promoting basic nutritional properties each diet provides. It’s a very basic approach of promoting what food is – nutrition. Highlighting benefits over features by focusing on the nutrition of a diet versus what superficial attributes it contains.
ZIWI: While many people are focused purely on nutritional benefits, it is also important to recognize how their recipe of choice affects the environment and the sustainability of our future and our animals as well. ZIWI’s sustainable efforts are more than just a selling statement. ZIWI’s farmers and fishermen believe wholeheartedly in the Māori concept of “kaitiaki.” As guardians of the land, sea and its creatures, ethical and sustainability aren’t just a standard; it’s a way of life. New Zealand fishing follows strict standards set by the Marine Stewardship Council and never fish more than 35 percent of its native waters.
What advice do you have for retailers regarding how they educate their customers on pet nutrition?
Annamaet: Learn, learn, learn. Seek out nutrition information that is as non-biased as possible. APPA offers continuing education to retailers on a large variety of topics including nutrition. Make sure the information that is shared at shelf is not opinion but factual. Always keep the well-being of the pet in mind and ask tons of questions when asked for a recommendation. It’s sad to see retail employees recommending the addition of canned or freeze dried to a dog’s kibble because the dog is fussy, yet the dog on the end of the leash is so overweight it has a hard time walking. Sometimes it’s tough to educate the pet owner when you know they are hurting the dog with love, but that’s the person that needs the most understanding and education to keep that pet healthy. It will pay off in the end with a healthy and loyal customer who sees a difference with that recommendation.
Earth Animal: Get to know the animal by investing the time to evaluate the individual dog or cats age, breed, current state of health and diet. Rescue animals require emphasis on nutritional and emotional well-being, as history may not be available. The mission of the foods a retailer selects should play a major role in the perpetuation of wellness and healing. We cannot over emphasize how important selectivity is in choosing foods to get behind. “Knowledgeable nutritional networking” is one of the most important services we can provide. Demos are the most effective ways of consumer communication and education. There is nothing better than “brown bag sampling” to put a smile on your customer’s face.
Guardian Pet Food: An impartial and unbiased view is always best when it comes to nutritional education, but it’s difficult. Like talking about politics and religion, discussing your pet’s food is a “third rail” because it is a very personal decision, and we are invested in the “correctness” of our choice. As a retailer, you have to be able to step back, reframe the conversation and build off nutritional basics in a real, simple, honest way. What is it that the dog or cat requires, based on age, size, activity level, etc.? What are the pet’s specific circumstances (inside or outside, single pet, form and flavor preferences, etc.? Are there any special considerations (health issues, allergies/sensitivities, etc.? Once you have addressed the pet’s needs and narrowed down the options, you can turn to consumers’ needs. What is your budget? What time can you commit to feeding? Do you have any limitations or preferences?
PureBites: Retailers should challenge pet parents to really read the ingredient labels on pet food and treats. PureBites is constantly asking pet parents to “go ahead, look at our ingredients.” Pet specialty retailers have always been at the forefront of nutrition for pets, so it only makes sense that they should offer raw food and treats due to all the nutritional benefits they offer.
SquarePet: It’s important for retailers to educate their customers on the nutritional benefits and differences of different pet food options. Often pet parents are looking for a specific type of food to support a specific dietary or health need and are looking to retailers to provide effective solutions. Our sales staff works with retailers to educate them on the benefits of the Square Pets formulas so they can help their customers make the right choices in the type of food they feed their pets.
How important is it that retailers offer their customers a wide variety of food options?
Annamaet: Millions of pets, thousands of varieties and ways to feed. One type may not work for all pets. Variety should be offered but in today’s competitive market, I see the successful indie owned retailers building a positive reputation around a few “house brands” that are dedicated to the independent and that meet their criteria for quality, safety and performance.
Dogswell: The pet nutrition market is becoming increasingly segmented, making it more important than ever for retailers to offer a wide variety of food options. Today, not only do you have life-stage foods, weight control foods, foods for different-sized breeds and various allergies, but the market is evolving even further in the direction of customized nutrition, as consumers recognize the role that diet can play in managing their pet’s wellness. They want a daily diet with supplemental functional benefits that promotes specific health goals and is tailored to their pet’s individual needs. Retailers should offer a broad enough selection of food options to meet this growing customization trend.
Earth Animal: It is always good to offer customers choice after they have been informed of the type of food which is nutritionally best for their dog or cat. However, there is something to be said for quality and not quantity. Customers should not be overwhelmed but should be comfortable in the store’s aura, based upon knowledge and solution orientation.
Nulo: We encourage retailers to consider an experiential-marketing approach to merchandising product sets with a large assortment of formats, consistent with what all the data tells us that today’s consumer is looking for. The average consumer does not realize they “need” the other elements besides kibble and cans. It’s up to us to inspire them with simple programs that include a variety of formats and functionality, wrapped in a well-merchandised in-store experience
PureBites: It is key for retailers to offer a wide variety of food options, as every pet has different needs, as well as every pet parent has different wants. By offering a wide assortment of food options – from raw frozen, freeze dried, kibble, and everything in between – that store will become a trusted source of nutritional advice and healthy product options.
SquarePet: Depending on how much shelf space a retailer has in their store, we recommend starting with the fundamentals of a solid offering which would include pet food specifically addressing specific issues such as puppies, seniors, sensitive stomachs, active joints, low fat, and other conditions. The initial offering should be formulas that provide the highest quality ingredients to support the best overall health of the pet. Once the fundamental line is in the store, retailers can expand out as space permits.