BY LINDSE Y GE TZ
Functional and specialty cat foods are grow- ing segments, but many consumers still re- main unaware of these nutritional options for
their cats, which include weight-loss formulas,
high-protein diets, hairball-control foods, breed-and age-specific diets, and more. In fact, as choices abound, consumers can become confused by
all of the messaging that is out there. This is the
perfect opportunity for pet specialty retailers to
step up to the plate and assist.
Vince Fahringer, store manager for Dogs &
Cats Rule, which has locations throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, said that as the quality
of foods improves, and the number of choices
grows, cat owners are increasingly more open
to exploring their options. But they often still require guidance from an educated pet retailer on
which direction to take.
Because cats are obligate carnivores, their
nutritional needs can only be met through the
consumption of animal-based diets, said Ann
Hudson, vice president of marketing for St. Louis-based Whitebridge Pet Brands, maker of Tiki Pets, which makes
high-protein foods a beneficial option for many cats.
“The cat has evolved to survive and thrive on a natural prey
diet—a moisture-rich diet of fresh meat without carbohydrates,”
Hudson added. “Live prey consists of an average of 55 percent
protein and 35 percent fat. Cats derive energy and immune system
support from proteins and fat. Dogs can convert plant proteins
and carbohydrates to energy, but cats just can’t. Cats will literally
starve if they don’t get meat.”
For a long time, cat owners did not know this information—and
many still don’t. Chris Achord, owner of The Cat Shoppe & Dog
Store in Nashville, Tenn., said that she still sees cat owners who
do not know why their cat’s health is struggling. It often turns out
that they are on a kibble-only diet.
“Cat parent education is so incredibly important,” Achord said.
“They go to the grocery store and they see the claims on a label and
they just accept them at face value. We need to get the messaging
out to cat parents that cats need meat in their diet.”
Karen Neola, founder of My Perfect Pet in Poway, Calif., added
that cat owners are looking to make food choices that best address
their pets’ highly individualized needs.
“Dietary needs may vary among breeds throughout the lifecy-
cle, and the convenience of a ‘one size fits all’ food in pet selection
is now migrating toward more functional food choices that ad-
dress specific health concerns,” she said.
Pet owners need to make the best choice for their individual
cat, and that can really differ from pet to pet, agreed Ryan Wilson,
Merrick innovation for Merrick Pet Care in Amarillo, Texas.
“Many cats experience common health ailments like digestive
sensitivity, prevalence of hairballs, or may require a weight-management formula,” Wilson said.
When pet owners select food designed specifically for their
cat’s nutritional needs, breed or life stage, it can help the pet look
and feel its best as well as help prevent health issues down the
road, said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience
for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass.
“Each specialty food contains targeted ingredients to help support a specific part of a cat’s growth or development, similar to
what we see in baby food,” Leary-Coutu added. “When babies
are young, we are particularly conscious of what we feed them
because we know how certain foods can aid in growth and development. The same goes for kittens, which is why we make kitten
recipes with ingredients like DHA for brain development. Since
DHA is a major component in the brains of all mammals, incorporating it into their food can help ensure proper brain development
as they grow.”
Some of cats’ unique needs can be met with functional and specialty foods.
DISPLAYS AND TRIALS
While a lot of cat owners approach the independent pet specialty retailer
because they already have nutrition-related questions, displays can be
another way to draw attention and educate.
Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for St. Louis-based
Whitebridge Pet Brands, maker of Tiki Pets, said that the Tiki name naturally
lends itself to using items such as grass skirts, palm trees, and brightly
colored leis to build displays and draw attention. When creating a display
for cat foods, Hudson suggested keeping the focus on felines.
“Cat people truly appreciate a creative display that focuses exclusively
on cats,” she said. “No dogs invited!”
Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet in
Tewksbury, Mass., said that displays that invite trial can also be effective.
“Including free samples or coupons that customers can redeem in-store
or online will help the category really stand out,” she said. “Giving cat
parents an opportunity to try before they commit to buying recipes in bulk
will help them see which recipes pass the test when it comes to both taste
Free trials are one way to help customers who might be concerned
about their investment. Because specialty and functional foods can
cost more—but are better for the cat—it is also helpful to put it all in
perspective, said Curt Jacques, owner of West Lebanon Feed & Supply in
West Lebanon, N.H.
“We start the conversation like this—‘Are you a coffee drinker?’” he
said. “Most say, ‘yes.’ Then we ask them if they have any trouble dropping
two or three dollars on a coffee each day. Most say ‘no’ without hesitation.
Then we tell them that there is not a food in this store—particularly in the
cat category—that is going to cost you more than two or three dollars per
day. And, ultimately, because your cat will be healthier, it’s going to save
you a lot of money in the long run. When customers think of it that way, it’s