An increasing number of pet foods cater to the health-conscious, indulgent nutritionist consumer, particularly for dogs, likely because they are more demonstrably appreciative than cats.

While the number of new pet foods on the market is a fairly small percentage of the total number of new food introductions, these items increasingly are focused upon issues also affecting human health. As Bob Vetere, managing director of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA), notes, “Anything that is a trend in human foods, within four to six months, will be a trend in pet food, too.” (This article focuses primarily upon dog and cat foods, as few other pet foods are found on the typical grocery shelf. Furthermore, the new introduction statistics herein are for dog and cat foods only and do not include products for other pets.)

The low-carb boom led to an increase in the number of similar products for pets. Interest in raw-food diets has prompted some owners to put their animals on the bones and raw food (BARF) diet, with a number of manufacturers now offering kits with raw, meaty bones, raw vegetables and yogurt. However, the most growth has been seen in products fortified with vitamins and minerals, particularly calcium. The use of calcium in pet foods more than doubled between October 2004 and June 2005, according to the GNPD, and many products are adding antioxidants, including bottled water from Doggie Springs.

Vitamin Dog Water is fruit-flavored bottled water promising the full daily allowance of vitamins, plus Coenzyme Q10, the antioxidant that promises to help the cardiovascular system. The spur in bottled water for humans in recent years likewise has prompted a variety of such products for pets. Pawier Inc. has developed a vitamin concentrate for consumers to add to purified water for their pets, while K9 Water Co. has launched a range of flavored waters. Susan Goldberg, K9 Water's founder, recalls working with nutritional specialists to find the proper combinations of vitamins, supplements and flavorings: “In the first batches, the flavor was so concentrated that it was like chicken stock.” She finally settled on four curiously titled flavors: Hose Water, Gutter Water, Puddle Water and Toilet Water, flavored with lamb, beef, liver and chicken, respectively.

Kitty Cornered

She notes some interest in formulating such waters for cats but, if recent research by Monell Chemical Senses Center in combination with the Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition U.K. is any indication, formulating for kitties could prove challenging. As millions of owners can attest, cats are finicky, and Monell's study says the reason is genetic. A dysfunctional feline gene likely prevents cats from tasting sweets. Blood and saliva samples showed cats have a useless gene that other mammals use to create a “sweet receptor” on their tongues. “Everyone knows cats are finicky,” explains Joseph Brand, Monell's associate director and an author of the study, “and one big issue is how to make food palatable enough for a sick cat to eat...Its sense of taste has driven it to become a meat eater. Losing the sweet receptor has probably changed their dietary habits.”

“Our results account for the common observation that the cat lives in a different sensory world than the cat owner,” says Veronique Legrand-Defretin, director for the Global Feeding Behavior Research program at the Waltham Center. “Waltham finds it critical to understand these unique characteristics of the cat in order to make foods that they not only enjoy, but that also meet their unique nutritional needs.”

According to the Humane Society, the U.S. has 78 million pet cats, with varying nutritional needs as they age. Compounding the difficulty of feeding cats is the sheer number of multi-cat households. According to research by the Iams Company and the industry, 54% of cat-owning households have more than one cat—3.2 in the average multi-cat household. Of those cats in a multi-cat home, 60% share the food bowl. Realizing the impracticality of feeding different diets to a variety of felines in the same home, Iams formulated a Multi-Cat food, which promises to “help overweight cats burn fat, trim cats build muscle and fit cats maintain a healthy body condition.” The formula combines ingredients that work together to meet the individual needs of each cat: high protein levels and a moderate fat content help build muscle; L-carnitine helps burn fat in overweight cats, and vitamin A helps with weight control.

Just in case dog food needs a little extra flavor, Iams has added a range of sauces to augment the kibble.

Fat Cats

Overweight felines have prompted a number of low-fat cat food introductions, including MiracleCorp's Trim Treats, a range of low-fat kittie snacks. Amid concerns about the obesity of indoor cats (which tend to weigh more than their outdoor counterparts), a number of formulas have emerged. Meow Mix Indoor Formula includes special nutrients for indoor felines, while Nutro Products has added a pair of formulas to its indoor cat foods: Indoor Weight Management Formula promises 30% less fat, plus essential vitamins and minerals. The Indoor Kitten variety includes antioxidants for a healthy immune system, as well as a pair of brain-health fatty acids—docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA).

Such fatty acid nutrients have established a firm place among pet food introductions. As Joar Ophei, CEO of an omega-3 fish oil supplier, notes, “Though some pet diets may include omega-3 fatty acids, virtually none include satisfactory amounts of the most important omega-3 fatty acids, EPA [eicosapentaenoic acid] and DHA. In addition, many pet foods contain primarily omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oils, resulting in a highly unbalanced ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s.” According to research, dogs need an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of between 5:1 and 10:1. Although research supports certain benefits of omega-3s for animals, the addition of many nutrients may be simply a matter of the humanization of pet foods, as “consumers, especially empty nesters, often view their pets as extensions of their families,” notes Lynn Dornblaser, director of Mintel's Custom Solutions. “They feel that what is good for the human members of the household is good for the pet members of the household.”

“One of the biggest trends we are seeing among pet owners is the desire to feed their dogs the way they feed themselves—choosing food made with real, high-quality ingredients that offer the perfect balance of taste and nutrition,” finds Steve Crimmins, vice president of dog food marketing with Nestle Purina PetCare Company. “With the humanization-of-pets trend, dog owners have become more interested in the food they feed their dogs, including the ingredients on the label and the way the food is packaged.” The latter is perfectly evident in Beneful's new line of dog food from Purina: the eight varieties of Beneful Prepared Meals retail in clear, ready-to-serve, re-sealable plastic containers, displaying such food ingredients as peas, carrots, green beans, spinach, pork, turkey, beef and chicken. Purina spent three years developing the line, testing formulations by videotaping dogs as they ate samples (licking chops and wagging tails were perceived as approving behavior).

Once the prepared meal is finished, dessert naturally comes next for humans and, now, also for dogs. Frosty Paws Frozen Treats for Dogs have been around for over a decade but have become the most profitable product line at Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, growing into a $10 million business. The original flavor, described by the company as “a sort of doggie vanilla,” now is being augmented with a second flavor—peanut butter. Lactose-free, the line is formulated to work with a dog's digestive system.

To the Dogs

In keeping with the established theme of reflecting consumer trends, natural goods will see strong growth in coming years. A report by Packaged Facts, “Market Trends: Natural, Organic and 'Eco-Friendly' Pet Products,” expects sales of natural pet health products to grow 149% over the next four years, increasing from $45 million in 2004 to $112 million by 2009. Retail sales of natural pet foods, likewise, are expected to increase dramatically from their $375 million in 2004 sales. In 2004, more than 500 pet products (food and non-food supplies) identified as “natural” or “organic” debuted, after the market nearly doubled in 2003. Natural and organic food and non-food supplies for pets tallied $527 million in 2004 sales, and Packaged Facts expects those double-digit sales gains to continue, positioning the segment to break the $1 billion barrier by 2009.

In its look at the top pet trends for 2006, the APPMA finds a continuation of treating animal friends with creature comforts. Pet behaviorists, pet butlers, pet sitters, pet massage therapists and pet travel agents all are in the offing, the APPMA believes. Furthermore, there is a growing number of veterinarians trained to provide highly specialized medical services for pets—dialysis, hip replacement, cancer treatment, teeth correction and cataract surgery among them. In its national survey of pet owners, 52% of dogs and 24% of cats are being given nutritional supplements and/or medications.

All of this attention leads to longer lifespans for pets. Bonnie Beaver, past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association and faculty member at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine, notes, “Thirty years ago in the U.S., the average age of a dog was four...These days, the average lifespan of a dog is between eight and 12 years.”

A number of new foods are geared toward aging animals. Tahitian Noni International launched a senior variety of its Tahitian Noni Canine Essentials specially formulated nutritional support system. Canine Essentials Senior, designed for dogs over seven years of age in need of special care and feeding, incorporates antioxidants from noni fruit and vitamin E, and is fortified with glucosamine, for aging joints and the immune system. The senior-specific liquid supplement is designed to be added to dog food. (Similarly, the other two liquid supplements in the line—Original and Puppy—blend noni, soy lecithin, DHA and vitamin E. The former includes omega-3 and -6 fatty acids; the latter adds bioavailable silicon for positive effects on bone growth.)

PetAg's new line of liquid food supplements also is geared toward the 75% of 69 million American households with an aging pet, per the APPMA's survey, but this company does not ignore the kitties. DogSure and CatSure promise to provide the full range of nutritional needs in a vanilla-flavored liquid “similar to products created for humans,” per the company. Both incorporate DHA and also have been formulated to “meet the metabolism challenges of aging or ailing pets.” Darlene Frudakis, president and COO of the Hampshire-based company, notes, “As people experience their own age-related ailments, they are naturally more attentive to the needs of their pets and are seeking out healthcare and nutrition that slows down the effects of aging for both them and their pets.”

Not that aging pets are being ignored along mainstream pet food channels. Target's super-premium LIFELong range adds many of the same ingredients as pet supplements. Five formulas offer protein, antioxidants in the form of vitamins C and E and selenium, and omega fatty acids such as linoleic acid. Furthermore, Target's efforts speak to another trend the APPMA expects to gain strength in the coming year: private labeling. Independent retailers are increasing the presence of store-brand pet foods on shelves. These now account for 11% of cat foods, 12% of dog foods and 13% of pet supplies. “As the pet industry matures,” explains Vetere, “retailers are relying more on their own brands to differentiate from their competition, through either value-priced or premium-priced product strategies.”