More health conscious than ever, consumers are choosing foods that pack a nutraceutical punch—and they want the same for their four-legged friends, too. And because Spot and Sylvester aren't likely to pop a vitamin pill or a capsule filled with herbs, most supplementation for pets will happen at mealtime.
According to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association, pet owners are doting on their pets more than ever—and that includes a trend toward buying functional foods. "Pet owners are paying more attention to nutrition, with table scraps on the decline, and gourmet food and food fortified with supplements and vitamins and minerals showing gains," the APPMA reports in its 2005 survey of pet owners. And food tops the list of spending on pets—the APPMA estimates Americans shelled out $14.5 billion for pet food in 2005.
As pet owners start rethinking what their pets eat, natural foods manufacturers are responding to the growing demand. That puts natural foods retailers in a perfect position to capitalize on the trend. But experts say retailers should make sure their customers understand exactly what fortified foods can—and can't—do for pets.
Foods with a purpose Just as natural foods shoppers have traded in sugary breakfast cereals for whole grains spiked with flaxseed and echinacea in hopes of getting shinier hair or warding off a cold, they are scanning pet food labels for that added health boost for the family dog or cat. "Customers notice that, for example, Canidae [brand pet food] has rosemary, and that's supposed to be good for heart health, or that other brands have live cultures that come from yogurt that may aid in digestion," says Lisa Delima, a buyer for My Organic Market, which operates three natural groceries in Maryland and Virginia. But just as people can't depend on, say, an herb added to a boxed food to act as a serious supplement, it's the same for their pets.
"It depends on the pet's needs," says Ava Frick, a holistic veterinarian in Union, Mo., who specializes in clinical pet nutrition. "If the pet has a condition that really requires supplementation, then often what's in the treat or the food isn't enough to be medically supportive. But it will help some, and if it makes the owner happy to do that little extra, that's great."
For that reason, some top manufacturers of natural pet foods prefer to keep their ingredient lists short, getting functionality from whole meats and vegetables, and making supplements that can be added separately for special needs.
"It's like, if you're eating real, wholesome, natural food, you're going to feel a whole lot better than if you're eating pretzels," says Andi Brown, director of Palm Harbor, Fla.-based Halo, Purely for Pets, maker of Spot's Stew brand foods for dogs and cats. "For example, the essential fatty acids in Spot's Stew come straight from pure, human-grade chicken." Other ingredients in Halo's canned dog and cat foods include carrots, zucchini, green beans, rolled oats, kelp and garlic powder.
The makers of Wellness foods, a division of Chelmsford, Mass.-based Old Mother Hubbard, share a similar philosophy, pumping up antioxidant content by using tomatoes, blueberries, spinach and apples, says the company's vice president of marketing, Jean Lizotte. "We try to have a wide range of colorful fruits and vegetables for immune system support, and we put flaxseed in all of our products," Lizotte says. Wellness cat foods also include a generous amount of cranberries to help prevent urinary tract infections. "It helps acidify the urine," Lizotte says.
Frick says such ingredients are a sign of a quality food. "I tell people, when you read labels and you see ingredients like sweet potato, parsley, rosemary, chicory, you see that the company is really trying to get a lot of nutrients from vegetable sources into that food. That's a really positive thing," she says.
For pets that need a little something extra, Brown recommends adding one of Halo's supplements—Hip Hip Hooray with glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health; Dream Coat, with essential fatty acids derived from wheat germ, safflower and cod liver oil for healthy skin and coat; or Vita-Dreams Daily Greens, which promotes cell efficiency and contains berries that protect animals'—especially cats'—urinary tract health to prevent the infections that are so common. "Supplements should be chosen for the individual pet and added into the food. Certain supplements, once they're cooked and baked, can be rendered useless," Brown says.
Food as medicine
Like makers of human foods, pet food companies, which are regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, have to be careful about making any kind of health claims for specific ingredients on their labels. But veterinarians and pet food manufacturers hear a lot of anecdotal evidence about the power of a pure, whole-foods diet and quality supplements.
"Sometimes, a person will report that an older dog is acting like a puppy again, or can get into the car without difficulty, or isn't getting ear infections anymore, or has a new vitality," Frick says.
Skin problems, one of the top afflictions pet owners report to veterinarians, sometimes clear up when an allergen is removed from the diet, Frick says.
Brown says she has heard from pet owners whose diabetic animals' need for insulin shots diminished after switching to Halo's foods. "Diabetes is a huge issue right now for dogs and cats, and meat and vegetables are pretty easily processed. Sometimes, the animals can go off insulin altogether," Brown says.
And Old Mother Hubbard gets plenty of positive feedback about improvements in health, too, Lizotte says. "It's amazing how many people call us and say their animal has stopped itching, their eyes are brighter, their nose is wet and cold. People say the difference is unbelievable."
Pet nutrition 101
As more functional foods and supplements come on the market, natural foods retailers will have to field many questions from curious consumers who want to know what's best for their pet.
Frick recommends encouraging customers to look beyond dry foods. "Kibble goes through an extrusion process during which some of the nutritional value is lost, so it has to be added back in by spraying on nutrients. Even the best food companies do that. So, I'd say obviously it's important to sell the customer a good-quality food, but don't lead them to believe that everything their pet needs for life is in that bag. Let them know there are other things they can add to improve the nutritional profile, such as supplements and vegetables," Frick says.
And, she adds, research has shown that it's a good idea to switch a pet's brand every six months or so to help avoid nutritional deficiencies, so retailers should offer customers a wide selection of high-quality brands. "It's good to mix things up a little, for nutritional variety," she says.
Retailers who don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of pet foods might want to consider printing up a list of books by holistic veterinarians that discuss the pros and cons of various types of foods and supplements.
"We do that, so that if customers have a question we can't answer, or they want to learn more about natural pet foods, we can point them in the right direction," Delima says.
Allie Johnson is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 3/p. 104, 108-109