The well-known dog and cat food trends of pet humanization and natural formulations are alive and well in the small pet segment, as owners of everything from birds to guinea pigs target higher-quality and more complex foods for their animals.
Humanization in small pet food
“We have seen an increasing ‘humanization’ of pets, driven by a variety of factors such as pet representation in movies and on social media,” said Claire Hamblion, marketing manager for England-based Supreme Petfoods, which specializes in food, snacks, bedding and accessories for small pets. “Another factor is that the pet and owner bond is stronger than ever, with studies showing the benefits of pet ownership such as reduced stress and an increased sense of purpose. With our small furry friends becoming family members, there is greater demand for more premium and convenient products. This is reinforced by the shift in demographic of small pet owners to slightly older individuals who are happier to invest money in their pet’s health and want high-quality food and treat options.”
Grain-free is one subset of the natural pet food trend making waves in the small pet food segment. | Courtesy Supreme Petfoods
Of course, that search for premium products includes specialized formulations and the desire for more options overall.
“With the growing role of pets as valued members of the family, pet owners are becoming more conscious of their companions’ health and looking for these popular human health food trends in their pets’ food as well,” said Julie Fain, product development and marketing coordinator for Ohio, USA-based Vitakraft Sun Seed Inc., which specializes in premium bird and small animal products. “Pet owners are also looking for more variety: They want more options of treats, foods and care supplies to choose from, and are willing to travel or spend time online to find more options.”
Vitakraft has released a line of cookable foods for pet birds that offer an easy way for pet owners to introduce more ingredient and nutrient variety into their bird’s diet, catering to both customization and humanization trends. | Courtesy Vitakraft Sun Seed Inc.
The natural trend: expanding in small pet
Dogs and cats aren’t the only pets getting an overall upgrade in their meals: Small pets are benefiting from the natural pet food trend, as well, according to experts in the segment.
“The 2018 Petco announcement to ‘turn their back on artificial’ was a strong signal that the market and consumer needs are heading in that direction,” said David Mortier, international sales developer at Versele-Laga, a Belgium-based manufacturer of food and care brand products for performance animals and pets. Natural products in the small pet space, according to Mortier, include foods and treats with no artificial flavors, preservatives, colorants or added sugars, and items that are GMO-free.
A trend towards more “natural” diets that better mimic what an animal would eat in the wild is growing in small pet food. | Courtesy Versele-Laga
One of the subsets of this natural trend is “products that use ingredients that can be found in the natural habitat of the small animal,” such as meal worms, said Mortier. “The majority of the omnivore [diets] are still 100% vegetable protein,” which is in contrast with the animals’ natural diets, he said.
Just as in dog and cat food, the small pet segment is shifting into more complex formulas that take “natural” diets into account.
“There is a big trend for using natural ingredients that better reflect the diet of small herbivores in the wild,” said Hamblion. “In particular, we have seen an increasing demand for grain-free products. Many owners feel that grain-free diets are less likely to cause health or digestive problems in their pets.”
Answering the trends: new products on the market
In response to these two trends, companies are doing everything from acquiring new resources to reformulating existing lines to releasing new products in order to meet pet owner needs.
“We have acquired Higgins Premium Pet Foods,” a company that has a wide bird and small animal assortment with good USA representation, said Mortier. “Higgins doesn’t use any artificial colors, preservative or flavorings, and hasn’t since before it become a trend — it has always been their philosophy.”
In addition, “we [launched] our Nature and Complete assortment of food and snacks during Superzoo 2019 (exclusively for the USA) as we have upgraded the product to be all natural,” said Mortier.
Vitakraft is also focusing on an all-natural relaunch.
“In the next month, we will be re-launching our Sunseed Vita Prima line of diets for small animals and birds,” said Fain. “They are free from any artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, and the foraging blends feature our new ancient grain-based extruded pellets. Ancient grains can offer greater amounts and more variety of nutrients than modern grains like wheat.”
And Supreme has taken on the grain-free trend with a new line of products.
“We have launched Selective Grain Free, a new product which is high in fiber and contains Timothy Hay, garden vegetables and linseed,” said Hamblion. “You won’t find any corn or wheat in this product. Given the demand for natural, grain-free products, retailers will see this flying off the shelves. In fact, our Selective range is growing 26% year-on-year in the U.S. because we are listening to market demands.”
The future of small pet food trends
Similar to dog and cat, small pet food products are headed toward more customization options, more human-based ideas and higher-quality formulas.
“I think we’ll continue to see products that reflect the growing humanization of pets, particularly with regard to small animal food and treats,” said Fain. “No doubt we’ll soon start to see more small animal foods and treats that are made with new and unique ingredients, and possibly more products that focus on specific health needs for small pets, like treats designed to promote dental or digestive health.”
And as with all trends I the pet food space, one thing will likely lead to another.
“The trend for natural ingredients is likely to continue and we will start to see a greater emphasis on sustainability and environmental sensitivity in sourcing ingredients and manufacturing,” said Hamblion. “Pet humanization will continue to increase the desire for premium, innovative and novel offerings — including natural, functional and gourmet foods and treats — and species-specific formulas being adapted to specific breeds, lifestyles and even to individual pets.”