Cat food innovations slow in 2020, cat owners want more

While cat trends continue, the COVID-19 pandemic has added to overall slow-growth treatment of the cat food market.

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Cat owners will tell you that felines deserve more love in the pet food space. Innovation is key to attracting their attention. | (Elena Efimova |
Cat owners will tell you that felines deserve more love in the pet food space. Innovation is key to attracting their attention. | (Elena Efimova |

Innovations in the cat food and treats markets are markedly less prominent than those in the dog food world. In the U.S., dogs have always been top-of-mind for pet food companies: dog ownership continues to grow at a steadier pace than cat ownership and there is more money to be had in the dog segment than the cat segment (larger pets = more food needed, among other reasons).

“As a result, pet product manufacturers, retailers, and marketers have tended to give cats short shrift, including in the minds of cat owners,” said David Sprinkle, publisher of Packaged Facts and research director at (and monthly Petfood Industry columnist). “In Packaged Facts’ February/March 2020 Survey of Pet Owners, cat owners were asked whether they perceive that cats, compared with dogs, are ‘sometimes treated as second-class.’ Across the board of industry players to varying degrees, the answer is ‘yes,’ including for pet food/treats, non-food products, pet specialty stores, mass stores and veterinarians.”

So, what do cat owners want out of their pet food options?

Like any pet food trend sitting top-of-mind, cat trends are being driven by cat owners’ desires for more: more natural food, healthier and more topper/treat options, more options when it comes to life stage and health condition formulations. In addition, brands must take into consideration the different shopping profiles of cat owners versus dog owners.

“Companies only focusing on cats, like Smalls or Cat Person or Dr. Elsey’s, understand well the differences in profile and expectations between cat and dog parents,” said Jean-Francois Herve, CEO at Birdstone Technologies LLC, a company focusing on the sustainable development and success of the pet food industry. “They are all targeting a population that enjoys purchasing through direct-to-consumer channels. These companies are slowly demonstrating that there is an alternative to the mainstream business model.”

Smalls, which offers premium and superpremium cat food options, is known for operating on a delivery/subscription model.

“In light of COVID-19 and social distancing protocols, people are spending a lot more time with their cats at home, and they're realizing that going to a store and picking up a bag of food isn't the most viable or healthy option — for themselves or their feline friends,” said Calvin Bohn, co-founder and CEO of Smalls.

Beyond e-commerce, which has gotten a significant boost in 2020 across all categories due to pandemic-caused shifts in how consumers shop, companies dealing in cat products are getting the message about their feline-owning customers.

“Among the new products introduced at Global Pet Expo 2020 are Blue’s Baby BLUE kitten food and Champion’s ACANA Cat with fresh ingredients; and during February 2020 Petco unleashed a slew of promotional emails with feline-focused headlines such as ‘Kitty 101,’” said Sprinkle. “More and better products and services for cats, and more marketing attention, stand to encourage cat owners to invest more heavily in the health and happiness of their ‘purr babies’ (see Table 1).”

With cat ownership on the rise in Europe, where cats are preferred due to the space constraints of living in European cities, cat treats appear to be where a lot of innovation is occurring.

“In terms of cat treats, we’ve continued to see an increased need for clean label food preservation, removing ingredients such as potassium sorbate and replacing those with pantry-friendly natural alternatives,” said Chad Wethal, marketing manager, pet wellness and nutrition for Kerry Inc. “We have also seen a rising interest in adding viable probiotics to cat food and treats to support digestive health. Cats are notoriously fickle eaters and savory treats are a perfect vehicle to deliver functional ingredients such as probiotics.”

Thoughts on 2021’s cat food opportunities

There are certainly upcoming opportunities for those in the cat space to expand their offerings, and 2021 might be the perfect year to do it.

“We are probably going to see a wave of new products and innovative ideas very soon in the cat segment,” said Herve. “The demand is there — consumers are increasingly educated about their cats’ food requirements, and we’re seeing new products focusing on protein and addressing digestibility issues.”

Fresh food for cats, which is already a hot topic in the dog space, is also a potential growth segment.

“In part because cats resist humanization in a way that dogs do not, dogs have gotten disproportionate attention in pet food humanization trends, ranging from grain-free (which makes more sense for cats, as obligate carnivores) to fresh/refrigerated pet foods,” said Sprinkle. “But could fresh pet food make at least as much sense for cats, given the long-running ‘gourmet/indulgent’ tradition in canned cat foods (9Lives’ ‘Morris the finicky cat’ dates back to the late 1960s), the smaller volume of pet food required (helping to offset higher price points) and the common practice of keeping cat food refrigerated once opened?”

Smalls is a player in the human-grade fresh cat food space, and according to Bohn the company focuses on both cat health and human convenience — and sees more success ahead in continuing to do so.

“We're expecting that consumers will continue to put their cat's health first, and that things will continue to trend away from conventional pet food brands,” said Bohn. “We're excited to see more cat parents look at their feline's lives holistically and champion not only their cat's nutritional needs, but their behavioral needs as well.”

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