Supply chain challenges, premium opportunities for cat food

Learn about the latest in cat food trends and challenges, including premiumization of the space as well as ongoing supply chain issues affecting the segment.

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Cats — and their owners — are demanding more than ever from cat food in terms of nutrition, functionality and variety. | Courtesy Pure Cravings

According to a Market Reports World report released in August 2022, the global cat food market was valued at US$32.46 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow to US$39.33 billion by 2027. With a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.25%, it’s clear that cats, while a smaller piece of the pet food pie than dogs, are continuing to expand in terms of nutritional needs and desires. Of course, cats are known for their finicky ways, and that makes working in the cat food space a complex prospect that keeps industry experts on their toes.

“The perennial challenge with cat food is making certain that the pet will enjoy it while simultaneously providing high-quality ingredients at a price point pet parents are comfortable with,” said Michael Lopes, director of product development for Natural Balance Pet Foods.

Natural Balance Wet Tuna PumpkinNatural Balance is well known for its limited ingredient diets, and a committed focus to highlighting things like functional benefits and premium ingredients fits in well with current cat trends. | Courtesy Natural Balance


The last couple of years have provided additional challenges for cat food brands to manage, though, and the focus has expanded from providing new and innovative cat products to making sure those products can reliably stock pet food shelves.

Supply chain issues create additional challenges for cat food

In the first half of 2022, news of an aluminum can shortage spread throughout news channels, with wet cat food highlighted as an industry segment being particularly affected. The primary factors were, of course, larger ongoing supply chain issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as an aluminum manufacturing factory in China that had to be shut down in late 2021 due to a major accident. The United States is one of the biggest importers of aluminum for China, so of course felt the sudden lack of availability acutely anywhere aluminum is used.

“The world’s in a supply chain crisis and we’re no different,” said Billy Frey, director of the cat portfolio and director of field marketing for Champion Petfoods. “We work very closely with our supply chain people to minimize those disruptions as much as we can. It’s more on the shipping side — just getting containers and shipping them is very difficult. I think this is our new normal. We’re all going to have to deal with this globally. You’re probably going to see some shifts in production for everything to be more regional.”

Champion Acana Indoor Entree

Champion Guardian 8 FrontChampion’s new Orijen Guardian 8 line leans into several premium cat food trends, including fresh/raw ingredients and functional benefits, while Acana’s new packaging has been revamped to highlight the same trends. | Courtesy Champion Petfoods


Another aspect of the supply chain struggle involves the raw ingredients for cat food formulations.

“Supply chain challenges will continue to have a ripple effect across cat food as manufacturers navigate the difficult raw material price increases and logistical bottlenecks,” said Sean Wittenberg, founder and president of Pure Cravings.

Pure Craving Salmon

Pure Cravings gently cooks all its fish and focuses on feeding cats like family — all fish are mercury-tested and the company’s mercury limit is well below the FDA action limit for humans. | Courtesy Pure Cravings


Cost, always a consideration for pet owners, is even more of a focal point now, which means cat food manufacturers must be increasingly aware of any price increases they may be passing on to their customers.

“The biggest challenge we are seeing currently is procurement of raw materials in general, but most importantly cost effectively so we can pass the savings and affordability on to our consumers,” said Holly Sher, owner and president of Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Company and Against the Grain Pet Foods. “Because we are our own cannery, sourcing the majority of our raw materials within 50 miles of our facility, we are in a very good place with ample inventory.”

Evangers Rx Cat Food Group

Evanger’s new EVx canned cat food line fills the need for variety and the problem/solution aspect of nutrition so many pet owners are looking for. | Courtesy Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Company


As with most challenges, there are opportunities to be had, particularly if your business relationships are solid and you can weather the storm.

“While we are not completely free of dealing with these challenges, we have developed great relationships with our suppliers and can use the challenges throughout the category as an opportunity,” said Wittenberg. “Our supply chain is very healthy so we view the global challenges that are disrupting the category as an opportunity to provide premium and innovative products to pet parents who may not be able to find their regular pet food on shelves.”

Trending for cats: High-value nutrition

Cat owners are no less particular about their pets’ food than dog owners, and since cats often have strong opinions of their own about their meals, the demand for more and premium nutritional options continues to grow in the cat food segment.

“Life stage is huge, and so is functional,” said Frey. “Functionality should come from ingredients, not supplementation. We can supplement all we want. But if we’re feeding healthfully — and that’s part of the humanization trend — if you’re eating good ingredients, Mother Nature provided all this food for us, and if we use it properly you don’t have to use synthetic supplements. And that’s what we really lean in to [at Champion]. But it only works if you can use quality ingredients, and we use so much fresh and raw that it’s there.”

Fresh and raw ingredients in the cat space are becoming more of a focus as companies who have successfully honed in on the idea in dog food formulas look for even greater opportunities in pet food.

“As more consumers seek out ways to add fresh food to their cat’s bowl, we’re seeing continued growth of foods that are raw, fresh and less processed,” said Matt Day, senior director of analytics for Primal Pet Foods. “There’s also a lot of interest in toppers and hydrators, which can give pet parents the chance to customize their cat’s meal while also providing beneficial nutrients and much-needed moisture in their diet. We’ve found that adding hydrators such as goat milk or bone broth to a cat’s kibble is a natural evolution for those consumers who have been using canned food as a topper.”

Primal Gently Cooked Cat Recipes

Primal’s sous vide variety pack answers to the desire for both gently cooked options as well as multiple flavors to work with, including fish & beef and chicken & duck recipes. | Courtesy Primal Pet Foods

Primal is also anticipating growth in terms of reduced dependence on synthetic ingredients.

“As pet parents continue to become more mindful of what they are feeding their cats, we anticipate that more brands will look to source vitamins and minerals from food, rather than turning to synthetic options,” said Day.

The future of cat food

The cat food segment will continue to grow in complexity, and that means a lot of different paths for companies to take if they want to expand in the space.

“We’re seeing the rise of those urban millennials,” said Frey. “They’re living in cities. They can’t have a Saint Bernard in New York City, but they can have a cat. They can have a small dog. So they’re wanting to have these animals, but small animals. And they’re not having kids — these are their fur babies. They’re looking at ingredients, and they want it from a place they can trust.”

That idea encompasses a lot of different avenues when it comes to pet food.

“[In 2023, we expect to see] continued commitment to outstanding palatability for cats including exotic proteins like venison and expanded flavor options on wet food in flexible packaging,” said Lopes.

Evanger’s is also expecting multiple trends to converge in 2023.

“Consumers continue to focus on or look for whole, clean, Made-in-the-USA foods at an affordable price point,” said Sher. “They continue to seek out problem/solution-based ingredients and feeding, as well.” 

Palatable, novel, functional, sustainable, transparent, affordable — the cat food space has a lot to accomplish in the coming year.

Looking back to 2020: Cat food innovations slow, owners want more 

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