Cat food, treat innovation rises in 2024 with health focus

Numerous cat consumables were displayed in Global Pet Expo’s new products showcase as cat owner spending grows faster than dog in the U.S.

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For much of pet food’s history, cats have been second-class citizens after dogs. While cats have been the second most popular companion animal by a wide margin, the pet cat population has always lagged behind dogs in the United States. However, urbanization, demographic shifts and other forces have increased the popularity of pet cats in the U.S. and around the world.

More U.S. households purchase dog foods and treats than cat consumables, with 61 million buyers in the dog-owning column versus 38 million buying cat products, Andrea Binder, vice president of retail account development at NielsenIQ, said during her Global Pet Expo 2024 presentation on March 21 in Orlando, Florida, USA.

“Cat is actually growing faster though,” she said. “More cat-owning households are growing faster and shopping in the category than those dog-owning households. The value per buyer is going up for both, but those cat-owning households are spending more in the category than your dog-owning household at just over US$1,000 a year.”

Cat food and treat innovations

Pet food companies have noticed this ownership trend, reflected in the number of new cat products on display at Global Pet Expo’s new products showcase.

“This year, a lot of our innovation is behind cat,” Dr. Danielle Bernal, global director for vet nutrition with Wellness Pet Company told Petfood Industry. “What we've seen from the research is that now more of what we call our next-gen pet parents, millennials and Gen Z's, who represent the majority of pet parents, have now actually started to adopt more cats and dogs.”

Those cat owners want foods that provide ideal nutrition, specifically formulated for cats. However, inflation has had a negative influence on cat owners’ ability to afford wet foods.

“With prices increasing, cat parents are moving back to dry and decreasing their wet,” Bernal said. “While this might make economic sense, cats also need lots of hydration to support their urinary health. Wet food is something you want to include in their nutrition because it's 80% water. It’s a great way of giving them a drink to help their urinary health. So behind that, we're launching a whole new range, what we call Appetizing Entrees. They're available in three different forms, each with three different flavors.”

Appetizing Entrees come in 1.4-ounce containers. These single-serving foods will help avoid the wastage that can result when fussy cats refuse the second half of a can that’s been kept in the refrigerator. Wellness also plans to sell the cat foods on specials, like 10 for $10 to reduce the financial barriers to providing cats with moist food. Wellness also introduced a 0.4 ounce tube of puree for use as a treat or topper that provides health benefits and hydration along with the bonding enjoyment of giving cats a treat.

While moist cat foods help with hydration, kibble can still provide complete and balanced nutrition for felines. As cat owners are looking for more dry options, pet companies are responding to that demand.

“The cat has cat population has been growing,” Jeremy Couture, director of business development at Nestlé Purina North America, told Petfood Industry. “We've been very successful in the cat space in particular with Pro Plan. Yet, Pro Plan and pet specialty overall have always been very dog dominant.”

To counter that dog bias, Purina introduced several new cat foods at Global Pet Expo. One was a dry version of Fancy Feast in a kitten formulation. Purina has also expanded their Pro Plan line with a focus on supporting cat health.

Healthy products for cats

“One of the things we know about cats is that they don't get taken to the vet as often as dogs,” Couture said.

Cat foods can’t replace regular visits to the veterinarian, no matter how traumatic for both cats and owners, he said. However, cat food with health benefits can help prevent problems before they occur.

While cats are reticent to go to the veterinarian for a basic check-up, getting a dental exam is yet more unenjoyable for everyone involved. Wellness has introduced another set of cat treats to address dental health. Dog chews and treats designed to clean the animals’ teeth have become common, but similar dental health products for cats are rare as hen’s teeth.

“We know that 70% of adult pets have dental disease, but there's not that many cat dental products out there,” Bernal said. “Whimzees is our super successful brand for dog. We're now launching our Whimzees cat treats which are designed to be porous, crunchy treats. Cats’ teeth sink in to clean around that tooth, which works to help keep their teeth clean. They the highly palatable, which is good, because they need to have them every single day to keep their teeth clean.”

Humanization of cat treats

Cat owners want to take care of their pets’ health, but they also want to have fun while doing so. The enjoyable bonding experience drives owners to give treats to their cats. While those cats aren’t aware of special events like birthdays, their owners are. Like baking a birthday treat for any other member of the family, cat owners can prepare a healthy cake for their cats using a kits Melinda Stenger, founder of Petcakes, added to her line-up this year.

“This year, I'm launching a birthday baking kit for cats,” Stenger said. “That includes not just cake, but ice cream and frosting and the pan sprinkles and a candle.”

Unlike decadent human birthday cakes, Stenger’s creations contain no wheat, corn or soy, salt, sugar or preservatives. The icing is made with one ingredient: dehydrated yogurt. Cat owners can customize every cake, ice cream and frosting with something their cat likes by adding a tablespoon of something healthy, such as chicken, tuna, turkey or salmon.

Homemade birthday cakes for cats exemplify the humanization trend in pet food. As cats grow in popularity with U.S. pet owners, innovation in cat consumables seems to be keeping pace.

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