Nutrition for the Whole (Furry) Family

By Lisa Olivo, Associate Editor | April 1, 2016

As consumers humanize their pets, the demand for natural, clean label products continues to climb.

For pet owners, their animals are more than just companions. A 2014 survey from Packaged Facts, Rockville, MD, indicated that 83.5% of U.S. pet owners agreed with the statement, “I consider my pet(s) to be part of the family.” An even higher percentage (93.6%) of consumers who purchased dietary supplements for their pets’ health said this statement was true.

Naturally, these beloved animals deserve the best. As a result, premium foods and supplements designed for optimal pet nutrition have gained a loyal following. Moreover, as consumers maintain their own health, nutritional knowledge extends to the care of their pets. 

“Today’s consumers see a connection between diets filled with nutritious ingredients equating to a better quality of life,” said Mike Fleagle, Regenasure glucosamine product line manager for Minneapolis, MN-based Cargill. “As Hippocrates aptly said so long ago, ‘Let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food.’”

While growth of the U.S. pet supplements market dropped as a result of the Great Recession, Packaged Facts reported a market revival is underway. The category, which earned $541 million in 2014, is now expected to exceed $697 million by 2019.

Market Drivers
A key trend propelling growth within the pet supplement and nutrition category  is the tendency for pet owners to “humanize” their companion animals. This trend is perhaps the most significant factor leading to new product development and consumer brand loyalty.

“For many Americans, our four-legged friends are more than companions; they complete our families,” said Mr. Fleagle. With the love and care people give to their pets, it’s not surprising that pet owners are choosing to feed their pets like they would other members of their family, he said. “Nowhere is the humanization trend more evident than in the pet food market, where products made with functional ingredients are filling pet food aisles.”

Increasingly, anxiety over a perceived lack of  “completeness” of pet foods is leading owners to consider supplements to help fill nutritional gaps, explained Ian Bouchard, vice president of sales for Qrill Pet, a krill meal ingredient from Norway-based Aker BioMarine Antarctic AS.

“According to the latest Packaged Facts report, ‘U.S. Pet Outlook 2015-2016,’ pet humanization has been a driving force in market growth for the pet industry for the last several years. ‘Humanization is a natural expression of the ‘pets as family’ trend, whereby pet owners treat their pets like children and are highly receptive to products similar to the ones they use for themselves. Not coincidentally, many of the services and products entering the market today are directly reminiscent of human fare, no doubt appealing to the pet owner as much as the pet,’ the report said.”

The report also noted examples of the humanization trend in action, including veterinary procedures like chemotherapy, MRIs and hip replacements; use of pet supplements like glucosamine and omega-3s; buying human-grade pet foods that are gluten-free or contain superfruits; designer pet supplies; and more.

The bottom line is pet owners want the best for their animals. Packaged Facts suggested “premiumization marketing” is driving growth in natural and organic pet supplements, whose market share almost doubled between 2008 and 2014, from 6% to 11%.

Mike Bush, senior vice president for Ganeden Biotech, Cleveland, OH, and executive board president of the International Probiotics Association, referenced a 2013 study from Chicago, IL-based Mintel that found 79% of pet owners said the quality of their pets’ food is as important as their own.

“As natural and organic products gain popularity in human foods, the trend has also transitioned to pet products,” he said. Market forecasts from London-based Euromonitor International predicted high-value dog and cat foods positioned as natural or certified as organic are expected to experience the most sales growth in the category. “According to the research group, consumers pay close attention to their pets’ wellness and seek the safest, most nutritious products available for their animals,” said Mr. Bush.  

Anurag Pande, PhD, vice president of scientific affairs with Sabinsa Corporation, East Windsor, NJ, noted the rise in pet products featuring minimal processing, claims of being free from chemical preservatives, and added functional ingredients. The wholesome nature of organic and natural food “makes it a more popular and responsible choice for pet owners,” he said.  

Mr. Fleagle suggested that as more consumers are buying natural and organic products for themselves, it seems likely they will want the same for their  “furry family members.” Most importantly, “Pet owners want to know that the products they are using are safe.”

Younger “pet parents” are especially interested in natural and organic premium pet products, observed Mr. Bouchard. “In previous years, pet foods were filled with byproducts that required a huge effort to stabilize and make palatable to pets. However, today’s pet owners tend to be more cautious and continue to demonstrate a willingness to pay for products that meet higher standards of ingredients and provenance.” However, this desire is at odds with the patchwork of regulations regarding the labeling and marketing of these products in the U.S., he added.

Consumers shopping for natural and organic also tend to prioritize simple ingredient content, viewing a recognizable “common sense” formula as premium. The Natural Marketing Institute (NMI), Harleysville, PA, indicated that “less is more” when formulating for pets. A 2014 survey suggested 53% of consumers look for foods/beverages with a short list of recognizable ingredients, while 62% said, “I prefer foods that are minimally processed.”

Fifty-four percent of survey respondents agreed that, “Foods with a short list of ingredients are healthier than those with long ingredients.” Specific to pet products, 56% of dog owners said “Least processed” was important to their pet food purchasing decision, with 50% of cat owners agreeing. A short list of recognizable ingredients was important to 67% of dog owners and 59% of cat owners when selecting pet food.

As more consumers invest in the health and well-being of their pets, many companion animals are living happy, fulfilling lives well into their golden years. As a result, this has opened up a market for products targeting “senior pets.”

“For a variety of reasons, including broader vaccination regimens, more nutritious pet foods and indoor habitation, pets are living longer, and as a result, are more susceptible to some of the age-related health conditions that affect their owners,” observed Nena Dockery, technical services manager, Stratum Nutrition, Saint Charles, MO.

To meet this growing need, a variety of supplements are now available to support aging pets, with formulas targeting specific conditions, such as arthritis, digestive disorders and tooth decay. Recently, more products associated with human health have begun to pop up in the pet aisle, Ms. Dockery noted, with pet products positioned for indications such as brain health and immunity, among others.

“With aging pets, lack of exercise can lead to obesity and other lifestyle-related disorders,” commented Dr. Pande. In addition, the same conspicuous consumption that plagues the waistlines of Americans also crosses over to how they feed and care for their pets.

David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts, reported an overlap between pet obesity and aging and sees an opportunity for products meeting these health concerns. Discussing the company’s report “Senior, Weight Management and Special Needs Pet Products in the U.S., 2nd Edition,” he said, “As today’s pets live longer and struggle increasingly with health issues related to age and being overweight, there remains solid potential for products that address these and related conditions.”

The research firm reported that U.S. retail sales of senior, weight management and special needs (SWM) pet products reached nearly $4 billion in 2015, an increase of 21% from 2010, closely tracking the sales growth of pet products overall. SWM pet food products accounted for 83% of 2015 sales while supplements made up a smaller 5%. Forecasting growth ahead, Packaged Facts projected SWM pet product sales would reach nearly $5 billion in 2020, up nearly 20% over 2015.

NMI also pointed to protein as a hot commodity in the pet category, with 76% of dog owners stating “high in protein” is an important attribute driving dog food purchases. Cat owners were similarly interested in protein; 70% stated “high in protein” was influential in their purchasing decisions.

Functional Ingredients
Many of the essential nutrients beneficial to humans also support pet health.

Pet supplements are plentiful, according to Sabinsa’s Dr. Pande, with formulas designed to support the health of animals both young and old. “Beyond vitamins and mineral supplements, today pet supplements include enzymes, antioxidants, essential fatty acids, prebiotics, probiotics and herbal products. Natural compounds such as curcumin and boswellia are well known for managing inflammation, so these are often formulated in pet supplements along with chondroitin, glucosamine and MSM for joint support.” In addition, he said digestive enzyme blends are helpful in obtaining optimum nutrition from food in both young and aging pets, and along with probiotics and prebiotics, can be helpful in managing many digestive problems.

Digestive issues are common in domesticated animals, he added, because many were once carnivores in the wild and were meant to ingest certain nutrients and enzymes from food. As with human food, processing can strip out enzymes, nutrients and beneficial bacteria.

To help fill these nutritional gaps, Dr. Pande suggested probiotics are a useful tool to improve pets’ digestive health. The use of probiotics has shown improvement in the digestive health of pets, as well as farm animals. “In a controlled study using the probiotic Bacillus coagulans, feed efficiency and healthy growth was enhanced in farm animals and birds. Fecal analysis showed a decrease in the putrefactive bacterial culture while the probiotic bacteria increased, thus allowing the establishment of a healthy gastrointestinal microflora in these animals,” he explained.

In addition, a recently conducted study using Sabinsa’s Lactospore probiotic in an animal model found the strain was beneficial in the management of diarrhea.

GanedenBC30, a spore-forming probiotic strain, is a highly stable ingredient that can be applied to a variety of pet product formats. According to the company’s Mr. Bush, the strain is able to “remain viable through most manufacturing processes, three years of shelf life and the low pH of stomach acid—meaning it can be used in many delivery formats. GanedenBC30 offers a consistent and reliable health benefit because it is versatile and survives through the hostile environment of stomach acidity, which otherwise kills 99% of almost all other probiotic bacteria.” In addition, GanedenBC30 is made in the U.S. and certified kosher, halal, non-GMO, gluten-free, soy-free and dairy-free.

Ms. Dockery, from Stratum, said selecting ingredients that are natural and already present as part of an animal’s diet is the best option for pet formulas. For example, she pointed to “a fatty acid supplement in the form of fish oil to improve skin and fur health and eggshell membrane for joint health.” These ingredients are derived from animal food sources and are backed by published research demonstrating their safety and efficacy in multiple animal species. 

The company’s NEM brand eggshell membrane has been researched in several diverse animal species, including horses, cranes and dogs. “In all of these species, supplementation resulted in improvements in joint functionality,” she said. “In the horse trial (Journal of Open Access Animal Physiology, 2015. Wedekind KJ et al.), results revealed decreases in pain and inflammation as well as cartilage degradation, demonstrated by significant reductions in CTXII (a biomarker for cartilage degradation) and increases in PIIANP (a cartilage synthetic marker).”

Though not typically pets, a trial examining cranes (Proceedings of the North American Crane Workshop, 2014. Bauer et al.) provided additional substantiation for the benefits and safety of NEM supplementation. “This study addressed osteoarthritis, a frequent problem in captive populations of endangered cranes,” Ms. Dockery explained. Though the number of cranes in the study was too small to establish true statistical significance, there were improvements in joint mobility in all birds in the study.

NEM also demonstrated improvements in joint pain and function in a yet to be published canine study, as well as displayed a profound chondroprotective effect, Ms. Dockery noted.  

Green-lipped mussel powder from New Zealand is becoming a well-recognized ingredient for hip and joint pain relief in pets, according to Ben Winters, director of Christchurch-based Aroma New Zealand Ltd. “Green-lipped mussel is the native species of shellfish to New Zealand and contains natural sources of omega-3, bioactive proteins, glycosaminoglycans and chondroitin sulfates, which help reduce pain and improve joint mobility in pets with arthritic systems,” he explained.

The marine nutraceutical ingredient boasts more than 20 years of clinical research, with studies verifying its benefits for reducing inflammation in dogs with osteoarthritis (The American Journal of Nutritional Sciences, 2002; Canadian Journal of Veterinary Research, 2013).

Aker BioMarine’s ingredient Qrill Pet is currently being studied by the company’s science team, in conjunction with Sigrid Ekran, a Norwegian musher. Together they aim to test Qrill Pet on a group of dogs, which competed in the 2016 Iditarod. The study’s objective is to determine if the product can reduce exercise-induced muscle damage.

Mr. Bouchard described the study, explaining, “A single team of 16 dogs received Qrill Pet for five weeks prior to the start of the 2016 Iditarod sled dog race. A second team received no supplementation. Both teams underwent a physical examination and blood sample collection as part of the required pre-race screening prior to the start of the race by Iditarod, and during this examination, an additional 6-8 ml of blood was collected for study use.” Both teams competed, with a finish in Nome, Alaska on March 16. Within 6 hours of finishing the race, all competing dogs (both teams) that finished the race gave a second blood collection of 6-8 ml. Plasma from the tests will be used to examine muscle damage and inflammatory markers, and red blood cells and plasma for fatty acid analysis.

Steve Siegel, vice president of Ecuadorian Rainforest, Belleville, NJ, pointed to key herbal components for supporting animal nutrition, such as “valerian and chamomile for a nervous cat, blue algae for overall equine health, and spirulina and alfalfa for a dog’s joints.” While herbal ingredients offer a variety of known health benefits, he also suggested these simple, recognizable ingredients are more appealing to concerned pet owners. “This shows that pet owners want to ensure their pets get the most optimal nutrition available and many believe the way to do that is to use natural foods,” he said. “Consumers have become wary of ingredients with names that sound as if they come from a lab instead of nature.”

Cargill produces a glucosamine ingredient for pet joint health branded as Regenasure. The ingredient is available for use in pet food and/or animal feed for companion animals such as dogs, cats and horses. Sourced from a traceable, domestic supply, Regenasure is Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) and vegetarian.

Collagen also has benefits for joint health in pets, according to Ahmad Alkayali, CEO and president of Certified Nutraceuticals, Murrietta, CA. The company referenced a case study conducted by the Arch Beach Veterinary Clinic in Laguna Beach, CA, which suggested daily supplementation of chicken collagen type II might benefit cartilage health in dogs in addition to attenuating the effects of canine hip dysplasia (CHD)—a condition of an arthritic disease causing the malformation of joint articular cartilage. The company offers the patented formulas kollaGen II-xs, as well as HA95 Natural Hyaluronic acid.

Call for Transparency
In recent years, mislabeled pet products have been a cause for alarm for pet owners, with leaders in the industry rallying for a higher level of transparency.

In 2014 researchers in Chapman University’s Food Science Program purchased and tested commercial pet food for dogs and cats (wet and dry), and examined their contents using DNA analysis. Results claimed that nearly 40% of the products contained meat that was not listed on the label. Further, of the 52 samples, only 31 were labeled correctly, 20 were potentially mislabeled, and one contained an unidentified meat ingredient. The researchers also claimed that many products contained undeclared pork, while other products claimed to contain beef when in fact none was present. Whether economically motivated or the result of negligence, the findings threatened to tarnish the reputation of the category.

Commenting on the controversy, Dr. Pande of Sabinsa said that while the pet industry generally follows the same clean labeling system as the human dietary supplement industry, for the most part the category is lagging behind. He stressed, “The product label should be transparent and informative about the supplements and their sources on the supplement panel.” While there are a handful of trade associations in the pet food and supplement industry, a joint collaboration setting industry guidance for clean labels in pet supplements would be a welcome step, he added.

Adding to complications in the category, Aker’s Mr. Bouchard pointed to a recently filed class-action lawsuit against several companies that claimed their products were made in the U.S. when included nutritional ingredients, such as vitamins, minerals and amino acid packs were allegedly sourced abroad.  “There is a lot of fear and confusion among companies that are selling and marketing pet nutrition products,” he said. The company underscored that its krill oil is “Made in the USA.” Aker owns and controls its supply chain, and its products are certified as being sustainable and 100% traceable. 

Cargill’s Mr. Fleagle also called for increased transparency, stressing that consumers want more information about where raw materials are coming from and where the products are produced. “A product that has ingredients predominately sourced outside the U.S. should not be able to carry a label that may give the consumer the idea that it was produced in the U.S. with U.S. sourced ingredients.”

Mislabeled and potentially dangerous products labeled as dietary supplements can be found in both human and pet supplements, suggested Ms. Dockery of Stratum, representing a challenge to reputable companies selling beneficial products. “Leaders in the pet supplement segment, just like reliable marketers in the human supplement segment, have been very public in their disavowal of these products, as they do not represent true supplements, but instead are either unapproved drugs or adulterated products.”

Regulations regarding the use of ingredients in pet foods and supplements can be as restrictive as those for products designed for humans, she added; and since there are no regulations governing dietary supplements in animals, they are still considered either “foods” or “new animal drugs,” depending upon the intended use. “The regulatory status is determined by the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM). Therefore, it is important that potential marketers of these products go through the proper channels in selecting ingredients for pet supplements. The main concern is safety, since there are ingredients that are safe for humans, but are toxic to certain animals.” (For more information on the regulation of pet supplements click here)

As more consumers educate themselves on what ingredients best serve the health of their pets, Mr. Bush of Ganeden believes consumer pressure will help regulate the category. “The quality of what we feed our pets has never been under so much scrutiny,” he said. “Now more than ever consumers are scrutinizing the ingredients in their pet’s food to make sure there are no byproducts, preservatives and only quality ingredients. Illusive terms like ‘byproducts’ and ‘soy-products’ are less acceptable. The 2007 scare when hundreds of pets were killed by melamine-tainted food remains fresh in consumer minds. As Americans demand more transparency in human food labels, they want the same thing for their pets.”

Innovative Offerings
Functional foods, nutritional treats and dietary supplements designed for pets are growing in variety and number. For example, several new pet foods, such as Solid Gold, Holistic Pet and Petcurean have incorporated krill meal into their product formulations, said Aker’s Mr. Bouchard. “This meal, called Qrill Pet, includes the same phospholipid oil used in soft gels for human consumption.”

GanedenBC30 is included in a variety of pet products, as well. Most recently, the probiotic strain was featured in Darford’s Grain Free Tummy treats, positioned to support immune health in dogs. The easy to digest supplement treat is safe for use in dogs with food allergies such as grain- or gluten-intolerance, and can also be used as a healthy way to boost energy between meals, according to the company.

A new canine supplement, I26 Companion, includes hyperimmune egg powder for optimal digestive and immune support, according to Dr. Sue Hewlings, chief science officer for IgY Nutrition, Oklahoma City, OK. The company’s formula works by targeting harmful bacteria in the digestive system, helping to restore a proper bacterial balance and maintain optimal immune function. “I26 Companion also contains added vitamins, minerals and glucosamine for joint health,” added Dr. Hewlings. Product claims include benefits for reduced digestive sensitivity; promotion of healthy skin and coat; restoring joint depletion from daily activity; increased energy; support of oral health; and control of weight and appetite.

Citing research on the formula, Dr. Hewlings explained, “Beagles fed 3.5 grams and 35 grams of IgY egg powder demonstrated a significantly reduced inflammatory response to an inflammatory stimulus (carrageenan) than dogs on the same diet but not receiving the IgY egg powder. The effect on inflammation was comparable to that obtained with the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen at 10 mg/kg.” 

True Leaf International offers a line of chews for dogs featuring hemp as the main functional ingredient, providing omega-3, 6, 9 and gamma linolenic acid.

“What really sets us apart from the crowd is not only our Canadian-sourced hemp, but also the other functional ingredients we use to boost its effectiveness,” commented True Leaf CEO Darcy Bomford. “We’ve created fantastic new formulas with hemp, plus green lipped mussel from New Zealand, turmeric root extract, omega-3 derived from algae, pomegranate extract, chamomile, lemon balm, etc. We have three great products that provide support for joint function, calming and overall good health that live up to our ‘Quality of Life’ focus.” Sold in Canada as True Love, True Spirit and True Calm, the products are expected to debut soon in the U.S.

Fortified chews, snacks and treats have emerged as preferred delivery formats, according to Packaged Facts. While interest in supplement use is rising, it hasn’t translated to huge market gains. The market research firm suggested a preference for treats is taking a bite out of supplement sales.

Alternative formats like powders are also graining traction, according to Mr. Siegel of Ecuadorian Rainforest. Powdered formats are garnering attention because they’re “easy to store and even easier to add as a topping to their food,” he said. “Not only that, but powdered supplements for pets are also easy to add to treats. This makes sure pets have a well-rounded diet no matter when they eat.”

Dr. Pande suggested that choice of delivery format could vary depending on which nutrient a product is trying to convey. “Dehydrated foods including kibble can be used as a delivery medium for many supplemented nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. There is an increasing trend of premixes that contain balanced amounts of nutrients and can be added to the pet’s food to make it more nutritionally complete.”

Future Forecast
To determine what’s next in the pet nutrition market, Mr. Bush of Ganeden said to look no further than what’s taking off with their human companions. “It has become clear that you only need to watch the trends in human food to know what’s coming down the pike in the pet food category. As awareness of probiotics and their impact on digestive wellness and immunity for human health grows, more pet food manufacturers will follow the current forward-thinking companies and include a probiotic in their pet food formulation.”

As nutrition options expand, Aker’s Mr. Bouchard believes consumers will also start paying attention to other aspects of the products they buy, beyond the health ingredients. “These other aspects include things like sustainability and traceability. These speak to a growing trend toward transparency, which is permeating most markets worldwide, not just in the U.S. Expect this to become a major purchase driver in the pet products market in the near future.”

Dr. Pande also predicted further focus on quality moving forward. “With increasing demand for human-grade quality of products it is likely that we will see high standards in manufacturing adapted by pet supplement manufacturers.”

Looking ahead, Mr. Siegel believes the natural pet food market will continue to grow steadily. “Each day, more pet owners see the need to give their pets clean nutrients so they live happy lives. Many pet food manufacturers will come to this realization and offer better, more holistic pet foods to keep up with consumer trends.”