Brands respond to demand for natural pet foods

As consumers become more aware of what they eat, they're also becoming more aware of what they're feeding their pets

Demand for healthy, natural food is extending from humans to their pets.

Petco announced Tuesday it would stop selling dog and cat food and treats with artificial colours, flavours and preservatives, both online and at its nearly 1,500 stores in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Petco's move, the first of its kind among major pet stores, comes at a time when sales of natural pet foods are steadily rising.

Natural pet products still account for a small portion of the U.S. market share but growth has more than doubled to 6.5% between 2013 and 2017, according to Nielsen, a data company. Nielsen said sales of pet food free of genetically modified ingredients jumped 29% last year. Sales of pet food without artificial preservatives and colours grew 4%.

Americans spent $69.5 billion on their pets last year, up 4% from the year before, according to the American Pet Products Association.

Pet food has long mimicked human food, says John Owen, a senior food analyst for market researcher Mintel. In 1959, for example, Gravy Train dog food was introduced so dogs could enjoy gravy, too.

As human tastes have grown more sophisticated, so have their demands for their pets, Owen said.

For dogs, there are bags of organic, vegetarian and grain-free food. Some brands claim to mimic ancestral diets, with kibbles made from venison or wild boar. Cans of cat food feature tilapia, rabbit and pumpkin.

Sensing the growing trend, two big food companies--J.M. Smucker Co. and General Mills--spent billions to acquire the natural pet food brands Nutrish and Blue Buffalo earlier this year.

READ: General Mills gets into pet food with Blue Buffalo acquisition

Owen says young consumers are driving the trend in natural pet food. He expects it will keep growing and lead to even more "natural" innovations, like freeze-dried raw food.

Petco CEO Ron Coughlin says the majority of pet food Petco sells now doesn't contain artificial ingredients. Still, the change isn't insignificant; Petco sells around $100 million worth of dog and cat food with artificial ingredients each year.

Coughlin said food with those ingredients will start coming off the shelves in January. Some suppliers are reformulating their food; others simply won't sell through Petco anymore, he said. Food with artificial ingredients that isn't sold by May will be donated to animal shelters.

Eventually the store plans to expand its ban on artificial ingredients to foods it sells for other animals, he said.