Whole Foods launches new, premium line of pet food

David Kaplan / Houston Chronicle /

Consumers are clear: They love their dogs and cats and will spend more money on them if convinced a product will add to a pet’s well-being.

Whole Foods got the message.

Earlier this month the Austin, Texas-based natural foods grocer began phasing out its 365 brand of pet food and launched a higher-priced line, Whole Paws, to replace it.

“All the data show that consumers are more and more conscious of what they feed their pets, and we want to support that,” said Lauren Winstead, a Whole Foods buyer who manages the pet category and helped develop the Whole Paws line.

Whole Paws is a premium line that will cost more than 365 products did, but Winstead said the dry and wet foods and treats will cost less than other brands of premium pet food sold at Whole Foods.

All Whole Paws wet food products are grain-free, unlike the 365-branded items, and some wet cat-food meals, including salmon and chicken, contain shredded meat.

One of the new dog treats looks like an Oreo, with a filling that contains glucosamine for hip and joint support, Winstead said.

“Pets have achieved an elevated status in our emotional lives — and a corresponding elevation in our willingness to spend to ensure their health and happiness,” said Kit Yarrow, a professor of business and psychology at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

“Pets are the antidote to our increasingly isolated lives,” she said.

In 1970, 40 percent of households included children according to the U.S. Census, Yarrow said, and today it’s fewer than 20 percent of U.S. households. Such a shift has made room for pets to become more important family members, she said.

“Consumers want to know: ‘Is my dog getting the kind of quality I’m looking for in my own food?’” said Jim Morgan, co-owner of Animal Brands, a Califon, N.J.-based manufacturer’s rep for the pet industry.

Pet-food manufacturers in general are moving toward fewer ingredients and higher protein levels in their products, he said.

Both mass-market and independent pet-food sellers are branching out into new diet offerings, said his wife and co-owner of Animal Brands, Vicki Lynn Morgan.

“One trend we are seeing is grain-free diets,” she said. Some pets have allergic reactions to or digestion problems with grain, she said.

Target is “reinventing” the pet department of its stores to create distinct dog and cat areas, spokeswoman Anne Christensen said.

For example, both wet and dry dog food are grouped together, so guests with dogs can find all the pet food they need in one place, she said.

Target also recently rolled out Freshpet-brand refrigerated dog and cat food.

Guests can find “fresh and healthy” Freshpet products in a special illuminated cooler in more than 600 U.S. stores, she said.