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Food for Thought: Quality matters, or, Why we do what we do

Merrick… see ya!

This week, The Cat Connection learned that Merrick Pet Care, the Texas-based manufacturer of Castor and Pollux Organix and Merrick brand dog and cat food, was sold to Nestlé Purina PetCare Company via their private equity owner, Swander Pace Capital. Though the terms were not disclosed, we assume this transaction involved a lot of money, as Merrick is one of the fastest growing natural/organic pet food brands and Purina controls at least a third of the pet food market (meaning, conservatively, $6.5 billion of a $20 billion dollar-per-year industry).

In response to this news, The Cat Connection has decided to no longer carry Merrick brand products due to our strict standards for food quality and brand transparency. Although we are saddened to have to remove Merrick from our shelves after many years, our commitment to your pets is greater than any brand loyalty. As always, we are more than happy to assist in transitioning your pets to a new food. Please just give our Dallas location a call, and we will come up with a plan that works best for you and your fur babies.

Quality matters

We’re sure that some people will question our decision to no longer offer Merrick at The Cat Connection. After all, what does it matter who owns the company as long as the product remains the same? But that is exactly the issue: inevitably, the product will change, and your pets will be the ones who suffer.

The Cat Connection has been involved in the pet food industry since 1985 and has seen many brands that were once highly regarded become among the least expensive, nutritionally void and popular pet foods at the grocery store. From our years of experience, we know that it is simply unsustainable for Merrick to maintain a high level of quality while manufacturing food on the scale and at the cost that Purina will require. To be competitive in a world of big box retailers with huge purchasing power, Merrick’s product will almost certainly come down in price once the Purina deal is complete. While that may seem like a great thing, the reality is that quality in pet food matters, but unsurprisingly, quality is expensive. The easiest way for pet food manufacturers to cut their costs is to cut costs associated with sourcing and producing their food. In short, the product itself changes, ultimately becoming a shell of what it once was.

This is especially true when you factor in the huge advertising costs associated with promoting a brand on an international scale. Without fail, the more money that is spent on advertising, beautiful packaging and brand recognition, the less money is spent on actually producing a food you’d feel good about feeding your pets.

One of the worst offenders of the brand-driven, inferior product game is Blue Buffalo. If you have a few minutes to spare, it’s worth reading about the lawsuit between Blue Buffalo and Purina, which, to the best of our knowledge, is no where near being resolved. Essentially, Purina is alleging that Blue Buffalo’s claims about its food, as well as those of its competitors (e.g., Purina brands), are untrue – indeed, deliberately untrue. Now, to us at The Cat Connection, this is a dispute between two of the least reputable giants in the pet food world, but nonetheless, the lawsuit speaks to the power of branding and messaging when people’s pets are involved. One absurdly candid quote from Blue Buffalo’s founder, William Bishop, on the company’s founding is especially telling:

“You can get into the market small with contract manufacturers making the stuff. Slap on a good label, come up with a slogan, and off you go. There were already a lot of smoke and mirrors in how pet food was advertised, and that was the sort of stuff we were good at.” – William Bishop, Blue Buffalo

Of course, this is not to say that the food The Cat Connection carries is exempt from branding, slogans and marketing. Indeed, our products all have their own unique look and story to differentiate each one in a huge, often overwhelming industry. The difference is the scale, the scope and the intent of the marketing in the brands that we offer. At the end of the day, you’re left with the food itself, and if that doesn’t measure up, there’s not much a cool slogan can do to change it… at least in theory.

The role The Cat Connection plays in feeding your pet

If Kitty got her way. Image credit: catster.com
If Kitty got her way. Image credit: catster.com

Now, just to be clear, the Cat Connection is in no way against companies making money. If they’ve built a successful brand, it is only understandable that the company would like to take that product to the next level. But as a small business operating on the ground with our customers (human, feline and canine), we see first hand the problems associated with high-volume, low-quality pet food, which is so often the end result of huge profits.

On any given day, our Dallas store is flooded with people wanting information on pet food and pet nutrition. We spend hours every week giving out free advice on these topics, all with the intent of making a measurable improvement in these pets’ lives. Many of these conversations begin with an owner’s description of the ailments plaguing their cat, from recurrent UTIs to chronic asthma to a lackluster coat. While we are not veterinarians and always suggest that our customers followup with a vet, time and time again we encounter problems directly related to diet. The revelation that food is medicine is not simply a human phenomenon; diet matters to your pet as well.

And this is the role that we play at The Cat Connection: we are the advocates for your animals in an industry that so often pushes profits over health; we are the dispensers of nutritional information that has been collected and examined throughout years of experience with thousands of animals; and, to this end, we are the distributors of high-quality pet food that will contribute to the well being of your most beloved family members.

Our business and our employees are invested in the health and well-being of our customers and their animals. If an animal does well with what we recommend, we hope that the customer will come back and share their experience with us. If the animal does not tolerate the diet change or the switch is made too abruptly, we encourage the customer to return as well so that we can find a solution that works for all everyone, pet and human alike. Your pets are our passion, and we are dedicated to making sure they’re receiving the very best food and information when it comes from our store.

Feline Nutrition: The Basics

Like looking into a terrifying mirror. Image credit: Feline-Nutrition.org
Like looking into a terrifying mirror. Image credit: Feline-Nutrition.org

The debate on feline nutrition has never been more relevant or emotionally charged as it is now. As our understanding of a cat’s nutritional needs and dietary evolution expands, much of what was assumed to be great for Kitty has been revealed to be the exact opposite. This is not the place to get into the complexities of feline nutrition, but sufficient to say it is no secret that The Cat Connection is a huge fan and supporter of raw diets for dogs and cats. For more information on feeding your cat a raw food diet, please check out The Feline Nutrition Foundation and Cat Nutrition.org or let any of our sales associates know. We would be more than happy to help you decide if raw is right for you and your cat.

That said, we do understand that a raw diet is not feasible for everyone. Raw is not something you do on a whim, and proper education on nutritional requirements and balanced diets is key to feeding raw. But all the same, regardless of whether Kitty eats raw or not, we have identified five basic requirements that guide our pet food selection.

  • Biologically appropriate ingredients
    • All cats, from your little domestic feline to a Siberian tiger, are obligate carnivores, which means that they should eat meat, meat and only meat. When that meat is consumed in a proper form (such as a whole mouse, for instance), the cat can receive all of its nutritional requirements from the food.
  • Meeting nutritional requirements
    • Because domestic cats rarely consume meat in its “natural” state (i.e., until very recently it was very much alive), pet foods must meet the unique nutritional requirements for felines. For instance, cats must receive the amino acid taurine from an external source, as it does not occur naturally in felines, unlike humans. Cats also need vitamin A in their diet, as well as a substantial amount of B vitamins niacin and thiamine.
  • Quality
    • Not all meat is created equally. While it may be tempting to insist that cats can subsist on very poor cuts, or the renderings of such cuts, for their entire lives, the reality is that a truly healthy diet depends on a higher quality of product. Some pet food uses such products, others do not.
  • Product safety
    • For both human and pet foods, recalls are a reality. But some food brands are more transparent about their recalls than others, and still others minimize the risk of food safety issues in their product sourcing, processing and distributing.
  • Palatability
    • It doesn’t matter how good a food is if the animal refuses to eat it (and boy, haven’t we all been there!).

The products that The Cat Connection carries are all carefully selected with these tenets in mind. Time and time again, we have observed that when cats (and dogs!) eat what nature has intended they eat, their health and well being is improved, which is why we do what we do. To this end, there are times when we make the decision to remove a food from our shelves because it no longer meets our strict requirements. This is the case with Merrick, which we have removed due to its inevitable decline in quality. Of course, we hope that somehow the Merrick brand will become an exception to the rule and will maintain a quality that meets the standards we require. But until then, we will not be carrying it in our store.

What You Can Do

We are so incredibly grateful for the customers who allow us to follow our passion in helping their pets, as well as the greater cat community of Dallas. But in this era of online pet food superstores and other big box retailers who have entered a market that was once served by smaller independent companies like ours, it has become difficult to justify competing with their pricing structures. We are often criticized for not offering the same prices as these large retailers. But what people do not realize is that these mega retailers have the purchasing power to buy in a volume that small retailers just cannot touch, thereby lowering the prices. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, the same force that drives prices down to such low levels also inevitably drives quality down, and your pets are the ones who suffer.

So please, instead of asking for a price match or comparing our prices to one of these large mega stores, help spread the word about smaller companies. By doing so, you’ll actually be increasing their purchasing power at the same time, and the business will grow and begin to pass savings to you. If people continue to bargain shop on great pet food, their brand of choice may be the next to sacrifice quality and safety for profit, lost in the rush to the lowest price possible to feed some of our most important family members.

Since 2007, The Cat Connection has removed numerous brands from our shelves for this very reason, and we strive to stay ahead of the curve on researching nutrition and sourcing new quality product lines, all with the intention of keeping your pet as happy and healthy as possible. It’s important to us to be able to say, without a doubt, that we would be comfortable feeding our own pets every food product that we carry.

To the greatest degree possible, we are looking out for your pet’s well being. We treat your pets’ nutritional needs as we treat those of our own: with the utmost care and consideration. We thank the dedicated customers who share our passion with us and choose to support our small business. You, and your pets, are the reason we do what we do.

As always, if you have any questions about any of the information presented here or our discontinuation of Merrick products, please do not hesitate to contact the store.