When Tom Radcliffe owned three Carmel-area pet stores, customers would often complain about how finicky their cats were. “They’d say, ‘My cat doesn’t like tuna, my cat doesn’t like chicken,’” said Radcliffe. “I thought, ‘Why don’t they make cat food out of mice?’ Cats eat mice. Ask Tom and Jerry.”
Now, after selling his stores and enlisting some expert help – including friends’ cats and animal nutritionists with Ph.Ds – Radcliffe is making cat food out of mice. In the process, he catapulted himself during a shaky pandemic economy to the forefront of what appears to be a burgeoning business opportunity. And his canned product, Mouser, has just become available around the Bay Area.
A month after its commercial launch, Mouser is for sale in pet and feed shops in California, Arizona and Nevada, and Radcliffe expects to expand to Oregon, Washington and Idaho as early as next month.
At Pets and More in Campbell, one of numerous Bay Area stores that have just started carrying Mouser, manager Erin Lee said customers have reacted to the product with surprise – and interest. “They pick up a can or two,” Lee said. “Right now it’s more of a novelty, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Their cats like it.”
Radcliffe, 55, started building his self-funded business just before the pandemic and has had to navigate regulations and nutritional standards, along with distribution and supply chain issues. “I feel like a mouse in a maze,” he said.
The four versions of Mouser are Field Hunter, with chicken leading the ingredients; Forest Hunter, with turkey leading; Pond Hunter, with duck leading; and Brush Hunter, with rabbit leading. While Radcliffe believes the mouse meat has very broad appeal among cats, consumers may have to serve different flavors of Mouser to their pets to identify those they like best, he said.
The amount of mouse in each can is a trade secret, Radcliffe said. But he added that mice are “ridiculously expensive,” with the meat costing about 10 times more than chicken, turkey, duck or rabbit. Because the US Food and Drug Administration classifies mouse along with other meats as a product that does not require pre-approval to enter the market, Radcliffe’s regulatory journey involved meeting state standards overseen by the Association of American Feed Control Officials representing local, state and federal agencies.
He does not use lab-research mice, but buys from specialty producers breeding the rodents for purposes such as feeding pet snakes and injured owls at wildlife rehabilitation centers.
To develop the recipes, Radcliffe started mixing ingredients at home. “I made test batches and shared them with friends’ cats,” he said. “To no one’s surprise, I learned that cats really like the taste of mice.” Animal-nutrition consultants, and the staff at the Chicago cannery where Mouser is now made, helped him perfect the recipes, Radcliffe said.
At Aptos Feed & Pet Supply just south of Santa Cruz, Mouser is starting to become a hit among customers seeking canned food that picky cats like, said owner Damian Delezene. “The palatability factor is huge,” he said. Delezene rings up one or two Mouser buyers a day, and the number is growing, he said. “They’re saying the cats like it.”
In the store’s canned cat food aisle, Alan Stocklmeir was shopping for his girlfriend’s three cats, who “for some reason” had decided not to eat their regular food. Three flavors of Mouser were sandwiched between cans of Taste of the Wild’s trout-and-salmon and AvoDerm’s chicken-with-avocado-oil. Stocklmeir, 74, picked up a can of Mouser’s Pond Hunter. “I’m going to try one of these and see how it goes,” he said.
Retail prices for the 5.5-ounce cans of Mouser vary. Pets and More charges $2.39. At Aptos Feed & Supply, it’s $1.99, which is triple the cost of Friskies at a big box store but still puts the brand in the normal range for premium-priced canned cat foods, Delezene said.
“In the industry, we’ve talked about it for years: Why don’t they have gopher, rat, mouse, lizard tails — all the things that cats eat?” Delezene said.
Radcliffe noted that the pet food industry “isn’t accustomed to working with mice.” He had the type of mice he uses tested in a lab for pathogens, and he visited the canning facility to observe the manufacturing process, which includes heating canned pet foods under pressure to around 250 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure safety. “This has all been very vetted and researched,” Radcliffe said.
After identifying the cannery that could mix and can the cat food, Radcliffe cleared a major hurdle when he secured a distributor willing to take a chance on Mouser. But pandemic-related problems continue to plague his cat food company, which he named Muridae for the family of small mammals that includes mice. “For a while there was a problem getting cans,” he said. Now the canning process has hit a slowdown because demand for pet food skyrocketed after millions of locked-down people brought in animal company to temper their isolation.
Meanwhile, Radcliffe will continue to wrangle with his supply-chain issues, and his cat Gus will continue to enjoy the fruits of his enterprise. “He has no choice but to love it,” Radcliffe said.
Radcliffe remains confidant Mouser will “rocket to the stratosphere” once the pandemic loosens its grip. “It’s an interesting niche that’s rare to go,” he said. “It’s like there’s somebody holding the tiger’s tail — or the mouse’s tail.”