A Recipe for Success with Pet Treats

Retailers must meet pet owners’ growing demand for healthful ingredients in the treats they feed to their dogs and cats.


Ingredients are everything in dog and cat treats. Whether pet owners are looking for traditional ingredients like beef and chicken, or trendy ingredients like chia seeds and sweet potatoes, the constant is health. People want to give their dogs and cats healthful treats, and while the types of treats have changed over the past few years, the goal of feeding pets nutritious snacks has remained the same.

“Dog owners continue to educate themselves about the impact nutrition has on their dog’s overall health,” says Chris Meiering, director of innovation for Zuke’s, based in Durango, Colo. “With this increased knowledge, customers are seeking products that have very specific nutritional profiles, as well as products that reflect human health trends.”

Meiering says consumers are looking for treats that are natural, made in the USA, organic and made with whole foods. One of the more recent trends is toward non-GMO ingredients, and all these characteristics continue to be growth drivers for the category. In fact, he says, this ever-growing list provides opportunities for treat companies to expand and grow the category.

Zuke’s recently introduced Genuine Jerky Steaks, made from omega-3 rich, 100-percent grass-fed New Zealand beef, with carrots, potatoes or sweet potatoes. The steaks are preserved without the use of added nitrates or nitrites, and they are completely free of grains, artificial flavors or harsh additives.  

The company also expanded its line of crunchy 10-calorie Skinny Bakes to include 2-, 5- and 20-calorie varieties. The line of meat-free, vegan dog biscuits contain no wheat, corn or soy, for consumers looking for treats that have limited ingredients. Skinny Bakes are also targeted to pet owners looking for products that can help their furry friends with weight management, which is still an important issue.

“Consumers are looking to reward their pets but don’t want to do it with unhealthy, high-calorie treats and snacks,” says Meiering. “The obesity epidemic is not just affecting people—our pups’ waistlines and health are suffering, as well.” He cites the Association for Pet Obesity and Prevention, which reports that more than half the dogs in the U.S. are overweight, and one out of five is obese. Excess weight on pets can result in an increased risk of osteoarthritis, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart and respiratory disease, kidney disease, and some cancers.

Even people who have pets with healthy weights are concerned about what is in dog and cat treats. For many of these shoppers, the absence of certain ingredients is another important feature. “Consumers have become more aware of food allergies for themselves and know now that the same is true for their pets,” says Paula Savarese, president of Dogs Love Kale in Naples, Fla. In turn, she says, manufacturers are becoming more conscious about pet allergies, and many are including healthier ingredients in their products.

The two newest flavors from Dogs Love Kale are Sweet Tater, which contains chick pea flour, kale, sweet potato and flax seed, and Tropical Delight, which contains chick pea flour, kale, coconut, banana and flax seed. Both are grain and wheat free.

The grain- and wheat-free feature reflects another trend. Just as many humans have gone gluten free, so have their pets. With treats, says Savarese, less is more. “Manufacturers are using fewer unnecessary ingredients,” she says. “They want the consumer to understand what’s in the products that they are feeding their pets.”
One thing consumers understand is Made in USA, and that has become more important than ever in treat sales, says Laura Herr, co-owner of Jones Natural Chews in Rockford, Ill. “The key drivers seem to be ‘grown and made in the USA,’ and limited ingredients with nothing artificial,” she says. “The USA factor continues to grow stronger than in the past.”

In addition to Made in USA items, retailers and consumers also want treats with natural ingredients that are not chemically altered. This year, Jones Natural Chews launched a White Bare Knuckle for medium and large dogs, Rocky’s Rollers sausage links in beef, chicken and lamb, and the Cutie Q steer pizzle product. Herr says Jones will launch more products later this year.

Training treats are also on-trend right now, and these small bites have to be especially tantalizing in order to keep the pup focused. Exclusively Pet recently launched Exclusively Dog Chewy Training Treats, which are available in three flavors—Savory Chicken, Bacon Apple, and Cheese. The treats are wheat, corn and soy free, made and sourced in the USA, and they are 100-percent natural. “A lot of our treats can be used for training, but these are our first treats specifically sized for training,” says Scott P. Corsi, managing director for Milwaukee-based Exclusively Pet.

The treats are highly palatable, which is an important attribute for training, says Corsi. “It’s a challenge, because at the end of the day, you want an enjoyable treat that is not stinky or gross,” he says. “There are a lot of different treat offerings, so if your dog snubs it, you’re not going to buy it again.”

Also, the flavors are familiar, a contrast to some competitive mid- to upper-tier treats that feature more trendy, less-common ingredients. “We went with the tried and true,” says Corsi. “We do have the option down the road to expand to creative flavors.”

In addition to natural and Made in the USA, consumers are also looking for other features. Value is still important, says Ahdee Abramson, president of Pet Ventures Inc. in North Hollywood, Calif. “We wanted to come out with products that give value to the customer, that met all those needs of what customers are asking us for,” he says.

Along these lines, Pet Ventures recently launched larger packages of its All-Natural Chicken Feet—the one-pound tub and the two-pound tub. Before, the chicken feet were available in bulk bins. The new packaging reflects another consumer trend. “It’s the pantry-loading effect,” says Abramson. “People say, ‘My dog likes these; I can keep on buying one at a time, [but] why don’t I buy a pound and be done with it?’”

The company recently launched Beef Lung Chunks, which are treats made from natural beef lung and are available in Rich Peanut Butter, Sizzling Bacon, and Cheddary Cheese flavors. Like the items in Pet Ventures’ body parts line, the treats have no artificial colors, additives or preservatives, but these are in a treat form. So far, the response has been positive, says Abramson, as consumers want items that have ingredients that they can read and understand.

“It follows human trends,” he explains. “You just continue to see that evolution.”


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