Need to Gnaw

Health trends in the human and pet worlds are spurring expansion and innovation in the dog chew category.


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From antlers to bully sticks to kangaroo-filled beef trachea, there is a continually expanding selection of dog chew products on offer to pet specialty retailers. Manufacturers are doing their part to produce innovative products that both spark consumer interest and meet the high health and safety expectations of today’s pet owner. And with the right approach to product choice and display, and an awareness of new trends, retailers can leverage this trend to drive sales and encourage repeat customer visits.

One of the first considerations that should be made by retailers is that similar to the broader pet food categories, consumers want to know where the dog chews they are buying are sourced from, with a clear preference for those products that are made in the U.S. Thatinterest in sourcing includes all the ingredients in the chews or anything the products have been treated with, leading to a growing preference for all-natural and single-ingredient products.

“All-natural and made and sourced in the USA is something consumers and retailers are concerned about,” says Ahdee Abramson of Pet ‘N Shape. The North Hollywood, Calif.-based business makes all-natural, healthy treats and chews. “We listen to their needs and try to deliver products that meet or exceed their expectations.”

Laura Jones, owner of Jones Natural Chews in Rockford, Ill., agrees that ingredient sourcing and health continue to be at the forefront of consumer interest. “The demand for natural and USA-made is still going strong,” Jones says. “[Those] are the biggest concerns that we hear from our customers.”

As with their own food, many pet owners are paying closer attention to what goes into the things they give their pets to eat, chew on and play with. With that approach, simple, recognizable ingredients are often appealing—a phenomenon that Barkworthies has paid attention to in product development. The Richmond, Va.-based company prioritizes natural, minimally processed, mostly single-ingredient products in its chew lineup.

“The biggest consumer trend we continue to see is a preference for simple, all-natural, single-ingredient chews. We think our ‘simpler is better’ approach to product development, processing and packaging sets us apart from most competitive brands,” says Bill Chilian, vice president of marketing at Barkworthies. “Consumers are becoming much more concerned about the ingredients that go into the products they offer their pets. Many are migrating away from rawhide due to the use of harsh chemicals used in processing.”

The rapid rise of the gluten-free diet in the human realm has also spread into the pet world, leading many cat and dog owners to look for the same grainless guarantees and other health benefits from food, treats and now chews as well.

“Currently, pet parents are regularly seeking out products that are grain free and corn free, as well as products that offer limited, natural ingredients,” said Lion Houkes, global marketing director at Paragon Pet Products, makers of Whimzees dental dog chews. “Pet parents continue to seek out natural product solutions and effective products that are made of high-quality, highly digestible ingredients that promote health and safety.”
The interest in a chew’s health qualifications also extends beyond natural ingredients and digestibility. Many dog owners are looking for products that not only are safe, but can also directly benefit their pet’s wellbeing. This is sparking growth in chew styles with targeted health effects.

“The dental category is a growing and rapidly developing category, based on greater education on health care for our pets, as well as greater understanding of the correlation of oral-dental health to heart health.” says Houkes. The Whimzees chews are designed to promote healthy gums and teeth while still offering a taste and texture that appeal to dogs.

A preoccupation with health has also fueled consumer interest in more exotic ingredients, especially in premium chews. The shift toward grain-free, protein-based products is helping to encourage the growth of chews made from unusual or new, but still healthy, sources.

“Another trend we’re following closely is increasing consumer interest in items made from novel proteins such as kangaroo, duck or crocodile—even cultured milk from yaks,” says Chilian. Barkworthies’ natural chews line currently includes products with each of these protein options. “What makes these options attractive is rising public awareness that exotic proteins can be good for pets with food allergies or digestive sensitivities.”

Travis Smith, vice president of QT Dog, says that the introduction and success of antlers and bully sticks first demonstrated that there is space in the market for ‘super premium’ dog chews and treats. The demand for those kinds of products has since grown along with the larger pet industry, making room for innovative ingredients. “Yak milk treats are booming,” he says. “The water buffalo horn chews are exploding as well.”

Beyond physical health, chews can also benefit dogs’ quality of life by keeping them occupied and serving as tastier distractions from other potential chewing targets—an owner’s shoes, perhaps. Pet ‘N Shape has noticed that consumer preferences are particularly trending toward long-lasting chews that provide both flavor and entertainment value.

“Consumers are looking for products that keep their dogs busy and happy, so longer-lasting items such as beef bones, tendons, pizzles, tracheas and chicken feet for smaller dogs [are trending],” Abramson says.

This demand for chews with staying power is at least partially motivated by cost-conscious customers seeking out products that will live up to their price tag in terms of chewing time. Smith says this consumer desire has helped shape the QT Dog’s approach to new products.

“Consumers want value for the dollar, and that means a long-lasting canine interactive experience with the product,” he says, citing the company’s Antlerz Deer Antler Chew as a successful example of this kind of chew. QT Dog is continuing to develop products that fit this mold and will keep dogs busy and entertained.

However, Smith points out that premium chews are only appealing to a certain segment of any retailer’s customer base, emphasizing the importance of variety in product selection and display choices.

“Retailers need to keep in mind that ‘super premium’ is not every consumer’s cup of tea,” he says. “It’s all about selection. There are excellent quality chews available at all price points, and those need to be offered to customers in a clean and easy to understand fashion.”

Chilian also advises retailers to pay close attention to what their customers’ preferences are, then make merchandising decisions based on those observations. “If premium bully sticks or lamb ears are selling strongly in their particular store, they should reset the shelf so these items are at eye-level height and consider displaying more facings,” he says. Chilian also suggests displaying chews on endcaps or near the checkout as a way to spur impulse purchases.

Since many consumers may go in looking for a product that was made in the U.S., Jones recommends sorting a store’s chew section to highlight USA-made offerings. Arranging products by dog size can also help consumers find the right product for their pet quickly and easily.

Retailers can also turn to their manufacturer and distributor partners for support in maximizing sales opportunities in this category. Houkes says that Whimzees offers a variety of displays and educational materials to inform customers about the products and explain their features and benefits. This proactive approach and a willingness to experiment with new products on the part of retailers and manufacturers can help spur continued development in the category.

“We believe that the dog chews category is full of untapped opportunities,” Chilian says. “Pet owners are always seeking new, innovative ways to keep their dog happy, healthy and occupied. Traditional segments like rawhide and bones are losing their dominance to an ever-expanding range of natural alternatives such as bully sticks, tendon twists, trachea and ears.”    

Thanks to pet owners’ growing awareness of and interest in what dogs are gnawing on, as well as manufacturer creativity, dog chews can be a dynamic and profitable category for pet retailers. 

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