Additions & Subtractions

Natural treat manufacturers see ample opportunity for pet specialty retailers in emphasizing healthful ingredients.


For pet owners who seek natural treats, it is all about the ingredients. Consumers not only look at what treats do not contain—such as artificial preservatives—they also want to know what ingredients they do contain. Manufacturers are responding with a host of innovative options, driving the popularity of natural dog treats to new heights. According to the American Pet Products Association’s 2013-2014 National Pet Owners Survey, 30 percent of dog owners bought natural treats in 2012—up from 23 percent in 2010.

Industry experts say shoppers want pet treats with trendy components and healthful benefits. “Pet parents are looking for treats made up of ingredients they would eat themselves, things like peanut butter, applesauce, berries and almonds,” says Steven Shweky, president of Fetch… for pets! The New York City-based company recently acquired the exclusive licensing rights to Bistro Bites. The treats are free of gluten, grain, rice, soy and preservatives, and the flavors include Peanut Butter & Carob, Sweet Potato, Vegetable, and more.

Shweky adds that pet owners expect the treats to contain high-quality, natural ingredients, as well as offer an important benefit such as weight control. “Bistro Bites are meant to curb pet obesity,” he says. “They come in several different sizes. The packages contain just the right number of treats to last a month, in order to prevent overfeeding.”

Weight gain is among several issues that consumers consider when choosing natural treats. “They want treats that do not interfere with their pet food, treats with a reasonable calorie content and treats they can feel good about feeding their pets,” says Jessika Zulic, marketing director for San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based Cloud Star. “More and more consumers are also looking for minimally processed options and treats free of added sugar, salt, and artificial flavors and scents.”

Cloud Star expanded its Dynamo Dog functional treat line with dental chews that are grain free and potato free, and added a Puppy treat and an Endurance treat. The company also launched the Buddy Biscuits Grain Free range in the Itty Bitty format for small-breed dogs.

The natural treat trend is gaining favor quickly, says Debbie Bohlken, president and owner of Claudia’s Canine Cuisine in Maumelle, Ark. “Previously, it took three or four years for a dog treat to mirror a human treat trend,” she says. “Now, with the acceptance of dogs into the family as full-fledged family members, trending often runs simultaneously.” The company offers yogurt, peanut butter, carob and other treats, and it plans to announce the launch of some functional treats soon.

Consumers also expect natural treat ingredients to be human grade and USA sourced, and they often seek treats that are baked. “They want clear labeling, and they want treats that their pet can enjoy because of the quality and flavor of the ingredients,” says Bohlken.

Some consumers are particularly interested in clear labeling. Louis Angerame, general manager of Old Mill Pet Products in Westport, Conn., says his company watched shoppers at pet specialty retailers. “The first thing Baby Boomers do is put on their glasses and read the ingredients,” he says. In fact, he explains, the biggest purchasers of natural treats are Baby Boomers whose kids have left the home, and adults who have no kids. “These are two groups of people with a lot of net worth, and they are applying their own food rules to their animals,” adds Angerame.

In addition to food trends like made in the USA, gluten free and limited ingredients, the farm-to-table and locavore movements have taken hold in pet treats too. “A lot of consumers, especially in urban areas, want to know where their meat came from,” says Angerame. “They perceive chicken raised in a local farm as being cleaner than factory-farmed animals. That trickles down to pet treats.” He adds that consumers also perceive exotic proteins to be higher quality. Old Mill Pet Products will soon debut treats made with trout, boar and venison.

Superfoods such as blueberries are also making their way into natural dog treats. Look Who’s Happy, which makes the Tempt’n Tenders dog treat line, recently added a blueberry-crusted chicken treat, which is high in antioxidants and vitamin C. Other Tempt’n Tenders treats feature pumpkin, sweet potato and carrots.

Tommy Gay, president of the Gainesville, Ga.-based company, says its next line of treats will be Happy Wraps. “Each of these treats consists of either a sweet potato or carrot piece that is hand wrapped with turkey or chicken,” he says. “This blending of vegetables and meats makes a visually pleasing treat for the pet parent and an absolutely tasty morsel for the dog.”

Kale is another popular superfood for humans—and now for dogs. Dogs Love Kale offers three treats: Apple Crisp, Peanutty and Punkin. “Kale is a great antioxidant,” says Paula Savarese, president of Dogs Love Kale, which also adds flaxseed to its products. The treats also contain rice flour and whole oats, and no preservatives or sugar. 

Other nutrient-dense and antioxidant-rich ingredients that are gaining favor include coconut oil, alfalfa, sage and rosemary, says Chris Meiering, director of marketing for Zuke’s, based in Durango, Colo. “Pets are a part of the modern family unit and, as such, pet parents want to ensure that they live long, healthy lives,” he says. “We are also seeing increased awareness toward wholefood ingredients, with pet parents looking for treats made with real food ingredients, not by-products or fillers.” 

Zuke’s newest product is Genuine Jerky, a limited-ingredient, human-style, beef jerky treat made with 100-percent grass-fed, omega-3 rich, New Zealand beef. Zuke’s Genuine Jerky is naturally preserved, contains no nitrates or nitrites, and is available in Barbecue, Teriyaki and Original Beef flavors.

Dog owners want not only wholesome ingredients, but also various textures for their dogs’ treats. “I’ve been seeing more consumers looking for biscuits, and soft treats and jerky,” says Megan Augustin, national sales manager for American Natural Premium. “The natural treat customer is more of a food adventurer I would say.”

The Cedarburg, Wis.-based company’s newest products include Coconut Colada treats, which are grain free and contain natural coconut, pumpkin and cinnamon, as well as Sardine & Kelp treats, which contain sardines, salmon oil and kelp. Augustin adds that price is also important, as consumers want high-quality treats, but not at a premium price.

Other pet owners seek raw treats. “Limited-ingredient raw treats are taking their place right alongside raw food,” says Kira Garrett, marketing and public relations specialist for Minneapolis-based Sojos. “Dogs love the taste, and there’s the added benefit of knowing the natural enzymes, vitamins and minerals haven’t been cooked out.” 

Sojos Simply Meat Treats—which include Simply Turkey, Simply Lamb and Simply Beef—are made with one ingredient: raw, human-grade meat. The treats come in bite-size pieces that are freeze-dried.

Garrett says that treats are more than just an impulse purchase these days. “It’s time to think of them as an essential and fun part of a healthy daily routine. Either as a reward or a meal topper, raw treats are not only good for the dog, they’re great for adding incremental sales to every purchase.”

There are several ways that retailers can add incremental purchases in the treat category. For example, Augustin says it helps to offer sample packs. In addition to bulk and eight-ounce bags, American Natural Premium provides 2.5-ounce packages of the treats, at price points of $1.25 to $1.50. That way, people can try the new treats as an impulse buy.

Another way to boost sales in natural treats is to offer an assortment that showcases the four main categories of treats, says Zulic. She says the categories are indulgence, training, functional and chews to occupy the dog. Also, the store should offer the various treat formats, such as crunchy, chewy and freeze-dried.

“While retailers cannot carry all the combinations of purposes and formats, it is important to carry enough to give the consumer the choice she is looking for when shopping a specialty store and present the assortment in a way that is easy to shop,” Zulic says.

Variety is indeed important, says Meiering. Retailers should offer a wide selection of premium treats, so people shop on quality, not value. For its part, Zuke’s tries to make the process easier by offering corrugate pre-packed displays and wooden floor racks, as well as an online training program to help educate store associates on the company’s products and history.

Others agree that training can help boost sales in the category. Shweky says educated employees can engage shoppers. “Consumers buying natural oftentimes want more info on products, like an ingredient list and info on how the products are manufactured. Retailers are welcome to reach out to us for educational materials and samples,” he says.

Gay says stores can succeed by offering the right products. “Retailers should be looking at all their brands to ensure they are U.S. made with quality ingredients,” he says. “Retailers should be proactive in challenging manufactures to prove their sourcing is transparent and meets the high levels they expect.”

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