Natural Chewy Goodness

The market for natural dog chews continues to grow as consumers seek safer products with added benefits.


Dogs are not exactly picky about what they put in their mouths. Pet owners, however, are becoming increasingly selective about what their dogs consume—not only for meals, but also between meals. Consumers are seeking natural chews for their dogs, and they want these products to have other features and benefits besides just a lack of artificial ingredients. Manufacturers say that means opportunity for retailers that offer natural chews.

“We are experiencing a continuous growth pattern in this category,” says Laura Herr, co-owner of Jones Natural Chews Co., in Rockford, Ill. “There is a high demand for sourced and made in the USA and naturally processed chews.”

According to The American Pet Products Association’s 2013-2014 National Pet Owners Survey, 62 percent of dog owners purchased chews for their dogs in 2012, up from 58 percent in 2010. Rawhide remained the most popular type of chew, purchased by 83 percent of dog owners, but was down from 89 percent in 2010. Other chews included small knotted bones (27 percent), large knotted bones (23 percent), sticks (37 percent), twists (17 percent) and strips (15 percent). On average, dog owners bought chews about five times over a 12-month period.

Also according to APPA, 35 percent of dog owners bought natural parts chews, such as cow, lamb and pig parts, up from 28 percent in 2010. Fifteen percent bought synthetic chews, such as starch and plastic bones. 

“It seems like the product line, in general, is in demand, and it is getting more placement in more stores, which does result in more movement,” says Herr. She adds the retailers that succeed in the natural chews space are the ones that offer items for all dogs, such as a pig ear snack for small dogs and beef knuckles for large dogs.

Doug Martin, president of Treat Planet in St. Louis,  agrees that natural chews make up what continues to be a growing category, and he points to pet owners’ ongoing fear of tainted items produced overseas as a major factor. “Consumers are constantly looking for healthy, long-lasting treats for their dogs, and natural chews are a great alternative that consumers feel good about giving their dogs,” he says. “The concern over China chews is one of the drivers of consumer awareness on the health aspects of chews. Consumers are looking for new chews that are 100-percent U.S. made that are healthy for their pets.”

People also want natural products that feature U.S.-sourced ingredients. Treat Planet’s Etta Says! brand recently launched Mega Chews, made with buffalo, turkey and elk proteins, that feature 100-percent U.S. content. Quality and health are important components of dog chews, Martin says, and people look at a “Made in the USA” label as an indication of those features.

Martin adds that consumers also pay attention to other safety features, such as whether the chew can be a choking hazard. With this in mind, the Etta Says! brand uses a proprietary manufacturing method that breaks down rawhide  to very small particles. “We then add our premium proteins such as duck, deer, buffalo, etc., to the product and mix it like a cookie dough. The mix is then extruded and baked. This gives us a product that will easily break down and is not a choking hazard,” Martin explains.

Natural Benefits and Beyond
Although Made in the USA does not necessarily mean the product is natural, consumers who shop for natural chews often seek domestically made and sourced dog chews. Carol Plescia, owner of Acadia Antlers in Ramsey, N.J., says dog owners are aware that Chinese-made jerky and rawhide chews can contain formaldehyde and other dangerous chemicals. “The problems coming out of China are very serious to people with dogs,” she says. “The more exposure of the repercussions, the more people want to investigate what is safe and healthy for their dogs.”

What is safe and healthy, she says, are Acadia Antlers moose antlers sourced from Maine, where a network of entrepreneurial “shed hunters” use ATVs, snowshoes, and snowmobiles to look for naturally shed moose antlers. Plescia says moose antlers are harder than the more common deer and elk antlers, and they are a natural source of calcium and other nutrients. The company also manufactures Moose Dust, ground antlers that dog owners can sprinkle on dog food to make the kibble more appealing.

To make antlers more appetizing to dogs, Long Beach, Calif.-based Redbarn Pet Products launched Redbarn Naturals Bully Coated Antlers. “While antlers are a very long-lasting, tough chew, many dogs aren’t drawn to them,” says marketing manager Michelle Schell. “By adding our bully coating to our Redbarn Naturals Bully Coated Antlers, we have made them delicious and highly palatable.”

The company also recently launched Redbarn Bully Coated Cow Ears, which are coated with bully coating and then slow roasted to a crunchy texture. These chews have an added benefit, says Schell. “Not only is this a high protein, tasty treat, chewing on crunchy treats helps to promote healthy teeth and gums.”

Another trend in natural products is the use of a single ingredient. Richmond, Va.-based Barkworthies manufactures beef, chicken, lamb and other chews without chemical additives. The company added several Made in the USA products this year, including bully sticks, antlers, chicken jerky and sweet potato chews.

“Consumers are demanding products that provide what I call ‘clean nutrition’—products which feature no added grains, sugars, preservatives, additives, hormones or antibiotics,” says Bill Chilian, vice president of marketing for Barkworthies. “Even through the recession, we’ve seen a consistent increase in demand and believe the trend will accelerate as the pace of economic growth increases.”

Another trend is the well-publicized practice of giving dogs products that humans might appreciate. Mukilteo, Wash.-based Himalayan Dog Chew manufactures a hard cheese snack using a traditional process from the area around Mount Everest. The chews are based on a snack that people of the Himalayas chew. “We are fortunate to have such a strong demand and following for our Nepalese cheese,” says marketing manager Laura Baugh. “Our products have always been natural, and we are happy to be providing people with the best products to feed their companions.”

Earlier this year, Himalayan Dog Chew launched Yaky Charms, treats that the dog owner “pops” in a microwave. Baugh says consumers seek items that will give their dogs longer, happier lives. “Pet parents look to the natural category to provide safe and healthy alternatives,” she says. “What makes a product stand out is maintaining this integrity while still being competitive in the chew category.” The chews do not stain or emit an unpleasant smell.

The odor is another important feature of natural chews. “We hear from consumers that they love lasting chews, but not the odors or staining that are typically associated with the chew category,” says Glenn Novotny, vice president of sales and marketing for Oakland, Calif.-based Emerald Pet Products. The company developed limited-ingredient, grain-free Twizzies All Natural Chews to address this consumer demand. The newest chews are Smart n’ Tasty Twizzies Natural Chews in Piggy, Turducky and Chicky. “As winter arrives, we see customers looking for chews they can feed indoors without creating a mess or odors in their house,” says Novotny.

Natural chews are an easy category to define, says Scott Corsi, managing director for Milwaukee-based Exclusively Pet Inc. “It really comes down to it is not processed in any way, which changes it from its natural state,” he says. “People want to be able to pronounce the ingredients, not 20-syllable words and things you would not recognize.” Exclusively Pet’s newest product is three-ounce Jumbo Crunchy Bones.

Retailers Can Benefit

Most retailers recognize natural chews make up a hot category, says Corsi. “People are looking for natural food and treat type items,” he says. “Information is flowing so fast on social media.” He notes that some retailers use earth tones in their signage to highlight natural products, taking a cue from high-end natural food stores. Some pet specialty stores even have dedicated natural sections.

Corsi adds that it is important for retailers to call attention to this area, as the effort may eventually lead to sales of other natural products. Consumers who are not sure if they want to spend money on a natural food might try a natural snack or chew, then return to buy the more frequently needed kibble or cans. “There is nothing bad about natural,” he says. “I don’t think natural is going away anytime soon.”

Displays can help too. Treat Planet provides a wooden display case to hold the Etta Says! chews. There is also a wooden holder for the three-foot Duck Chews. That display takes up one square foot of floor space, so retailers do not have to remove other products from the shelves to make room for the item.

It also helps to talk to retailers about the different products. Plescia spends time talking to retailers about the different sizes of Acadia Antler products and their suitability for various dog breeds.  Some shapes are better for stronger chewers, and some are designed for pet owners who are not sure their dogs will like antlers. “It’s just a matter of getting good information out to retailers,” she says. “They are under the gun to make a profit.”

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