A Treat from Mother Nature

Although there is no single set of industry standards to define natural pet treats, it is clear that many manufacturers are devoted to setting a high bar with their products.


As vague as the term may be, “natural” is still one of the most significant trends in pet nutrition, and treats are no exception. Treat manufacturers are flooding the market with fresh products at lightning-speed, and pet specialty retailers be warned, if you blink you are sure to miss something.  

The upside to this surge in product development and innovation is that there is something for every consumer and for every dog. However, as gatekeepers of the pet market, armed with the power to decide what will or will not be marketed on their shelves, retailers face the considerable task of choosing an effective treat assortment from an ever-growing sea of product. Industry insiders say the trick to making the most of this dynamic product category comes down to staying on top of emerging trends, knowing the local customer base and using that knowledge to put together the best possible selection of natural treats. 

All that being said, the very definition of “natural” as it relates to treats and other product categories remains up for debate. David DeLorenzo, president of Vetscience—the company behind Fruitables natural dog treats—says that what is and is not considered a natural treat continues to be argued and discussed, largely because there is no one set standard. “Unlike the National Organic Standard, it doesn’t have a defined standard of identity,” says DeLorenzo, whose company uses select organic ingredients and excludes anything artificial in the making of its products. “So, a lot of items in pet treats can be natural without having an explanation supporting what is natural and why.”

Still, while this lack of standardization can result in consumer skepticism among some of today’s more nutritionally aware pet owners, many manufacturers are diligently self-policing and holding themselves up to lofty standards—a selling point that retailers can share with shoppers. 

For example, all-natural treat manufacturer Zuke’s uses a definition of “natural” offered by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) as its guiding principle, says Chris Meiering, the company’s director of innovation. “Although the term natural, when applied to pet consumables, is quite nebulous, our definition aligns with the AAFCO statement that to be natural, a consumable and all of its ingredients ‘have not been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and do not contain any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing process,’” he says.

Other companies follow similar guiding principles that also reflect AAFCO’s definition in spirit and intention. “At Sojos, whether it’s food or treats, ‘natural’ means uncompromised nutrition,” says Ward Johnson, owner and president of Sojos, which specializes in all-natural, freeze-dried raw pet food. “It means making unadulterated products with no harsh processes—and, of course, nothing synthetic or artificial.”

Confident in their ability to provide consumers with products that are true to the essence of what most people would consider “natural,” manufacturers have forged ahead with numerous product introductions in recent years. In fact, the sheer diversity of treat types and formats available today is among the category’s most notable features. The spectrum ranges from treats meant to indulge and pamper to those that address specific health concerns to low-calorie training treats—and within those sub-segments, there is still plenty of variation. 

“Variety is key,” Johnson says. “Some pet parents treat as a way to add extra nutrition to their pet’s diet. For others, treats are just that—a rewarding way to pamper their pooch. Of course, some treats, like our healthy freeze-dried raw treats, offer the best of both worlds. But still, it takes a wide selection of healthy treats, from crunchy to soft, functional to raw freeze-dried, to satisfy discerning pet parents.”

The treats category is an area in which shoppers can experiment without too much concern over expense or waste should their pets not like the product, points out DeLorenzo. For this reason alone, it behooves retailers to offer as well-rounded a selection as possible.

“Treats are where pet parents are able to indulge in format and flavor variety with low risk,” DeLorenzo says.  “The quantities fed and the nominal costs for trying new treats are much lower, and rejection consequences are less severe than with a food or high-dollar supplement product. This variety and the innovation that continues to enter the market create excitement in the category and draw traffic into stores.”

What’s New
Among the trends stirring the pot of innovation in the natural category is the growing demand for pet products that reflect human taste preferences and nutritional standards. One way in which this trend is manifesting itself is in the wide range of flavors being offered. “The humanization of pets has fueled the growth of people-food-inspired treats like Sojos’ Good Dog Chicken Pot Pie, Blueberry Cobbler, and our soon-to-be-released Shepherd’s Pie recipe,” Meiering says.

The impact is also evident in the growth of the grain- and gluten-free pet food segments, as well as the rise in the number of functional treats addressing issues such as joint support or weight management—properties often sought in the human nutrition and supplements markets. 

“Pet parents have adopted human nutritional trends in feeding, treating and sheltering their pets over time, and this creates opportunities for category innovation and growth,” DeLorenzo says. “Examples include healthy fruits, vegetables and fiber being made into treats and functional ingredients for joints, dental and skin care moving from human, to pet supplements, and into treats.

The diversity of treat formats further adds to the dynamics that are impacting the category. Raw, freeze-dried treats, for example, are a relative newcomer on the scene that has the caught the attention of choosy pet owners looking for natural, unprocessed alternatives. 

“As freeze-dried pet foods increase in popularity, so goes the category of freeze-dried treats,” Johnson says. “Our all-meat treats, for example, are freeze-dried at temperatures below 115 degrees. Like our foods, this no-cook process protects the taste, aroma and abundant naturally occurring nutrition in raw meat.”

Public clamor for higher-quality proteins and meats has been a major factor at play in pet food sales in general. And rest assured, pet food and treat manufacturers—which are responding to the demand as much as they are spurring it—have been prolific in their efforts to answer this call for premium-quality proteins and increasingly exotic ingredients. 

“The trend is definitely towards more high-quality protein treats with limited ingredients,” says Stacy Milchman, who handles operations for Pet Ventures, the maker of Pet ‘N Shape brand treats. “Pet ‘n Shape is proud to offer a line of natural treats and chews that may be non-traditional such as chicken, turkey and duck feet, beef tendons, turkey necks, etc.”

One company is taking the use of alternative proteins to another level. Chloe’s Treats, a company that emerged on the scene a little more than a year ago, manufactures all-natural treats made from cricket protein. Unconventional and a bit ahead of its time, Chloe’s Treats is gaining traction with retailers—and ultimately pet owners—who recognize the benefits of using bugs as an ecologically sustainable and nutritious protein source. In fact, according to Jack LoParco, president of Chloe’s Treats, eating bugs as a major source of nutrition is “the future” for both human and pet consumption, as it represents an earth-friendly alternative to the production of traditional meats and proteins while offering many of the same nutritious benefits. 

“One thing we like about cricket protein is that there is no need for added vitamins and minerals,” LoParco says. “Crickets are already rich in amino acids, B vitamins, calcium, iron and all of those things that are normally [added to many] treats. But it is also a really good protein, and it rates well in terms of protein digestibility.”

The biggest—and most obvious—hurdle the company faces is getting people to accept the bugs-as-food concept. LoParco says the company has invested a great deal of time and effort into developing the product to be appealing. In this case, that means ensuring that the cricket flour they use is finely milled and adding ingredients that make for pleasing flavor profiles that pet owners are apt to accept. The company’s treats come in several snack-worthy flavors including Peanut Butter & Turkey Bacon, Sweet Potato & Cinnamon, Peanut Butter & Banana and Apple & Tumeric—a set of offerings meant to appeal to pets, as well as their owners’ sensibilities. 

“We are trying to marry something familiar with the concept of using cricket protein to bridge it for consumers,” he adds. 

Still, as with any new introduction—particularly the more exotic or cutting-edge offerings—customer education is crucial to getting pet owners to buy something new or an item they have simply never tried. So, passively hoping product packaging will do all the work is not ranked high among top-selling strategies. 

“With some natural products that are newer to the market, such as items like chicken feet, the consumer may have questions regarding safety or may be hesitant to try something very different from their typical treat purchases,” says Milchman. “Retailers should thoroughly educate their salespeople about their product selection so that customers don’t hesitate to purchase due to lack of information.”

When it comes to educating consumers, fortunately, independent pet specialty retailers can really outshine the competition. LoParco, for example, notes that the stores that are best at selling Chloe’s Treats are those that know their customers and know when and to whom to pitch the product. One retailer who has already sold six cases of Chloe’s Treats did so simply by verbally promoting them and their benefits. 

However, not only are independent pet specialty retailers particularly well-situated to sell and promote the growing assortment of natural treats on the market, they can also use the category as a way of distinguishing themselves from the competition. Non-traditional treats made by small manufacturing companies using unusual ingredients or flavors are not likely to thrive on mass-market shelves, and thus most large retailers will not include them in their inventory. But small retailers most certainly can—and with great success. 

“With the proliferation of natural treats in big-box stores, independent pet specialty retailers have to do more than just carry natural treats to set themselves apart,” Johnson says. “Offering truly unique treats—the kind not found in big-box stores—is a perfect way to differentiate themselves and ensure long-term customer loyalty.”

The challenge for specialty retailers is sorting through the ever-growing selection and finding the best options for their particular customer base. Meiering says a retailer’s first step is to understand its specific customer base, including important details such as what’s important to the store’s shoppers, what price range they are comfortable with and how often they purchase treats.  

“By understanding these factors, retailers can put together an offering that best serves their needs,” he says. “In general terms, we recommend a bell-curve approach with a small percentage of ultra-premium, gourmet treats on one end, a small selection of basic value-based treats on the other end, and a variety of treat solutions in the middle that address a spectrum of benefits and functions.”

And given the rate of product debuts in the category, even retailers that have been at it for quite some time can benefit from re-examining their assortment to see if it really is optimal for their clientele. “Be willing to go through the assortment a couple times per year to ensure the right balance of choices for pet parents,” DeLorenzo says.  “A mix of the latest introductions that bring in human trends, flavors, formats and functionality along with the standby must-haves will go a long way to satisfy shopper needs and wants.”  


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