Treats, as the name suggests, are a special indulgence for pets, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be healthy too. Consumers want to feel good about what they’re feeding their furry friends, meaning that pet owners are growing increasingly interested in purchasing natural treat alternatives.
"Treats and chews make up one of the faster growing segments in the pet industry," says Joe Wallington, president and CEO of Rockford, Ill.-based Jones Natural Chews. "Part of this is due to consumers being more health conscious and applying the same habits to what they buy for their pets. They are looking for simple ingredients and natural, healthy options."
On the surface, the term "natural" seems straightforward, but the meaning varies greatly depending on whom you ask. To help customers navigate these murky waters, retailers should familiarize themselves with how different manufacturers use the "natural" label.
"Many consumers are very savvy when it comes to pet nutrition. Retailers won’t be successful with these buyers unless their associates are properly educated in the area of pet nutrition and ingredients labels," advises Wallington.
Less is More
For Boston-based Polkadog Bakery, a natural treat is characterized by the short list of ingredients.
"The easiest way to make healthy, sustainable and natural treats is to insist on single- or limited-ingredient treats," explains Deborah Suchman, co-founder and co-owner of Polkadog Bakery.
All of the treats that come out of the company’s kitchen are made with just a few easily-recognizable ingredients. In fact, many of company’s treats, such as the Cod Skins, Haddock Skins, Chicken Strips, Salmon Chips, and Cod Chips, are made with single-ingredient recipes.
It’s not just about the name recognition of ingredients, though. It’s also about knowing where they come from.
"We really want you to know what we’re talking about when we list our ingredients!" says Suchman. "So, we make our own treats from ingredients we source ourselves from a local community of fishermen and farmers and business partners who we know and trust."
When developing Polkadog’s Clam Chowda sticks, for instance, Suchman started by reaching out to contacts at the nearby Boston Fish Market. Then, she spoke with sources at the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration to learn about local producers and sustainable seafood products.
All of this exploration led to the Ocean Quahog, an especially sustainable variety of clam harvested off the U.S. coast. Since local companies only use part of the clam, the Polkadog team decided to use the low-calorie dark-meat to make Clam Chowda sticks because it’s chock-full of omegas and chondroitin.
"For Polkadog, research means finding healthy, sustainable ingredients. Ocean Quahog is maybe the most sustainable protein in the ocean. So, yeah, we work our butts off when it comes to research," adds Suchman.
For some manufacturers, like Jones Natural Chews, what makes a treat natural is just as much about what’s inside as what isn’t.
"Perhaps the easier definition is what is not considered natural—ingredients that are chemically-synthesized, such as vitamin and mineral ingredients, preservatives and special-purpose food additives, flavors and colors," explains Wallington.
As the name suggests, Jones Natural Chews has been offering natural treats and chews since its inception in 1987. In recent years, the treat producer has expanded its line of jerkies and sausages to include more exotic proteins, which are a great alternative for dogs with allergies to chicken or beef.
Jones Select Exotic Blends, for example, come in wild boar, pheasant and even alligator. Each recipe is packed with over 70 percent protein as well as other nutritious ingredients, such as chickpeas. The treats contain zero artificial flavors, colors or preservatives and are completely grain-free. Plus, like all Jones Natural Chews products, these treats are 100 percent grown and made in the U.S.
At Holistic Pet Cuisine in Boca Raton, Fla., unnatural ingredients are better defined by the negative impact they can have on pets.
"Artificial ingredients that are not natural can cause all forms of hyperactivity, behavioral problems and sugar addiction," says owner Barbara Ratner. "A treat can be considered natural when it does not contain carcinogenic BHA, food coloring and sugar, which can produce many issues in dogs."
All of Holistic Pet Cuisine’s products are formulated with only natural ingredients, including the company’s signature K9 Crisps. These crunchy chips are made from dehydrated chicken tenderloins. The poultry used for the treats is raised in the U.S. and contains zero by-products, fillers or added hormones or preservatives. The tasty bites are also just the right size to reward pups in training or to use as a healthy addition to pets’ daily routine.
"We only use ingredients in our treats that will help boost our pets immune system, not suppress them," explains Ratner.
With so many different approaches to natural treats, it’s not enough for retailers to simply stock products bearing the natural label. To be successful in the category, it’s crucial that retailers do their due diligence and truly get to know the products they’re selling.
"Because modern customers expect so much from retailers, retailers need access to information about the quality of ingredients, where the ingredients come from. Retailers have to be curators, carefully choosing treats they know and trust," says Suchman.
When selecting which treats to add, retailers should look for manufacturers that are transparent about what they consider natural and make it easy to self-educate.
"Jones Naturals puts in a lot of effort to train our customers and consumers. Our website does an excellent job teaching our customers and consumers alike. The site is full of information on feeding tips. We also have a Q&A section in the resources tab that addresses these kinds of questions," says Wallington.
The work doesn’t stop once the shelves are stocked, though. Employees also need to be interacting directly with customers to help clear up the confusion surrounding the natural category. Staff should be prepared to ask questions and recommend treats based on the answers. Some questions that should be asked include:
• What size, breed and age is your dog?
• What is your dog’s chewing style?
• Does your pup have sensitive teeth, allergies or dietary restrictions?
• What concerns do you have about natural treats?
All of this is a worthwhile effort according to industry experts, who believe the natural treat category will continue to grow exponentially in coming years. Overall, pet treats are expected to rise 5 percent more each year through 2021. Super premium treats have recently seen growth rates of over 20 percent year over year.
"Dog owners clearly love their pets, and they are showing it by choosing natural and healthy treats and chews. The vast majority who own dogs consider them part of the family and they want their dogs to be healthy and live a long life," says Wallington. "How can you not be excited to be in the pet treat space when you are helping dogs live longer, happier lives?"