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Toys that Play Well

Pet owners are on the hunt for unique toys that persnickety cats will deem captivating and, in response, manufacturers are upping their game.


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Cats are notoriously picky and inventive when it comes to amusement. For Fluffy, a great time might come down to a cozy box or a crinkly piece of paper. With myriad toy options available, cat owners looking for a little diversion for their felines often find themselves at the crossroads of innovation and exasperation.

“Cat lovers are looking for efficacy,” said Jim Boelke, president of Cat Dancer Products in Neenah, Wis. “Nothing is more frustrating than bringing home a new cat toy, only to find it ignored.”

As pet owners become more knowledgeable about pet obesity and health, keeping a cat active is increasingly important, said Allie Hackett, cat product development manager for R2P Pet in Pleasanton, Calif.

“We are seeing demand for new materials, interactive toys and ways to encourage cats to become active,” Hackett said.

In pursuit of movement, owners are looking for toys that will both entertain and exercise their pets, agreed Joanne Wegiel, president of The Cat House in Cochrane, Alberta, Canada. Play with an interactive toy, such as a fishing rod with fur or a feather lure, for example, will bring out the hunting instincts of a cat, she said.

“Many cats live strictly indoors and will benefit from the stimulation and activity of quality toys,” Wegiel said. “Cats will get so involved with pursuing, running and leaping that they will get a real workout while having fun.”

Naturally scented toys filled with catnip, honeysuckle wood or valerian bring the outdoors in while providing stimulation, Wegiel added.

The call for USA-made cat toys is also on the rise.

“I see more demand for American-made, quality products,” said Chris Gardner, owner of Los Angeles-based With A Purpose Products, maker of the Kung Fu Kitty brand. “Few cat toys are made in the USA, and many overseas products are manufactured poorly.”

Manufacturers and pet specialty retailers agreed that cats are unpredictable, and it can be difficult to pinpoint what an individual cat will enjoy.

While Pattie Boden, owner of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va., has not noted an uptick in demand for cat toys, items such as feather boas, interactive toys, mice and balls, as well as anything with catnip, are always popular.

“Our best-selling toy is a plain fabric pouch stuffed with locally raised catnip and handmade by a local pet rescue group,” Boden said.

Toys that will last forever are not necessarily the plaything a cat will love most, said Errin West, co-owner of The Cat Connection in Dallas.

“The toy that never gets used will last 100 years,” West said. “Cats are predators; there’s a lot of prey drive there that doesn’t get met with anything other than the real deal.”

For this reason, The Cat Connection stocks fur toys, such as those made with rabbit fur, deer hair or wool. These furs are obtained from the meat industry and not imported from China, West noted.

“We also really encourage wand toys because a lot of cats are overweight and people can really get their cat going and exercised,” West said.

Wool toys are in demand at Furry Face in Redlands, Calif., along with other natural toys, said owner Lorin Grow.

“Less popular are the synthetic toys or catnip toys, although catnip is still in demand separately,” she asserted.

New Products

Bring Out Their Inner Hunter

More than ever, pet owners are realizing the essential role of play in the lives of their pets. Fueling cats’ natural instinct to play, hunt and stay active is key to keeping them healthy, said Nancy Waters, business development manager for R2P Pet in Pleasanton, Calif.

Manufacturers are paying heed.

With A Purpose Products recently released the Kung Fu Kitty Catnip Kick and Catnip Kick replacement end, which attaches to all Kung Fu Kitty wands and features a faux-fur toy with a woven seagrass tail and a pocket stuffed with organically grown catnip.

“We had success with our line of USA-made cat teasers and began receiving suggestions for a catnip-filled product,” said Chris Gardner, owner of With A Purpose Products in Los Angeles. “We saw very few cat teasers using catnip, and our replacement-end capability makes our catnip teaser all that more unique to the market.”

The recently introduced Cat Dancer Deluxe toy from Cat Dancer Products is an update to the very popular but now discontinued Cat Dancer Complete, said Jim Boelke, president of the Neenah, Wis.-based company.

“Nothing is more frustrating than bringing home a toy the cat ignores,” Boelke said. “These are simple toys that cats find continuously attractive.”

The interactive toy can also be mounted on the wall via a “paw” with adhesive strips, allowing the cat to play by itself while the owner is away.

“The new Deluxe toy offers a much more wall-friendly Command Strip as an adhesive,” Boelke said. “Cats can play without damage to the wall where their toys are adhered.”

The Cat House in Cochrane, Alberta, Canada, recently debuted a line of hookless cat fishing lures resembling birds, mice and fish. Cat House Fly Fishing Toys are created to stimulate and satisfy the natural hunting instincts of cats, said president Joanne Wegiel.

“When testing these replaceable tips, we witnessed an unprecedented intensity of play hunting,” she said. “Most cats fiercely claimed the toy and were reluctant to give it up, even growling to keep other cats away from their prize. 

The toys can be attached to an extendable rod that is flexible and durable, Wegiel added.

Product Development

Cat Toy R&D

When it comes to creating toys that will engage the feline set, manufacturers often look to retailers, family members, employees and friends for guidance.

“We are fortunate to have a large number of cat-loving friends and family, so our market research is in creating a quantity of prototypes, which are distributed for feedback,” said Jim Boelke, president of Cat Dancer Products in Neenah, Wis. “This system works well.”

The key factor in determining the popularity of a toy is whether cats actually like it, said Joanne Wegiel, president of The Cat House in Cochrane, Alberta, Canada.

“I have four cats of my own, have lived with cats my entire life and take great pleasure in providing fun experiences for cats,” Wegiel said. “I also volunteer one day a week at a local shelter with cats who are happy to try new toys.”

After a toy receives cat approval, the real test is how the public receives it, said Allie Hackett, cat product development manager for R2P Pet in Pleasanton, Calif.

“In the end, the market is the real test, and once our toys are sold, we carefully track how successful different items are, and that tells us which direction to move in the future,” Hackett said.

“We study sales trends and listen to our retailers,” said Chris Gardner, owner of Los Angeles-based With A Purpose Products, maker of the Kung Fu Kitty brand.

This regular contact provides the opportunity for immensely helpful feedback, putting sales trends into context, Gardner added.

Tracking trends is key for R2P Pet, too.

“Trend research is very important in determining what toys we develop and the direction taken when expanding current lines,” Hackett said. “Our design team is always on the lookout for new trends across the industry, as well as other industries that we think could cross over into pet.”

Merchandising

Boost Impulse Sales

Employee understanding of cat behavior is key to marketing cat toys, said Errin West, co-owner of The Cat Connection in Dallas.

That knowledge, when combined with excitement and familiarity with play products in general, adds to higher sales and a well-performing cat aisle, said Chris Gardner, owner of Los Angeles-based With A Purpose Products, maker of the Kung Fu Kitty brand.

Presentation is another important factor, Gardner said.

“We prefer a wall display, creating a spread of products that has an impact and is easy for a consumer to shop,” he said. “Of course, every store space is different and can be limited. For this reason, we are actively working on new and creative displays that can help the retailer show [our] product in any store format.”

Presenting a cohesive section of cat toys is essential, said Allie Hackett, cat product development manager for R2P Pet in Pleasanton, Calif. Further, categorizing by type of play will assist customers in toy selection, she said.

Because cat toys are typically impulse buys, retailers should ensure that the cat toy section is organized and appealing, Hackett said.

“Displays that are easy to shop make a big difference,” she said. “Most pet owners are not planning to purchase cat toys.”

Endcaps and promotions in easy-to-see and accessible areas of the store also have an impact, manufacturers said. 

“Retailers, on the whole, are doing a great job of merchandising cat toys,” said Jim Boelke, president of Cat Dancer Products, in Neenah, Wis. “Pet and product knowledge is the one huge ace in the hole that retailers have over their online counterparts.”

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