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Cat Marketplace: Meowing for More

Posted: November 25, 2013, 2:15 p.m. EDT


As the cat treat category grows, manufacturers focus on offering extra tasty tidbits for picky pets.

By Lizett Bond

According to American Pet Products Association statistics, 62 percent of U.S. households have a pet in residence. That figure includes more than 86 million cats, compared to upward of 78 million dogs. Despite these numbers, feline family members have not been treated equally to their canine counterparts.

"For years, the cat treat category has lagged behind dog in terms of growing sales in the natural and healthy treat segment,” said Marc Cathcart, president of PureBites, a treat maker in Vaudreuil-Dorion, Quebec, Canada.

In spite of the slow start, cat treats are catching up as retailers and manufacturers report an upswing in demand for healthful treats and other cat products. In answer to these needs, many retailers are increasing the amount of floor space they dedicate to cat products.

"We have made a very conscious effort to carve out more selection and variety, and expect to see some really nice growth in the next couple of years in this category,” said Bill Greene, general manager of Reber Ranch in Kent, Wash.

Cat Treats
Cat treats can be part of a visually appealing cat products display encouraging customers to spoil their pets. Carrie Brenner/i-5 Publishing at George

Still, for discriminating cat owners, not just any old snack will do. As the category continues to expand into solution-oriented products with added health benefits, many consumers are taking an active role in reading ingredient panels, said Glenn A. Novotny, Jr., vice president of sales and marketing for Emerald Pet Products in Oakland, Calif. Further, he added, consumers are specifically seeking out companies specializing in U.S. ingredients and manufacturing.

"These demands are driving sales of the natural and limited ingredient cat treat segment,” Cathcart agreed.

Trending Treats
Because cats are true carnivores, they require a diet rich in protein, and educated consumers are looking for biologically appropriate, all-natural treats for cats, according to Carmen Velasquez, marketing director for The Honest Kitchen in San Diego. For this reason, The Honest Kitchen has created its Wishes treat, made of 100 percent haddock, as well as its grain-free, make-at-home Ice Pups, which can be served frozen or as a warm broth treat for cats or dogs, according to the company.

The company also launched a brand-new bite-sized cat treat earlier this year, called Smittens.

"It’s tiny, heart-shaped and made from pure Icelandic haddock,” Velasquez said.

Rolf C. Hagen introduced Catit Cloud9 treats this year. The treats are 2.1 calories each and contain egg and whey, providing a low-calorie, high-protein tidbit for cats, according to the company.

"Again, it’s about the market wanting more natural, nutritional, high-quality products,” said Natalie Douranos, marketing communications manager for dog and cat for the Montreal, Quebec, Canada-based company.

Along these lines, Beth Thibodeau, general manager for Aunt Jeni’s Home Made in Temple Hills, Md., noted that cat owners feeding an all-natural, grain-free diet to their cats want to follow through with high-quality treats.

"Consumers are not only looking for grain-free food products for their cats but also dehydrated, all-natural, real meat treats,” she added.

Likewise, AdreAnne Tesene, owner of Two Bostons pet boutique with three locations in the Naperville, Ill., area, said any treats with single proteins tend to be very popular with consumers.

"Bonita Flakes by Cat-Man-Doo are one of our most popular treats, and PureBites are always good to have on hand,” she said.

An Ounce of Prevention
Beyond calorie counting, Novotny has seen an increase in demand for choices that combine the basic treat with preventive qualities. For this reason, Emerald Pet’s Smart n’ Tasty feline dental treats continue to grow in popularity, he reported.

"People are recognizing that cats have dental needs too,” Novotny added.

Informed cat owners are more focused than ever on preventive health, agreed Monica Glass, senior corporate affairs manager for Franklin, Tenn.-based The Nutro Co., maker of Feline Greenies Dental Treats. The company last year launched Feline Greenies SmartBites dual-textured treats with varieties including Digestive Care, Hairball Control and Healthy Skin & Fur.

Industry Voices
Are cat owners less likely than dog owners to purchase treats?
"Treats are one of our best-selling items for dog owners, but I have not noticed much of an increase in demand for cat treats. Our most popular is still the classic Zuke’s Natural Purrz. I think many people don’t view cats as ‘treat-motivated’ the way that dogs are, and instead buy small catnip toys as a ‘treat.’” —Kristen Hylink, assistant manager/event coordinator at Lofty Dog in Austin, Texas
"Dog owners frequently treat their dogs for performing tricks or obeying commands. Cat owners in the past did not train their cats with treats, but that seems to have changed. Cat treats are becoming more popular but probably will never be as popular as dog treats.”—Beth Thibodeau, general manager for Aunt Jeni’s Home Made in Temple Hills, Md.
"As we all know, cats can be tricky customers. Cat owners may have a harder time finding treats that their cat will enjoy, whereas dog owners typically don’t have to worry about discriminating taste buds. Both of The Honest Kitchen treats on the market for cats may also be given to dogs.”—Carmen Velasquez, marketing director at The Honest Kitchen in San Diego
"Many cat owners like to interact with their cats and show them they are part of the family by treating them with goodies. Cats can be picky when it comes to treats and toys, so it is important, as a manufacturer, to ensure products have excellent palatability.”—Glenn A. Novotny, Jr., vice president of sales and marketing for Emerald Pet Products in Oakland, Calif.

"As the cat treat segment grows to include more tasty treats with credentialed health benefits, brands like Greenies are helping fuel that growth,” she said.

Consumer education is key, Reber Ranch’s Greene said, adding that customers are looking for treats that not only mimic human health products but also those that specifically address feline health issues.

"Urinary tract, dental or fur and skin problems can often be attributed to what is being fed,” Greene said. "There is a lot that can be done to help with things like hairballs.”

Tesene agreed, noting that at Two Bostons, the Get Naked Urinary Health and Furball Relief treats by Natural Polymer International Corp. are strong sellers.

"We are seeing an increase overall in our cat products, so healthy food and treats are a natural way to make sure cats are being well taken care of,” said Tesene.

As the cat treat category develops, PureBites’ Cathcart reported that retailers might look to the dog treat segment for marketing tips. Further, he suggested creating a separate section within treat displays to highlight natural and healthful products.

"The added benefit for retailers in growing the natural category is that this segment tends to offer higher margins and products that are exclusive to pet specialty retailers,” he added.

Taking into account the fact that many cats live indoors and might not receive sufficient exercise, The Honest Kitchen’s Velasquez recommended marketing treats around games and exercise to encourage feline activity such as chasing and pouncing.

"Treats are also perfect to sprinkle or pour on top of food as an enticement to eat, because cats can easily become bored with basic food offerings,” she added.

Enticing consumers to take treats home to kitty is often accomplished through sampling.

"Samples, samples, samples! Put it into the consumers’ hands, and it will sell,” said Sandra Dahlquist, vice president of Cat-Man-Doo Inc. in Bellevue, Wash.

"Samples are always my go-to route for getting people to try out cat treats,” said Kristen Hylink, assistant manager/event coordinator at Lofty Dog in Austin, Texas. "If customers know their cat will eat it, they’re happy to buy it.”

Because cats tend to be picky customers, Tesene recommended placing cat treats next to foods where they are noticeable to shoppers, and then asking if customers need a new or favorite treat to bring home.

"We are also able to tear down apprehensions by offering to swap out the new treat for a different one if the cat doesn’t like it,” she added. "This is a great way to ease customers’ reluctance to try something new.”

One Thing Leads to Another
Hylink said that introducing customers to treats that are both dog and cat appropriate is effective.

"For instance, Weruva freeze-dried treats are safe and appropriate for both canine and feline friends,” she noted. "That way, if kitty turns her nose up, Fido can still enjoy them.”

"We really talk to our dog consumers, who usually have a cat at home as well,” said Greene. "From there, we can lead them into a conversation about cat-related products.”

Manufacturers and retailers agreed that pet owners want a treat that choosy felines will truly enjoy. In addition, minimal ingredients geared toward ensuring a long and healthy life are a key consideration.

"Consumers are looking for health-related products for themselves, and that influences the treat choices they are making for their cats,” said Cathcart.

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