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Customer demand for natural treats and chews continues to be a sales driver in the pet specialty retail channel, as pet owners seek nutritionally sound, safe and functional options. Still, with no legal definition for the term “natural,” manufacturers and pet retailers are shaping the parameters of the category.

So what does “natural” mean when it comes to treats and chews?

Dr. Bob and Susan Goldstein, co-founders of manufacturer and retailer Earth Animal, based in Southport, Conn., said “natural” is an overused term that lacks clarity and regulation. According to the Goldsteins, “Ingredients in chews and treats have gotten more complicated and even potentially more harmful since the ‘natural movement’ started back in the ’80s.”

As the list of unhealthy and potentially harmful ingredients grows, they believe that greater transparency is needed for the term and more regulation, too.

Laura Jones, COO of Jones Naturals, a chew manufacturer in Rockford, Ill., said her company uses the definition set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which defines “natural” as being derived from plant, animal or mined sources, in an unprocessed state, and with no additives or processing aids.

For Elena Kalogeropoulos, CEO of Minnesota-based treat manufacturer Chasing Our Tails, the term means chemical and preservative free.

“We source entirely from the U.S. and produce products in our own facility in Minnesota,” she said. “We source locally when available. All of these factors are what define our treats as ‘natural.’”

Like many industry insiders, Pattie Boden Zeller, owner of Animal Connection, a pet store in Charlottesville, Va., looks beyond traditional definitions of the word when vetting products for her store.

“‘Natural’ is such an ambiguous term,” Boden Zeller said. “Even arsenic can be natural, right? What we prefer to look for is sourceability and transparency by the supplier. We only sell USA-sourced-and-made products, nothing from overseas. We look for wholesome ingredients, responsibly sourced, with as little manipulation as possible.”

Manufacturers such as Bloomfield, N.J.-based Ethical Products aim to meet that demand for wholesome, quality products.

“For our Nothin’ To Hide line of premium dog chews, ‘natural’ means our ingredients are found naturally in nature and not man-made,” said Mike Risoli, Ethical’s brand manager for treats and chews. “We use the highest-quality, all-natural, limited ingredients.”

Demand for treats and chews has been growing recently, with shoppers particularly interested in products that meet several needs at once. Maria Lange, head of business intelligence at Earth Animal, attributed this to more people working from home during the pandemic.

“Pet parents may be looking for more diversity in their treat choices than ever before to satisfy different types of occasions,” she said.

These include long-lasting chews to entertain, treats to reward good behavior when training, and functional treats with benefits for dental and heart health, brain development and immunity.

Emerging Trends

With sales up for natural treats and chews, it’s worth taking a look at some of the trends within the segment. Products that feature alternative proteins and embrace the use of sustainable ingredients are still niche, according to Lange, but she sees a lot of industry buzz around plant- and insect-based treats as healthful and eco-conscious options.

“This, along with greener packaging options, [is] expected to drive purchasing decisions and growth for the natural treat segment, but certainly for the pet industry in general,” Lange said.

Jones pointed out that when it comes to ingredients, less is more for many pet owners. It is a mindset that factors into shoppers’ purchasing decisions.

“Single-ingredient and simple-ingredient products are still trending,” Jones said. “Influencers of this trend are the consumers and their interest in the wholesomeness of what they are feeding their dogs.”

Conscientious pet owners often review product labels, and too many unfamiliar ingredients may be a turnoff.

“Identifiable proteins are extremely exciting in the natural category,” Kalogeropoulos said. “When a pet parent understands what they are giving to their pet, not only through reading the quality ingredients, but just by seeing it, they have more confidence in what they are choosing.”

New Products

A period of high demand in the natural pet treats and chews category is a great time for manufacturers to introduce new products and flavors, and several have offerings.

Earth Animal recently introduced Herbed Chicken Tenders in five flavors: Plain for sensitive stomachs, Mellow for calming, Fresh for healthy teeth and gums, Flex for healthy joints, and Shine for healthy skin and coat. Earth Animal is also introducing two flavors of jerky treats—Sweet Potato and Humanely Raised Pork—and a new plant-based No-Hide Chews, which will be available in late summer.

Ethical Products’ latest introduction includes the addition of Peanut Butter flavor to its Nothin’ to Hide chews line.

“It’s a flavor dogs love and is allergen free,” Risoli said. “We are always working on new and innovative products—flavors, shapes and sizes—to launch each year.”

Chasing Our Tails introduced Canine Crinkles last fall. Made with three simple ingredients and 100 percent meat, these treats are low in calories and great for training and treating.

“They come in four awesome flavors, Chicken, Beef, Pork and Turkey,” Kalogeropoulos said. “As with all of our products, the proteins are sourced in the U.S. and made in our own facilities in Minnesota.”

According to Jones, Jones Naturals recently introduced three new single-ingredient products—chicken breast treats, chicken hearts and turkey breast slices, as well as two flavors of stuffed treats: Pumpkin Pie and Peanut Butter.

“We have an exciting reformulation of the BBQ Beef Stuffed treats, as well,” she added.

3 Tips for Merchandising Natural Dog Treats and Chews

As demand for natural treats continues to grow, retailers offer tips on how to merchandise and promote these items to maximize their sales potential.

1. Free Samples

“Our biggest tip for really pushing treats and chews is sampling,” said Merritt Goldstein, co-founder of manufacturer Earth Animal, which has a retail store in Westport, Conn. “We feature new treats and chews at the register, and we sample them to all customers. This is the best way to introduce a new line and to get the customers interested and coming back for more.”

2. BOGO

“We offer a Buy Three, Get One Free on all our chews and monthly BOGOs on treats,” said Pattie Boden Zeller, owner of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va. The store’s most popular promotion is its Fifth Saturday Sale, where customers get 20 percent off everything they can stuff into their store’s logo bag on the fifth Saturday of every month with five Saturdays in it.

3. Interactive Displays

“We merchandise by body parts, how they are made and size,” said Nancy Guinn, owner of Dog Krazy, which has six stores in Virginia. “We have a ‘Chewometer’ rating on them where they are color coordinated by ‘great for puppies,’ ‘for moderate chewers’ and for ‘strong chewers.’”