Today’s pet owners have come to realize that quality food and treat ingredients can not only extend the lives of their pets, but also improve them, and they see treat time as an opportunity to introduce more nutrition into their pets’ diets, according to Aaron Merrell, CEO of Plato Pet Treats, a manufacturer in Fresno, Calif.

“They are seeking transparency in the natural treats purchased for their pets,” Merrell added. “This is an expected result of an overall increase in label reading.”

High-quality, recognizable ingredients and products that provide real health benefits are two of the most important considerations in the category, said Marjorie Murray, pet brand manager of The Missing Link by W.F. Young in East Longmeadow, Mass.

“Consumers have become increasingly educated and aware when it comes to reading ingredient decks,” Murray said. “We are super excited about this proactive approach and support these efforts to enhance the health of pets.”

Limited, heart-healthy ingredients are favored elements in natural treats, along with clean labels so consumers can feel good about offering those treats to their pets, Murray continued. More than ever before, consumers are weary of difficult to pronounce ingredients and products full of fillers, Murray added.

Alison Cremeans, director of marketing at MiracleCorp, a manufacturer in Dayton, Ohio, noted that processing is another consideration.

“Consumers are looking for simple, recognizable ingredients with little or gentle processing that allows the final product to be considered natural,” she said.

Knowing where ingredients are sourced is another component, Cremeans said.

At Wag Heaven, a retailer in Georgetown, Texas, co-owner Jusak Yang Bernhard defines “natural” as sourcing transparency with no genetically modified organism (GMO) ingredients, and no fillers, like corn, wheat or soy. U.S. sourcing ensures quality control, he said. However, locally made products top the list of Wag Heaven offerings.

“We love helping local entrepreneurs and being able to work on recipes with them,” he said.

In this way, all are more accountable in what is fed to pets, Yang Bernhard added.

“Often, we ask to visit these farms and facilities to make sure they are up to standard,” he said. “Even though these products cost a bit more than the nationally branded treats, they sell much faster and move rather quickly.”

All treats and chews in the product mix at The Quirky Pet in Montpelier, Vt., are U.S. sourced, with no preservatives, said owner Cindra Conison.

“All of my animal chews and treats are from small companies, with the exception of treats from Zukes and Vital Essentials freeze-dried treats,” she said.

For Adrian Archie, founder and president of petNmind Naturals and Self-Wash, a retailer in Coconut Creek, Fla., natural means quality sourcing, and single or minimal whole-food ingredients, with nothing artificial.

“Also, a treat baked as close to its natural form as possible,” he added. “With so many treat categories to highlight, if I could stock only one category, it would be treats focused on moderate prolonged chewing.” 

For this reason, Archie cites traditional bully chews and bones as must-haves.

“I am always searching for high-quality innovative chews, for instance, moose antlers and even the new ostrich body parts hitting the market, because they are sure hits,” he said.

Pet owners often look for single-ingredient treats with sustainable, wild-sourced ingredients, said Snorri Halldorsson, seafood science expert and director of research and development for Haverstraw, N.Y.-based treat maker Tickled Pet. This focus is in response to their concerns about sensitivities or allergies their pets might have to more commercial brands, which can cause fur, skin or gastrointestinal issues, he said.

Low odor is another consideration, Halldorsson noted. 

“Consumers want to be able to handle the treats without having to wash their hands afterwards,” Halldorsson said. 

New Products

Mouthwatering Introductions

As consumer awareness regarding the benefits of natural, limited-ingredient pet treats is on the rise, manufacturers are answering the call with an assortment of new offerings.

MiracleCorp’s new Stewart Pro-Treats Bacon Pop-Its feature real bacon as the first ingredient in three irresistible, natural, limited-ingredient recipes, said Alison Cremeans, director of marketing for the Dayton, Ohio, manufacturer. 

“These treats contain zero byproducts, fillers, colors, flavors or preservatives,” she said. “Made with just a single ingredient, our freeze-dried dog treats are ideal for training or as a healthy indulgence in any daily routine. Stewart Pro-Treats are currently, and have always been, made and sourced from the United States.”

The Missing Link, a brand of W.F. Young in East Longmeadow, Mass., recently relaunched its Smartmouth Dental Chews. The company changed the product packaging to make the messaging clearer and easier to understand. The packaging now sports a stronger value proposition that helps both retailers and their customers, company officials reported.

The chews are formulated with heart-healthy natural ingredients that not only clean teeth and reduce plaque and tartar, but deliver a daily serving of vitamins, minerals, balanced omegas for healthy skin and shiny coat, and glucosamine to help support mobility and hip and joint health, according to the company. Unique ridges help fight plaque and tartar buildup, and the textured grooves deep-clean teeth for fresh breath, company officials added.

Last year, Plato Pet Treats introduced lamb into its Thinkers and Mini Thinkers treat lines. The lamb treats offer a wonderful aroma that dogs love, said Aaron Merrell, CEO of the Fresno, Calif., treat manufacturer.

“We boost them with EPA and DHA to support healthy brain function, thus the name—Thinkers,” Merrell said.

Plato Pet Treat’s On The Go Energy Bars, released in November 2020, are made with real meat as the first ingredient, along with fruits and vegetables to provide substantial chewing satisfaction, Merrell said. The bars are available in Salmon and Carrot, Lamb and Apple, and Chicken and Mango formulations.

Launched in early 2020, Tickled Pet’s Salmon Skins are available in a 6-ounce bag. The 8-inch-long strips are cleaned of all the scales, which reduces waste and increases the protein content of the skins, said Snorri Halldorsson, seafood science expert and director of research and development at Tickled Pet,

a treat manufacturer in Haverstraw, N.Y.

“The source of protein is natural and from the cleanest oceans in the world, with an extremely high amount of collagenous proteins,” Halldorsson said. “In fact, fish skins are the main source for collagen used in food additives and cosmetic products that is not from a bovine source.”


Promoting Healthful Treating Options

Specialty retailers that carefully consider their pet treat and chew displays report success in the category.

At petNmind Naturals and Self-Wash in Coconut Creek, Fla., treats are displayed on a farmer’s market-style cart in a central location near the register.

“Because the popularity of treats brings customers in to the store, they also serve well as impulse items,” said founder and president Adrian Archie. 

At The Quirky Pet in Montpelier, Vt., chews and treats are displayed in maple syrup buckets attached to an actual indoor tree. In addition to handpicking individual treats and chews from these containers, customers delight in purchasing the 10-dollar sample bags created by owner Cindra Conison.

“Customers know I have a huge variety of body parts and love the samplers because it’s so easy to just grab a bag,” she said.

The Quirky Pet’s recently launched Online Dog Chew Annex website also offers samplers, along with a broad range of chews.

Jusak Yang Bernhard, co-owner of Wag Heaven in Georgetown, Texas, noted the advantages in promoting locally produced products.

“All of our local vendors have the privilege of being front and center when we are displaying their products,” he said. “It’s the mutual respect and understanding that we embrace in trying to succeed as a local store and company.” 

These producers are often invited to visit the store in order to discuss their products with Wag Heaven customers. Local companies also serve as community outreach partners.

“They work twice as hard for their following and also participate at local farmer’s markets, where they become our marketers as well,” he said.

Because the term “natural” varies in definition from manufacturer to manufacturer, stocking treats with clean, easy-to-understand ingredient panels is crucial, said Alison Cremeans, director of marketing for MiracleCorp, a manufacturer in Dayton, Ohio.

“If ingredients and nutritional benefits are not clear to the retailer, then they won’t be clear to pet parents either,” she said.

This awareness will create consumer confidence that the purchasing decision is a healthful choice for their furry friends, Cremeans added.

Product Development

Developing Natural Treats

Manufacturers report that when it comes to making pet treats, they focus on using as few ingredients as possible.

“What makes any treat natural is just as much about what is inside as what is not,” said Alison Cremeans, director of marketing for MiracleCorp, a manufacturer in Dayton, Ohio. “The best way to make healthy, sustainable and natural treats is to use one or few ingredients in any recipe.”

Finding that sweet spot among all of these criteria can pose quite the challenge for a research and development department, said Aaron Merrell, CEO of Plato Pet Treats in Fresno, Calif.

“At Plato, we like our treats to be as nutritious as they are tasty and our ingredient lists to be short and easy to understand,” Merrell added. “It causes us to consider every single ingredient that goes into our treats, and what role each plays.”

In addition to the real meats as well as fruits and vegetables used for palatability, other ingredients might be similar to those found in the household pantry, such as organic apple cider vinegar for its natural antimicrobial properties, or organic coconut oil to enhance texture, he said.

“Because there are so few ingredients in our treats, research and development at Plato really focuses on those that give the biggest bang for the buck,” Merrell added.

The Missing Link, a brand of W.F. Young in East Longmeadow, Mass., focuses on making efficacious, safe, tasty, healthful and nutritional natural treats, said Marjorie Murray, pet brand manager.

“We start each research and development process by considering the health and wellness of every pet, first and foremost,” she said.

The company employs rigorous standards regarding sourcing and testing with certified partners, in addition to conducting field research to determine palatability and efficacy, Murray said.

“While researching and identifying ingredients and their effective inclusion rates, we utilize clinical studies and engage internal resources as well as our scientific advisory board, which consists of veterinary nutritionists and animal science experts,” Murray added. “Once we have initial products available, we test them with our own animals. We would never present a product that we don’t use and love for our own pets.”

At Tickled Pet, plenty of research goes into the development of single-ingredient products, according to Snorri Halldorsson, seafood science expert and director of research and development for the Haverstraw, N.Y., manufacturer.

Sourcing raw materials from producers with food-grade standards in their plants is essential, and the drying process is also important, Halldorsson said.

“Since we are limited to single-ingredient, low-odor natural pet treats, we have found that sourcing high-quality raw materials is one of the keys to success,” Halldorsson said. “In our lab, research and development has been focused on drying processes to maintain quality of appearance and the chewiness or crispness of our products.”

Fluctuation in the protein, fat and water content of fish throughout the year is a factor when developing natural whole-fish products, such as the capelin and herring, he added.

Trade Talk

Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis

How does Whitebridge Pet Brands define “natural” for its products? What other attributes are important to consumers when it comes to chews and treats?

A natural product clearly should not contain chemicals, things like BHA/BHT preservatives. The ingredients should be as close to their natural form as possible. And more than 10 ingredients in a natural treat should make dog and cat owners take a second look. We also consider the manufacturing process when we think about natural. Why overprocess and adulterate the ingredients more than necessary? A product that is made with a slurry (unrecognizable emulsified ingredients) and then heat-extruded to make those cute 3-D shapes is not what we would consider natural. Our treats are baked, not extruded—you can tell the difference because they are flat on one side. The baker uses a mold to shape the dough and then bakes it on a tray. Just like when you bake cookies at home, you may not get a perfect shape, but you do get a great treat.

One interesting trend is that some dog owners have shifted away from grain-free to with-grain treats, because of the DCM [dilated cardiomyopathy] scare. While we now know the truth about that, pet owners have transferred some of those negative perceptions of grain-free dog food to grain-free treats. For those owners who are still concerned, we are relaunching our healthy grains biscuit and adding oats and barley. It is a Cloud Star crunchy treat that looks just like artisan bread.