Natural Treat and Chew Trends Meeting Consumer Demand

Treats and chews continue to be one of the faster-growing segments in the pet industry, according to pet specialty retailers and manufacturers, and as consumers become more discerning about what they’re feeding their pets, nutrition-focused, all-natural brands are rising to the top of the food chain.

"[Pet owners] are looking for simple ingredients, and natural, healthy options," said Joe Wallington, president and CEO of Rockford, Ill.-based Jones Natural Chews. "In addition, super-premium inclusions, exotic proteins, organic and nutritional recipes are all rapidly growing, especially in the pet specialty channel."

The number of treats and chews available for pets is at an all-time peak, with new single-ingredient treats, freeze-dried tidbits, and crunchy and soft chews inundating the marketplace. This can make things difficult for retailers who are faced with endless choices but want to offer an optimal assortment for their customers.

Ann Marie Sindt, owner of a Woof Gang Bakery & Grooming franchise in Asheville, N.C., said the limitless options make it important to pay attention to product ingredients and sourcing.

"We are seeing a lot of unique proteins—quail, pheasant, venison," she said. "You see them manufactured every which way possible: freeze-dried, multiple flavors, air-dried. It can be overwhelming."

Sindt also noted that she often likes to wait for specials or free-shipping discounts when choosing new chews and treats for her store.

"The best companies work with you and know who you are when you call," she added. "These are the types of businesses I like to work with. Selling the product is easy when you believe in it."

Still, Sindt said, while sometimes retailers are excited to sell something new, the consumer wants to stick with their usual treat, which can make stocking a new product seem risky.

"It can be costly if these treats sit on the shelf for too long," she said. "Instead of carrying treats everyone else has, I reach out to companies for samples in advance and try them with my customers and shop dogs."

Lisa Samar, manager of Daisy’s Doghouse in Buffalo, N.Y., said customers often ask for long-lasting natural treats, and there are plenty of options to choose from.

"I always suggest elk antlers because they are also looking for rawhide alternatives, so bully sticks and Earth Animal No-Hide treats are where we lead them," she said.

Knowing the Trends

Melissa Olson, marketing director of Vital Essentials, a manufacturer of raw pet food and treats in Bellevue, Wis., said in looking at the consumer-buying journey, she’s noticed a huge increase in pet owners searching online for grain-free dog food and raw pet food in their quest to find more natural diets for their cats and dogs. And, more important, she’s seeing a rise in consumers looking to raw feeding first, instead of as a "last resort" to improve their pets’ health—and this trend is extending to their treat purchases. 

"Millennial pet parents are beginning to influence the trend to more natural treats and chews," she said. "As they are increasingly becoming among the largest consumer group to own pets, they are also changing the types of food and treats that are being purchased and ultimately become in demand. They want to treat their pets with items that are healthier and natural, more so than their older counterparts. This is definitely creating a shift in the product assortment we’re seeing at store level."

Olson has also noticed a dramatic increase in functional treats to help solve health-related issues. Among some of the newest market entrants are treats and chews that contain hemp oil to alleviate health conditions such as anxiety, joint inflammation and pain. 

In response to the huge market demand for hemp-based, functional treats, Vital Essentials is developing a line of treats that contain hemp. 

"All of our food and treats are freeze-dried using a custom 48-hour process, which removes moisture while locking in nutrients in our raw products," Olson added. "Our philosophy is to start with the most nutritious raw ingredients possible to make our foods. You can’t improve the quality of the raw materials, so it’s important to use the best products available, which is how we developed our custom sourcing program."

Wallington noted that Jones Natural Chews has always offered an extensive variety of natural treats and chews to meet the demands of consumers, but is continually looking for opportunities to innovate.

"Within the past few years, we have expanded our line of jerkies and sausages to include exotic proteins that are a great alternative for dogs with allergies to chicken or beef," he said. "The market is also demanding limited- or single-ingredients labels, which encompasses many of our natural chews, but also the Jones Select super-premium line of treats."

No matter the type of treat or chew, a product’s nutrition values are key for today’s shoppers.

Todd Rowan, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo., noted that the company’s natural treat focus revolves around a philosophy of nutrition.

"More recently, we’ve combined our health and wellness DNA with consumer interest in trying unique treat options," he said. "Bixbi Bark Pops are a unique, fun, low-calorie twist on a popular human snack. Our new Bixbi Bars, packaged like a human protein bar, offer a safe and healthy alternative to traditional chemically treated rawhide chews."

However, even with all the growth seen in the natural treats and chews category, it’s important that retailers promote and highlight these products. Wallington noted that retailers might not realize that only about 35 percent of dog-owning households purchase chews and jerkies, which can be attributed mostly to a lack of awareness or knowledge.

"Cross-merchandising chews with dog food is one of the best single ways that retailers can grow the segment," he said. "In addition, retailers can offer small chews and jerkies at an attractive price point in an effort to get trial and repeat purchase. Jones Natural Chews offers a line that can be promoted at $1 or 4 for $5 across 20 items. We introduced this line for this purpose … to gain new users to the category."

Defining Natural

Consumer demand for natural treats and chews is strong, industry insiders report, and while the term "natural" is associated with a variety of product attributes, pet owners—as well as retailers and manufacturers—often define it as the absence of certain artificial ingredients and the inclusion of whole-food, minimally processed ingredients.

Melissa Olson, marketing director of Vital Essentials in Bellevue, Wis., explained that the company’s products are purely raw and contain no artificial ingredients. 

"In fact, we’ve acquired the certified gluten-free designation for all of our products, something you won’t find in mass-merchandiser outlets," she added. "Our alpha-prey-model diet and certifications bring our products to the top of the list for pet parents looking for grain-free, gluten-free, ‘junk-food’-free ingredients … the same types of foods they buy for themselves."

Rockford, Ill.-based Jones Natural Chews uses the definition of natural as established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), according to president and CEO Joe Wallington: a feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices. 

"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," Wallington added.