The word "natural" yields varying definitions in the dictionary. The same is true when it comes to defining "natural" pet treats. While pet owners’ interest in natural pet treats has showed no signs of slowing in recent years, what constitutes a "natural" treat remains elusive, and trends in the category continue to evolve, according to industry insiders.
Independent pet specialty retailers that take the opportunity to guide their customers through the buying process can help pet owners successfully navigate this category and feel confident in the choices they make. However, while that all begins with understanding what "natural" means, the interpretations appear to run the gamut, insiders note.
Clinical pet nutritionist Alex Eaton, who has worked with Premier Pet Supply, which has locations in Michigan, and now works as an independent nutritionist, said that because the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) does not have an official definition for "natural," it’s a term that is often used loosely—and that can get confusing.
But when pet owners come to a retailer looking for "natural treats," Eaton said this most often means that they expect the ingredients to be naturally occurring—such as whole foods. At the very least, they expect the treats not to have any additives, he added. Single-ingredient treats are increasingly popular, Eaton noted.
Along with that, there has been a push for more "innovative natural chew treats that are highly digestible and have limited or single ingredients while also being USA-made," according to Tony March, marketing manager for Pet Factory, a Mundelein, Ill.-based pet chew manufacturer.
Customers also expect manufacturers to be able to offer a wide variety of natural treats in order to accommodate all sizes, chewing styles and types of dogs, March added.
Blake Gipson, owner of Garden of the Paws Pet Market and Spa in Centennial, Colo., agreed that variety is important. When it comes to natural treats, he said there are three main categories that sell well: jerky, freeze-dried and soft chews. Which treat type is best for which pet depends on a variety of factors such as the dog’s age, size and taste preferences. Gipson said he helps customers to narrow their choices by asking a lot of questions.
"We also help determine which treats are going to be big sellers by using ‘taste testers’ in our grooming salon," Gipson said. "When we get new treats from a manufacturer, we’ll test them out on the dogs that are in being groomed—with their owners’ permission, of course. This helps us get a really good sense of what’s going to be popular—or not so popular—out on the floor."
Additionally, Gipson said that he’s had a lot of success with sampling natural treats with customers so that they can "try before they buy."
"Natural treats can be expensive, but demos and sampling give customers confidence in their purchase decisions," he added.
Allison Levitt, owner of Bare Bites, a Frederick, Md.-based manufacturer of dog, cat and horse treats, said that she only sees the category continuing to grow as the public becomes increasingly more educated over time.
"As natural treats become even more mainstream, and the general public becomes more knowledgeable, treats with unnatural additives will soon become the minority in the marketplace," she said.
Understanding the Manufacturing Process
Along with paying closer attention to natural treat ingredients, pet owners are asking pet retailers questions about where and how products were manufactured. It is beneficial for independent retailers to stay on top of this information as much as they can, according to industry insiders.
"We have definitely seen increased awareness surrounding what’s in dog treats," said Anya Turner, general manager for Frontier Pets, a pet store in Cheyenne, Wyo. "It’s not enough to just call a treat ‘natural.’ We get questions about where treats were made and whether they were heavily processed."
Fortunately, natural treat manufacturers are becoming increasingly transparent about their methods, given the growing demand.
"In this world of de-personalization, I believe it really is important for a pet owner to simply know the product is made in a clean kitchenlike environment using fresh USA-sourced ingredients," said Janie Smyser, owner of K9 Granola Factory, a York, Pa.-based treat manufacturer. "In other words, it was made with care by real people."
Tony March, marketing manager for Pet Factory, a Mundelein, Ill.-based chew manufacturer, agreed that retailers should be prepared to be able to provide these types of specifics to customers who want to know about how natural treats are made.
"Pet Factory’s state-of-the-art food quality facility is GFSI certified, which will give customers peace of mind that our products have been prepared under optimum safety and quality-controlled conditions," March said. "Each batch of finished product is tested for bacteria and other contaminants including salmonella. Products are released for packaging only after test results are approved."
Because Pet Factory produces a rawhidelike product, which is a 99 percent digestible beefhide, March said, the company understands the questions of safety and quality that customers often have. March said it’s important for retailers to be able to answer these questions, as well.
"The primary reason that pet owners purchase beefhide is the fact that dogs love—and need to—chew," he explained. "This is a long-lasting, safe and healthy way for dogs to pass the time. Pet Factory’s beefhide is collagen from locally raised beef cattle and made by hand using the highest safety standards. Our raw materials have been carefully sourced from approved suppliers within the United States."
Here’s the Beef … and Pork
As natural treats become increasingly popular, it’s important for pet specialty retailers to stay abreast of what’s new to the market.
Pet Factory is offering new products that are "100 percent natural collagen from beefhide," said Tony March, marketing manager of the Mundelein, Ill.-based pet chew manufacturer.
"These long-lasting chews exceed the demands from customers that want an all-natural chew that is highly digestible, entirely made in the USA and also healthy for their pet," March said. "We have also found success in combination chews such as our Twistedz brand. This grain-free chew consists of combining our 99 percent digestible USA beefhide wrapped with natural real meat in chicken, beef and our new pork."
York, Pa.-based K9 Granola Factory recently launched a line of regionally sourced meat treats using single-source proteins and a small ingredient panel, said owner Janie Smyser. The treats are specifically designed to be soft so that they break easily without crumbling.
Finally, Bare Bites, a Frederick, Md.-based manufacturer of dog, cat and horse treats, launched Piggy Pack, a 100 percent USDA dehydrated pork.
"Bare Bites is trying to capture the marketplace by offering an alternative protein product for dogs that have allergies to chicken and/or beef," said owner Allison Levitt. "It is just USDA pork and nothing else."
The Cost Factor
As with any pet product purchase, cost is often a factor in a customer’s decision regarding which treats to purchase. However, with natural treats, there seems to be a bit more leeway in pet owners’ willingness to spend, industry insiders report.
"Depending on country of origin, customers tend to spend a little more for locally made, USA-based products," said Tony March, marketing manager for Pet Factory, a Mundelein, Ill.-based pet chew manufacturer. "We offer a full range of price points to accommodate all pet parents, from the $1.49 trial size to $29.99 for large variety packs."
Anya Turner, general manager for Frontier Pets, a pet store in Cheyenne, Wyo., said that curating an ideal assortment, which factors in pricing, is a constant balancing act.
"A lot of customers are looking for that middle ground," she said. "They want a really high-quality treat, but they aren’t willing to totally break the bank. It’s hard to sell a $20 bag of treats to most customers. Of course, there are always some that are willing to spend more. So, we carry a variety of price points but definitely focus most on that middle ground area."
Janie Smyser, owner of K9 Granola Factory, a York, Pa.-based treat manufacturer, said that when customers can clearly perceive the value, they are generally willing to pay a little more.
"Consumers are recognizing the importance of dehydrated or freeze-dried treats as these treats maintain their nutritional value," Smyser said. "Thus, they are willing to pay a bit more for them."