2013-08-01
Health Goes to Treats
by Lindsey Wojcik
August 1, 2013
With pet obesity on the rise, consumers are looking for natural treats that are low in fat and calories, as well as offer healthy benefits.



Most diets for humans are all about counting calories and monitoring fat intake. Instead of reaching for a bag of chips at snack time, we munch on an apple or some baby carrots, as they have fewer calories and offer more beneficial nutrients. Pet obesity is becoming a bigger issue nationwide, and more pet owners are adapting human dieting strategies to help their pets lose extra pounds.

While pet owners may have taken to the natural pet food movement, they still want to indulge their pets with treats, and in the past, the misconception that healthier treats may not be as tasty for their four-legged friends led some consumers to skimp on quality when buying treats. “Previously, consumers were first concerned about taste. Top sellers were often treats that sounded meaty or rich,” says Maggie Johnson, co-owner of Sojos. “Not much attention was paid to the ingredient list or anything related to health.”

However, as consumers look to balance their pet’s entire diet—at mealtime and snack time—their approach to treating their pets has changed. “The same trend that people are looking for in their own food, which is fresher, identifiable ingredients and transparency, in terms of manufacturing, those are the same trends in what they are looking for in their pet’s foods [and treats],” says Marie Moody, founder and president of Stella & Chewy’s.

Because pet owners are looking for healthful snacks that mirror what they eat, they are more open to a wider variety of flavors and ingredients, Johnson adds. “They realize that pets feel treated even when the treat is healthy. So why not choose simple, healthy ingredients over junk-food type snacks?”

Eliminating perceived junk-food type treats from a pet’s diet means consumers are keeping a closer eye on ingredients, calories and the functional benefits that treats offer. Retailers can engage this new treat consumer by offering a variety of single or limited-ingredient, low-calorie and functional treats. Fortunately, the market is chockfull of treats for cats and dogs from a range of pet manufacturers.  


Staying On Trend
Pet owners are increasingly reading labels more closely on the bags of food they feed their pets, and in their efforts to feed a balanced diet, more are examining the ingredients lists of treats as well. “Consumers are looking for simplified treats,” says Matt Koss, founder and president of Primal Pet Foods. “They want to be able to read the package, understand the ingredients and know that what they read on the bag is what is in the package and that they understand it.”

The trend toward grain- and preservative-free items, as well as treats with no added additives, fillers or anything artificial continues to resonate with pet owners. However, as shoppers continue to search for fresh, recognizable ingredients, manufacturers are delivering more treats with single-source meats, and fruits and vegetables.

“There are more products in the [treat] space that are made with natural fruits and vegetables, nuts and ingredients that we would normally eat ourselves,” says Valerie Perlowitz, CEO and founder of Bistro Bites, a manufacturer that makes a variety of bite-size treats made with berries, almonds, sweet potato, mixed veggies, apples and peanut butter. 

While treats infused with fresh vegetables and fruits are on the rise, meaty treats still remain popular among consumers—and Moody says single-sourced protein, as well as freeze-dried treats are important trends within the category. “Our freeze-dried treats are made with only premium, raw ingredients. For example, the poultry is cage-free, the fish is wild caught, the beef is grass-fed, and everything is hormone free,” Moody says.

As the trend toward single-source, meat-based and freeze-dried treats continues, retailers will find a variety of these types of treats on the market. Eric Emmenegger, Nature’s Variety senior brand manager for Instinct, says the company’s treats, like its Instinct food, are inspired by raw. Instinct Raw Boost Minis and Instinct Raw Boost Treats are available for cats and dogs.

The company also has a line of Limited Ingredient treats for dogs, which only contain 10 ingredients and are free of commonly used ingredients like chicken, beef, fish, eggs, dairy, grain and gluten. The treats come in two varieties: Turkey Meal & Pumpkin, and Lamb Meal & Spinach. “The ingredient lists for our Instinct Limited Ingredient products are simple and made with only essential ingredients,” says Emmenegger. “This gives pet parents an easy solution for managing what their pets do—or don’t—eat every day.” 

The rise of pet owners monitoring their pet’s food and treat intake can be attributed to the pet obesity epidemic. Pet owners are accustomed to measuring food in terms of cups and pounds, but even more are counting calories these days. “With the rise in pet obesity, dog and cat owners are counting calories,” says David Yaskulka, vice president of marketing communications at Halo, Purely for Pets.

Koss adds that over-treating contributes to obesity and, in the past, pet owners may not have realized how it affected an animal’s overall caloric intake. “What pet owners need to understand is that if their pet has a weight issue and they are treating, they need to incorporate treating as part of their cat or dog’s total caloric intake,” he says.

Calorie conscious pet owners will seek treats with nutritional details clearly labeled on the bag, and more manufacturers like Stella & Chewy’s and Primal Pet Foods, for example, are adding these features to their packaging.


Fortified for Function
In addition to treats with recognizable ingredients and low calorie counts, pet owners are also on the hunt for functional treats that offer healthful benefits. According to a representative at Cloud Star, there has been a recent move toward formulating treats with ingredients that work together for a specific function.

In creating its line of Dynamo Dog Functional Treats, Cloud Star structured each formula so the ingredients complement each other and have a lasting effect. Its Dynamo Dog Tummy formula, for example, contains probiotics, ginger, peppermint, chamomile and lavender, which, according to the company, are all proven ingredients to help soothe an upset stomach.

Halo, Purely for Pets is another manufacturer responding to this growing trend. “We’ve added the Nutty Banana flavor to our line of Spot’s Chew Dental Chews,” says Yaskulka. “Packed full of antioxidants from natural sources like pomegranate, beta carotene, chia and mixed topherols, this peanut-based formula cleans teeth and freshens breath, and Spot’s Chews are highly digestible and low in fat.”


Making the Sale
Offering products that are on-trend with consumers is just one part of the equation for pet specialty retailers looking to boost sales in the natural treat segment. “Every dog’s needs are different, so engaging with the consumer and asking some key questions about their pet is very important,” says Eric Abbey, president of Loving Pets, which recently introduced It’s Purely Natural dog treats and Purrfectly Natural cat treats. “Questions like: do pets have any food allergies, health issues, dietary restrictions, etc., will help independent retailers offer solution-oriented products that are a win-win for everyone.”

Abbey adds that retailers should understand the selling points of why natural treats are beneficial for a consumer to purchase, “not only for the health-promoting benefits to the pet, but the affordability to the consumer.”

Partnering with manufacturers that can outline the key selling points of their products will also help a retailer increase sales. A variety of point-of-purchase sales materials like shelf talkers or pamphlets can help, but many manufacturers, including Loving Pets, tout sampling programs as one of the most successful selling tactics. “Sampling is extremely important because in most cases, you are asking the customer to try a unique treat [that is] different from what they are accustomed to,” Abbey says.

Perlowitz notes that while it is important for retailers to introduce these different products to their customer base, no product sells itself. “Where we see the retailers doing the best are those that tend to slightly reconfigure their stores frequently,” she says. “No product sells itself, and part of it is how much the store owners believe in what they’re selling and how they answer questions about why a consumer would take one product over another. But changing it up, even every couple of months, can be really helpful.”