Begging for more

The natural pet set has expanded beyond food to include treats, toys, cat litter and more.

By Carol Radice

Sit. Stay. Stay healthy. While many pet owners have been proponents of natural and organic foods for their pets for quite some time, they are now looking at segments such as cat litter, toys and treats that will reward their pets with longer, happier and healthier lives.

“Consumers are looking for treats that the dog or cat is excited about eating and that they feel good about feeding them,” says Caryn Stichler, vice president of marketing for Sergeant’s Pet Care Products, Inc., based in Omaha, Neb. In addition to looking at treats to address particular health concerns, Stichler notes pet owners are looking for products with fewer preservatives and more natural ingredients as well.

She says Sergeant’s Pet Care Products recently conducted a survey asking dog owners to rank their pets’ health issues that they try to address through food, treats and supplements. Pet owners identified joint health, low fat, good digestion, skin and coat and dental health as the most important concerns.

Terry Hannaford, CEO of Omega Paw, based in St. Marys, Ontario, Canada, says that based on retailer feedback, the all-natural, premium pet food segment is among the fastest growing sets.

Top ingredients
Hannaford says treats and bones are now catching up to pet food in terms of all-natural offerings. He notes that the top ingredient in Omega Paw’s chicken bones is chicken, not starch. “We’re focusing on making bones and biscuits made with foods that would actually surpass the quality of ingredients found in most premium quality dog foods,” says Hannaford.

Officials at Blue Dog Bakery, the Seattle-based manufacturer of all-natural treats for dogs, are also seeing a shift to healthier options with fewer preservatives and fillers. CEO Kyle Polanski notes that the natural pet treat segment is outperforming the broader category by about a 4-to-1 ratio. Polanski says that more consumers are making decisions for their pets that mimic the decisions they make for themselves when it comes to incorporating healthier options in their diets. “Consumer and producer attitudes toward what constitutes a desirable and rewarding pet treat has broadened, along with how much consumers will spend on their pets,” he notes.

In 2010, Portland, Maine-based Planet Dog, a company known for pet toys and accessories, launched a line of healthy, organic dog treats that contain no gluten, soy, corn or wheat. The treats are available in Salmon Seafood Chowder, Pumpkin Pear Ginger and the recently added Peppermint Cranberry Crunch. Officials note that  Planet Dog treats are geared toward the educated consumer who is aware of the potential risks in poor quality food and snacks for their dogs. “As consumers learn more about potential contaminants and hear more frequently about toxic ingredients, recalled recipes or consumables made with by-products, they are choosing a healthier diet for their families as well as their pets,” says Kristen Smith, brand ambassador for Planet Dog.

Patrick Meiering, founder of Durango, Colo.-based Zukes, a manufacturer of dog and cat treats, says the trend is an extension of humans improving their eating habits. “Pet owners have begun to understand the proactive and preventative benefit from feeding their pets better-for-you food. The next step is for healthy treats to be incorporated in that regimen,” he says.

The senior weight manage­ment category in particular is seeing growth, according to Darlene Frudakis, president and COO of PetAg, Inc., based in Hampshire Ill. “A dog’s or cat’s metabolism is reduced by up to 30% as they age,” she says. “PetAg created DogSlim and CatSlim supplements and functional treats to help keep weight in check.” PetAg also offers CatSure and DogSure meal replacements and nutritional supplements that Frudakis says are formulated to meet the nutrient needs of aging dogs and cats.

Not only are pet owners focusing on improving the physical health of their animals, they are also looking for help with their pet’s emotional issues, says Lynn Stachnick, a product manager at North Andover, Mass.-based Nelsons, which manufactures the Bach Rescue Remedy brand of products for people and pets. “American pet owners have a strong relationship with their pets and feel a great responsibility when it comes to their health, diet and overall well-being. Like us, pets can experience anxiety and stress from travel, separation and loud noises,” says Stachnick.

Form and function
As many consumers look to address the health of their pets and avoid trips to the vet, treats that offer a combination of functional benefits—such as antioxidants and support for joint health—are hitting the shelves.

Beginning in March, Sergeant’s Pet Care Products is launching the Tru Harvest line of treats for grocery, mass and drug retailers. The product line includes Tru Harvest Large & Mini Healthy Chews, Tru Harvest Healthy, Tru Harvest Healthy Biscuits and Tru Harvest Wholesome Biscuits.

According to company officials, Tru Harvest treats are made with wholesome ingredients such as whole grains, vegetables chicken, carrots, pumpkin and flaxseed. Made in the U.S., the treats are also natural, and contain no wheat, soy or dairy. Many of the products in the line contain antioxidants and ingredients that support digestion and healthy skin, coat and teeth.

Excess weight can also have health consequences for pets. Officials at PetAg note a number of new products are on tap from them this year for both dogs and cats. “We are expanding our CatSlim product line to include soft jerky products to deliver great taste and nutrients at the same time,” says Frudakis, noting that its Rawhide Brand line of products will also have new items this year. “These include all-natural high-quality meat, vegetables and fruits that are low in fat and calories and high in protein and nutrients,” she says. PetAg will also be introducing a line of chews featuring an all-natural unique dog-approved flavoring applied in the in the U.S. to the highest quality beef hide.

Skin and coat ailments are another frequent cause of vet visits, which Nelsons’ Stachnick says has many pet owners seeking safe, at-home solutions to keep their pets healthy and comfortable. This trend is making education more important for retailers and consumers, she says. “Speaking specifically to our products, it’s important for retailers to communicate the benefits of Rescue Remedy Pet, including the fact that the product is not a sedative and has no known side effects,” says Stachnick.

While consumers want to reduce their vet bills, they are also seeking value in the products they purchase to treat their pets. “This has supported our decision to create a larger 20-milliliter value-sized product of Rescue Remedy Pet which is now available,” she says.

For retailers that have available space, a health and beauty care destination for pet owners who are searching supplements can spark category sales, experts note. “Offering a wide variety of options covering their main health care concerns will keep consumers coming back for their pet care needs, rather than moving to other channels,” Stichler says.

Sergeant’s has created the Vetscription line, which includes internal and external medications, topical wound treatments, supplements, vitamins, behavior modification, wormers and ear mitacides. Stichler says the line is ideal for the grocery channel.

Private label goodies
Omega Paw sells better-for-you treats under their own label and increasingly is being asked to make a similar product for retailers to be sold under their premium private brand label. In fact, one of Omega Paw’s best selling SKUs is a private label product they make for Loblaws. Hannaford says that for grocers who have premium private brands, this item complements what they already offer. “To grow their pet business, retailers need to offer items that address unmet consumer needs and that doesn‘t mean stocking the same cookie-cutter offerings as their competition. All that does is make price the key purchasing driver,” says Hannaford.

Given that healthier treat and food options tend to sell at a higher price point, Smith believes the key to drive interest and awareness is to add an educational component, and to highlight the healthy ingredients and health benefits of a higher quality product. To best organize this section for maximum potential Smith emphasizes that aspects such as strong packaging, end-cap design, brand recognition and clustered items with cross-marketing opportunities, such as merchandising treats with compatible toys. “These tactics help the section to pop and make more of an impact, therefore more attractive to the end consumer,” says Smith.

Grocers need to organize the category to streamline the shopping experience, industry observers say. “It is far too common to see one natural product or brand at one end of the aisle, and a different natural product in the middle of the aisle,” says David Tagliatela, director of sales, mass and grocery for Muscatine, Iowa-based Kent Nutrition Group, Inc, which markets the World’s Best Cat Litter brand. “This leaves the already-confused consumer more frazzled going up and down the aisles, trying to choose the right product to fit their needs.”

He says retailers can make a statement to shoppers by grouping natural pet items together. “If it’s litter, then have a natural litter section so the consumer can see and feel you are committed to the natural segment. If it’s dog food, then have your natural and organic dog foods together so it looks like there is a natural/organic dog food section,” he says. Using signage to identify natural cat litters or natural dog food, he adds, will go a long way in demonstrating your commitment to the natural and organic segment of the category.

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