Pet treats, toppers and mixers, plus pet foods with inclusions, are among the fastest-growing categories on the market today. Pet food brands looking to take advantage of this popularity and growth have several product development opportunities based on pet owner needs and desires, said Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight for Mintel. She gave the keynote presentation at the Petfood R&D Showcase 2018, which focused on pet treats, toppers and inclusions.

The most important trends to track closely parallel ones in human snacks, particularly health and wellness. Thus, as consumers seek foods for themselves with simple ingredients, clean labels, fortified nutrition and information on sourcing, pet owners are looking for “real” and “authentic” foods and treat products for their pets, Dornblaser said. For example, Mintel data shows that 39 percent of U.S. consumers say meat as the first ingredient is an important factor for the pet foods they purchase.

Pet treat opportunities based on ingredients, functional benefits

Limited ingredients are another area of interest, with room for growth – and it’s much easier to achieve a very short ingredient list for a pet treat or topper than with a complete pet diet, Dornblaser pointed out. Currently, 27 percent of U.S. consumers surveyed by Mintel look for limited ingredient lists in pet foods, indicating an opportunity to appeal to such consumers with new products or by prominently promoting the short ingredient lists of the treats or toppers you currently offer.

Other ingredients to consider in developing new pet treats or toppers include superfoods, sought by 26 percent of U.S. consumers, and plant proteins, sought by 20 percent. While many pet owners prefer products with meat or animal proteins for their pets, Dornblaser said plant proteins might present a real opportunity for new product launches, given their popularity in human food.

In addition, 37 percent of the pet owners surveyed said they’re looking for natural products, 18 percent are seeking organic ones, while 52 percent look for pet treats providing added or functional nutrition – with the most common being joint health and mobility. Interestingly, while 35 percent of consumers surveyed seek treats that help maintain cognitive function, there are few products on the market bearing this claim, Dornblaser said, representing another significant opportunity.

Focusing on cats may pose a real opportunity

Dornblaser commented that treats and toppers are offered mainly for dogs – at least half of the nearly 500 new pet food and treat products introduced in the U.S. to date this year have been dog treats and snacks, her data showed – yet cats present a real opportunity. For instance, older cats often develop joint and mobility problems and likely would benefit from treats or toppers offering functional ingredients targeting that.

Another example may lie with especially finicky cats or older ones needing an appetite boost, medication or a prescription food. Dornblaser highlighted a topper from the UK, Thrive ProTaste 100% Chicken Food Topper for Cats, designed for that purpose; she also shared a personal anecdote about the difficulty of getting her 16-year-old cat to eat enough until she offered it a wet topper product that the cat devoured.

Of course, this type of product could appeal to a dog off its appetite or needing a prescription food. “Toppers can add enticement to regular diets for dogs and cats, and keep them eating what they're supposed to,” Dornblaser commented. But cats’ finickiness, while perhaps presenting a challenge to pet food or treat product developers, also may pose an intriguing opportunity.

Petfood Innovation Workshop planned

Petfood R&D Showcase 2018 took place October 9-11 at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, USA, and also featured the latest research on pet treat ingredients and safety from university faculty, plus interactive sessions and labs presented by industry suppliers. A similar event, Petfood Innovation Workshop: Clean Label Technology, is planned for April 29, 2019, at Kansas State University-Olathe in conjunction with Petfood Forum 2019.