Pet treats have plenty of room for growth in 2021

Pet owners who made pets their close companions in 2020, alongside a growing focus on both human and animal health, are driving opportunities in the pet treats segment.

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Pet treats continue to provide ample growth opportunities for pet food companies who can make their way through the current trends. | (Luiza Kleina |
Pet treats continue to provide ample growth opportunities for pet food companies who can make their way through the current trends. | (Luiza Kleina |

Pet treats have always been something of a finicky segment. Most pet parents don’t treat regularly, seeing them more as snacks. Pet obesity often gets pinned on not just overfeeding, but overtreating specifically. And in terms of consumer demand, treats try to cover a lot of ground functionally: taste, dental support, health and wellness, meal accompaniments — you name it, treats are trying to provide it.

Yet in spite of the many directions the treat segment spins off into, it continues to grow.

“Treats account for less than one-fifth of the total pet food market, but drive a disproportionate share of growth,” said Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight for Mintel, during a November 2020 Petfood Industry/WATT Global Media webinar entitled, "Fruit in pet food formulations: nutritional benefits and trends." According to the market research company’s analysis, multi-outlet sales of dog treats rose 28% between 2015 and 2020, while cat treats jumped 40% from a smaller base (see Figure 1).


FIGURE 1: Pet treats are a small but mighty segment of pet food, making up less than one-fifth of the market but a significant portion of the market’s growth.

Humanization provides opportunities for treats

2020 was a hard year, and it soon became clear that people were turning to their pets for comfort during lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. Adapting to their furry coworkers, pet owners took the already-ingrained idea that pets are members of the family to a whole new level. According to Mintel data, even as early as April 2020, 63% of pet owners in the U.S. said they were spending more time with their pet. Thirty-eight percent said they had a stronger bond with their pet, and 31% said they were paying more attention to their pet’s health since the news of COVID-19 broke.

“Combined with the comfort consumers are finding with their furry companions during the pandemic, this elevated status has given people greater awareness of their pets’ specific behaviors and needs,” said Amy McCarthy, vice president of pet nutrition for ADM Animal Nutrition. “Today’s pet parents believe pet foods and treats should be held to the same standards as they hold for their own food … or higher. In general, this translates to the development of pet treats that appeal to owners as much their companion animals, creating a special moment they can enjoy together.”

People fostering or adopting for the first time, as well as those spending a lot more time with their four-legged friends, helped drive growth in many pet-related categories, including treats.

“The uptick in pet adoption and ownership during lockdown measures has created robust tailwinds for products such as habitats, bedding and animal supplies, and health products including dog treats and pet consumables,” said financial advisor to leading middle market companies Capstone Headwaters’ report, “Pet humanization accelerates through COVID-19.”

What kind of treats are pet parents looking for?

Health will carry over from 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Humans are making their health a top priority, and naturally they’re extending that concern to their pets.

“Just as with people food, pet treats will focus more on health and well-being in the year to come,” said Jeannie Swedberg, director of customer development and marketing for Tree Top Inc. “This may take the form of age-specific treats, disease prevention or even customized nutrition. We foresee immunity enhancement migrating into pet treats, as well.”

According to April 2020 Mintel data, 39% of dog and cat owners were interested in treats that address specific health issues.

“Healthier pet treats are being consumed,” said Sam Pallottini, director of biscuit, cookie and pet treat sales for Reading Bakery. “Organic, all natural, healthier diet, etc.”

But it’s not just health that pet parents are looking for in their animals’ treats; Pallottini also said that raw meat is starting to be a key ingredient in both pet food and treats. Mintel data back up consumer interest: In the same April 2020 dataset, 49% of dog and cat owners said they were interested in natural meat treats for their pets.

Pet treats in 2021

The opportunities for growth in the pet treats market in 2021 are perhaps as solid as they have ever been. Some specific top treat trends the industry is prepared for include:

  • Comfort treats, similar to indulgent foods for humans
  • Gut health/digestive health/general health and wellness
  • Treats that fit into the clean label/transparency movements

“Overall, pet treats are an area where pet parents will likely continue to spend their dollars, and many offerings are an affordable indulgence for a valued member of the family,” said Swedberg. “Especially now with the pandemic, people are snacking more themselves while they’re working from home, so of course their furry friends should snack, too. Treats provide an extra way to bond with pets. The continued humanization of pets by owners means people will look for treats to echo the types of foods and ingredients they eat themselves.”

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