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Making a Splash: Pet Brands Discuss Today’s Toy Trends to Watch

Glenn Polyn//February 1, 2023//

Making a Splash: Pet Brands Discuss Today’s Toy Trends to Watch

Glenn Polyn //February 1, 2023//

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In the toy industry, the days of simple and repetitive designs made from environmentally harmful materials are long gone. Since there is no federal standard in place to regulate the manufacturing of toys, pet owners are responsible for researching before buying.

Now, more companies are understanding the demand for quality toy products that are free from harmful chemicals such as polyvinyl chloride (also known as PVC or vinyl), Bisphenol A (BPA) and lead. Not only is there now a plethora of fun, creative designs but companies are also more aware than ever of the effects of production on the planet, making toys out of sustainably sourced products. Developing toys for cats, dogs, small animals and birds gives brands the opportunity to showcase creativity without compromising the health of the pets and planet. Pet parents are increasingly seeking out products that will not compromise their personal values, meaning more people are shopping with a greater purpose and brands need to rethink their processes or risk getting left on the shelves.

Project Hive Pet Company has combined what dogs like about a toy with what parents are searching for to create exciting innovations in the toy space. The company is using business for good, as co-founders Jim and Melissa Schifman left the corporate world and have developed a brand that supports a small, yet important animal in the ecosystem: bees. Project Hive is a public benefit company, and every purchase of its products helps to not only build awareness around the importance of bees, but also provides financial support to save them by planting wildflowers and restoring vital pollinator habitat to nourish and sustain them. As a member of 1% for the Planet, Project Hive donates one percent of its revenues to The Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund, which Melissa says goes towards planting habitats across around 15 states in the Midwest.

Launched in 2021, Project Hive Pet Company planted 1.9 million square feet of healthy bee habitat in its first year alone. The company is currently expanding its goal to 50 million square feet in the next five years and is helping bees outside the U.S. after one of its retailers pointed out the importance of helping bees globally.

“We leveraged our relationships and resources to find the right partner; The Canadian Honey Council is our giveback partner,” explained Jim Schifman. “When we sell into the Canadian market, the funds don’t come back to the U.S. to plant habitats, they actually stay in Canada. We’re excited about embarking on that relationship.”

With a name like Project Hive and a mission to help bees, the decision to design toys with bright colors and bee-themed shapes was obvious. The line launched with five Hive toys that were a thoughtfully designed eco-system of compatible toys and treats. These non-toxic, BPA-free, dishwasher-safe toys are made of thermoplastic elastomers that can float, making them multifunctional while being better for pets, people and the planet.

Project Hive is kicking off the new year with a toy line unlike any other after identifying white space – untapped potential in the market. As the humanization trend remains strong and fruit and floral scents dominate the personal care market, Project Hive is launching its new scented dog toys. This new line of toys features five scents – berries, coconut, lavender, mango and vanilla – that are all linked to bees as well as dogs.

“What [the new toy line release] means is not just putting a scent on a toy, but really [going] back to what our goals are, which is to educate and be advocates for bees. What we like to say is all our scents either feed or need the bees,” Jim Schifman noted, adding that – as with the original toy line – the scent toys come in a variety of shapes and sizes for all dogs. Retailers should connect with Project Hive to learn more about the brand’s original toy line as well as why the new scent line is a must-have toy this year.

Bulltug has been in line with the humanization trend as it aims to create durable, purposeful toys with plenty of character and personality for both pets and their owners.

“I was inspired by the limitless design possibilities to create original, character-based toy ideas, and the satisfaction of bringing them to life. Our toy characters are fun and functional with personalities that range from whimsical to mischievous,” said co-founder Andres Hinestrosa. “The key to finding the perfect dog toys is finding ones that match your dog’s play style and personality.”

Bulltug toys are not only large, but they also come with interactive elements and exceptional durability and value for the price. Hinestrosa notes that by stocking shelves with Bulltug products – such as the Wild Weirdos – “a retailer will give their customers exciting and unique-looking toys that will add increased sales and most importantly, repeat business.”

Wild Weirdos toys include three ferocious designs that bounce and crinkly with a puncture-proof squeaker. Many of Bulltug’s other products foster comfort and offer companionship to each dog.

At Zee.Dog, designing toys that aligned with its mission to connect dogs and people meant creating a unique set of options from textured toys to extra durable toys. Zee.Dog’s portfolio keeps in mind the customer’s shopping experience and Karishma Patel, director of e-commerce at Zee.Dog says “the toys are designed to be aesthetically appealing, but very functional and don’t look like other toys in stores. We package our toys in a way that they are eye-catching on a shelf and also allow for customers to physically touch them.”

The concept of 2-in-1 plush chew toys like Mr. X and Cyclops is interesting to customers and being able to see the benefits of the toy listed on the packaging helps make selling easier,” added Patel.

The brand didn’t want power chewers to be left out of the fun, so last year it launched Brick, Wings and Wishbone, extra tough nylon toys for extra small to medium dogs. The line is set to include a new toy designed for larger dogs this month. Patel also says she has seen a demand for interactive toys and toys that provide more than one way of entertaining pets, which is to be expected after the effects of the pandemic showed owners that their pets need enrichment.

For some dogs, these toys are the best innovation in the toy space. For owners, it certainly is as these types of toys challenge a dog to use their minds in new ways, keeping them busy while having a fulfilling play experience. Adam Baker, president and founder of SodaPup, is focused on expanding the toy category by creating enrichment toys and designs “with people in mind and [we] are trying to create emotional connections through our designs.”

If we can create ‘OMG’ moments then consumers will choose SodaPup on impulse and then fall in love with us when our products perform well for them,” added Baker.

This month, SodaPup is launching several new products including Fishy, a new nylon chew toy, and Flower Pot, a new rubber treat dispenser. SodaPup produces everything in the U.S. from FDA compliant materials and toys come with a 30-day replacement guarantee. With the company producing on average one new product a month, there is sure to be something in its portfolio for every dog and its owner.

“I say it all the time: when you can offer products that bring so much happiness to the human customer while delivering tail wagging fun to our four-legged friends [it] makes this the best and most rewarding job I could ever dream of,” said Tom McCann, president and owner of Flingerz Pet.

After bringing new fun pet toys to the market for over 20 years, McCann recently noticed that customers were bored with what is on the market, especially when it comes to the throw toys segment, so he introduced Flingerz at Global Pet Expo in 2022.

“We’ve all seen balls and frisbees, but we wanted to shake things up,” he explained. “We found out that 50 percent of dogs fetch but don’t retrieve. Offering a way to throw plush toys lets pet parents easily exercise their dogs, even if those dogs won’t chase balls or can’t catch frisbees.

“We also wanted to address the problem of having to pick up and touch slobbery toys. So, our solution was to introduce a way to repeatedly throw plush toys to your dog without having to touch them with your bare hands,” he added.

Almost a year later, the company is set to launch its Funki Bug Flingerz and Splash Flingerz toys this spring. Made from high quality neoprene and ballistic materials, the Splash Flingerz product floats making them ideal for playing with dogs on the beach, pools or parks just in time for the warm weather. The company is committed to helping small and independent pet retailers fill their stores with quality products and doesn’t sell to major online marketplaces like Amazon or Chewy.

As another veteran company in the industry, Gretchen George, president of PetRageous Designs, explains that “with brand recognition [already] established in pet dining, transitioning to toys was natural.”

According to George, consumers are looking for mixed material toys with interactive features that match their dog’s behavior.

“For example, some dogs will immediately try to remove stuffing so we offer some stuffless toys,” she said. “Other dogs are engaged with the squeaker or crinkle paper and won’t focus on the stuffing.”

The TreatRageous Watermelon Hide-a-Treat Plush Toy is a bright, eye-catching toy with an attention to detail. The soft crinkle shell contains two plush squeaker balls, which some dogs aim for. Inside of becoming another destroyed toy, the plush toy creates a treat hiding place which helps to eliminate boredom and stimulate the pet’s senses.

PetRageous Designs stand out to customers as George has recognized that “having defined facial features such as embroidered mouths and eyes really makes a difference.” Retailers should be aware that the designs of the products in their inventory need to impress the owner as much as the dog; people don’t want boring, ugly toys scattered around their homes.

Today’s pet parents aren’t looking to compromise when it comes to their purchase decisions lining up with their personal views. Sustainability is at the forefront of people’s minds and West Paw produces zero-waste products, such as its Zogoflex toys, but is also looking for ways to continually innovate in terms of materials, with a close eye on durability, safety and sustainability.

“This is why we introduced our newest collection of safe, non-toxic pet toys, called Seaflex,” explained Spencer Williams, owner and president of West Paw.

Seaflex is an exclusive blend of recycled ocean-bound plastic, which he explains is plastic recovered from within 30 miles of a coastline or collected from beaches, waterways and coastal areas. Seaflex toys include Drifty, Sailz, and Snorkl and are true to West Paw’s values as they are non-toxic, latex-free, BPA-and-Phthalate-free and FDA compliant.

“[Our] product development and design team have been working on this collection for the past few years and we are very excited to further our commitment to combating the environmental crisis,” added Williams. The West Paw team is currently working on launching a new toy in early 2023.

Whether it be supporting the planet, pet parents or independent retailers, one common theme remains clear in today’s pet market: businesses are emphasizing giving back. In light of the events in Ukraine COLLAR Company broke its “rule of 11 years for the first time [by] producing rings not in violet, but in blue and yellow,” explained Anastasiya Kuzmenko, director of research and development.

COLLAR Company produces LIKER, PitchDog, Flyber and WAUDOG, all of which have a common goal of helping owners and their pets gain mutual trust through playing with a beneficial effect on the psycho-emotional state. This month, WAUDOG is releasing a glow-in-the-dark ball made from durable and non-toxic material: WAUDOG Fun. The toy can be charged by simply placing it under natural or artificial light for up to 30 minutes. With an hour of battery, the ball can be used for outdoor activities at any time of the day.

Also, cat owners search for interactive toys that keep cats’ attention so that they can play for a long time on their own without pet parents’ assistance. For instance, toys with such elements that can move or have laser pointers.

Kuzmenko acknowledges that the market for toys extends past just cats as “cat owners search for interactive toys that keep cats’ attention so that they can play for a long time on their own without assistance. For instance, toys with such elements that can move or have laser pointers.”

It’s important for retailers to educate new cat parents on how their kitten can benefit from playing. For over 25 years, Duckyworld has remained a company that is focused just on cats and the positivity toys bring into their lives.

“Cats spend the majority of their life sleeping so playtime is important for a cat’s health. It increases exercise, eliminates boredom, relieves stress and anxiety and promotes bonding with their caregivers,” said Kris Kaiser, director of marketing for Duckyworld.

When thinking about cat toys it’s hard to ignore catnip as it is widely known to encourage activity and play. Duckyworld Yeowww! catnip toys are designed with bright colors and familiar shapes that help grab a customer’s attention. Made in the U.S.A., these toys are

stuffed with only U.S.A. organically grown catnip. Kaiser highlights that the brand doesn’t use any polyfill inside the toys, and is chemical free with durable cotton twill, vegetable-based coloring. “There are no strings or small pieces that can fall off for the cat to accidentally ingest, so we take a lot of pride in making a toy that is safe, durable and a lot of fun for the cat,” she added.

Beyond cats and dogs, toys have a positive effect on small animals and birds. Many new owners may not understand that these types of animals also require enrichment to thrive throughout their lives.

Mental health matters for all walks of life and Kellie Hayden, marketing coordinator for Oxbow Animal Health, says that during the times that small pets are more contained “they still need to be mentally engaged with their surroundings to support their wellbeing. Oxbow’s Enriched Life supports small pet wellbeing by designing items based on small animals’ natural, instinctual behaviors, such as chewing, hiding, playing and exploring.”

Many of the same demands pet parents are making in the cat and dog sector of the pet toy industry translate to the small animal category as well. Hayden describes the demand for safe toys as small pet parents are especially concerned with the materials of chew toys, along with consistent availability of their pet’s favorite toys since small pets can work quickly through a natural chew.

“We also understand that toys and accessories can be a method of engaging pets and pet parents together to strengthen the human-animal bond,” she added. “Innovation is essential to the enrichment space, and we are excited to release fifteen new products this February that will span the natural chew, engagement and exercise categories. We encourage retailers to contact their Oxbow representative to learn more about our latest and greatest enrichment innovations.”

Another brand focused on providing small animal pet parents with innovative toy options is Happy Habitats.

“Dogs and cats combined make up 99 percent of the space. That leftover one percent is fish, birds, reptiles, small pets, etc. As a result, there is little innovation in small pet enrichment,” explained Ethan Haber, founder and CEO of Happy Habitats.

For nearly 50 years, the original hamster ball remained on the market. Haber saw an underserved population with underdeveloped products and decided to innovate after a day of lounging outside with his hamster inspired him.

“One day in college, I was hanging out with my hamster on the upper quad, chasing him in circles. I turned to my left and saw an upperclassman walking her dog. Then, a thought flashed through my mind,” Haber said. “After a lot of ideation, conceptualization and a partnership with the design firm P9 Design we figured out a safe, feasible way to achieve this dream.”

The Happy Habitats’ Halo provides a unique opportunity for hamsters, gerbils, mice and more to safely get out of their cage and experience the outside world.

“Our innovative, cutting-edge small pet exercise ball, the Roam, offers two-millimeter ventilation holes with a two-step locking mechanism, ensuring your small pet remains safely inside. With the Roam inserted in the Halo, your small pet can safely engage the world around it, to discover new sights, sounds and smells,” said Haber, adding that Happy Habitats continues to create products for small pet enrichment with the goal of becoming the one-stop shop for owners of small pets.

In the avian sector, A&E Cage Company produces a wide variety of toys that highlight three trends in the bird toy space: interactive, humanization and back to basics. A&E’s portfolio includes 1,600 products from toys that encourage foraging to rattle foot toys, ensuring that companion birds are kept engaged, entertained and physically active.

“Consumers are looking for high quality products similar to ones that they familiarize themselves with. Interactive and humanized toys are highly responsive in building that connection, love and truly making your pet feel part of the family,” explained Jamie Cecilia, A&E’s chief operations and creative officer, adding that these toys include pinatas, roller skates, basketball net, puzzles and more.

With brands offering a wide range of innovative toys, it’s up to retailers to tap into their own creativity in displaying these products to maximize sales. Locating toys at endcaps, in baskets throughout the store and even at the checkout counter, making toys stand out will allow retailers to highlight specific items and have them look their best.