With the understanding that today’s consumers view their pets as members of their family, the pet toy sector has continued to grow at a steady pace. Pet parents are on a constant search for high quality, durable, engaging and often eco-sustainable toys for their companion animals.
Established brands that have gained a reputation for their reliable, well-made toys include Kong Company, Petmate, West Paw, Duckyworld and Vee Enterprises, to name just a few.
Ethical Pet Products has been selling pet supplies since 1952, and the brand has been evolving over the years as it satisfies the needs of pets.
“Fabric toys made up the bulk of our dog toy business in the early days,” explained Ausra Dapkus, vice president of purchasing and product development of Ethical Products. “Over the years, the trend shifted to better durability, and we moved into that direction adding more rubber toys and durable chew toys to our programs. We still carry plenty of fabric toys for dogs that prefer to snuggle with their toys.”
Dapkus says she’s always on the lookout for innovative textures, materials and product designs, “anything that will make our dog toys more exciting.” One of the brand’s newest launches at Global Pet Expo will be its Love the Earth program, which includes dog and cat toys crafted with sustainability in mind.
“The fabrics and poly fiber stuffing are made from recycled plastic bottles,” explained Dapkus. “We can feel better about plastic bottles getting a second life instead of ending up in landfills. The program includes coffee wood dog chews. Did you know that coffee bushes stop producing after about 20 years? Coffee wood can get a second life as a dog chew. The wood is naturally odor and caffeine free. Coffee wood doesn’t splinter or produce sharp fragments. The wood gets soft and shreds into small pieces. It’s a much safer option for dogs than the sticks they find in your yard.”
Pet Lifestyle and You (P.L.A.Y.) launched its first plush toy collection, called the Garden Fresh Collection, in 2013. According to Lisa Hisamune, the brand’s director of sales, the Garden Fresh toy line features a fun mix of toys modeled after fruits and vegetables. She says it was “an instant hit with consumers and their furry friends and now even has a mini-sized version for smaller pups.”
According to Hisamune, the brand has several toy lines that have become household favorites, with innovative themes setting the brand apart from its competition.
“For dogs and cats, our food-themed plush toys do the best, including our Barking Brunch and American Classic Collections for dogs and our Feline Frenzy plush and kicker toys for cats,” she explained. “I think it’s mainly because they are so cute and ‘Instagram-able.’ “
The most recent dog-themed collection from P.L.A.Y. to hit the market drop was its Snack Attack Collection, which made its debut at last year’s SuperZoo show. The line features mouthwatering junk foods that include a soft serve ice cream cone, lollipop, slice of pizza, crinkly bag of chips with hidden rope component and an interactive can of cola. The line is available in a 15-piece set in a food truck-themed counter-ready POP display or individually in case packs of five.
Nearly a decade ago, Zee.Dog launched its first toy line, the Super Fruitz, a line of a treat–dispensing toys designed to look and smell like an actual banana, pear and orange. Over the years, the brand has gained a reputation for its unique toy designs, with such toys as Mr. X and Cyclops being the brand’s best sellers.
“[Mr. X and Cyclops] are unique 2-in-1 plush chew toys that have a soft, plush exterior designed to be shredded, with a durable inner rubber skeleton,” explained Karishma Patel, head of e-commerce at Zee.Dog. “It’s not common to find toys that list both plush and chew in the same sentence. Our brand ethos is to incorporate amazing materials, quality and finish while keeping with our design DNA.”
Product licensing has enabled Zee.Dog to make a name for itself, and the brand has collaborated on pet toys with Star Wars, Keith Herring, Ghostbusters, Ninja Turtles and Mario Bros., to name a few partners. Zee.Dog was also the first pet brand to collaborate with Nintendo.
“Our latest toy launch is a limited-edition collaboration with Stranger Things,” Patel noted. “This collaboration, inspired by the series, includes a rubber Walkie-Talkie treat-dispensing toy, a nylon Eleven’s Waffle chew toy and a 2-in-1 Demogorgan plush chew toy – an inner rubber skeleton with an outer plush layer. This collaboration has flown off the shelves.”
For Zee.Dog to produce a toy, the product must be well built and have an appearance that pet parents would be proud to show off in their home. Patel acknowledges that competition is fierce in the pet toy sector, but the brand is confident that what “sets us apart is our ability to combine world-class industrial design and manufacturing.”
Jim and Melissa Schifman, the founders of Project Hive Pet Company, recently entered the toy market with a line of dog toys they believe will set them apart from their competitors in a variety of ways. Founded as a Public Benefit company, the brand is committed to sustainability. As a member of 1% for the Planet, Project Hive donates one percent of its revenues to The Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund to support the Schifmans’ mission of saving the bees.
“In a crowded marketplace like dog toys, we strive to make the purchasing process easy for pet parents,” said Melissa Schifman. “We launched with just five toys: a ball, fetch stick, flying disc and chew toy in two sizes, so there isn’t an overwhelming number of choices. We also give the customer the ability to purchase with a purpose. Customers can trust that every purchase helps plant healthy wildflower habitat to nourish and sustain the bees.”
The toys are bright yellow in color and feature a unique, honeybee-inspired design language in the form of honeycomb and hexagonal shapes. Project Hive’s toys are non-toxic, BPA-free, dishwasher-safe and can float. They’re also made of thermoplastic elastomers, which plays into the brand’s overarching philosophy that Melissa Schifman describes as doing what’s best for pets, people and the planet.
“That manifests itself in how we think about our products,” she added. “First and foremost, we want to make sure dogs love our toys and engage happily with them. We also strive for innovative, interactive play. Our toys are all multifunctional; three of them are designed to fit with our treats. Then we look at how we can manufacture it: can it be made in the United States? We look for recyclable, non-toxic materials and how we can minimize the packaging. We think about the material’s color and quality. Can dogs and humans find the toy and is the toy durable but not harmful to a dog’s teeth and gums?
“It’s also important to think through the entire life cycle of a product,” she continued. “For example, customers can send our toys back to us, and they will be re-ground and made into new toys, helping support the circular economy. We also want it to tie into our mission to save the bees, so the design language has to have some sort of honeybee-inspired hexagon or honeycomb.”
Having Project Hive toys made in the U.S.A. has proven important to the brand’s success. According to the Schifmans, 70 percent of consumers prefer American-made products, which is due in part to quality and trustworthiness. Melissa Schifman points to several other factors in why they chose this route.
“Manufacturing in the United States helps grow our economy, and we can feel good about the jobs we support,” she said. “Second, it was vital to our commitment to sustainability. Manufacturing in the U.S.A. is a more sustainable option because it reduces fuel consumption related to freight, sending less greenhouse gasses and other harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. From a quality control and supply chain standpoint, we also like it. Our products aren’t waiting on a shipping container in port to unload, so that takes some of the risk out of our business.”
One of the best-known companies that produce American-made dog chew toys is SodaPup, a veteran-owned business that was founded in 2013. The veteran-owned company manufactures its products in the United States with sustainability as a lead business practice. According to Adam Baker, founder and president of SodaPup, manufacturing locally allows for him to easily react to changes in inventory demand and supply chain disruptions.
SodaPup specializes in the design and development of American-made dog toys that are innovative, safe and environmentally friendly. SodaPup toys are FDA-compliant, BPA- and phthalate-free, as well as easy on the planet with the passing of Prop 65 testing. Baker designs its products under several brands to appeal to different consumer segments. For example, SodaPup’s USA-K9 brand offers durable, military-themed dog toys for a predominantly male audience that includes veterans and members of law enforcement.
Recently, Baker has taken nylon chew toys and evolved them into enrichment toys that he admits is more of a lick mat than a toy, although it can be considered a hybrid of both categories.
“The first new product is the Love emat (enrichment mat) lick mat that features a heart design,” Baker said. “We have had a lot of requests for seasonally themed lickmats like our Zombie emat that we created for Halloween, so we are racing to create the Love lickmat in time for Valentine’s Day. Having said that, love never goes out of season. We know the love emat design will sell well year-round.”
With philanthropy being important to Baker, SodaPup supports three different types of organizations. The brand supports animal shelters through donations of products to be used in kennels and to help with fundraisers. SodaPup also supports military and law enforcement K9 units, working with Military Working Dog Team Support Association through make quarterly donations. Baker also donates dog toys to all K9 handlers in the U.S. military serving at home and abroad.
SodaPup recently partnered with Susan G. Komen Foundation to raise money for breast cancer research and assistance. Last fall the brand donated 30 percent of all revenue generated by its pink Flower Power emat lick mat to the foundation. The partnership was such a success that Baker plans to continue the fundraiser this spring.
“Our partnership with the Komen Foundation, though outside the scope of our typical dog-related charitable work, is driven by the fact that we personally know too many people touched by this terrible disease,” Baker explained. “We suspect that SodaPup consumers do as well. We believe that business can be a force for positive change and our partnership with the Susan G. Komen Foundation is one expression of this belief.”
On the cat side of pet toys, Vee Enterprises has been a pioneer and innovator of cat toys since its groundbreaking debut in 1988, when Vee founders Lorie and Steve Viner introduced the first interactive cat toy, The PURRfect Cat Toy. The creative design of infusing teaser elements of movement and sound with durable, pet–safe materials set the standard for interactive cat toys.
In 1990, Vee solidified its reputation for quality, American-made cat toys by introducing The PURRfect Feather Cat Toy. This long wand interactive cat toy separated Vee from its competitors by using natural feathers and soft pliable connections, keeping cats safe from chemicals and dangerous metal parts.
Today, with more than 30 years of quality products and toy manufacturing, Vee continues to create new, attractive and innovative products while maintaining its reputation of top-of-the-line quality. With more than 17 cat wand SKUs, Vee offers a toy for every type of cat. According to Vee sales manager Eric Merva, one of the most popular wands among pet parents is the PURRfect Leather Bouncer Cat Toy.
“The popularity comes from the fact that cats love leather, the smell, the taste and to chew,” he explained. “With a vegetable-tanned leather cord and an end adorned by faux fur and natural leather tassels, it even looks like prey, which is what drives cats crazy. Of course, our PURRfect Feather Cat Toy is also a hit as it makes a bird in flight motion that cats can’t resist to chase and bat. For shy cats, our PURRfect Wispy Bouncer can perk up almost any cat with its natural iridescent peacock feathers that retain the natural smell of the bird.”
Merva also reports that, while the COVID pandemic has created an obstacle for the brand, demand for Vee’s interactive cat toys continues to be high.
“Business is currently booming and we’re firing on all cylinders,” he explained. “It had its ups and downs early on in 2020; however, things really picked up in 2021 and are continuing into 2022. Of course, we’re still trying to navigate some supply chain challenges for securing our materials… long lead times, surge pricing and even out of stocks. The situation has slowly been getting better and, as a result, our lead times have gone down but it’s nowhere near how it was pre–pandemic.”
When it comes to catnip toys, Kris Kaiser, marketing specialist for DuckyWorld Products, says that the Roseville, Minnesota-based manufacturer stuffs its Yeowww! Catnip toys with 100 percent organically grown catnip. The brand uses only the leaves and flower tops to ensure that the catnip is extremely fragrant.
“Yeowww! Catnip toys typically get a strong reaction from cats,” Kaiser said. “We believe that is due to the quality of catnip inside the toy, as well as the toy being filled with nothing but catnip. It just takes a quick sniff for the catnip response to kick on. Catnip targets the ‘happy’ receptors in the brain.”
Shape also plays an important role in a successful cat toy. The optimum shape for a toy depends on the individual feline, so DuckyWorld offers cat toys in a wide range of shapes that are recognizable for humans and stimulating for cats, such as fruits, crayons, fish and cigars.
“For cats who love to grab and bunny kick their toys, the Yeowww! Catnip Chi-Cat-a Banana is by far a favorite with cats around the world,” said Kaiser, who credits the toy’s popularity to its curved shape making it easy to grab and bunny kick. “It has a cult following of sorts in many cat groups and you can see the devotion all over social media.”
The Pineapple and Kitten Mittens are the newest additions to the Yeowww! Catnip line from DuckyWorld. The Pineapple boats 1.45 ounces of organically grown catnip. In addition, the toy has crinkly leaves to add texture and sound that will attract a cat’s attention. As for Kitten Mittens, the set features three mittens, each of which is made of durable cotton twill and, as with the Pineapple, filled with organically grown catnip.
It’s becoming clear what today’s trends are for pet toys, which a growing number of pet parents desiring quality toys that are safe, durable, eco-friendly and preferably made in America. Today’s toy manufacturers are developing toys that exercising a pet’s natural instincts while also promoting a healthy bond between pet and human.
“We [at P.L.A.Y.] love our pets and want only the best for them, so that is how we design and construct our toys,” said Hisamune of P.L.A.Y. “We are constantly thinking of unique toy features what consumers will find durable and fun for their dogs, while having a cute and whimsical design great for those social media pictures. We put a lot of thought into each toy, dissecting it and figuring out what features to add while keeping a good consumer price. We are constantly innovating and expanding our toys lines as well. We have outdoor toys, our made-in-the-U.S.A. line of durable ZoomieRex toys and have brought on – and are growing – our Feline Frenzy plush cat toy collection that’s stuffed with organic USDA-certified catnip.”
Ethical Products’ Dapkus adds that how pets respond to toys is ultimately the driving force behind the next toy that her brand puts on the market. After all, the companion animal’s health and happiness are what determines the success of toy brands and the pet industry.
“I get interesting comments when people find out I’m in product development for a pet company,” she said. “They envision fun-filled days looking at design sheets and color chips and deciding whether to add a squeaker or an IC chip to the toy. Although that’s part of the process, I also spend a lot of time making sure the toys will be safe.
“At the end of the day, I love hearing that consumers and their dogs love our toys for their play factor and durability, but I sleep better at night knowing I’ve done everything I could to make the toys safe as well,” she concluded.