Selling pet wellness: consumers continue to spend billions of dollars on their pets, particularly when it comes to their health and wellness.The health consciousness that has become THE lifestyle choice for millions of people, combined with the humanization and indulgence of dogs and cats, provides a golden opportunity for natural product retailers offering pet products to increase sales to customers that already appreciate the benefits of better health through natural nutrition.
From the explosion of "fresh and natural" sections in food stores to the swelling numbers of organic and natural products in grocery, club and mass market stores, it's evident that "natural" is sizzling.
Pet Trends Outlook
According to ACNielsen, during the 52 weeks ending June 16, 2007, sales of pet food in food, drug and discount stores (excluding Wal-Mart) totaled $5.4 billion, an increase of almost 4% over the same period a year earlier. However, there has been a recent shift in pet food buying patterns, as more people worry about the potential for contamination from poor quality control measures and foreign-sourced ingredients.
For instance, negative publicity stemming from the pet food recall last March has driven many mainstream shoppers to specialty stores that carry natural and organic pet foods. In fact, according to "Product Safety and Alternative Pet Foods: North American Market Outlook," experts believe consumers created a shift in market worth of $1.3 to $4.3 billion during 2007 as they made the switch to high-end natural and organic foods and fresh foods (including raw, frozen, refrigerated and homemade and 100% U.S.-sourced, locally grown pet foods). Further, market research firm Packaged Facts predicts that 2007 sales of natural pet foods will grow 25%.
Spending on pets in general shows no signs of slowing down. According to the "National Pet Owners Survey" (2007-2008) conducted by the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association (APPMA), 63% of U.S. households--71 million homes--own a pet and spent over $41 billion on them in 2007. That is almost double what was spent just 10 years ago. While consumers might reduce shopping and spending for themselves as gas and food prices rise, caring, health-orientated pet owners will continue to purchase products known to benefit their animals' existence, supplements included.
Pet supplements represent an emerging segment that provides additional entry points and reinforces loyalty to the "natural" pet category. While consumers have always connected sound nutrition with long-term health of their animals, pet owners are now going beyond the blind acceptance that pet foods provide "everything" needed for a full and long life and seeking out supplements capable of optimizing their "furry friends'" life. Supplement manufacturers are responding with innovative formulas, higher standards of manufacturing, increasing clinical and laboratory studies, and consistency of labeling.
The Simmons Research Bureau reports that approximately 17% of dog or cat owners routinely give their pets supplements. The National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) reports that the market for pet supplements has grown 15% annually since 2000, and is now a $1.3 billion business. Some manufacturers are even seeing increases of 35-40% due to the introduction of "veterinary formulated" condition-specific supplements.
Condition-Specific & Age-Specific Formulas Dominate
For the most part, the trends in the pet supplement market mirror what's happening in the human dietary supplement market today, where formulations continue to move away from general wellness, such as multivitamins and standalone minerals, toward age-related, condition-specific products that address health issues such as obesity, diabetes, arthritis and cardiovascular and vision dysfunctions. The same is happening within the pet supplements market, only faster.
When supplements first appeared in the pet arena, a majority came in the form of vitamin and mineral formulas. Then joint support and skin and coat maintenance supplements came along. Now there are products that address more specific conditions, such as cataracts, memory loss, liver health and incontinence. Some formulations even address hip and joint dysfunctions of certain breeds, as well as behavioral disorders associated with household stress or separation anxiety.
Like humans, pets are also living longer. In fact, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 44% of dogs are older than six, while in 1987 only 32% lived past this age. The situation is similar for cats: 44% are older than six versus 28% in 1987.This aging pet population has created a demand for natural supplements that target pets' physiological needs.
Maintaining Healthy Joint Function. A large percentage of dogs can benefit from natural joint support supplements. Older dogs suffer from arthritis, hip dysplasia, or other joint related problems. Young animals in breeds such as German Shepherds, Saint Bernards, Rottweilers, and Retrievers are genetically predisposed to canine hip dysplasia, a crippling disease that causes deterioration and weakening of a dog's hips. Knee, hip and spinal dysfunctions are common in small breeds such as Poodles, Yorkshire Terriers and Dachshunds.
Although a plethora of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and over-the-counter (OTC) remedies are commonly used in the management of joint discomfort, such products are not without negative side effects, potential complications and expense. Natural chondroprotective supplements have been a boon to pet owners seeking safe, efficacious products that help maintain healthy connective tissue, support joint function and improve pets' quality of life.
Key joint health ingredients include glucosamine and chondroitin (alone or in combination), methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), green-lipped mussel (Perna canaliculus), hyaluronic acid (HA) and collagen type II. Capsaicin, boswellia, yucca and omega 3 fatty acids are also formulated into joint support products because of their anti-inflammatory properties.
Supporting Skin & Coat Health. The skin is particularly sensitive to inappropriate dietary levels of essential fatty acids (EFAs), with a persistent low intake often resulting in coarse, dry hair and skin flaking. Over time, low levels result in skin that becomes greasy, itchy and readily susceptible to infection. It has been shown that EFA deficiency in growing dogs and cats causes congenital deficiency of hair, loss of hair, scaly skin and weak superficial blood vessels, as well as increased tendency to bruise, decreased wound healing, and increased water loss from skin. Most pet foods supply ample omega 6 fatty acids, but not omega 3 fatty acids.
Fish oil or other marine sources contain high levels of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosapentaenoic acid (DHA), omega 3 fatty acids capable of modifying inflammatory skin responses in healthy dogs. Flaxseed oil contains omega 3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), but according to some experts, its conversion by the body to EPA and DHA is slow and inefficient, and thus may not be as effective as fish oil in reducing inflammation. Wild, non-farm raised Alaskan salmon oil from sustainable sources is an excellent source of biologically available omega 3 fatty acids.
Promoting Thinking & Memory. Although pet owners accept that older dogs may experience a certain degree of physical limitations, they often don't realize that dogs and cats lose sharpness of higher-level functions of memory and cognition as they age. To this end, it may be surprising to learn that dogs can develop canine cognitive dysfunction (CDS), a memory-related disorder similar to Alzheimer's disease that results in forgetfulness, disorientation, no longer recognizing family members, and increasing numbers of "accidents" in the home. It is estimated that cognitive disorders affect 10 to 15 million cats and dogs in the U.S.
There are a variety of pet supplements specifically formulated to improve cognitive function and learning in older animals by helping boost neurotransmitter function, promoting circulation and reducing the negative effects of external stressors. Some of the key brain health ingredients are phosphatidylserine (PS), phosphatidylcholine, inositol, omega 3 fatty acids from fish oil, particularly EPA and DHA, antioxidant vitamins A, C and E, as well as minerals copper, zinc and selenium.
Maintaining Eye Health. Older animals are at risk of developing senile cataracts, an opacity of the lens that causes light to scatter. Cataracts remain the leading cause of low vision among older dogs and, very rarely, cats. While only a veterinary ophthalmic exam that includes measurement of the pressure in the eye will identify the specific problem, natural supplements can help maintain ocular function and decrease the risk of vision loss. The carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, vitamin E, lycopene, antioxidant vitamins C and E, zinc, flavonoids such as bilberry, black currant, green tea, French Maritime pine bark extract and omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA are all logical additions to any pet "vision support" supplement.
Supporting Liver Function. The liver is the largest solid organ in the body, which is essential for removing or neutralizing toxins from the blood, manufacturing immune agents to control infection, and assisting in the removal of bacteria from the body. It also plays a key role in the metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates, as well the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. The liver also synthesizes factors crucial to blood clotting and removes worn out red blood cells.
It is essential that optimum liver function be maintained, especially as animals grow older. In this vein, there are many pet supplements that can help maintain liver function. N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) helps create the antioxidant glutathione, a powerful antioxidant stored primarily in the liver. Milk thistle protects the liver against oxidative stress by preserving glutathione, preventing toxins from binding to the liver cells, and stimulating the production of new liver cells and bile salts. Vitamin E and zinc reduce oxidative damage to liver cells caused by bile salts.
What to Look for in Pet Food
It is important that consumers (and retailers) read and understand pet food labels. Moreover, they shouldn't base their purchasing decisions solely on the marketing rhetoric of large pet food companies. There is no one best food for every animal because a dog of one breed is different from a dog of another breed, and, even within the same breed, dogs vary in their genetic make-up, lifestyle, history and environment.
The most important thing is that foods consist of high-quality protein from poultry, beef, lamb or fish, reasonable fat and fiber levels, and balanced amounts of bioavailable vitamins and chelated minerals. The use of "human-grade" ingredients, chelated minerals and pre-and probiotics further impart healthfulness to a pet food.
While natural pet foods are free of chemicals, synthetic flavor enhancers and artificial ingredients, only organic pet foods offer the assurance that the ingredients and manufacturers are governed by standards established under the National Organic Program (NOP) and certified by third party, USDA-approved agencies. However, beware of ingredients that provide more marketing benefits than proven nutritional efficacy. For example, it has been a trend to add glucosamine, chondroitin and antioxidants to pet foods at levels that do not appear efficacious in light of current veterinary research. Furthermore, glucosamine and chondroitin have yet to be approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) for inclusion in pet foods, and may actually be considered adulterants.
There has been an interesting change in the role protein plays in the health of older dogs and cats. Data over the past decade have refuted earlier research suggesting high protein diets were causative factors for kidney disease. More recent research, however, has shown that increased protein in a diet does not put more stress on this vital organ.
In perhaps the most noted clinical trial examining the effects of a high protein diet on the progression of canine renal disease (CRD), groups of dogs diagnosed with CRD were fed either a high protein diet or a low protein diet. No significant differences were observed in the rate of progression of CRD in the high protein group compared to the low protein group. Therefore, excess protein did not appear to compromise renal function even in the presence of high endogenous levels of protein associated with disease. In fact, on an individual basis, some of the CRD dogs in the high protein diet group faired better.
Regulating Pet Supplements
Because dietary supplements for animals are neither foods nor drugs, enforcement of label claims remains confusing. NASC was founded in 2001 to address the fact that the Dietary Supplement Health Education Act (DSHEA) did NOT apply to animals--even companion animals, which are outside the human food chain. The NASC works cooperatively with regulatory agencies at both the state and federal levels. It has even developed labeling guidelines, cGMPs, an adverse event reporting (AER) system, science-based oversight of laboratory methodology, finished products and ingredients, and a system of independent audits for member companies. Only member companies that successfully complete an audit can display the NASC Seal of Approval on their labels and literature.
The NASC AER system is important because it provides FDA with access to data that quantifies any pet supplement's side effects, overdose reactions or drug interactions. For example, when melamine was identified as a contaminant in pet foods, the NASC was able to immediately--within 15 minutes--provide reports that identified any supplements containing wheat gluten to both FDA and state regulatory agencies, as well as alert its members to any ingredients requiring review for possible contamination and sourcing issues.
The NASC Seal of Approval provides retailers with assurance that the pet supplements on their shelves are supported by a science-based system that promotes animal health and provides reasonable, nationally consistent labeling. The seal also offers pet owners a sense of confidence in the products they purchase.
In spite of the increased cost of living and talk of recession, there is no evidence that consumers are cutting back on the total dollars spent for the health of their pets. There are also ample statistics supporting the growth of natural pet foods and supplements in all classes of trade, and consumers willingly spend 30-50% more for natural and organic products for themselves and their families. Pet owners are seeking safe and healthful products for their animals, with price often secondary to quality and functionality.
Retailers can catch the attention of loyal shoppers and help them make healthy choices by focusing on quality, selection and education behind the science of function-specific pet supplements. The merchandising of supplements and pet foods together often adds sales to the pet food aisle because shoppers that are buying foods for elderly animals, for example, may also decide to purchase supplements that help support cognitive function, joint flexibility or heart function.
Pet owners want reliable information, so it bodes well for pet stores to position themselves as places of professionalism and trust. Also, retailers need make it easy for shoppers to locate pet supplements, and make it even easier for them to understand their importance. By organizing and displaying products to emphasize benefit, purpose and utility, retailers can provide an integrated and holistic approach to animal health management and help pets live longer, better lives.
About the author: Dr. L. Phillips Brown holds a Doctorate Degree in Veterinary Medicine (DVM) from the University of California at Davis, and a Master of Science Degree in Animal Science, and Bachelor of Science Degree in Animal Physiology from the University of California. He is vice president, Research & Development, Nutri-Vet Animal Health Care Products; Veterinary Consultant to Newman's Own Organic; Veterinary Advisor to The Bradford Group; Past President of the Yavapai Humane Society Board of Directors; and member of the American Veterinary Medical Association and National Animal Supplement Council. He writes and lectures frequently on the benefits of supplements for animals. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By L. Phillips Brown, DVM
Senior Vice President, Research & Development Nutri-Vet Animal Health Care Products Boise, ID
RELATED ARTICLE: This article in a nutshell:
* Pet trends outlook
* Condition-specific & age-specific formulas dominate
* What to look for in pet food
* Regulating pet supplements