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The Key to Health

Pet food manufacturers are touting nutrition as the path to wellness and longevity for pets.


A wealth of information from health practitioners and public health officials about the rise in chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes among children and adults in the U.S. has been widely reported for years. Alarmingly, the same holds true for dogs; for example, obesity and diabetes have risen steadily in dogs in the U.S. since the 1970s. With a greater understanding of the chronic diseases that are attributable to poor nutrition, retailers can better educate pet owners so that they can make informed choices about dog food and treats.

Hippocrates, who is known as the father of modern medicine, once said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” The concept applies to humans as well as dogs, which is why in the past eight to 10 years more pet food manufacturers have partnered with veterinarians and nutritionists to create formulas that can help bring about better health outcomes for pets in general. 

“We do have a number of vets who refer clients to us for diet correction, and diabetes is a pretty common issue,” said Lorin Grow, owner of Furry Face in Redlands, Calif. “Rather than just dictate to the client which food they need to be feeding, we first explain a little bit of the physiology of canines along with how different forms of food—kibble, canned, home cooked, freeze dried and raw, for example—are metabolized in the body. 

“We want the client to have a basic understanding of why food choices so greatly affect any disease, for that matter, and overall wellness in general,” she added. “This way, they can have the comfort of understanding why we recommend certain foods based on their ingredients and thereby make informed choices on their own going forward.”

Frenchie’s Kitchen produces a line of human-grade, gently cooked frozen entrées and a line of stews called Tasty Toppers that provide a nutritionally balanced diet, said Sara Morgan, CEO and founder of the San Antonio-based company. Tasty Toppers join the growing trend of toppers and other meal enhancers. 

“Dogs are getting bored with kibble; therefore, many dogs are becoming very picky eaters,” Morgan said. “When they try our toppers for the first time, they get excited about eating again, and they look forward to mealtime.”

Cost and convenience have been the major driving factors in the proliferation of kibble dog food over the past 25 years, and some manufacturers have been critical of dried foods, citing their lack of nutrient density. However, many dry food manufacturers have raised the bar in the nutritional profiles, starting with eliminating soy back in the 1990s, and with newer protein and fat sources and other changes in the recipes to improve nutritional density and quality. 

As a result, the dog treat category has seen an expansion in freeze-dried and dehydrated offerings, which raises the question: Could treats become a viable source of supplementation for dogs that consume mostly dry food? 

David DeLorenzo, president of Vetscience LLC/Fruitables Pet Food in Dallas, said the benefits of treat supplementation would boil down to the treat’s ingredients. 

“That’s a great question, but it depends on whether the freeze-dried treat is a single-ingredient protein like PureBites, for example, which is not our brand, or if it is a multi-ingredient product,” he said. “The benefit of the single-ingredient dehydrated or freeze-dried product is that they are a single-source protein plus the nutrients associated with it, including fat, minerals and vitamins.” 

Focusing on Animal Health

There are restrictions against manufacturers making veiled or implied claims on pet food packages regarding the health benefits of their products, so teaching the consumer what to look for can be a challenge for even the most careful retailer. Veterinarians and other animal health practitioners are the most reliable source for information, industry insiders said, and through them, many retailers are gaining access to knowledge that is critical to dogs’ health. 

One such practitioner is Marc Ching, a holistic nutritionist and Japanese herbalist. Ching is the curator and mind behind The PetStaurant in Sherman Oaks, Calif. 

“Many people who drive by think we are just a pet store,” Ching said. “We do sell the typical pet products, but we’re primarily an animal nutrition center. The majority of people who come here are looking for relief for their pets with various issues. We believe diet and nutrition are the cornerstone of health for the pet, and we work with the pet parents to enable them to give their furry family members healthy, long lives.”

Heather Hickey, national sales director for Nature’s Logic, said the Lincoln, Neb.–based company keeps retailers up-to-date on the features and benefits of its products in a variety of ways. 

“One of the most important things we’ve done is partner with Dr. Tom Cameron, a highly respected veterinarian who has worked with the supplement company Standard Process for many years,” Hickey said. “Standard Process is known for its high-quality food-based supplements, and Cameron also does nutritional consulting for veterinarians. He writes blogs for us that we can then share with our retailers. One of the articles he did recently on grain-free diets talks about the number of dogs and cats that are diabetic, and how that trend could be related to some of the high-carbohydrate and high-sugar, grain-free diets that are out there.” 

Nature’s Logic shares information from veterinarians with retailers, whether it is through Dr. Cameron’s blogs, or training seminars with the company’s sales team, retailers or distributors.

“We post them on a dealer resource site we’ve set up for our retailers, and we also share many of them through our bi-monthly newsletter, and also through social media.”

Going for Gut Health

If a dog doesn’t maintain a healthy body weight, it can lead to insulin resistance, which, in turn, can progress to obesity. The combination of insulin resistance and obesity leads to Type 2 diabetes in most dogs if the pancreas is compromised.

Lucy Pet Products recently launched Lucy Pet Formulas For Life, which can potentially have a positive impact on chronic disease, said Joey Herrick, founder and president of the Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based company. The philosophy behind the food is to take advantage of major advancements in the science of nutrition and the responsible sourcing of ingredients to help develop and maintain a healthy digestive system in cats and dogs through improved gut health, Herrick said. The formula was developed in collaboration with university experts and leading companion animal nutritionists.

“We decided that if we were going to do anything, it would have to be something that changes the way people thought about feeding and nourishing their pet,” Herrick said of his company’s decision to enter the pet food market. “Today, if you’re going to have a good-quality food, great ingredients are the minimum price of entry into this market. We knew we would need some protein and fat, and, like most companies, we viewed fiber as a low-value ingredient that was required in every formula to meet the basic digestive needs of the pet. 

“But when we started studying the research of Dr. George Fahey of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we came to understand that fiber is much more important than previously thought,” he said. “By using a special blend of fibers recommended by Dr. Fahey that ferment in the gut, creating a prebiotic effect that feeds the good bacteria (probiotic) in the gut, we had our game changer.”

Best Practices

Many pet food manufacturers provide endless supplies of point-of-purchase materials as a means of informing customers that a retailer carries their product and where exactly in the store their products can be found. 

Periodic promotional campaigns can also make a product top-of-mind for consumers, if they receive occasional reminders about certain items. Many retailers are finding that social media is an excellent forum for marketing and advertising, but not all retailers have tapped into this valuable medium. Industry sources recommend that retailers consider hiring a person to manage their social media campaigns.

Joshua Kramer, manager of Two Bostons, which has stores in Illinois, said his stores make a point of hiring and training a sales force that interacts with customers and asks questions about the pet in question and what its current diet regimen is. 

“Our team members intentionally interact with our customers and find out what questions they might have, or ask what food sensitivities their dog might have,” Kramer said. “We do our best to educate customers about the ingredients in foods so that they can make the right choices for their pets. We could put out signs all day about what’s best for diabetic dogs, for example, but by providing them with the knowledge we have based on our training, they can then make an informed decision of what to select from our inventory.

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